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Sunday, July 6, 2003

What is a church, anyway?

You must be wondering: How on earth could Philocrites agree with an antidemocratic crank that "A church is a historical, sacred institution where members gather to worship, recognize, and pray to God; consequently, because of that activity and effort, such people form a deep belief in His benevolent existence. Absent this, an organization is not a church." Good question!

(Actually, you probably also want to know: How on earth can Philocrites even think about such things less than a week before his wedding? That's a good question, too! Alas, I only have time to answer one question today.)

The answer is, of course, that Mark A. Thomas thinks all of the words he uses mean exactly what he thinks they mean and not a tiny bit more, and I think they mean a lot more. In fact, I wrote a ridiculously long paper about it. Here's a snippet:

James Luther Adams . . . identifies three tenets of a free person's faith. First:

Our ultimate dependence for being and freedom is upon a creative power and upon processes not of our own making . . . Free women and men put their faith in a creative reality that is re-creative.

In other words, the free person acknowledges that freedom only takes shape within the course of larger historical processes and in the natural world in which people find themselves. The creative power that operates in the shaping of freedom in the world may be identified as God, but however such power is named, it represents the ultimate concern of the religious liberal. Second:

The commanding, sustaining, transforming reality finds its richest focus in meaningful human history, in free, cooperative effort for the common good.

The free person affirms that the ultimate good takes shape in the free and cooperative pursuit of justice and mutuality in human relations. Third:

The achievement of freedom in community requires the power of organization and the organization of power.

In other words, the free person also asserts the necessity and virtue of institutional form in the pursuit of freedom.

Using this model, the church is understood to be the institutional form of those creative powers in human life which enable mutual and just relations among free people, gathered in the worship of that creative power which sustains and enables all meaningful relations. The church is not just any institution which engages in creative, mutual human activity. Its distinguishing characteristic is its deliberate attempt in worship to orient itself to what Alfred North Whitehead describes as

the vision of something which stands beyond, behind, and within, the passing flux of immediate things; something which is real, and yet waiting to be realised; something which is a remote possibility , and yet the greatest of present facts; something that gives meaning to all that passes, and yet eludes apprehension; something whose possession is the final good, and yet is beyond all reach; something which is the ultimate ideal, and the hopeless quest.

The church is therefore that specific organizational form through which people shape their personal and collective concerns in reference to this ultimate concern.

In a nutshell, I believe that whether Unitarian Universalists are fully conscious of it or not, they are drawn into the covenant of the church by a creative power that transcends them — and that the religious life of the church is animated by and transformed by that power, even if the people in that church can't bring themselves to use the three-letter English word "god" as its name.

Copyright © 2003 by Philocrites | Posted 6 July 2003 at 3:35 PM

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