A few days ago in a discussion about the importance of religious service, a friend said mainline religious denominations may disappear in fifty years. Likely to be replaced by nondenominational churches that support their members through inspirationally driven commitment to scriptural guidelines. Those guidelines about beliefs and moral behaviors will be made evident through worship services characterized by what someone considers to be essential truisms. Supplemented and reinforced with entertaining presentations.
My friend may be right, but I hope not.
We human beings are different than other living creatures that survive through instinctual determination and characteristics that help them sustain existence and avoid danger, injury, and death. Animals often combine their instincts with an intellect partially like ours, acknowledging the importance of a herd mentality to keep them alive and safe.
Although uncertain, it seems clear that most animals do not have a sense of continuity in their culture. Continuity in the sense of having ancestors that give meaning to their years of life. Or the belief their current existence will have any impact on future generations. They are who they are now. Members of a family and herd that will eventually die as nothing more than one small part of a lifecycle continuum.
One of the more intriguing stories about how we humans are different can be found in the Broadway play and movie titled “Fiddler on the Roof.” The main character in Anatevka, a small Jewish village in Imperial Russia during the era of the Czars, is a poor milkman named Tevye. Tevye and his fellow villagers live in a culture guided by the continuity of their faith. By their traditions.
For Tevye and other villagers, God’s will is expressed through the Torah, as interpreted by their local rabbi. Encircling and reinforcing the laws of the Torah are cultural traditions that keep Anatevka in balance. Steady throughout the generations as they devote themselves to God’s teachings.
To us Christians, the Torah is essentially the first five books of our Bible. The revelation of God as given to Moses and written down by him.
Jesus Christ was a Jew and lived in a culture similar to the one depicted in “Fiddler on the Roof.” Although dominated politically by the Romans, the Jewish people of Judea also looked to the Torah for guidance in how to live in God’s world. Their society was more complex than Anatevka’s. Many self-proclaimed Jewish organizations and rulers attempted to be their teachers and interpreters of right and wrong.
While Jesus acknowledged the importance of God’s law as interpreted by Moses, he also was recognized by many as being the Messiah, God incarnate. God on earth and therefore able to make his Father’s will more than a set of behavioral laws. More than the foundation of specific traditions.
Jesus proclaimed that we humans are and must be more than followers of certain rules. Whether rules of nature or rules of a creator. Certainly more than the rules handed down by the Roman occupiers.
That something more was “love,” which in many ways was a strange concept to the people of the time. Hard to pin down. Intangible as anything more than the natural attraction people and animals have for each other for the purpose of procreation or survival. The idea of love as being a dominant force was unsettling to many.
Just as when Tevye asked his wife Golde if she loved him. She did not even understand the point of the question.
Writ large, that was the same problem Jesus faced. He was trying to proclaim the importance of something deeper than a law or a mutually supportive relationship. It was a hard sell. He sensed failure in trying to get across the importance of love in our human lives. It was difficult to explain an emotion much like an invisible mist in the air that has a pervasive effect. And then declare it is the root of his message to humankind. That love must be the center of who and what we are.
Jesus, as God incarnate on earth, could never be considered frustrated or depressed over his problems in helping people understand his message. But Jesus was also human. He needed time with his Father to work out his concerns and limitations. To declare his dedication to meeting the purpose of his time on earth. To accept the inevitability of his own agonizing death and bestowal of the kind of love he envisioned for us all.
He succeeded in meeting those goals, by accepting his human fate as a gift to all humans living then and now. That love is still the ongoing center point for our existence on earth and in heaven. While a continuing effort, Lent was for him and us a time for inner reflection and self-sacrifice, denying any other influence as being more important than love. And repentance of any other kind of reward or accomplishment.
That understanding is why our religious traditions evolving over the centuries must be perpetuated. Fully examined in terms of our own brief time on this planet.
©2023 Stu Ervay – All Rights Reserved