Thursday, December 30, 2010

A meandering reflection on regular church attendance

Over on the other blog—“Why do you have two blogs, Layne?” Well, first of all, because I can; second, because the other one is good for quickie observations and YouTube clips—I have posted a copy of Fr. Tim Finigan’s classic lampoon, “Ten reasons why I don’t wash” (props to Fr. Z for pointing it out). Father Finigan posted it at the end of a short rant deriding people who don’t go to Mass because “my parents forced me to go to Mass when I was a kid”. His point—and it’s a darn good one—is that our parents forced us to do many things we didn’t want to as kids that eventually became adult good habits; going to church regularly ought to be such a habit. In fact, someday I hope to write a post on all the various annoying clichés our parents told us when we were kids that we discovered as adults were the basics of wisdom; the most salient fact about truisms is that they are true.

The list points up a basic fact: Once you understand that the point of going to church on Sunday is to worship God, most excuses for not going are pretty lame. Of course, if you really don’t believe in God, you don’t need any other excuse; on the other hand, for every true atheist or agnostic, there’s at least one person who does believe in God to some extent but ranks corporate worship of Him below golf, house cleaning, watching The Game, and—when you’re really bored—having sex with the significant other. You would think, in these situations, going to church would at least be a break from the routine; for that, a megachurch can be great entertainment, although when done properly the Catholic Mass is great theater. Then, when you get back, you can play golf, clean the house, watch the game and—if you’re really bored—have sex with the significant other. Or not. [Please tell me if you missed the sarcasm the first time around.]

Of course, the raison d’être of having a Sabbath is to have a day not only to worship God but to not work, to be free of slavery to physical necessity. As Chesterton put it, “It was only once we had made a holy day for God that we found we had made a holiday for men.” Not only is this linguistically accurate (“holiday” being an elision of “holy day”) but also theologically accurate as well (Mark 2:27: “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath”). While there are some people who have to cram in all their house maintenance on their one day off because they either hold down two jobs or work over fifty hours a week at just one, most of us have no excuse for doing tasks on Sunday that can be done just as easily and efficiently on Saturday. Often enough, we don’t do anything on Sunday; time that can be spent “building the domestic church”—spending time with family and friends—is wasted in individuals suffering ennui independently of each other.

Almost all of these excuses can be, and have been, followed up with the even more lame plea, “I worship God in my own way.” And, in fact, I’m not willing to deny that there are non-churchgoing people who do practice some form of personal devotion in whatever time they can spare from quotidian responsibilities and pursuits. I will assert, however, that they’re the rare exception to the rule; most often, “my own way” means “hardly at all”, just as “spiritual” often means “vaguely deist” or “interested in the occult” without any sense of the person being God-haunted.[1]

The timing of the list couldn’t have been more fortuitous. Just the other day, a Unitarian friend of mine grumped about how a self-described Christian could give a blessing over a meal one minute and then spew hatred over somebody else the next. One of her friends gave a classic example of Excuse #2:
It’s been my experience that religion is just a way for people to feel good about themselves and to justify the wrong things they do as being right. Although I hold a certain set of “divine beliefs” I have found to act on those beliefs in a religious forum … only creates an atmosphere of superiority and arrogance. Some of the most spiritual and caring people I know have never set foot in a religious institution and have never bowed down before a god. And those people are usually first to care about a person, people, animal, community, etc. in need. Religion is just a tool and a psychological one at that. I would never deny anyone the use of that tool and I believe people have a right to that tool, no matter its religious form. But it is an unnecessary tool and one that is usually misused.

First of all, it’s a mistake to generalize from personal experience; often enough, it becomes a matter of tailoring both memory and perception to match one’s expectations, and cynicism is merely the photo-negative of naïveté. Second, the old Roman maxim tells us, Ab abusu ad usum non valet consequentia: you can’t make a valid inference about the proper use of an act from its abuse.

Grant that there are Christians who do use their church attendance in the same manner as the Pharisee in Jesus’ parable (Lk 18:9-14), who not only make a public show of their piety but use it as grounds for passing judgment on others; however, their presence and loudness in the public square is out of all proportion to their actual numbers. Moreover, the judgment “Claudia” (not her real name) passes on religion is just as easily turned into a tu quoque argument[2] against many of the irreligious; particularly her own irreligiousness, as her argument lost no arrogance by calling religion a tool rather than a crutch. If the Christian’s pride is worse, it’s only because it’s his duty to be humble.

But the other fortuity of the timing is in a recent essay by Mark Shea on Holy Hours. There is a very basic reason why we need to go to church to worship God: “[Because] we are not angels.” That is, we are creatures limited in time, dimension and capabilities; the extent to which quotidian responsibilities and actions take up our minds, hearts and energies are the extent to which we are taken from worship of God. For instance, St. Paul’s argument for celibacy is that the responsibilities of husband and wife to each other create a tension in their service to the Lord (1 Cor 7:32-35), but he also recognizes that celibacy is not a gift given to all (vv. 36-38). In the same way, most of us aren’t called to religious orders; our individual vocations will therefore necessarily take time from our days that we would otherwise spend in prayer, contemplation and service.

We can dedicate various tasks to God; in some cases, we can offer up any suffering, frustration or weariness to Christ to give our daily tasks meaning. But we also need a time and place separated from the mundane, profane world where we can completely devote ourselves to devotion, a time and place that’s meant for no other purpose than the worship of God.[3] We need to worship corporately because God belongs to no one person exclusively; to refuse to worship with others is yet another form of un-Christian arrogance: “You’re not good enough to be graced with my presence.” We need to worship God formally because we need to subject ourselves to Him in the recognition that we are totally dependent upon Him, not only for our lives but for every good thing in our lives, and because we ought to return in some measure the vast love He has shown for us.

This last point is the most important. In ancient Greece, hubris was originally similar to what we now call Schadenfreude, the malicious taking of pleasure from the humiliation of others, or the deliberate shaming of others for the sake of one’s own gratification. Eventually, the term grew to describe an arrogant pride that invited retribution from the gods (“Pride goes before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall” [Prov 16:18]). Humans are most themselves when they acknowledge a transcendent Being, compared with Whom they are inferior, to Whom they are responsible, to Whom they owe not only obedience but also obeisance. The willing submission of oneself to God is to willingly accept the fact of human limitation. Our nearest historical experience only validates the wisdom of the ancients. If ever we spurn the merest notion of God, we will not become a master race; rather, we shall become a race of monsters.

[1] I shouldn’t play armchair psychiatrist, but I would bet that Christopher Hitchens is more God-haunted than the average person who describes himself as “spiritual”; Hitch hates God with a demonic passion, and denies Him specifically to hurt Him. That kind of hatred is impossible unless God is Something more to him than just an abstract absurdity.
[2] Tu quoque: Loosely translated, “you’re another”. Although the point of the tu quoque is to underscore the opponent’s hypocrisy in making the original accusation, it’s considered a logical fallacy because it doesn’t answer whether the original accusation is true or not; in fact, it can be taken as a tacit agreement if not otherwise contradicted.
[3] The Jewish Shabbat ritual includes a final ceremony, havdalá, which marks the separation of the Sabbath from the rest of the week (havdalá comes from the verb “to separate”).


  1. Hey Tony, I just came over from to say thanks for following and here's hoping you visit regularly and comment any time you see something interesting. Cheers! Maeve

  2. "...and cynicism is merely the photo-negative of naïveté."
    Does this insight come from somewhere or someone in particular? I've seen it one or two other places entirely unrelated to here, but not so many that it obviously made its way around.

    P.S. Captcha word: "ration"... how ironic!

  3. @ Cobbler: Ah, how I wish I could claim originality for that insight, or could givit a source! I probably internalized it from someplace else, then coughed it back up for this post.


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