But of course, it is not. For one of the things we learn from Jesus, is that tradition is not to be promoted for its own sake, but is to be examined in the light of whether it fulfills its mission today.
So, given the biblical basis for both propositions, is there a place today for church? I would argue yes. In one sense, it is unqualified, in the other not so clear but still, I claim, rational.
We are social creatures. No matter how we might wish it to be, we don’t function well in isolation. To my mind, church acts as a natural social mediator for humanity. If we are to learn the concepts of brotherhood, sisterhood, compassion, empathy, and so forth, what better place than the community of believers. It, the church, takes us out of our blood relations, out of our neighborhoods, into a world of strangers who have one point of meeting: faith.
Here, we learn to care and love the stranger, the “other” the one we might never willingly set out of our comfort zone to engage as friend. We learn altruism, and abiding love for people as such. We learn giving and forgiveness. It is not that we don’t learn these things in family and friend settings, but here we learn them as to people we have no need to associate with; we can simply walk away.
I’d be the last person who would try to explain Trinity to anyone. It is, and likely will remain a mystery to every living human. But that doesn’t mean that we can’t study and think about it. God, in Trinity has provided us with a model of community, the way in which we can live in peaceful love and tolerance with others. Intimate yet respectful of individualism, Trinity calls us to emulate its beauty in our own lives, and church provides the perfect vehicle for doing so.
We are drawn to church for many reasons, but surely one is to learn to follow Jesus as perfectly as we can. His intimate association with his followers, yet his respect for them as individuals, with all their strengths and weaknesses, is there for the model it indeed is. It would be sad indeed should we deliberately avoid that very thing that provides us with the framework to engage that model.
The reasons behind the teaching power of the church are less compelling, but still there. Both before the printing press, and after for many centuries, books and reading were only for the wealthy. The church then functioned as the disseminator of basic biblical teaching. That is no longer strictly needed of course.
Still the church provides an important function. To the degree that her leaders, pastors, priests, ministers, deacons, and so forth, are more educated, and specifically in the areas of theology and biblical studies, they are the place to start. From them, and through the bible studies found in most churches, we are given the opportunity to learn mainstream theology and bible truths, as well as to learn of the resources available to move more in depth.
Except for doctrinally rigid fundamentalist churches, which perhaps don’t meet the model, most churches are safe havens for thinking individuals, wherein they can test their understanding and thoughts against those of fellow congregants as well as the more learned clergy. We have a place to hear the ideas of others, compare them to our own, find avenues of new study, receive guidance from experts both in books and through lectures. We have feedback available to us.
It is nonsensical to reject all this in favor of some “Spirit-driven perfection” that can come about only through self-study. Why should religion be different than virtually every other human endeavor. One of the things that makes us most human is our ability to transfer information generationally. We build upon what has been done before, thought before, worked out before. We adapt, change, reduce, add, all manner of information as we become more adept at truth finding.
There is no reason why in religion we should be forced to constantly re-invent the wheel. And in fact, we make no progress at all this way, but continue then to view the bible as some primitive set of do’s and don’ts, rather than as a compendium of brilliantly written arguments for a God we all share. Augustine said that whatever we thought we knew of God was almost certainly wrong, yet incrementally, we grow in our understanding and in our evolution of thought about God.
If I had relied on only what I knew of the bible the first time I read it alone, I would assuredly be still an atheist/agnostic. It is through the opportunity to learn from exceptional theologians and biblical experts first hand, that I grew to love the bible and to revere Jesus and his teachings. It was through learning how to read critically, aware of my own lens, that I could think broadly, unafraid of either the liberal or conservative interpretation, simply following the evidence.
The more I learned about the difference between fact and myth, between pastoral teaching versus historical truth, the more in awe I became, the more I was excited to learn more. Such a wealth of information and belief from people who believed so passionately. To see Jesus and Paul as such revolutionary figures, championing equality and justice and realizing that in our true love for each other, we emulate the “mind of Christ,” and thus echo the heart of God, is powerful and mind blowing stuff.
I wouldn’t trade that for any amount of arrogant, I can do it myself kind of study. My conclusion is that we are not meant to express our faith deliberately like this and for good reason. As I said before, there are times when we turn inward, perhaps for long periods, but that is being called inward, it is not deliberately rejecting church and experts. It is more a time of internal gestation, readying us for the next leap forward.