The Desert of Religion
You cannot go around a desert
America is in the midst of a fairly significant anti-establishment phase effecting everything from religion to politics. I personally think it began around the time when the non-conformists settled New England. In other words, we are in our fifth century of adolescence as a people. Don't get me wrong-I love high school kids. I just don't think they should dictate the theological agenda of the church or be president of the United States.
I do recognize that I too am a product of this aspect of the American ethos. I have always had a strong iconoclastic streak. I have never met I idea I did not deconstruct; a movement I could fully embrace; or an organization to which I could give my full allegiance. I think I naturally work out of a perpetual "hermeneutics of suspicion" to borrow a phrase from Paul Ricoeur. Nothing is ever quite what it seems and there is always something sinister or at least compromised lurking in the margins. Since my late teen years, this is how I have approached cultural and institutional Christianity.
This can lead to a strong gravitational pull to be "spiritual" without a formal commitment to a particular faith expression. This is not an exclusively Christian phenomena, but particularly in American Christianity, an allegiance to a given sect has tended to be strong with only those who have the most to gain from a given institution. "I am not religious, I just love the Lord" or "Don't look at the church-look at Jesus," are recent catch phrases that would have probably resonated with folks in the 18th and 19th centuries as well.
But it might be humanly impossible to reach the Divine without religion. Religious and non religious critics alike will often say "God did not create religion-people did," as if that proves something. Of course humans invented religion because God doesn't need one. That does not mean the prophets and saints were not inspired, but they (or their followers) had to translate the vision into something that carbon-based organisms could at least grasp a little.
Humans seem to be wired towards organization and ritual. We may be made "a little lower than the angels" but the distance from God is immeasurable. So we empower symbols and individuals with meaning in order to hold on to something visible as we seek the invisible. However, there is a danger that we can end up treating the symbol, institution, or person as if it were the "thing" itself as opposed to that which is signified. The prophets of the Hebrew scriptures called that idolatry. And as John Calvin once noted “Man's nature, so to speak, is a perpetual factory of idols.”
But the rich mysteries of the Divine are contained in earthen vessels. Christian Wiman quotes the following from the great 13th century theologian, mystic and leader of the Franciscan Order, St. Bonaventure (hardly a religious outsider); there are three crossings, that is, the crossing that is a beginning (incipentium) and the crossing that is in the making (proficentium) and the crossing that is an arrival (perventientium)...this then is the threefold paschal crossing, of which the first is the sea of contrition, the second through the desert of religion, the third through the Jordon of death; and those we arrive at the promised land.*
A doctor of the church sees the Israelites' forty years of wandering in the wilderness as an apt analogy for religion. The one, holy, catholic and apostolic church is a desert. As Wiman observes, (Bonaventure's) metaphor for the church's part in achieving grace is hardly hopeful; it is however immutable. You cannot go around a desert.*
The church may sometimes be evil, often trivial, frequently compromised, but always necessary. I with Jim Rayburn "think it is a sin" to make the gospel boring, but it may be equally disastrous to make it marketable. The move to transform church into a sixty plus minute upbeat variety show with a hot band and a slick host may seem to be an attempt to create an oasis; but in fact it is actually creating a mirage. One possible explanation for the strange phenomena of Trump's popularity among evangelicals may be as simple as his entertaining upbeat message reminds them of their churches.
The middle stage of the journey is one of both enlightenment and purgation. The children of Israel received the law and learned through trial, error, and disaster how to stop thinking and acting like slaves. They could not enter into the promised land until literally their disillusionment with their leadership and circumstances died. Enlightenment can only come when we can see our disillusionment with others as a projection of our disillusionment with ourselves and maybe even with God. In order to see self and then encounter God on the mountain, one first needs to be purged in the arid valley.
There are illusions that seem to be short cuts. You can join the "Church of Let's Go Back to Egypt" or vote for the candidate with "golden calf" hair, but both of those moves will probably only keep you a slave. Ultimately living and struggling with (dis) organized religion is less a matter of reforming an institution or fleeing an idol, but rather a desert that must be crossed in order to receive the grace of God
*(My Bright Abyss, pp. 139-140. Though Wiman gives not citation, I believe this is from Bonaventure's great work "The Soul's Journey Into God")
*ibid., p. 140