A Disorganized Faith, and Primal Christianity


“In 1832-33, when the ship the Beagle anchored off the coast of the Argentine Patagonia, Charles Darwin, the eminent

Charles Darwin (age 33) and his son William (n...

Charles Darwin (age 33) and his son William (notably the only picture known of Charles Darwin and another member of his family). Scanned from Karl Pearson, The Life, Letters, and Labours of Francis Galton. Daguerrotype originally from the 1842. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

biologist, observed for a period the indigenous peoples and concluded that they had no religious impulses. His reasoning was simple. The Patagonians manifested no apparent religious patterns, they practiced no visible or regular religious rites, they had no designated worship buildings or shrines, and they had no identifiable priests or holy men. Darwin’s consclusion, therefore, was reasonable.

Westerners, long exposed to organized religions with their elaborate ceremonies and liturgies, their priesthoods and creeds, their temples and churches, have often assumed that if a people are truly religious, they will have some familiar religious accoutrements. The fact is, however, millions of people in the world– some authorities say as many as 200 to 300 million in all the continents– practice what is now precisely called “primal” religions. Moreover, the followers who hold to primal spiritual beliefs are far more religious than most Westerners. They are religious in that they live in constant reverence or awe of the invisible, transcendant powers which are beyond their control but at the same time apparently determine their lives. Primal religious views and practices, therefore, are manifestations of the desire and attempt to relate to these unseen and largely capricious powers.” (Alan Neely in “Christian Missions: A Case Study Approach”)

I have long felt that defining “religion” in functional terms makes more sense than defining them in structural terms (rites, beliefs, artifacts, and locations). I have argued that many secularists have a very strong, but poorly organized, religion that guides their lifestyle, provides an ethical system for actions, answers the great questions in their lives, and provides meaning/purpose for them. Normally, they don’t prefer the term “religion” to describe this part of their lives. Often this is because they have a stereotype of what a religion is and what religious people are like (often they have encountered such stereotypes when they were young). They, then, reject the common structure and membership of religions while affirming their ultimate role.

In many parts of the world there is a growth of people who describe themselves as “spiritual but not religious.” In some cases this may mean that they want a closeness to the transcendant, but desire to live without the annoying downside associated with faith convictions and religious affiliation. However, it seems like many do have a strong religious and ethical understanding that guides who they are and provides meaning in what they do.

Can Christianity exist in such an environment? Can someone be a good Christian while not being involved in an organized Christian church and not connecting with normal Christian rites?

The traditional answer is NO. It has been said that “Outside the Church there is no salvation” (extra ecclesiam nulla salus). In some cases this has had a denominational slant (there is no salvation outside of our particular denominational body). In some cases this had a sacramental slant (there is no salvation outside of the rites and ordained ministers of these rites). In churches that are not particularistic and do not connect  sacraments with salvation, the argument is weaker. Being involved in an organized church structure is seen more in terms of spiritual maturity. If you aren’t involved in an organized church structure, you may be saved, but you are in disobedience to God, so you must be spiritually immature or backslidden. Further, the argument sometimes goes that if you love God, you will love God’s people, and if you love God’s people, you will desire to be involved with organized Christianity.

But is that the case? Or can Christianity exist as a primal faith… a faith that permeates one’s life and actions, but does not demonstrate itself with the common structures of an organized religion?

To me, the question goes back to the purpose of church and its associated rites and structures.

  • For those who believe active membership in a specific organized church, then Christianity as a primal faith is probably not possible. However, that attitude to me seems to be hubris and borderline heterodox (as if faith in Christ is inadequate).
  • For those who believe that an organized church structure with ordained religious leaders is needed to hold religious rites as purveyors of grace, Christianity as a primal faith is impossible. I just don’t see that as Biblical however.
  • Others say that the organized church is for gathering for “celebration.” This never made sense to me, and seems just made up to create a nice mnemonic (church gathering for celebration, and small gathering for cell group). Celebration can be done anywhere, and probably should be done everywhere.
  • Others say that the organized church is a gathering for “worship.” This makes more sense to me, but (again) worship can be done everywhere… and probably should be more of the outflow of one’s life rather than a periodic forced activity.
  • Others would say that the organized church is for edification, or discipleship, or fulfilling God’s mission. The question again arises as to whether it is only in an organized church structure where this can happen. It might be further asked if that is even the best place for these things to happen.

I guess, to me, the church’s role is primarily for community. We are baptized of one Spirit into one new body, one new organism, one new family. We need each other to encourage each other, to forgive each other, to admonish each other, to bear each other’s burdens, to love each other.

A church might be judged largely on its ability to provide such a community and perhaps fails to justify its existence in its failure in this role.

So can a Christianity exist as a “primal religion” for people who are self-described as spiritual but who have no interest in organized religion? I suppose the answer for me is YES… but…

A healthy Christian needs community. I believe that God created the world with the goal of all people living in harmony and interdependence. We need that interdependent life. We may not need a formal organized religion, but we need God and we need each other. How can we lead people to Christ and to community who reject formalized religion? Do we need dual conversion… conversion to Christ and to a formalized religious structure? Maybe we can draw them to Christ and then into community… even if that community (assembly… ecclesia… church) doesn’t remind us of a a formalized religious organization.

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