Friday, February 08, 2008

When Ceremony Replaces Religion

James W. Allen, an attorney and Reformed Baptist elder in Georgia, gave a tremendous answer in a discussion of why some of our brethren leave our historic practices for other traditions, notably Presbyterianism. Jim sees a larger problem than denominational ties underlying it all. I'm quoting him in total, with his permission. Emphasis is added, and my own. -- Hal

I think, in regard to defections to paedobaptism or even to Catholicism and Orthodoxy, that we cannot discount man's inherent love of ceremony. Whatever else may be said for Baptists, it is clear that we (in general) are just not good at ceremonial things. Our weddings, baptisms, funerals, etc., are "plain Jane" affairs and simplicity (if not rusticity) has always been a hallmark of our churches. Watching Baptists do something as simple as take up an offering can make you long for the sophistication of a kindergarten"hokey pokey" dance.

People love ceremonies as part of religion. Ceremonies bring the appearance of the holy into our sphere of reference and make us "feel" like something important is happening. In all the different movements toward idolatry, I think you see this manifested.

We see it manifested even in Baptists as churches embrace "child dedications" and "building dedications" and "prayer marches" and "days of prayer" and advent ceremonies and calendars. We see it in Christmas cantatas and "Living Trees" and altar calls. Put simply, people love ceremonies.

Why? Well, I think we have the answer in Romans 1 and in the story of the Israelites. Men struggle with the reality of God and much prefer to view God in a watered-down way, mediated through a ceremony or image. A man naked before his God is a lonely man, but a man in the midst of ceremony is not alone and need not face the truth of God fully. Far easier to honor the Spirit as a dove than as God, for example, and much easier to see Jesus as a statute than as the King of All.

In Romans 1, we see that man abandoned the truth of God for images, ideas, and (as we know) for ceremonies of idolatry. I think that tendency remains.

In the Israelites, we saw how God came to speak to them "man to man" and they rejected him. They make that absurd comment that "we have seen that a man may speak to God and not die, but we don't want him to speak to us anymore because why should we die?" They could not bear the true presence ofGod.

Much happier, for them, a God behind the veil. Much more comfortable to consider a God dwelling in the temple than a God present in their lives.

Ceremonies are a constant temptation for believers because they allow us to set aside hard realities for comfortable images. Infant baptism is one such comfortable image, setting aside the hard truth of God (salvation is by grace through faith to the elect) for the image of "my child as a part ofChrist's body." People weep at these ceremonies and, as we have seen in other paedobaptist cultures, build entire social events around them. All this is so much more emotionally satisfying than teaching our children and facing the truth.

In everyone I have known who has moved in the ceremonial direction (from Baptist to Presby, from Protestant to Catholic or Orthodox), there is always a marked love of the ceremonies. They talk about the gratifying nature of"true worship" in these things. They talk about how much "easier it is to worship" in those forms, as if ease of worship (comfort in a ceremony) was the goal of our service to God.

The pull toward a ceremonial faith is a strong one and, at least among those I have known, a significant factor in their move. Seldom do they move because they have been theologically convinced. They move because it is more comfortable for them. But, of course, I deal mostly with non-clergy.

When we weep more over the beauty of a ceremony than over our sins, and when we love the experience of worship more than the object of our worship, we have left the path of true religion.

No comments: