We live in a do-it-yourself, made-to-order society. Why can’t we choose our religion the same way?
by Rev. William Cwirla
Religious pollster George Barna recently remarked, “We are a designer society. We want everything customized to our personal needs–our clothing, our food, our education,” he wrote. “Now it’s our religion.” In his recent book Futurecast (BarnaBooks, 2011), Barna observes that more Americans than ever name Jesus Christ as their Savior while fewer Americans than ever go to church on a regular basis. “People say, I believe in God. I believe the Bible is a good book. And then I believe whatever I want.'”
If Barna’s observations are correct, then American religious life has become a buffet of beliefs where people pile their plates with a little of this and a little of that, picking and choosing their beliefs cafeteria-style to create a so-called spirituality that is just right for them. “My plate, my way.”
It seems reasonable. After all, we are a do-it-yourself, made-to-order, my-way society. Jeans, suits and shoes don’t come as one size fits all, so why should personal religious beliefs? Religion is deeply personal, so how can one set of religious beliefs possibly be expected to meet everyone’s deeply felt spiritual needs?
Television pumps a plethora of preachers and teachings directly into our living rooms. The Internet provides ready access to a veritable smorgasbord of religious information and misinformation, everything from atheism to Zoroastrianism, all at the click of a mouse. People can compare, debate and discuss beliefs into all hours of the night with electronic friends from around the world. The Internet creates a kind of electronic pluralism where all ideas and beliefs have equal footing and validity. When it comes to religion, the modern buffet table is spread wide and long.
What’s the problem?
At the heart of this do-it-yourself spirituality is a cherished American “-ism”: individualism. We are a society that admires the rugged individual, the “self-made” man or woman, the courageous, self-reliant soul who pulls himself up by his own bootstraps. “I did it my way,” Frank Sinatra once boasted in song. We chafe at being told what to do and what to believe. Religion is personal, private and individual, and our individual paths to enlightenment are cobbled together from bits and pieces we picked up in Sunday School, sophomore religion class and our latest Google search. The notion that there are normative creeds and confessions, standards of faith and life, challenges our inner individual like speed bumps on a stretch of open highway.
The isolated individual is the judge of his or her own truth. If it feels right, smells right, tastes good, seems like the right thing to do, then it must be good and true.
Unfortunately, many have learned this subtle art in church and Bible classes, where they have pondered the question, “What does this Bible passage mean to me?” rather than “What does this objectively mean?” Any notion that beliefs can be right or wrong offends our subjective sensitivities.
Where did it start?
You may recall two people in a garden who succumbed to a shrewdly seductive question: “Did God really say?” How did Eve rationalize her disobedience? She made a subjective, isolated, individualized judgment. She saw that the forbidden fruit was tasty, beautiful, desirable and useful. It made a person wise. It looked and smelled good and seemed so right. What could be so wrong? Biting into their own spiritual notions, Eve and Adam became the first autonomous individualists, isolated and set against God, in whose image they were made, and set against each other, for whom they were made as partners. They had it their way instead of God’s way.
In their isolation, Adam and Eve suddenly realized they were naked. Only when your eyes are focused on yourself are you aware of your nakedness. And it’s been that way with us ever since. Original sin, our sinful condition, is the self turned inward. Each of us is a natural-born, self-oriented individualist bent on having things our way. St. Augustine once confessed that every infant believes he or she is the center of the universe. Each of us is the judge of our own truth, the master of our own destiny, the god of our own religion. And we follow this idolatry of self to our ruin and destruction.
What does this mean for us?
God in His mercy delivers us from ourselves. He turns us inside outto Christ in faith and to our neighbor in love. He puts us into Christ. He preaches an external Word of Gospel into our ears. He baptizes us into Jesus’ death and life, a washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit. He gathers us into His family–the communion of saints–in which He daily and richly forgives our sins and the sins of our fellow believers.
“None of us lives to himself, and none of us dies to himself” (Rom. 14:7). Sin isolates and divides; God gathers and unites in His Son, Jesus Christ. Nothing of the Christian life and faith is ever purely a private, individual matter, neither our sin nor our salvation. The baptized believer is not an isolated individual but a priest in a priesthood, a citizen of God’s holy nation, a living stone of God’s spiritual temple, a member of the body of Christ. “You are the body of Christ and individually members of it” (1 Cor. 12:27).
We believe, teach, confess and worship in common together. We share common creeds and confessions. We are united around common hymns and liturgy. The Bible is the Church’s “community property,” God’s gift to the whole Church, and the Church congregates to hear the Word preached and taught. The creeds and confessions of the Church guide and govern our conversation and guard us from repeating the errors of the past. The Church is always engaged in holy conversation, hearing God’s Word and repeating what was heard.
While we may go to our personal place for prayer, we nevertheless pray “our Father” in solidarity with Christ and our fellow believers. Though we may read the Bible in the privacy of our homes and studies, the Scriptures are not for our individual interpretation and application. Not even the prophets who spoke the very words of Scriptures were spouting their own sentiments and opinions, but they spoke “as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit” (2 Peter 1:21). In short, God always deals with us objectively, through the external Word, and He places us objectively next to our neighbor to serve in vocation.
So, what does this mean for our designer, “my plate, my way” age? Should we bury our eyes in a handful of “approved” books and have no conversation with the world? Should we isolate ourselves in little, closed, like-minded groups, fearful of contamination by the world? Hardly! Isolation has never served the Church well.
As Christians, we need to be sober, watchful, vigilant and discerning. We need to recognize that the old Adam in us is a rugged individualist who needs to be brought under the killing discipline of the Law. We need to learn to trust God’s objective Word and not our subjective feelings, to say “no” to the desires of sinful nature to have things “my way.” The old Adam won’t like this one bit and will rebel within us, but we know that he needs to drown and die just as the new man in Christ needs to rise and live.
We need to practice discernment. Not all ideas are created equal; not all spiritual things are of the Holy Spirit. Some are downright dangerous. Just as we don’t necessarily put unfamiliar foods into our mouths without at least sniffing them first, we should be wary of unfamiliar ideas and beliefs. They need to be studied carefully and tested against our creeds and the Lutheran Confessions. We need to study and learn the Scriptures and our confessions more deeply than the generations who came before us.
We need to talk with each other face-to-face. Communication is not the same as communion. We have lots of communication these days and many ways to communicate, from email to texts and Twitter, but we have precious little communion. We need fellowship in the Word. There is nothing more dangerous than an isolated individual with a Bible. We need to talk together about what we hear from the Scriptures, what our forefathers in the faith have handed down to us in creeds, confessions, hymns and liturgy.
Finally, we need to remember and give thanks to God that our faith in Jesus Christ is not an ever-changing, ever-evolving “spirituality,” but that it is the “faith that was once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 3) and handed down to us by way of tradition. We are not the first believers in Jesus Christ, and should Jesus delay in His coming, we will not be the last.
In the end, we don’t really want to have things “our way,” but Jesus’ way. Our way leads to death. Jesus is the Way, the Truth and the Life. His way through suffering, cross and resurrection leads to life eternal. And there is no other way.
> “Americans ages 18 to 29 are considerably less religious than older Americans” (Pew Forum).
> “Fewer young adults belong to any particular faith than older people do today” (Pew Forum).
About the Author: The Rev. William Cwirla is pastor of Holy Trinity Lutheran Church, Hacienda Heights, Calif.