The Four Walls of Our Freedom: Organized Religion and the Happy Life

When Thomas Merton entered the Abbey of Our Lady of Gethsemane, the renowned Trappist monastery in Kentucky, he declared that he had entered into “the four walls of my new freedom” (The Seven Storey Mountain). Entering the monastic life means renouncing your own will once and for all, ready to do at every moment of the day for the rest of your life what you are obliged to do by the monastic routine and the abbot of the community. There is no such thing as “my time” any longer, nor is there really “my” any- thing. A monk must learn to be happy with not even belonging to himself. It may be fair to ask, then, in what sense such a life could possibly be considered liberating. We find ourselves asking a similar question when we discuss organized religion in general. Why accept an organized religion: don’t you want to think for yourself and come to your own conclusions? Why would you bind yourself to do what somebody else tells you?

Now, if an organized religion were true it would mean a number of things. First, that at some point, God revealed Himself in some way and left humans with some depositum of divine knowledge from which all necessary knowledge of God emanates. If this were not the case, no human institution could legitimately claim the authority to organize religion and promulgate a normative set of propositions for belief and forms of worship. Given that human beings are finite and imperfect, God would have to provide some way of safeguarding his depositum against error on the part of the humans to whom He entrusted His revelation. This means that, to a certain extent, God is actively at work during crucial moments in the development of that organized faith, ensuring that in the messiness of human affairs, the authorities of that faith end up making the right decisions on what the faithful will adhere to. Given that an organized religion must operate in time and in human society, some sort of organizational structure would have to emerge to identify the “dwelling place” of that truth, which allows us to identify that we are “in communion” with those who believed that faith before and that we are receiving the authentic revelation, and not some corrupted or incomplete imitation.

It will be granted that accepting everything enumerated above requires faith. We can either believe that an organized religion is formed legitimately on the foundation of some original depositum fidei and is being guided by God to remain free from error, or we can dismiss it all as propaganda. All claims to religious truth certainly ought to be tested by the best methods of human reasoning available to us, and we should hold fast to what is good and reject what is false. But what emerges when we find a credible organized religion is the relief and happiness of the conviction that God has come to meet humanity to give us a way of life through which we can come to know Him.

Placing faith in an organized religion might seem like a scary option, because of our natural discomfort with claims to absolute truth, especially when they require an “all or nothing” commitment. Atheism is easy in one sense, because it does not bind us to moral convictions or challenge us to live by anything but our own measure. Spiritualism shares the same moral laxity, with the added disadvantage that it does not require us to think hard about the meaning (or lack thereof) of life. When we believe in God but do not believe that He has spoken to us in some definitive way, we do not have to think about why the way of life taught by an organized religion might teach us about human nature and what is best for us. But organized religion requires a reshaping of our life to conform to a standard that is not of our own making. The reshaping extends to every area of our life, ranging from our morals and ways of thinking to our forms of worship and inner disposition.

An often-overlooked verse in Acts of the Apostles describes the communal life of early Christianity, which even in its earliest days was an organized religion, even though its organizing principles were still in embryonic form. We are told that the first converts to Christianity “devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer” (Acts 2:42). Here we read four elements of the Christian faith to which the faithful adhered. Let us begin with the apostles’ teaching. At His ascension into heaven, Christ conferred upon the Apostles the mission to baptize all nations and teach them everything that he commanded. He also promised to be with them “to the very end of the age” (Matthew 28:20). The Apostles were given the unique mission of bringing the new Christian faith to the whole world. They had the assurance that Christ would be with them in their mission. If we look back to our earlier comments about organized religion, we see in the Apostles the receivers of the depositum fidei. They have received the faith, and since they are the ones being safeguarded from error (through Christ’s promise) as they pass the faith on to others, they are the authorities on how the faith will develop when questions arise. It is they who decided at the Council of Jerusalem, for example, that the Gentiles would not be bound to follow Jewish laws upon be- coming Christians (Acts 15:1-21). It is an official decree for all of Christianity, a decision guided by the Holy Spirit but made in the fray of human affairs and actions. To be “in communion” with the decisions of the Apostles is to remain in the Christian fold, and disagreement is not to be taken lightly. We see with what vehemence Paul criticizes the “circumcision party” in his Epistles, those who, in opposition to the decree of the Council, wish to see the Gentile converts following the Law of Moses (Galatians 2:11-14). What we see is most certainly an organized religion. But its decisions are binding not for the sake of control, but for the sake of unity. The goal is that the faithful “may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us” (John 17:21).

The goal of unity becomes clear in the second feature of the Christian life-fellow- ship. It is no coincidence that fellowship is listed right after the apostles’ teaching. The Psalms declare, “How good and pleasant it is when brothers live together in unity!” (Psalms 133:1). Organized religions tend to under- stand how easily small disagreements can tear a community apart, and Saint Paul faced such factional behavior when the Corinthians converts divided themselves into groups based on who had baptized them (1 Corinthians 3:4). It is inevitable that in making binding decisions, organized religions will upset parties to which it did not cater in its decision, but Fellowship implies communal life, which implies willingly making sacrifices, in deference to truth, that are necessary for a harmonious society. Therein the connection between religious authority and a just society becomes clear. Any truly functional human community will require sacrifice and not just individualism on the part of its members. Organized religion might ask us to make personal sacrifices, but they are ultimately for the good of fellowship. Without harmonious relations with our neighbors we can hardly consider ourselves to be living happily.

The third element of the Christian life is the breaking of the bread, or the Eucharist. For the early Christians, the breaking of the bread built on the fellowship. Agreeing and being of one accord, faithful to the Apostles’ teaching and coming together to live in harmony, the Christians worshiped and shared a meal together. (Food has entered the equation: we now have the makings of a flourishing culture!) We see the happy society that the Christians built up when they “broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people” (Acts 2:46-47). The coming together for communal worship is the most important part of any organized religion. It is the “Sabbath” during which the faithful come together to remember what their purpose in life is and to share in the rest of God.

Finally, we come to prayer. Communal worship binds together the society, but society is composed of individuals. Ultimately, faith depends on belief, which depends on some sort of encounter between each believer and God, the object of worship. The prayer life of each individual is what builds up the community, because it is the source from which the believer draws strength to live the life of faith (in the Christian tradition, this supernaturally infused strength is called grace) and therefore live in harmony with the rest of the believers. The social and communal aspect of faith, in turn, influences the individual’s prayer life by pro- viding the culture, life, ideas, themes, imagery, etc. from which the individual’s prayer life is shaped.

Ultimately, then, the goal of organized religion is to bring society as a whole, working through each individual, to the perfect fulfillment of the goal of religion: To love God, and to love our neighbors as ourselves. Unorganized faiths might also make claims to best accomplishing these goals but it is not difficult to see how a religion or spirituality which leaves out any of these elements will fall short of placing human beings in their proper contexts as individuals living with, for, and from other individuals in a society. An overly personal spirituality that does not consider authority or public worship important, for example, has the danger of isolating us from each other rather than building community. The consequence is not only that we ourselves face the danger of erring from truth by not checking our judgment against a greater standard, but that we fail to be a loving member of the community. If our attitude is that everybody should just pursue what they happen to find best at that time, we cease to care that our fellows might find a true harbor and therefore true rest and happiness. Adhering to an organized religion no doubt requires certain unpopular virtues: the humility to obey and accept teaching, even when our initial inclination is to disagree; willingness to admit that we are incorrect; the patience to accept unpopularity when the tenets of our faith put us in opposition to prevailing social assumptions. But on the other hand, it is not difficult to see why despite such difficulties, we might discover in an organized religion that we are within the “four walls of our freedom.” If we come to see a religion through the lens of faith, to see what it offers in its essence, stripped from the assumptions we might have about it, we discover the joy of humility, the relief in the knowledge that we have been placed in the hands of truth and freed from our own blindness, and that our faith does “not rest on men’s wisdom, but on God’s power” (I Corinthians 2:5).

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,