About two years ago I started attending an Anglican church regularly. It was the first time I had ever attended multiple liturgical services — one of the most surprising things to me, after I got over the water the priest was flicking at us, was that Communion happened every Sunday (in any other church I had been to it was only once a month). What was more was the reverence with which Communion was taken. My previous churches weren’t irreverent, but Communion wasn’t really a big deal at all. This was one of the first discrepancies I noticed between the liturgical service and my own non-denominational upbringing.
My confusion at the Anglican church was due to the fact that I had always learned throughout my childhood that Communion didn’t really count — it was just a nice thing to do together to commemorate something. I strongly internalized the idea that there was nothing particularly important about the act of communion.
This seems like a small idea but it suggests something very significant about the more general physical world — that it doesn’t matter either. More, it’s evil — bodies are the source of temptations and failings, and about as far from divinity as one can get.
This might sound borderline gnostic and/or heretical to some of you, but I think that at least some students might have also been surrounded by similar theologies at some point in their lives. The tone of the churches I attended — mostly Baptist, Bible, and non-denominational — and the Christian influences (radio networks, authors, etc.) inculcated in me the sense that we weren’t so much as “in the world but not of it” but that we were “sort of in the world but definitely not of it nor part of it in any way.”
Bodies were inconveniences, to be ignored or, ultimately, despised. I absorbed suggestions that at the rapture our purified souls would leave behind dead corpses. Theological issues and Biblical references like the Kingdom of God on Earth and the resurrection of the body — things having to do with the physical world — were ignored.
Even the Bible’s physical existence was ignored. The first I ever heard of arguments about the canon, Athanasius’ 367 letter, and all those people mad about James and Hebrews was at college. Before then, I think I just assumed that a copy of the KJV fell out of the sky a few hours after the Ascension. How could the Bible be put together by mere non-disciple humans, over a long period of time? I kept the book nicely separate and away from actual human history. This also suited my willful ignorance of the traditions of the Eucharist and other things that I filed under “weird things that Catholics do.”
So I was marinated in this idea that the present world is an unholy place, and therefore not worth participating in, via a solemn practice of communion or crossing one’s self or kneeling during services or repeating a liturgy or anything else.
In my religious surroundings, the logical conclusion to the world’s ungodliness was a huge focus on the afterlife and Heaven. Perhaps I’m being unjust to a necessarily simplified message aimed at young children, but when I was young, church seemed to be mostly about accepting Jesus to get to Heaven.
The prevailing Christian teachings in my life rarely addressed issues of the tensions of existence, and this lack of struggle or mystery was convenient for my young mind. Morality teachings warned against a displeased God, not dysfunctional relationships. Evangelism was never nuanced and existence was never complicated.
Everything seemed to point away from the present and toward the future — toward Heaven, which I was assured I would get to if I said the right prayer. I repeated the inviting-Jesus-into-my-heart prayer once every few months when I was very young, because I was nervous that the first time didn’t take (never had Jesus been so thoroughly invited, I was pretty sure).
The problem that I found was that all of this — the whole prevailing culture — pointed me toward a profound disconnect from the world.
If the only thing that matters is my ticket to Heaven, I began to ask myself, then what am I here for? If nothing of the present right now is holy in any way, I might as well try to expedite my exit, right? Or at least ignore everything until I get to leave?
These considerations troubled me, and still do. I am not at all 100% gung-ho about either tran- or consubstantiation, nor do I cross myself consistently or demand that I only attend high liturgical masses involving incense burning and silk vestments. I really, as far as theology goes, have very little idea of what is going on.
But I do think that we, as evangelicals and Protestants, need to focus less on prepaid train tickets to Heaven and concern ourselves with trying to find a way to live a holy, engaging existence.
I don’t want to argue against points of widely accepted Christian theology, or thoughtful readings of the Bible. I’m arguing against the notion that the only reason to live is for what we believe we get after death — this is, I think, imbued in the current culture; in the unthinking things we say about other doctrines and the assumptions we make about our own. And I think that it is ultimately destructive.
The ticket-to-Heaven idea is by no means ascribable to all of Christian theology, but it is prevalent, especially in Christian culture during the past century. Devaluing physical existence is, I think, an illogical and ultimately damaging thing, and before we talk about how silly Catholics are to believe in transubstantiation we might do well to consider the implications of our own philosophy.