More evidence that organized religion is more realistic than private spirituality
The Spring/Summer issue of my alumni mag has a fascinating article on recent research into how we recognize faces. (Scroll down to p. 19 in the pdf download or read the online version on pp. 18-19 here.)
[Researchers] demonstrated methodically that a face’s features - more than the face per se - are the key to recognizing a person…
...Common wisdom has it that humans recognize the face “holistically,” meaning that it is something about the picture created by the entire face - the particular arrangement of a face’s eyes, nose and mouth and not just these features themselves - that makes it easier for the human brain to make a positive ID. That common wisdom appears to be wrong…
...[The Research team] tested participants on how accurately they were able to identify a set of faces by the parts of those faces - the nose, left eye, right eye or mouth.
But where did my brain come to know that sneer? It had to have dabbled in the music of a particular decade and watched Music Television (MTV, before it became a reality show/product marketing thingamajig). That impression was then retained through action, like when I put a poster of sneering Billy Idol on the door of my seminary room on the day when my roommate’s bishop was visiting. All kinds of stuff like that - both perceptive and participative - would up the odds of me recognizing Billy on on the boulevard. I would not have come to it on my own.
I don’t use the term “organized religion” very much because religion is by nature an organized system of ideas, symbols, relationships and behaviors - but this thing called religion has to be a more realistic way of recognizing God than any “private spirituality” hopes to be. Religion gives us a multifaceted approach to the divine that includes thinking, feeling, action, relationship and all of the other ways that we might perceive and process a glimpsed detail of the divine and grow toward knowledge of the fullness of God. “Private spirituality” can indeed glimpse a detail, but because God is more mysterious than a single face we need a great many glimpsed details - more than one person’s limited experience and perception can take in.
I know a man in Christ who fourteen years ago was caught up to the third heaven—whether in the body or out of the body I do not know, God knows. And I know that this man was caught up into paradise—whether in the body or out of the body I do not know, God knows—and he heard things that cannot be told, which man may not utter. (2 Corinthians 12:2-4 ESV)
Paul is writing about his own visionary experience - something intensely private and spiritual. And it is full of caveats and limits. He can give us some extra “facial features” by which to try and recognize God, but his testimony, however real and intense, is incomplete. In fact, he winds up saying that he must accept his own insufficiency and rely on the help of another. Paul is not the only one to say this:
No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known. (John 1:18 NRSV)
The Christian message is that we will not see and know God on our own. We need help - divine help. So great is the love of God that he takes flesh to reach out to us. As I give thanks for the water in which I will baptize a new Christian I say to God, “In it your Son Jesus Christ received the baptism of John and was anointed by the Holy Spirit as the Messiah, the Christ, to lead us, through his death and resurrection, from the bondage of sin into everlasting life (Book of Common Prayer 1979, p. 306). There is noise these days of having “Jesus without the Church.” But the moment one says that, one denies the method by which Jesus continues to convey the divine help to all of us:
For God, who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ. (2 Corinthians 4:6 ESV)
These “hearts in which God has shone” are those of apostles, people chosen by Jesus, enlightened by the Holy Spirit and working together to make the divine help known to the world. They are not random, private “spiritual seekers.” They organize in prayer, in belief and in action. Combined, they have greater recognition of God than do any number of self-proclaimed spiritual masters they run into.
They do not deny the mystery and distance of God. They have the emanating light of received knowledge about a mysterious glory - but all this is recognized in the face of Jesus Christ. The Son of God is himself a “facial feature” of the fullness of God; Father, Son and Holy Spirit. And he has revealed more to the church - yes, to the organized Christian religion - than to any one “teacher” or “spiritual leader” or any sincere individual. Our recognition of God is always imperfect in this life, yet it is vastly enhanced when we join ourselves to the many glimpses of God’s features retained, carried and shared across time and place by the church.
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