As is typically the case when I’m at church, I am thinking about other things. To think about things religious amongst religious people, I find, generates deep antipathy and annoyance on my part. This is a moral failing, perhaps, a vice from which I should repent as readily as I might avarice or arrogance; but it is, I suspect, the one I will release last, at last, even, upon my dying breath, when faced with the possibility that it is time to “get serious,” or at the very least “make peace.” This past weekend, the third Sunday of Advent, I once again found my mind elsewhere, despite having arrived late enough in the service to miss the threats of silent, holy nights rudely, if you ask me, interrupted by herald angels singing about glory and newborn kings. As I strained to wrestle my attention into submission, not unlike Jacob grappling (not without pleasure, I’m sure) for a blessing from a divine stranger, I settled for a compromise — that of applying something I’d rather be doing to what I decided to do instead. I found myself, in short, thinking some more about Elias Canetti’s book Crowds & Power, but this time through the filter of my recent experience as a congregant at a local United Church of Christ, which came quite suddenly (randomly, if you were to ask my wife) after a decade of non-attendance that at the time I had considered an obsessively scribbled period, a terminal punctuation punching its way to a troublesomely deep bruise of black and blue, to nearly two decades of participation in evangelical Christianity.
The discharge is denied to the slow crowd. we could say that this was its most important distinguishing mark and, instead of slow crowds, we could speak of crowds which have no discharge. But the first term is preferable, for the discharge cannot be entirely renounced. It will always be contained in the conception of the final state. It is only postponed to a far distance; where the goal is, there too is the discharge. a vision of it is always strongly persist, though its actuality lies at the end of the way.
The slow crowd tends to lengthen and protract the process which leads to the discharge. The great religions have developed a particular mastery of this business of delay. Their concern is to keep the followers they have won and, in order to do this and also to win new ones, they have to assemble them from time to time. Such assemblies will result in violent discharges and, once these have happened, they have to be repeated and, if possible, surpassed in violence. Their regular recurrence, at least, is essential if the unity of the faithful is not to be lost. But the events likely to happen in the course of services enacted, as there are, by rhythmic crowds, cannot be controlled over large distances. The central problem of the universal religions is how to dominate believers spread over wide stretches of the earth. The only way to do it is by a conscious slowing down of crowd events. Distant goals must gain in importance, near ones losing more and more of their weight until, in the end, they appear valueless. An earthly discharge is too brief; only one which is removed into the world beyond has permanence. (p. 41)
I’d read these lines a couple of weeks ago already, and while I have a terrible memory in general the gist of them returned to me as I listened to the sermon. And lest the good Reverend should happen upon this blog — she knows it exists and of my participation — I want to speak plainly here: the sermon itself was fine. Not great, perhaps; but fine. Serviceable for a Sunday morning. But perhaps its propriety is what prompted the connection to vaguely untoward thoughts: namely about why mainline, liberal churches are, if we are to measure these things by volume, are today culturally irrelevant, a virtually unknown quantity in the equation puzzled over by irreligious people trying to piece together what Christianity is about.
Deviating only a bit from Canetti — there’s no rule one has to agree with a book one loves (in fact, disagreement is probably far better) — I concluded that the prominence of evangelical Christianity has nothing to do with the stuff of belief. That is to say, nothing to do with the mainline church’s loosey-goosey way with exegesis, its hot and cold attitude toward homosexuality, or its commitment to social justice. In my experience, you are just as likely to find many of the same confessional traits throughout many an evangelical church, even. The preexisting political and ethical inclinations of their parishioners notwithstanding, I think what really distinguishes evangelical churches is that their highest prizes, things like personal healing, forgiveness, a personal relationship with God, etc., are in fact highly attainable goals. They are rewards that can be enjoyed now, even if the fruits of this possession are not truly realized until some later time (this true possession, the heavenly prize, let’s say, aligns closely to Canetti’s notion of “discharge,” as a kind of release from individualism and differentiation — a radical egalitarianism that can be put off until even after death).
Mainline, liberal churches, on the other hand, are in their own peacenik ways doom-and-gloom to a extent that even the most hell-fire fundamentalist churches can’t quite muster. With the purest of intentions, they are consumed week in and week out with the systemic, societal failings of this world. Faced with the compounding inequity of poverty borne of greed and perpetuated by climate change, one can’t help but wonder sometimes whether it was foolish ever to think knowledge might ever be confused with power. To put it back into the framework of Canetti, one wonders whether the goal is situated too far into an unimaginable future; whether the liberal church is maybe not sufficiently escapist; and whether this is all a feature, rather than a bug.