My article printed in The Daily Star February 10, 2018
Reading in The Daily Star about closure of First Baptist Church in Oneonta provoked flashback. I don’t know their circumstances, but my church community folded about fifteen years ago, and I now offer one piece of advice. Care for religion.
This is not to say religion hasn’t been cared for, but there is a difference between caring for religion and taking care of sacred centers or defending religious policies.
To care for religion isn’t to worry about religion. It isn’t to get distracted by thinking religion is dying. It’s not dying. Pew Research Center reports that 84% of the world’s population is religious-minded and it’s on the increase.
Religion is part of human life, like dirt. And, it is the religious-minded who provide the best care for religion. In other words, pointing fingers at the nonreligious-minded is silly. We don’t expect people who don’t own pets, to care for our pets.
So, how do we care for religion?
I started pondering that mystery when a teenager. I had plenty of time. I spent a gazillion hours operating tractors on the family farm, working the dirt. Plowing, planting, harvesting.
In between listening to Elton John on the AM radio, I’d think over narratives from the Bible, such as the parable of the sower, reportedly given by Christ Jesus. The storyline starts with a sower, throwing seed everywhere. Seeds on the road, on rocky places, in shallow soil, in thorns, and, yep, “on good soil.”
Despite my inclination to debate the waste and inefficiency of randomly throwing seeds everywhere—we used precision planters on the farm—I still was able to grasp the possibility of seed bringing “forth fruit, some a hundredfold, some sixtyfold, some thirtyfold.” (Matthew 13:8)
Arguably, religion has brought forth the fruits of spiritual texts, guidance, relief, wellbeing, and meaningful lives. But, the farmer in me knows that growing fruit depletes nutrients in the ground, big time, and diminishes soil.
That’s why farmers fertilize or amend soil, alternate crops, or leave the land fallow.
Nevertheless, it was that very strategy of caring for soil that moved my mind to care more for religion than for the soil depleting religious practices and policies. I’ll give an example.
When a child, my parents introduced me to Christian Science, defined as an infinite force of divine spirit interpreting harmony to the universe.
As a religion however, it was established by Mary Baker Eddy late 19th century. Early records show churches prospering and members enjoying noteworthy healing and advancements in the study of both human mind and divine mind.
I, myself, experienced tangible benefits from the religion. These fruits, so-to-speak, were self-satisfying until the 1980s when I was first surprised, then grieved, to see churches headed toward their deathbeds.
To be honest, it took me years to stop reminiscing or trying to relive the glory days even if they were in my imagination. It took me years to stop advocating for a human ideology and start advocating for improved religion or convictions.
In my situation, I carried an unfounded conviction that Christian Science required radical reliance on prayer for healing. Why did I have such a conviction?
Good question, and I didn’t get good answers. So, I confronted language used by both admirers and critics of Christian Science, either excusing or condemning going to doctors or not. I traced the language to a sentence in Eddy’s textbook on Christian Science, Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures. She wrote, “Only through radical reliance of Truth can scientific healing power be realized.”
A 19th-century dictionary showed me that the word “radical” has, well, radically changed in meaning during the last one-hundred years. It meant, pertaining to the root or origin, and didn’t carry todays weight of extremism.
But the regrettable notion of “extreme prayer,” paled next to the mistake of grossly confusing reliance on Truth with reliance on prayer.
Sure, prayer is a big component of Christian Science, but prayer is not synonymous with truth. And this new conviction sprouted. I could see it and hear it.
More accurate language was used to discuss and write about religion, teaching me indirectly that spiritual texts also aren’t synonymous with truth, but are interpretations. The conviction multiplied.
Religion is not synonymous with truth. Science, politics, and the media are not synonymous with truth. These institutions aren’t even sources of truth but are methods to discover and share.
Unfortunately, these methods can be used to notice and share information that does little or no good, even harm, to humanity. That is why we should be careful before repeating information. That is why our institutions need continual care.
Historically, proper care doesn’t come from anger, complacency or arrogance. Care comes from insight, education, and an openness to take the time to listen to others to learn where they started from and how they got to where they are. It comes with courage to outgrow the old and wear the new.
Posted online January 9, 2018, Barna Research reported that, “In a post-truth climate, the challenge, particularly for faith leaders, may be to find that balance between encouraging positive signs of introspection while confronting wholly subjective approaches—whether in interpreting facts, discerning truth or practicing faith.”
After reflecting on the bygone Baptist Church, I felt positive respect for its 185 years of singing praises and serving the community. I also was urged to confront and rethink that parable about the sower.
Remember that sower mentioned above, sowing seed willy-nilly? Is it telling me that my religion, or religion in and of itself, isn’t the only place where seed was sown? I’m feeling a growing conviction that seed is everywhere, ready to bear fruit. Let’s get the soil ready.
Bio: Cheryl Petersen lives in Delhi. Her books are “21st Century Science and Health,” “from science & religion to God: A narrative of Mary Baker Eddy’s Science and Health,” and “I Am My Father-Mother’s Daughter.”