It’s so human. Mistaking form for substance, I mean. A recent piece in Wired that my wife pointed out to me is titled “Psychologists Are Learning What Religion Has Known for Years,” by David DeSteno. As the title intimates, religion benefits individuals in many ways. Church attendance, however, has been declining for a long time. While not the point of the article, I do wonder how much of it is because mainstream churches are stuck in a form that no longer works and people aren’t finding the substance there. The basic church service is premised on a specific religious outlook that no longer seems to fit how the world works. Potential ministers go to seminary where age-old ideas are tiredly replicated, based on an incipient literalism that simply doesn’t match what people see in the world.
I’ve experienced this myself. Depending on who the minister is, a church can go from dynamic to dull several times in the course of a member’s life. People still crave the substance, even if the form stops working. The form, however, is seminary approved and seminaries are accredited by the Association of Theological Schools. The folks are academics and academics are well aware of the developments that suggest the form doesn’t work. Speaking as a former seminary professor, sermons just don’t do the trick when you’ve done your own homework. As DeSteno points out, once you remove the theology science and religion tend to find themselves in agreement with one another. For years I’ve been suggesting that secular seminaries are needed. Churches that aren’t bound by form or doctrine. Instead we swim in a sea of retrenched evangelicalism.
Religion is an effective survival technique. It evolved, even while denying it did so. Some time after the Reformation a resurgent literalism led Catholicism to modernize, removing the mystery that was perhaps the last tenuous grasp that form had to provide substance. Religion, beleaguered as it is, still has substance to offer. DeSteno’s article is adapted from his new book How God Works. I haven’t read it yet, but from the summary I can see that I should. There are religious groups that attempt what this article suggests. From my experience, however, I see they easily get sucked into mistaking the form they settle on for the substance of what they do. I had recently been toying with the idea of attending seminary again. I found, however, form after form. What I need is substance.