Wednesday 22 January 2014

Godless Congregations: Is There Room to Talk?

By Edmund Lo, S.J.


A few months ago, I came across an article from The Guardian on a phenomenon called “Sunday Assembly”. To quote from the article, this is initiated by atheists who do not want to “...miss out on all the good things churches have to offer”. Essentially, a “godless congregation” would gather for music, times of contemplation and a secular talk that is akin to a sermon. It is like a church service without god.

I find this highly interesting for several reasons. First of all, the openness: not only do these atheists have clear heads because they actually find things of value in organized religion. They have taken these things of value and are utilizing them as their own. They are a far cry from those who cannot see anything good coming out of religion.

Secondly, I note that community and celebration, which they deem worthy to emulate, are two of the main aspects of religious gatherings. Along with the primary purpose – the worship of God – they are often used to describe purpose of mass or Sunday services. Indeed, these are the values that come from a sociological and secular consideration of religious gatherings. It forced me to ask myself this question: What is so different about a religious gathering as compared to a secular, intentionally-atheistic one?

In his book Introduction to Christianity, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI talks about belief as “symbol”. In his explanation, the Latin word symballein means “to come together”. We can already see that believing has everything to do with the act of coming together. This can also be understood within a covenantal context: the two parties involved in a covenantal treaty must respect their respective part for the covenant to take effect. If you do your part and I do mine, then the covenant is in effect; it is not a one-sided deal.  In Christianity, the two parties are God and human beings.

There are two “levels” of coming together. The first is the coming together of the believers. The second “level” cannot happen without the first. The second is the coming together of God and his united people. The sociological perspective can comprehend and analyse the first, “horizontal” level of this coming together, but understandably not the second, “vertical” dimension.

With this in mind, I think it is easy for us Christians to remain in a mindset of differentiation: “Ha-ha! We are still different! You may have your gatherings, but you cannot replicate that coming together with God that we have!” This does not allow any room for dialogue. The article also pointed out that these kinds of congregations, when rallying themselves around an absence (of religion), are not sustainable in the long term. In my humble opinion, this need not be so: what if such a group gathers for the sake of a quest for truth? This is very similar to what the idea of the pilgrim Church is about: together on a journey towards God, who is the Way, the Truth, and the Life. Can we not establish this search for truth as a common platform?

One may rightfully suggest that it takes two to tango, and if atheists are not willing to engage in the dialogue, there is precious little that we can do. I think that the recent conversation between Pope Francis and the atheistic philosopher suggests a more nuanced reality. We will always find the face of others who would like to talk to us if we keep the door open. This undoubtedly presents a challenge to those of us who are believers: how have I kept my door open to those who do not subscribe to any religion? What kind of common platform am I utilizing for the sake of dialogue?

1 comment:

  1. There is the ‘Courtyard of the Gentiles’ initiative by the Vatican, inspired by Benedict XVI, to engage in serious dialogue with non-believers. They had a high-profile meeting at the Sorbonne that seemed to be marked with intellectual rigour and mutual respect.