What follows is an observational account of my first-hand experience of the church and those within it. This series will be included under the ‘personal reflections’ section of this blog. It is personal in the sense that I will speak form my own experiences and use them as a vehicle for understanding the phenomenon that is the church.
This series will highlight numerous manifest features such as teachings, behaviours, rituals, and social consciousness as they influence the church and the religious believers. It will also situate the church in the wider context of world religions through noting parallels in social and religious function as I observe them.
This first post in the series hones in on one manifest feature of the church: God and Christ’s imperceptibility and the church cultivating a sacred space which treats God as a reality.
I certainly can’t speak for all church’s so the one I have in mind is the one I attend: a well-off church in a wealthy, upper-class area occupied by mostly students at university and young adults, with a few sprinklings of a more mature audience. The facilities are advanced and evidence the church’s comfortable socio-economic position. Congregants sit on comfortable seats within a large auditorium housing an array of technical, visual, and audio equipment, and is overseen by a popular cafe on the second floor. The church receives an impressive donation from congregants and distributes this across a range of missionary and aid efforts in many underprivileged communities across the city of Cape Town. The church presents itself as non-denominational, and is open and welcoming to skeptics and unbelievers alike.
The Sermon and the Service
Numerous individuals take part in the sermon: a man opens (and later closes) the service, a woman is designated to pray, a random congregant comes up to give an “image” he purportedly receives (somehow relating to Genesis creation account), a man who reads a select Bible verse, and a vocalist who leads a band in song. The pastor, one man named Roger, is a gifted, confident communicator, engages well, maneuvers back and forth on a well illuminated stage. Smiles throughout, makes occasional joke which is warmly received (genuinely humorous). The sermon, on the church in Ephesians (Paul’s letter, but authorship disputed in scholarship), is witty, well conveyed, and informative. Pastor seems educated, uses words (“Substance,” “Essence”) reminiscent of theological reasoning and certainly of German philosophy, particularly stemming from Heidegger.
Pastor puts emphasis on convincing congregants that the God’s presence permeates the auditorium. Refers to this as the Holy Spirit. Pastor petitions via prayer for said entity to enter the hearts of those present. There are bowed heads and hands lifted high, no sign or evidence of the empirical kind that said entity permeates the room or interacts with those present. Pastor, like in other sermons, reassures that the entity knows “where you are at,” presumably it has knowledge concerning the intimacies of human lives. A number of congregants possess booklets, diaries. They write notes, presumably sermon information that stands out, and that they wish to access outside the church. A theme in the sermon is on the Apostle Paul being at the “forefront” of the church, that while imprisoned (from where he purportedly penned the epistle) never considered himself a victim but was instead a “slave” to Christ, and encouraged unity in the church. Evidently Paul grappled with God’s apparent absence but did not fall from faith or become consumed with self-pity.
Pastor refers to missionary outreach which I assume is recent. Church leaders journey to lucrative school up country. Big turnout of pupils by their own volition. 150 of the 500 purportedly accept Christ, assenting to the belief that Christ saves them from sin and alienation for God. Pastor speaks of God’s presence in a moment when a pupil, upon being prayed for, falls to floor yelling words (“Get away from me!” “Get away from me!”). Says the pupil hurled other insults too before ceasing when prayed for by several leaders. Pastor refers to ethereal beings such as spirits, and the pupil, the following day, says he had no memory of what happened but that he accepted Christ in his heart. Pupil was not a believer before this point. Pastor’s general idea is that God is present, at work, and powerful.
Service ends with songs, all of which assume God and Christ are realities that ought to be worshiped, appreciated for their love, goodness, and mercy. A quiz evening is hosted in the cafe on the second floor after the service.
Grappling with God’s Imperceptibility
Grappling with the imperceptibility of the Divine and Transcendent is a common feature of many religions, and I believe this church is evidence of this: the pastor wishes to encourage congregants to keep their hearts and minds on God and on Christ. It seems likely that many human beings desire an encounter with the Divine, a deity, or the Transcendent.
One suspects God and Christ must feel distant, silent, and somewhat absent for many within the congregation. One imagines that God’s absence must be pervasive when compared to other tangible forces of life, like the social and occupational. This likely explains the several repeated appeals to the objective reality of the imperceptible being that is the God the church believes in.
The church functions as a space in which this being is said to be present and active. This service, and many others like it, is alleged to be home to God’s presence. I assume many in the congregation feel closer to this being in the church, and somehow this space is sacred (more on the sacred and the profane soon). I suspect many feel the social forces (more on social phenomenology in the follow up to this post) that give a tangible sense to religious experience, perhaps an encounter with or a link to the Divine. This is a manifest feature of religions and therefore analogous to religious experiences of other religiously infused contexts: the onlooker witnessing the shaman entering trancelike states of cognition which give the sense impression that he or she is accessing the transcendent realms where divine beings dwell. Or perhaps the Tantric Buddhists and their creative performances as an enactment of what it feels like to obtain enlightenment.
This reminds me of Rudolf Otto’s concept of the Holy, namely the apprehension of the mysterium tremendum. The church band plays music of an emotionally poignant nature perhaps to get the congregants to apprehend a sort of tremendum mysterium. This is reflected in the select music: the imperceptible being is treated with awe, majesty, and urgency (tremendum), and is purportedly wholly other and distinct from everything else (mysterium). The being is treated as above and beyond, transcendent, something superior. The overall church enactment (the pastor, the deep and passionate music, the fellow congregants who perpetuate behaviours of lifting hands, shambling, and clapping) gives the impression of connecting the individual to the Divine, the tremendum mysterium.
The church is the sacred space in which this imperceptible God and Christ are treated collectively (perhaps with the exception of the handful of attendees who are skeptics and non-Christians) as realities. Perhaps this is a comfortable space to retreat to from culture and others who do not accept the Christian faith, and the purported realities that are God and Christ. The church, I suspect, is a social space in which believers can collate and find comfort in fellow believers on successes, hardships, and disappointments concerning personal and public life, spirituality, and the imperceptible God.