by Bruce Nielson
Andrew Ainsworth was recently nominated for a Niblet award for his excellent post which posed the question “Do we let the Church get in the way of the Gospel?”
The analogy is that of an orange:
Any church is like an orange: it has sweet, juicy, nourishing fruit (i.e., truths that help people live better lives); and it has a tough, bitter peel that protects the fruit and holds it together (i.e. an organizational structure, prescribed forms of worship, and claims to divine authority). Were it not for its protective institutional peel, a church’s nourishing spiritual teachings would become damaged and lost; were it not for its fruitful truths, a church’s institutional peel would be hollow and purposeless.
Andrew was hardly alone in his concern. Matt Thurston expressed:
I think the problem for most True Believers is that they don’t differentiate between the peel and the fruit — it’s just one true-and-living orange. While I clearly see the difference today, it probably took me a few, often painful, years to completely untangle the gospel from the church.
…I would still maintain that if we can tease out the difference between the orange and the peel it is despite the church, not because of it. (link)
If it were an accurate analogy, one would have to wonder why the LDS Church spends so much time on the Church itself rather than the “nourishing fruits” which are the ethical teachings that help people live better lives. If this were an accurate analogy, questions such as, “Do the mantras of our testimony meetings relate more often to “the peel” or “the fruit” of our religion?” would be concerning.
But is this a correct analogy/meme for religion in general? I don’t believe it is.
Now I admit that I’m not familiar with every religion in the world. I’m not even familiar with every Christian religion in the world. But I have yet to find an exception amongst orthodox/believing versions of any religion, that the “Good News” (i.e. “Gospel”) they celebrate is universally:
That God cared enough to talk to or visit with us and He tells us that all is under his control.
This startlingly comforting message is the foundation of all believing forms of every religion I have encountered so far. Each religion dwells upon this point, though admittedly they all accepted very different things as God’s revelations to us all. But all True Believers (to use Matt’s term) of all religions seem to be in agreement upon this point: they are excited that there exists a Talking God.
The excitement True Believers experience over their respective religions has never seemed to me to be primarily about ethical teachings that teach us to live better lives. Why would a religion build themselves upon the very same ethics every single religion and even non-religion has had since the beginning of time? Ethical and moral commandments flow naturally from the concept of the talking God, of course, but they are not the primary purpose of religion. If ethical teachings really were the fruit of religions, religions would be unnecessary ornaments to ethics.
For Catholics this Talking God is manifest in a divinely appointed Church organization setup by an embodied God. For Protestants, this is largely about “the Book God wrote” or “what God said when He came to visit.” For Pentecostals, it might be about a God revealing himself today through Gifts of the Spirit. For religions built on meditation, it’s about blocking out your own voice so that you can hear God’s.
What is the Talking God of Mormonism but what is wrongly called the peel?
C.S. Lewis: Our Better Lives Are Not Our Own
C.S. Lewis explained that religion, particularly Christianity, wasn’t merely about ethics. In Mere Christianity he used the analogy of Miss Bates and her boss Dick Firkin. Miss Bates is an ill tempered Christian and Dick is a well mannered very nice non-Christian:
Before Christ has finished with Miss Bates, she is going to be very “nice” indeed. But if we left it at that, it would sound as though Christ’s only aim was to pull Miss Bates up to the same level on which Dick had been all along. We have been talking, in fact, as if Dick were all right; as if Christianity was something nasty people needed and nice ones could afford to do without; and as if niceness was all that God demanded.
Lewis goes on to demonstrate that in fact “being nice,” which in this context I see as equivalent to “living a good life,” is really more a factor of our biology, our body chemistry, and our God-given our circumstances. That in fact:
[God] created Dick’s sound nerves and good digestion, and there is plenty more where they came from. It costs God nothing, so far as we know, to create nice things: but to convert rebellious wills cost Him crucifixion. …There is a paradox here. As long as Dick does not turn to God, he thinks his niceness is his own, and just as long as he thinks that, it is not his own.
C.S. Lewis shows that while you can’t unstrap moral teachings from religion, they are not the core either.
Even 4 out of 5 Atheists Agree
I once heard Sam Harris, the militant atheist, speak. He commented that religion was largely about us wanting to trick ourselves into believing that life does not end at death. From his perspective, religion was a delusion meant to hide the awful truths of life from ourselves.
Harris was partially right, though he missed that it’s rationally impossible to separate the concept of an afterlife from the concept of life being inherently in control and thus meaningful.
However, I was struck by the fact that, though he missed some details, Harris understood the basic motivation for religion. Though to him it’s all a delusion, he at least understood that religion is not primarily about ethical teachings.
There Is No Peel
In religion, if there is a peel, claims to divine authority and prescribed forms of worship is not it. In Mormonism in particular even organizational structure is part of the claim of their Talking God. Whether delusion or real, the fruit of religion is their respective manifestation of a Talking God and what that means to the Believer.
About the Author
Bruce Nielson is a Sunday School teacher for his ward in Utah and lives with his wife and four children. As one lady in class put it, “Geez, we talk about just about anything in Sunday School.” Luckily the Bishop hasn’t fired him yet.