Why Churches Matter More than Ever

September 28, 2020

From the Pastor

“You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden.” (Matthew 5:14)

Apologies ahead of time. This will get a little long, and slightly (though hopefully not too) political. Buckle up.

I have had several interactions with people over the past month on the topic of “conspiracy theories”. Without getting into the weeds about any specific belief about any particular purported conspiracy, I have to say that the phenomenon itself of political movements driven by conspiratorial thinking fascinates and concerns me. This is not something exclusive to either side of the political aisle. There is something about the idea of a deep and complex conspiracy among powerful people that has a powerful appeal to a significant portion of humanity. This has always been true, but over recent years it seems to have intensified.

One of the more interesting observations I’ve come across is that conspiracy-theory-based movements share many characteristics with traditional religions. But I’ll go one step further: it appears to me that many conspiracy-free political movements also share many qualities with traditional religions. Not all political movements and not all conspiracy theories do, but those that do tend to be unusually persuasive. They tend to have apocalyptic views of the near future, with an expectation of both an impending catastrophe if things are not turned around right away and also of some sort of salvation, typically by means of specific individuals. They rely heavily on felt experience over abstract reason. They respond to “non-believers” with a mix of hostility and contempt. They have phrases that get passed around and repeated as part slogan, part mantra. And they tend to view all world events around them, regardless of domain, as somehow tied in with the primary focus of their belief.

Why? Why are these new “micro-religions” growing in popularity? What’s the appeal?

I think the rise of conspiratorial beliefs and fanatical political movements are likely a symptom of a larger problem, and one I have no clear solution for.

People need to believe in some sort of narrative that explains life, the universe, and their place in it all, but traditional narratives are failing and being rejected by society at an accelerating rate. Also, we are witnessing the ongoing “death of authority”. This is partially because some traditional authorities on truth have repeatedly abused their office. It is also partly because the democratizing effect of today’s technology undermines and flattens the whole concept of “trusted experts” and “trusted reporters”.

In the end, I wonder if “mainstream culture” is done-for–not just the current culture that has been labeled “mainstream” over the past long while, but the entire concept of a “main stream”.

We seem to be heading into a future in which the current political system falls apart–not necessarily “officially” but at least de facto–leaving us living as a dozen or more geographically commingled tribes that do not like or even understand one another on the most basic level.

Meanwhile, over the span of my entire life, it seems that we have been more and more making a god out of the office of the presidency. And so the stakes are now simultaneously far higher than they ought to be, but, given time, more pointless than they have ever been. The last few presidents have repeatedly reached for powers they ought not to have, largely because we keep encouraging them to. At this point I don’t see how that gets reversed.

There is also the problem that we have each unwittingly crafted our own personal digital hells. Algorithms designed to encourage “engagement” have led each person down a path that sculpts what (and therefore how) they see. Seeing a conspiracy amounts to our brain’s pattern-recognition routine getting a “hit”, following up on it, getting more positive hits, and so eventually confirming the suspected pattern is real. But the lens we are now looking through is custom tailoring the next bit of data we receive with the very specific goal of guessing what patterns we (and by that I mean each of us, separately) are seeing, and then finding something to fit it. So once we suspect a new pattern, our digital servants eagerly construct it for us without telling us that’s what they’re doing. And so what we might brush off as coincidence ends up being confirmed as truth.

What’s more, we are not all in the same hell of curated patterns together as a society. Rather, we each are offered a personal lonely hell hand-crafted to our very specific clicking and searching behavior. So the pattern you see may be totally invisible to your neighbor, because they have been taken down a different path by the same means. Worse, your two patterns are not just incomprehensible to one another’s world patterns, they are threatening and intolerable sometimes.

Yes, we do get clumped into tribes. Partly this is because the algorithms have discovered that it’s easier to pursue their given goals when they can group individuals together. And it’s also partly because human neurology, psychology and spirituality has a short set of very deep fundamental ways of coding experiences, so any organic process we are subjected to will put us into semi predictable clumps.

To adapt a quote from one of my favorite childhood movies, War Games, modern digital society seems to be “a strange game” where “the only winning move is not to play”. But if we choose to avoid Facebook and Reddit and YouTube and 4chan and twitter and network news and talk radio and newspapers and forwards from relatives…well then we collapse as a society nonetheless, because the “death of authority” inevitably brings with it the death of civilization itself.

So what’s the solution? And why are you hearing this from your pastor of all people?

I believe that the human desire for a meta-story that explains everything is not going to go away. But some meta-stories are extremely harmful, while others actually lead to more love and less suffering. What’s more, some meta-stories are more true than others, and some are outright lies actively designed to mislead people. I also believe that the human tendency to group into tribes and then participate in group thinking is not going away either. And again, likewise, some tribes are lovely, while others are harmful, both to their members and to their perceived “outsiders”. But the best of tribes are those that not only encourage love among their members but that also see neighboring tribes as lovable too.

So it matters to me what meta-story people listen to. And it matters to me what kind of tribes people participate in. At this point, if you know me, it should come as no surprise that I believe that church communities, framed by a story founded in real truth, dedicated to relieving suffering and doing good–for one another and for outsiders–are a vital force for good in the world. I feel blessed that I am able to serve a community such as Washington New Church. I see in you all great potential for doing important good in the world in countless small and mundane ways. I see it happening every week. So I hope that we are able to add to our tribe, and to share our story. I really do think the world needs what we have to offer.

What someone believes and who they connect with have direct impacts on how they act upon the world around them. I know that COVID makes everything crazy and difficult. But let’s not lose sight of the preciousness of what we have, nor of our obligation to invite others to enjoy our blessings with us.

Mac Frazier, September 24, 2020

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