Even for nonbelievers, a church service can be a powerful experience. A good service can change your eye level from the gutter to the heavens. It can put you in contact with your community, and with the stories that we tell to remind ourselves that we’re human beings. If churchgoing is part of your life, you are likely missing the camaraderie, the joy of carrying on tradition, the encounters with beauty (because most churches are very beautiful) and the peek behind the curtain of the quotidian at the divine that houses of worship offer.
If you’re down about that, it’s understandable. If you’re praying, hard, for the day that the church doors reopen, I feel that, too. But I cannot not sympathize with the claim, made by some loud and unwise Americans, that church closures represent an infringement on religious liberties. No one is taking away anybody’s right to worship, or denigrating anybody’s faith. On the contrary. Church leaders have taken the initiative to suspend masses and other services because it is the Christian thing to do to be concerned about the well-being of our neighbors. They expect you to carry on Christian practice, and Christian charity, no matter where you’re spending your Sunday morning.
It is natural to confuse church attendance with religious faith. Some churches have abetted that conflation. But when we mix the two things up, we should understand that we’re adhering to a pre-Christian tradition. Many Iron Age religious practices required a temple. There was a strict division between holy spaces and non-holy spaces; even within the temple, there were rooms where ordinary people could go, and other rooms only accessible to the priestly caste. The god, it was believed, was physically present in the central chamber — that was his abode, and the exact geopositioning of the interface between the human and the divine. Sometimes, on special days, the priests would actually take the god out of the chamber, in the form of a statue or idol, and allow the people to touch him. But usually, the god stayed put in the shadows, shrouded in mystery.
The crucial realization that God does not exist in a statue, or an idol, or in a specific room of a specific building is part of what it means to be a Christian. Christianity erases the arbitrary, man-made dividing line between the sacred and the profane, and reminds us that, to paraphrase J.D. Salinger, all we ever do in life is walk from one piece of holy ground to the next. It’s been a long journey to the cosmic understanding that a religion based on faith requires, and we’re still not all the way there. There are many traditional practices that carry with them a strong remnant of the old idolatrous ways of our forerunners. Some of those practices do work to focus the mind on the divine, and because of that, they shouldn’t be rubbished. But the true value of churchgoing is not unlike the value of going to class at university. You’ll be in the presence of a wise leader who’ll helps you open your eyes and your heart, and can guide you on a spiritual path, and you’ll be surrounded by a congregation of fellow travelers who can uphold you, and quicken your pace, as you take your steps on that path. That’s what church is all about, Charlie Brown, and the music and the prayer and communion and symbolism is there to reinforce your awareness of a God who is always right there with you, no matter where you are.
Church practice also acknowledges that many humans have an easier time encountering God when they’re in groups. But many others do not. One of the most profound elements of the Hindu tradition is the recognition that there are many routes to enlightenment, and sometimes the road that suits you is most easily located when you’re on your own. In his own isolation on the mountain Horeb, Elijah heard God in the still, small voice; you may hear God in a passage of a book by C.S. Lewis, or on a record by Mahalia Jackson, or, as Stuart Murdoch sings so beautifully, out the window, in the trees, before bed and the promise of sleep.
None of this is meant to minimize the pain of those who are separated from the congregations and can’t get to church; that’s destabilizing, and it’s bound to damage religious communities in ways that we haven’t even begun to contend with. It’s merely to say that when we insist on reopening churches — in the middle of a pandemic and in total contravention of the demands of Christian faith — we’re misallocating our emotional resources, and we’re misrecognizing our adversaries. No virus can separate you from God, but disregard for the welfare of your fellow human beings will surely move you away from Him in a damned hurry. Faith is real, but so is mathematics. Those insisting upon a premature reopening are endangering their neighbors and giving Christians, and Christianity, a bad name. That’s a hell of a thing to have to answer for at St. Peter’s gate.