A Defense of “Organized” Religion

We frequently hear people criticizing “organized” religions and boasting about not belonging to one. What exactly do they have in mind? They aren’t hankering after disorganized, disunited, or anarchic religion. The discontent seems to be something like the following:

Some are for religion, but against organized religion. For example, those who pride themselves on being “spiritual,” but completely free from any creed or conventional religious practices. (Although some “spiritual” persons who are against organized religion, organize with others to combat organized religion!). In this same category are people who see religion as something essentially and completely spontaneous. Individuals might decide to get together once in a while to receive and share inspirations, and even pray, but without any established rituals.

But there are also others who are for organization of all kinds, as long as it isn’t a religious sort of organization – for example, the “New Atheists,” who portray attempts to transmit religious teachings or practices as a kind of pernicious mind-control and threat to human freedom. (Paradoxically, materialism can’t really allow freedom; in a materialist perspective, all “free” actions are mere determinations produced by the brain and nervous system reacting to physiological or environmental influences.) Also included in this category are practical materialists (not card-carrying materialists) who have never had the least thought about anything besides their everyday pursuits (which are organized in various ways in the search for their own satisfaction).

When I hear the first type, who give lip service to the importance, or at least usefulness, of religion, I begin to think, “Are they serious”? Religion without organization?

I am perhaps overly influenced by Aristotle, who declares that we are instinctively socio-political beings. He goes on to say that a completely unsocial “loner” would have to be either a beast or a god. The animalized type would be someone living on the level of the lower animals, purely sensualized, unable to enter into normal human interactions. (Aristotle was unfamiliar with physical or mental handicaps or diseases that can make individuals appear animal-like.) For the god type, it is not clear that Aristotle had any specific person in mind. There may have been ancient Grecian mystical equivalents of the Hindu Yogis who retreat from society for constant contemplation on a mountain top; or, as a Christian equivalent, St. Simon Stylites in the fifth century, who ascended a pillar to remain in constant contemplation and prayer for twenty-seven years. Apparently he did not come down even to go to church.

But any religion that is between these two extremes, and compatible with human nature, would have to be organized – maybe even supremely organized, if it was large and wanted to remain unified. Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Auguste Comte, who scarcely had a religious bone in their respective bodies, looked to the Catholic Church as a model to implement their utopian ideals for civic-secular unity. And mainstream Protestant churches, even when they try to avoid looking “hierarchical” like the Catholic Church, develop more decentralized, but still highly organized, administrative and jurisdictional schemes. Even the Quakers, who are against not only ecclesial organization but also Baptism and other sacraments, at least get together systematically in meetings to allow the Spirit to inspire them.

      Jesus establishes His Church upon Peter, the Rock (Raphael)

Anyone serious about becoming “spiritual” ought to note the elaborate and painstaking ascetic rituals and gradations of meditation techniques that some Hindus and Buddhists adopt, who wish to attain the status of spiritual proficients.

For a Catholic, Jesus Himself (Matt. 16: 13-19) gives the original organizational impetus, while he and his disciples were standing next to a massive rocky cliff, dotted with niches containing statues of pagan gods – a rock on which the city of Ceasarea Phillipi was built. On this occasion, as God had changed Abram’s name to Abraham, Jesus changed the Apostle Simon’s name to Peter, and promised that his Church, analogously to Ceasarea Phillipi, will be established on a rock (Cephas), the rock of Peter (Petrus as the masculine form of the Greek translation of Cephas). He also entrusts the very specific and non-reproducible keys to the Kingdom of Heaven to Peter.

Contemporary Protestant commentators tend to interpret Jesus’ words choosing Peter as the authority in his Church as inauthentic, inserted in the Gospel by Matthew to indicate the prevailing understanding of ecclesiastical authority in his time; or else, interpolating actual words spoken after Jesus’ Resurrection into a narrative concerning a particular event during Jesus’ ministry on earth.

The Interpreters One-Volume Commentary on the Bible works this vein hard:

• “The designation of Peter as ‘the rock’ does not view him as the first bishop of Rome and the founder of the Roman hierarchy, but as the first witness of the Resurrection and therefore as the prime apostolic witness that God raised Jesus from the dead.”
• “The word translated church (in Greek ekklesia) refers to the community of faith, not to an ecclesiastical organization as the church later of necessity came to be.”
• “The exercise of authority to bind and loose has to do with the regulation of the inner life of the community.”

In other words, in a Protestant construal, some necessary, but definitely non-hierarchical, organization is necessary to coordinate the development of the ecclesiastical community, preserving its unity and identity. But the “rock” is not Peter, just the “faith” of Peter.

This leads to all sorts of difficulties. Building up the church on the basis of faith as a subjective state, involving private interpretation of the Bible, has resulted in multiple divisions and denominations among non-Catholics (often accompanied by dissenting “Catholic” theologians and Scripture scholars), and their continuing disagreements regarding fundamental Christian doctrines and/or morals. The rock of Peter is buffeted by these swirling challenges, but has remained – for those not sitting on that ecclesial Gibraltar – irritatingly unmoved.

Howard Kainz, Emeritus Professor at Marquette University, is the author of twenty-five books on German philosophy, ethics, political philosophy, and religion, and over a hundred articles in scholarly journals, print magazines, online magazines, and op-eds. He was a recipient of an NEH fellowship for 1977-8, and Fulbright fellowships in Germany for 1980-1 and 1987-8. His website is at Marquette University.