I think there are two basic ways into a faith community, otherwise known as a religion: to be born into it or to migrate into it. If one is born into faith, the hold it has on one is either focused on social-cultural and ritual aesthetic values or on intellectual-conceptual ones, or sometimes, eventually both. Migration can be by either of those two pathways, as well, although doctrines and belief structures may play a greater role in one’s decision to join a faith community if the decision comes later in life.
It is my observation that for the majority of people born in a faith community, the theology or philosophical core of the faith is a framework upon which the cultic and social activities are draped and validated. The power and attraction of the religion is derived from the celebrations. The celebrations make mention of certain beliefs usually commemorating an event in the life of the central character of the religion, which, in turn, are symbolized in strongly cultural forms. The hold on adherents is also increased if those celebrations are community-social events and if the adherent is deeply engrafted in the community.
Christmas is coming. Let that be an example.
For people born and raised in Christianity, Christmas is exciting. It is all about the birth of Jesus symbolized in such cultural things as Christmas trees, Christmas carols and Christmas presents. Recalling and appreciating the theological issues takes a second level of effort. But for a recent convert to Christianity the whole idea of Jesus being born the Son of God may be much more central, and the rest is cultural and traditional decoration (the way “true Christians” and theologians insist it should be).
The path into philosophical conviction is steep. Few outsiders make it into faith that way. That’s what’s wrong with letting theologians and philosophers design and control the pathways and gateways into a religion. What they design is more likely to be elevated and without ladders. But if it is left up to a social group, like a family, they will have you decorating Christmas trees before anything else.
Rev. Dr. Kenneth Dobson posts his weekly reflections on this blog.