Something Matt Allen said around minute 6 of Episode 5 of his Uncut podcast has been nagging at me. His conversation was with Pastor Brandon Lemois of the Community Covenant Church in Rehoboth, and Matt told an anecdote from his childhood that I think I’ve heard him tell in more detail before.
In summary, when he was a boy, he started out Catholic, but a priest told him during CCD that he’d have a dirty spot on his soul if he didn’t go to Mass, his outraged mother changed denominations. When he’s told the story in the past, I think Matt described the priest’s statement more as saying that we have dirty spots on our souls and go to Mass to have them cleaned off, which seems like a very mild bit of theological metaphor to force a family to change churches.
If religion has any truth to it, after all, then we can’t believe that we are spiritually spotless without it, or that we can achieve perfection without guidance.
What makes Matt’s joking about this anecdote particularly strange is that he repeats in Episode 5 an idea that’s been poking at him from every direction lately: that constraints bring freedom. You exercise to be strong, for example. You follow the rules of academic discipline in order to increase your knowledge to the point that you’re able to go where nobody has gone before, intellectually. You structure your life in a responsible manner so that you have a stable platform from which to truly experience life. If you learn the skills and discipline necessary to safely fly a helicopter, it can take you anywhere.
Following basic rules of hygiene is a critical part of freeing ourselves from the burden of illness. Why, then, would it be outrageous to present attendance at Mass as a necessary part of spiritual hygiene?
This comes down to a very theological principle. We accept God’s dominion because it makes us free. We’re freed of the world’s constraints for the feather-light burden of faith. We’re freed of the fear of death. We’re also freed of the fear of failing in our earthly endeavors. When we accept that God is in control, we can go out into uncharted land seeking converts. We can embark on the crazy project of making the world a better place, and in God’s eyes, we’re as good if it doesn’t work out as if it does because we made ourselves better.
If we’ve acknowledged our need for something greater and have done our best to find ways to overcome our weakness and tendency toward self-serving delusion, God is the ultimate parent proud that we did our best and were true to our family’s values. We need guidance and correction, however, to know what “best” is supposed to be and what our values are.