Should Religion Be Hard?: A Response to Tom Ehrich

Last month, Tom Ehrich published an article in the Washington Post asking whether communities of faith were making religion too hard. His conclusion? Yes.

Ehrich concedes that some aspects of faith are inherently hard. Taking our own weaknesses seriously, leaning into a prophetic voice, and trying to be a person of faith in a consumerist culture are all hard. But, Ehrich counters, communities of faith shouldn’t be making these problems worse with “conflicts about who is running things, budget anxieties, jousting over opinion or doctrine, or relentless demonizing of whoever is trying to lead.” In short, no community or God has “much need for religious institutions grounded in right-opinion, self-serving and systemic danger.”

Ehrich is right on about how communities of faith should live. They should be places of exploration, curiosity, and honesty. They should be places defined more by service than exclusion, more by corporate prayer than bureaucratic processes. I think you would be hard pressed to find someone who disagrees with Ehrich’s basic argument. But what Ehrich doesn’t address is why many communities of faith don’t operate that way and what they can do to get there. That’s the harder question to answer.

Ehrich ascribes some of this to human “brokenness,” but the larger issue seems to be deeply entrenched cultural values, unresolved conflicts, and personal fears that we carry with us. Ehrich suggests that faith communities “should be different from society.” But they aren’t. They’re deeply affected by cultural norms, accidents of history, and societal trends. What we need are not faith communities that think they can exist outside of society, but faith communities that look critically at society’s effect on them and, perhaps more importantly, their own effect on society.

Ehrich goes on to lament communities and clergy who “celebrate our own cruelty and bigotry” and “fight against the very transformation that God seeks.” Instead, Ehrich envisions clergy who build conflict-free communities that are inclusive, progressive, and accepting. But that binary doesn’t describe how the vast majority of faith communities function. It is a rare clergy-person who can hold together a community that is both diverse and free of conflict. The way towards more inclusive communities of faith isn’t through trying to avoid conflict but by becoming more skilled at working through conflict.

Ehrich is exactly right about what communities of faith should aspire to be. But getting there won’t be as easy as Ehrich’s piece suggests. Communities of faith will need to figure out how to maintain their traditions while reaching out to underrepresented communities. They’ll need to figure out what unsaid expectations are being placed on clergy. And, most importantly, they’ll need to learn to manage their conflict in a healthy way.

That’s a tall order. Ehrich is right on that “society needs healthy faith communities.” But faith communities won’t be able to get there without clergy and lay people that work through the ambiguities, shortcomings, and conflicts that underlie our life together. Religion should be easy, but it’s not. What we need is leaders who don’t just see what could be, but have a vision for how to get there.

 

Photo courtesy flickr user rutty

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4 thoughts on “Should Religion Be Hard?: A Response to Tom Ehrich

  1. Joseph,

    Thanks for your article. I like Ehrich’s quote that religious communities should move beyond “conflicts about who is running things, budget anxieties, jousting over opinion or doctrine, or relentless demonizing of whoever is trying to lead.” He seems to be focusing on institutionalized religions? (I hope that I am correct in assuming this). Additionally, I really resonate with the idea that religious communities “should be different from society.”

    Taking these two concepts together, do you think that the problem is structural? What I mean to say is that the first quote seems to critique the bureaucratic aspects of a majority of American religious communities (e.g. budgets, leadership, and possibly even doctrines). What if religious communities could restructure themselves more like a co-operative instead of like a corporation? This would satisfy the second quote’s vision of being different than society. With a restructuring, what would be the possibilities for religious communities to collaborate with others through conflict and “reaching out to underrepresented communities?”

    Again, thanks for posting.

    terry

  2. Dear Joseph,

    Wonderful response!

    I’m reminded of something written by the 20th century Jewish theologian Abraham Joshua Heschel: “Religion, the end of isolation, begins with the consciousness that something is asked of us. It is in that tense, eternal asking in which the soul is caught and in which man’s answer is elicited.” Religion should be difficult but in positive ways, for it makes claims on both our spirit and our deeds. Infighting, corruption and intolerance are deeply problematic for institutions of faith, particularly in a modern world in which religious affiliation is largely a choice, not a fact. To this list I might also add highlight a lack of inter-denominational dialogue and indiscreet triumphalism, a problems all to common in my Jewish community. Religion is powerful force that can inspire and ennoble us. We should not be afraid to challenge one another or the society that surrounds us, but it must be done in the spirit of giving and from a place of deep respect.

    Sincerely,
    Ariel

  3. Dear Joseph!
    Thank you for the interesting commentary. I think it very important and I personally resonate with your perspective. An interesting issue that I see rising from your article is the designation of the religious community. Is it to provide religious services or rather to facilitate encounter, be an integral part of life, where interactions and management rely on the foundational principle of having some common ethical or religious background?

    I agree that the first option, in which the community becomes a provider of religious services, may empty it of life. In this case there is much less participation of members, they are always a passive audience and the result is much weaker. To allow internalization of principles there must be active participation. And human participation means, among other things, conflicts. Once these conflicts happen as part of a conversation with common values, ethics and vision, they can be constructive and strengthening.

    Rabbis are often referred to as “morenu ve’rabenu” – Hebrew for “our teacher and Rabbi”. We are first of all educators, who actively try to form our societies. Often due to circumstances, we find ourselves in situations where people come to ask for services rather than to have a formative experience within the community framework. This might confuse us to think that this is our designation. But I believe that while we should include and not expect everyone to form a congregation, we can’t let this diminish the vision. Our vision can not be just to perform nice ceremonies, but rather to form a real, live congregation.

    You said that the community should be connected with what happens “outside”. I can’t agree more. The Talmud tells us that we shouldn’t pray in a room without windows. Even in the midst of spiritual introspection one can’t be disconnected from what happens outside.

    Ishar Koach! Well said!

  4. Dear Joseph
    Thank you for the interesting commentary. I think it very important and actual and personally resonate with your perspective. An interesting issue that I see rising from your article is the designation of the religious community. Is it to provide religious services or rather to facilitate encounter, be an integral part of life, where interactions and management rely on the foundational principal of having some common ethical or religious background?
    I agree that the first option, in which the community becomes a provider of religious services may empty it of life. In this case there is much less participation of members, they are always passive audience and the result is much weaker. To allow internalization of principles there must be active participation. And human participation means, among other things, conflicts. Once these conflicts happen as part of a conversation with common values, ethics and vision, even if they’re difficult they can be constructive and strengthening.
    Rabbis are often referred to as “morenu ve’rabenu” – Hebrew for “our teacher and Rabbi”. We are first of all educators, who actively try to form our societies. Often because of circumstances, social occurrences and developments we find ourselves in situations where people come to ask for services rather than to have a forming experience within the community framework. This might confuse us to think that this is our designation. But I believe that while we should include and not expect everyone to form a congregation, we can’t let this diminish the vision. Our vision can not be just to perform nice ceremonies , but rather to form a real, live congregation.
    You said that the community should be connected with what happens “outside”. I can’t agree more. The Talmud (the book which interprets the Jewish orally transmitted tradition / bible) tells us that we shouldn’t pray in a room without windows. Even in the midst of spiritual introspection one can’t be disconnected from what happens outside.
    Well Said, Yshar koach!

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