What should requirements be to join a community of faith?
Must you agree with every single officially stated bit of doctrine? Must you pledge financial support? Must you promise to follow the group's leaders?
Or can you simply express a serious interest in knowing more as you walk through the membership door, on the theory that no one can know it all at the start and that faith is always a journey?
This is a good day to ask such questions because it was on this date in 1750 that the Congregational Church in Northampton, Mass., dismissed its pastor, the now-famous Jonathan Edwards (pictured here), because of a dispute over the requirements for membership (and over who could take communion). Edwards, who had served the congregation for 23 years, took a quite rigid and restrictive view about the rules for joining and receiving the sacrament of Holy Communion. Most of the church, by contrast, wanted less-restrictive rules.
These kinds of debates continue to occur in Christian churches, to greater and lesser extents. And my guess is that something like these debates occur in other faiths as well.
Over the years in my own church, we often have pretty much just let people join without many requirements except to express their commitment to core Christian theology. At other times, we have run rather extensive classes that prepare people for the responsibilities of membership. I tend to lean toward the latter approach on the theory that if you don't have both a good understanding of our theology and a commitment to be part of our community, you may simply disappear out the back door before long.
Membership, in other words, should mean something and new members should have a good grasp of just what that meaning is. I'd probably not be as strict as Jonathan Edwards no doubt was, but being a serious follower of a religion is hard, life-changing, transformative work. And not much of that is going to happen if new members think of it as similar to joining the book-of-the-month club.
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PICK A FIGHT WITH THE DALAI LAMA?
Is the Dalai Lama a pacifist? Uh, not so fast. This interesting piece discusses Buddhism's varied approaches to the question of violence and, in particular, the Dalai Lama's own thoughts. This is one more example of why it's important to remember that the world is almost always more complex than we imagine it to be.
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THE BOOK CORNER
Forged in Faith: How Faith Shaped the Birth of the Nation, 1607-1776, by Rod Gragg. Even today this question often gets bandied about in public: Is America a Christian nation? I would argue the answer is no, but that doesn't mean that faith -- specifically Christianity -- didn't play a crucial role in the formation of the United States. Indeed, it did. It was the spiritual atmosphere in which America was born. Rod Gragg, a journalist, author and historian, describes that reality in considerable detail as he describes America's 170-year pre-history starting with the Jamestown settlement. It's a fascinating story and one that too often nowadays gets either forgotten or misrepresented by people who don't want it to be true or twisted in pursuit of a religious America that doesn't exist now and never quite did -- a purely Christian America. But the values that helped shape the country are described here, and it's important that we not lose the story of those values.