By Cole Hartin
I’ve curated my life so I do not have to be bothered with things and people I don’t already like. My hunch is that if you are under forty-five years old or so, you have too.
Let me explain:
My iPhone is set up to play music that I listen to, artists who sound like artists I listen to, or music I actively search for. I don’t listen to the radio unless I am driving and want to hear local news.
I eat food that I already like, and I buy groceries that I am already familiar with.
Instead of browsing the bookstore, I order books from online retailers. I try to keep this to Canadian outfits when I can, but I only buy the books I want to read, and don’t spend time thumbing through those I don’t.
I have a list of shows I like to watch on cue with Netflix. Occasionally I will try something new on a whim, but if I don’t like it, within minutes, I just find something else.
When I want to hear someone’s perspective on a given subject, I listen to a podcast. If I don’t like what the speaker is saying, I turn to another podcast.
I am part of several special interest groups on Facebook. If I were not in agreement with most of the content within each group, I wouldn’t be part of it.
Politically, I can keep to conversation with those who share my views and commiserate with them.
I could go on.
All of this works pretty well for me. When I think too deeply about the possibility that I’m living in an echo-chamber, I become a little nervous, but I don’t have to think about that too much. I like what I like, and generally I am content to keep this unchallenged.
As I said, I think most people who have grown up with or adapted to the modern world have the same experience. We surround ourselves with what we like, and we minimize our contact with what we don’t.
In a very real sense this is unavoidable for most of us unless we plan a radical retreat from technology. Most of us use cell phones, most of have the choice of where we shop, most of us use social media. We are faced with limitless choice in every direction, and so to establish some boundaries with respect to our preferences save us the exhausting work of remaking similar choices every day.
But how do we make sense of the Church in a world like this? More specifically, how do we make sense of the parish church in a world like this?
Along with rest of our lives, it easy to fabricate a spiritual enclave in which we can live without encountering anything we don’t like.
There are two ways we can do this.
The first involves making the parish into a special interest group. Parishes formed around this model will be small by necessity, and they will be stacked with those who are like us, to the greatest degree possible. There is no room for orthodoxy or authority because we have to opt-in to these groups, and if something rubs us the wrong way, if we find something disagreeable, we can easily opt-out.
This first way of fabricating a spiritual enclave is a temptation for parishes. At its best, it might tend toward a monastic rule of life that is taken up by a congregation. However, most often, it becomes another form of niche marketing. “Hey, come to our church, St. Swithun’s, we have incense and chanting. You’re into that kind of stuff, right?”
Or, “I know you like newer music and don’t love liturgy; folks at our parish don’t dress up and our coffee’s pretty good. You’d like it.”
In any case, the diversity of parish life is lost in an attempt to create a particular ecclesial culture.
The second way we can develop a spiritual enclave is by ditching parishes for personal spirituality. In the same way we curate the rest of out lives, we can cobble together a spirituality that makes sense for us. We can experiment to develop the recipe that is “just right.” A dash of morning prayer, a theological podcast now and then, a few sessions with a counsellor or spiritual director, an annual protest, and perhaps Mass for Christmas Eve. Theology is easily flexed to fit with what we like. This way of remaking the parish retains a role for local congregations, but they are only ever present when we want them to serve some spiritual need.
The problem with this, however, is that it robs parochial life of its substance. It also makes a nuisance out of children, who will neither legitimize our preferences nor serve as elements in our personal spirituality program.
The parish is one of the last holdouts in a society that is being remade to fit the preferences of as many individuals as possible. The parish is the Church in a geographic area, gathered for worship. It includes the young and old, the rich and poor, people of different backgrounds, all drawn together by their Lord by virtue of baptism. It’s the place for inquirers to see Christian community up close.
I wonder sometimes if the loss of parochial life is one reason for the disintegration of most churches in North America. Perhaps it’s not that these churches have failed to preach the Gospel, or that they have been complicit in some kind of corruption. Perhaps it’s not because they have failed to articulate the good news of Christ afresh. Perhaps they’ve become an inconvenience, stubbornly resistant to our curated lives.
The Church persists as it always has, with people we don’t get along with. Its old theology continues resilient to our protestations against it. The sacraments remain tangibly present, with no hope of digitizing them, or tailoring them to our desires. Scripture continues to be read with its difficult words we would rather not hear. Thanks be to God.
The Rev. Dr. Cole Hartin is assistant curate at St. Luke’s in Saint John, New Brunswick.