September 7

Belief, Works, Cult

By Marsh Chapel

In what senses are you religious? The modern world usually identifies religion with belief, on the one hand, and religiously defined good works on the other. When you ask what people’s religion is, most often you do so by asking about their religious beliefs. When you are in crisis about your own religion, most often it is because you doubt what you think you are supposed to believe.

On the other hand, we all know people of deep piety whose belief system is embarrassingly simple-minded and confused. For most of us, our grandparents were like that and, for many of us, we ourselves were like that only months ago. Yet we know that the sincerity of such simple-minded faith frequently characterizes saints who are self-sacrificing, deeply attentive to the needs of others, committed to steady support of family, unflagging in work, loyal to friends, and filled with joy, hope, peace, and love. St. Paul said these virtues are marks of the Holy Spirit. Most of us, in practice, follow the author of The Letter of James in the pragmatic definition of the religious life: it’s what you do that counts and that also is the clue to what you really believe deep down, below the level of conscious thought and choice. So two ways are commonly used to think about being religious: belief, and good works.

A third way to identify a person’s religion, however, is by looking at that person’s cult. “Cult” is a word with bad connotations for some people for whom it refers to a radical sect that steals people away from their home culture and brainwashes them into a new and narrow culture. The basic meaning of the word, however, is simply education, the taking on of a culture or way of life by practising its elements. We “cultivate” the educated life in the University by practices such as lectures and classes, research and study, use of the library and laboratory, coffee-breaks and informal discussions, artistic productions and athletic fanaticism, all-night arguments and exam-cramming, attending conferences, writing grant proposals, publishing papers, celebrating academic successes, especially in relation to Harvard, and telling congratulatory stories about what good teachers, students, and staff members we are. Individually these practices have their pragmatic purposes. Collectively they are rituals that inculturate us into the deep patterns of critical academic life. As we follow those practices as rituals, our habitual behavior and thought become patterned by them.

So it is with religion. People who have no practiced pattern of life for relating to ultimate matters have disorganized religion, or no religion, even if they have religious beliefs and do good works associated with religious people. Those people stumble on ultimate matters of life and death haphazardly, unprepared on the deep levels of habitual behavior and thought.

St. Augustine, who lived in the fourth and fifth centuries, was one of the greatest of all Christian theologians. He was also the first person to write an autobiography, which he called his “Confessions.” The drama of his autobiography centered on his conversion to Christianity. Raised a Christian by his pious mother, he had strayed to other religions and distinctly non-Christian practices. He struggled with the intellectual content of Christian belief relative to other beliefs and could find no decisive argument. He also struggled with whether to give up his licentious but enjoyable life. The crisis came to a head one day when he and a friend were in a garden anguishing over whether to convert. Augustine heard some children on the other side of the wall singing “take and read, take and read.” He picked up a Bible that was open to Romans 13:14 where Paul said to “put on Christ.” The theologian Carl Vaught has shown that the Latin words were those used for a young man putting on the robe that marked manhood and citizenship.1 Augustine took that to mean that he should put on the clothing of a Christian, as it were, to vest himself in the Christian way of life, and to enter into the cultic practice of Christianity.

What did that mean for him? It meant taking up the Christian practices of worship and prayer, leaving his friends who could not tolerate that, and befriending Christians and those who were supportive of his vesting himself in the Christian cult. It meant reading the Bible, participating in the rituals of the Church through the liturgical calendar, and observing the sacraments of the Church. In quick time Augustine was ordained a priest and then a bishop. For decades he administered a diocese in Hippo in North Africa and was one of the most prolific theological writers of all times in any religion.

He “put on” the Christian way and, clothed in the Christian cult, worked out the belief contents of his faith. Augustine was one of the most rigorous, critical, questioning, and creative thinkers ever, and his theology is a root inheritance of Western Christianity, Roman Catholic and Protestant. He never pretended to believe something he really doubted. But his theology was worked out within the context of the cultic practice of Christian life. The cultic practice of Christianity gave him the freedom to question, doubt, and explore beyond the then boundaries of Christian belief.

The cultic practice most common to Christians around the world and from the beginning is the Eucharist, which we are about to celebrate. The form of its celebration varies, and we shall follow a liturgy derived from the United Methodist tradition. Participating in the Eucharistic liturgy shapes the soul, no matter what you might be thinking about on a conscious level. Repeated participation is a bones-and-muscle education in the deep grammar of Christian life. We have no rules here about who can take communion, not even that you have to be baptized, only that you should understand it to be a way of putting on the Christian life like a garment marking emerging maturity and citizenship in the Church.

The Eucharist is a liturgical rite with many layers of intertwined meaning resonating together to shape the cultivation of Christian character and community. First and foremost it combines symbols of death—Jesus’ spilt blood and broken body—with symbols of renewed life—the elements are food for life. Crucifixion and resurrection go together in many senses for Christian vision and practice. Second, the Eucharist symbolizes the universal table of Christians all over the world, even those whose civilizations are incomprehensible to us and whose nations are our enemies: more important than our differences is that we have all put on Christ and eat at his table. The Eucharist has many other levels of meaning, but perhaps the most disturbing is that it is a symbolic cannibal ritual in which we eat the symbols of Jesus’ flesh and blood. What could be so serious in life that we are drawn to consume symbolic flesh and blood? I’ll talk about that and other levels of meaning in the Eucharist on other occasions. But know for now that you have no more serious business with God than what is addressed symbolically by participation in the Eucharistic celebration. The Eucharist in the Christian cult is practice at being right with God.

So today I invite you to the Table. Come, you who are saints, to this cultic part of the Christian life that deepens your character and community: you shouldn’t miss this opportunity. Come, you who are Christian by mere custom and social arrangement: here your Christianity becomes more serious. Come, you who have fallen away from Christian practice because of boredom, or because of disagreement concerning belief or the direction of moral efforts, or because of guilt at moral failings: with this act you put on the Chr
istian way again and all the exciting power of thought and action are yours anew in freedom. Come, you who are considering the Christian way: try on our clothes and see how they feel. Come, you who are confused, self-hating, angry, despairing, fearful, lonely, loveless, or lost: come to this table and for at least a moment put on a Way of life that promises direction, forgiveness, joy, hope, courage, companionship, love, and a home in God.

We celebrants are not personally worthy to offer you these elements, and so we dress in liturgical disguises, vestments of the Christian cult. You, beloved, can come as you are.


-The Rev. Dr. Robert Cummings Neville

1 See Carl G. Vaught, “Theft and Conversion: Two Augustinian Confessions,” in The Recovery of Philosophy in America: Essays in Honor of John Edwin Smith, edited by Thomas P. Kasulis and Robert Cummings Neville (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1997), especially p. 241.

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