Of Robots and Cathedrals

Consider two news stories from across the Atlantic.

Wales — Discussing his new book on the cathedrals of England, author Simon Jenkins observes that cathedrals have become much more popular than churches in the U.K. The reason, he asserts, is that cathedrals “are responding to people’s desire for something that they might call spiritual. They are meditative, they are buildings where people find peace…in the music and the spirit.” Jenkins continues: “If you go to a cathedral now it’s anonymous. People can’t see you reading. No one shakes you by the hand, no one says, ‘Peace be upon you.’ I asked a canon [a cathedral official] once why cathedrals are doing so well; he said, ‘Unlike churches, we don’t bang on about God.’”

Germany — As part of an exhibition marking the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, a church in Wittenberg, Germany has unveiled a “robot priest.” The robot, dubbed “BlessU-2,” is programmed to dispense verbal blessings selected by parishioners via a touchpad screen on its chest. As one writer describes it, “The boxy, metallic thing looks like something from a 1950s sci-fi film, and moves like one, too. A video of BlessU-2 in action shows it slowly raise its arms over its head, gears whirring, before it blurts out a pre-recorded blessing in German.”

What do these two stories have in common? For one thing, they both suggest that many people are seeking a spiritual experience that doesn’t require interacting with others. They want to pursue God in a way that’s as personal, private, independent, and anonymous as possible. Spirituality is simply another product to be consumed, like a Big Mac or a gallon of gas or an online movie rental. Those things all can be obtained with little or no human contact — so why not spiritual satisfaction, too? You can go to the cathedral and just meditate; the people there won’t bother you, since they all came to do likewise. Just press an icon on the touchscreen and receive the blessing of the robot priest, comforted in knowing that you’ll be undisturbed by anyone’s banging on about God.

One huge problem with such an approach is that the Bible does not present Christianity as a purely individual pursuit. Yes, each of us is individually accountable to God and individually responsible for our thoughts, choices, and actions (2 Corinthians 5:10; Romans 14:12). Yes, there is much about discipleship that is intensely personal. But God has also shown that there is much He wants disciples to do together.

In the book of Acts, nearly every time we read of the gospel being preached in a community, we also read that those who responded in faith banded together as a congregation. In several cases, the text details things those disciples did in their connection with one another. More than half of the New Testament epistles (plus the book of Revelation) were addressed to a specific church or churches or were written to a preacher concerning his work with a specific church or churches. Nearly every epistle contains instructions about Christians’ responsibilities in their fellowship with one another, including their interpersonal relationships, their organization as a local church, the conduct of their assemblies, and more.

In fact, implicit throughout the New Testament is the message that Christians need each other. We see it in Paul’s description of the church as a body, with the various parts having different functions, but all interconnected and contributing to the body’s health and growth (see 1 Corinthians 12:12-26; Romans 12:4-5). We see it in passages emphasizing our mutual duties to “love one another,” (John 13:34), “be devoted to one another” (Romans 12:10), “bear one another’s burdens” (Galatians 6:2), “confess your faults to one another and pray for one other” (James 5:16), “bear with one another and forgive each other” (Colossians 3:13), “comfort one another” (1 Thessalonians 4:18), “serve one another” (Galatians 5:13), “live in peace with one another” (1 Thessalonians 5:13), “teach and admonish one another’ (Colossians 3:16), “be hospitable to one another” (1 Peter 4:9), “stir up one another to love and good works” (Hebrews 10:24), and more. Passages such as these reveal not only my duties toward other Christians, but also the blessings I receive from fellowship with them. I miss out on those blessings if I view my discipleship through a narrow lens of self-service.

A personal observation: I think I see a bit of that longing for a private, anonymous Christianity in some of my own brethren. Some are diligent to attend worship assemblies even as they steadfastly refuse to become part of any local congregation, viewing it as a needless burden. Some who are members of a local church show no commitment to their spiritual family beyond an occasional appearance on Sunday morning and an occasional check in the offering plate. Other than that, they’re invisible, maybe even unreachable. I fail to see how that’s very much different from the cathedral mindset that Jenkins discussed.

Someone might object, “Have there not been occasions in history when a lone Christian somewhere, unable to have contact with other disciples, still served God acceptably?” I imagine there have been. But being unable is different from being unwilling. An anonymous, solitary spirituality, whether sought in cathedrals or robot clergy or something else, is not what God intends for us. Spiritual life is a relationship, not a commodity; and fellowship with God means fellowship with His people. He wants to bless you through them, and He wants to bless them through you.