“Is the church true?”
This question is, I think, poorly posed. It seems ill-suited to the kind of existential burn that might compel me to ask it. It seems like a bad fit for what I’m after in a white-knuckled prayer.
It’s not that the question is “wrong” or that it couldn’t be answered affirmatively.
No, the problem is that it’s too thin. It’s not a load-bearing question. It’s too narrow a thing to support the weight of the lives I’d be staking on it.
Framed like this, it’s an institutional question. It’s a question fit for answering certain kinds of (inevitable) institutional needs. It smells like bureaucracy. Like correlation in general, it filters the gospel through an institutional lens and then systematically highlights what seems best for maintaining and reproducing that institution. (Which, often, can be a good thing if, like me, you care about maintaining and reproducing the institution.)
But, more, it also feels like an Amway-esque question. It feels like the kind of question that’s meant to set an enormous apparatus of decisive inferences in motion — a deductive pyramid scheme where if X is true, then A, B, C, D, and E must also be necessarily affirmed — that will, with one fell swoop, reduce the scope of life to the span of just that one question and, thus, answer everything all at once and once and for all.
In this respect, it doesn’t have the feel of a question that’s meant to be used as a question. It feels, instead, like the kind of question you’re meant to ask when you already know the answer. It feels inherently rhetorical. It feels like the kind of question a missionary is supposed to ask Mr. Brown, a Boolean question meant to force a binary response.
The problem with these vast institutional machines of deduction and inference is that they tend to be super fragile. One cog comes loose, the whole thing groans and grinds to a halt. The wagered “all” of its “all or nothing!” risks, without further consideration, simply returning “nothing.”
It’s in this sense especially that the question seems to me to be much too thin to dependably accomplish real religious work.
The question has just two foci: church and truth. That is, it’s a religious question that, when prioritized, implicitly assumes (1) that the religious question is fundamentally institutional in character (which church?), and (2) that the religious question is also fundamentally epistemological and veridical in character (which X is correct?).
When prioritized, it implicitly assumes that the decisive question in a religious life takes just this form: the verification of institutional bona fides.
This aims too much at an office building. And it aims too exclusively at the head.
Now, I’m not arguing that verification isn’t important and I’m certainly not arguing that the institutional church shouldn’t be sustained.
But I am arguing that making the whole thing turn on our evaluation of “the truthfulness of the church” is not the best way to approach a religious life or to sustain the institution. To do so is to ask the institution to bear a spiritual weight that it cannot – and was not designed to – bear.
Only Christ can bear the weight of any question that deserves to occupy the center of a religious life. If you want to get the right kind of answer about the church, don’t ask about the church. Ask about Christ.
If your life itself depends on the question, then ask a question that is rich enough to cover the whole rich span of that (messy, unfinished, broken, vulnerable) life.
Don’t ask the thin question: “Is the Church true?”
Ask the thick question: “Is this the body of Christ?” Is Christ manifest here? Is this thing alive? Does it bleed?
This is a load-bearing question. This is a question properly fitted, by Christ himself, to address the existential burn that compels its asking.
This is a question that is big enough to not only address issues of veridicality, but the whole of the head and the whole of the heart. And not just these, but the arms, legs, feet, fingers, toes, spleen, bowels, and loins. The body of Christ includes them all. It includes the beautiful and the ugly, the public and the private, the desirable and the foul, the lost and the found.
Inquire into the body of Christ itself.
And then say:
“Though I may not even know what it means to ask if the church is true, I’d stake my life (and the lives of my children) on the fact that Christ’s body is manifest here and that we are its members.”