When I was young, I thought going to church with perfect attendance was like checking a box that would get me to heaven. But as I became a teenager, my friends started having questions and doubts that sprouted questions of my own: “Why should I go? What are these teachings really saying? Are they worth accepting?” So I began to explore for answers, and in doing so I found a new way to view church that has changed me from a bored listener to an active participant. That is, church as a philosophy class.
Your PTSD from Philosophy 101 may have you drooling right now, but what I found was a more personal philosophy class. Every time I went to church I heard readings from a text and then heard a trained expert interpret them, except instead of Aristotle it was the Bible. Same as in class, I didn’t just listen — I thought through and evaluated the lessons. But these lessons were specific and could be applied to my daily life. There were moments when I faced a rather aggressive problem and could think to myself, “It might be a good time to turn the other cheek.” And I found that, just like in philosophy class, putting in the work to understand the teachings led to a truer understanding.
In church, it’s very easy to doze off and daydream. There’s a reason why everyone says “thanks be to God” at the end of the mass. So, I slowly trained myself to make focusing easier and even interesting. Similarly to how I kept myself focused in class (“I’ll answer a question, and then I can zone out for a few minutes”) I started telling myself, “If I listen during the readings, I can daydream during the songs.” Then each week I added something like, “After each reading, put the message in your own words.” Oh, so the ten coins are God’s gifts to us, like our talents. And we have to go out and use them, or else we’re wasting them. Ok, I’ll practice guitar today instead of video games. You win this one, God.
But that’s just in church. Outside of it I’ve found that doing my own personal reading and thinking makes church even more valuable. Sometimes it takes my own investigation of Wikipedia (or other scholarly sources) to really grasp a philosophical concept from class and get the full background of the philosopher. Just the same, doing some extra reading outside of church gives me some fresh insight and background on the teachings. Reading religious texts, texts by religious writers and even anti-religious texts can be useful — they all lead to more questions, more exploration and then more understanding.
And I find that the best way to move toward understanding and insight is by discussing with friends. Chatting with classmates has always led me to a better understanding and perspective on class material, and that’s equally true with friends when it comes to understanding personal and spiritual material. We talk about our theories and questions, and we push each other to really understand our own beliefs. To me, that’s the greatest benefit of discussion: An idea may sound good in my head, but when discussing it with others, especially angsty teenagers, they challenge me and force me to truly understand what I’m saying.
Me: “X is true”
Angsty Teen: “Why?”
Me: “Because I was taught that.”
Angsty Teen: “But that doesn’t prove anything. What proof do you have?”
Me: (Tongue promptly falls onto floor.)
If life were only pass/fail, I could just check my box and stare at the wall. But the more I work at it, the more I find the coursework is actually pretty interesting.