I’ve never been to Thailand. But a couple of weeks ago, I saw a Thai dance performance — the Pichet Klunchun Dance Company’s hourlong production of “Chui Chai,” described by Alistair Macaulay in The New York Times as a piece that “takes us from Thai traditions to Thai modernity.” The Lincoln Center promotional materials state, “Chui Chai, which means ‘transformation,’ was created to search for the moment that truth disappears in the present, the moment that one thing changes into another and something new arrives.”
Mr. Macaulay wrote,
At the start we see the gorgeous costumes, the masks, the pagodalike headdresses and the slow-motion, elaborate gestures of Thai classical dance…. By the end two of the dancers are in blue jeans (and one in denim hot pants)….
As I watched this transformation, I was struck not only by the dramatic change (from headdresses to blue jeans), but by what remained intact — a style of expression and movement vocabulary survived essentially unchanged, albeit in more modern clothing and context. Perhaps this symbolized something at the core of the Thai culture, which cannot be destroyed, even as it adjusts to a more modern environment.
This made me think about religious groups — in New York and beyond — which are experiencing a time of transformation, endeavoring to retain their core purpose while adjusting to modern culture. The Christian Science church would surely count itself among them.
This period of transformation — whether related to a national or a religious expression — inspires a need to understand the fundamental nature of that expression. In other words, as it applies to religious expression, what is a church?
“Church,” in Christian Science, is defined as:
The structure of Truth and Love; whatever rests upon and proceeds from divine Principle.
The Church is that institution, which affords proof of
its utility and is found elevating the race, rousing the
dormant understanding from material beliefs to the apprehension of spiritual ideas and the demonstration of
divine Science, thereby casting out devils, or error, and
healing the sick.
This suggests to me that church is an idea, not a building, not confined to a time or place. It may — and will — change forms, but it cannot be eliminated. The idea of church cannot disappear.
This is the basis from which I ponder the future of my own church and consider the myriad possibilities for its expression — in traditional face-to-face gatherings and online meetings, web-based discussions and lecture podcasts, tried-and-true hymns and 2010 compositions, Sunday School classes in the park and on Skype.
As I strive to embrace a religious transformation that retains the essence of church as an idea even as its outward expression adapts and changes, I recognize that Christian Scientists are not alone in this. There are New Yorkers of all faiths who love their religions and want to see them not only survive but thrive. We are all searching for ways to remain “relevant” — and not for selfish reasons, I believe, but with a desire to fulfill a higher purpose — that of serving all mankind. That motive will surely lead to solutions that bless all — and to the affirmation that church is an idea that cannot be destroyed.