On what terms can a religious activity be defended in a community if there is opposition from residents in close proximity to the religious center? One answer presented by the Abbot of a Thai Buddhist temple in Berkley California, is that it earns spiritual merit. The Wall Street Journal reports that the Wat Mongkolratanaram temple in Berkeley is reeking the ire of residents by offering a delicious feast every Sunday morning. Apparently residents are irked by the noise and disruption to this residential area. However, to the Buddhists who attend—particularly to those who volunteer to work in the temple serving the meal—this is crucial to their spiritual experience. According to Abbot Than Manas, voluntary service to the temple is a way to earn merit for this life and the next. Fair enough, you might say, that is their way to live, what right have we to interrupt? Especially if the state of their eternal life rests on serving Thai cuisine to Berkley's student population. However, it is the Abbott's comparison with Christian Sunday services which caught my eye. The Abbot says, “Our Sunday activity is pretty much like Christians going to church every Sunday. Without it, it would be very difficult for us to continue merit making.” The problem is that that is not why a Christian should be going to church on Sunday. A Christian understands that we cannot achieve any merit by our service, by our attendance at church, or by our adherence to moral standards. The merit we require is the merit which Jesus has. It is his merit which a Christian relies upon for his life and his eternity. We are given this merit freely by God. There is nothing we can do to earn it. Jesus supplies us with all the merit we need. Does this mean we don't serve? Absolutely not. In fact, our service—such as going to church, serving others and loving people—is not done in order to gain merit with God, but because we are so grateful for the gift God has given us. This is what the Christian calls worship.
A secondary concern I have with this comparison is the idea that something be regarded a religious activity if—for the person involved—it earns spiritual merit. What government would want to restrict activities which increase people's favor with their god? This would surely breach the boundary of freedom of religion. However, if I was running a public pot luck and was asked if my doing so was an act of earning merit. I would have to answer, “No.” If I was asked if, by removing my right to run a public potluck, I would put my eternal security in peril, I would also have to answer in the negative. If the idea that whether or not an activity is meritorious to salvation becomes the measure by which things are granted privilege in communities, the Christian church could not qualify. Freedom of religion should not be qualified in these terms, but in terms of the freedom to worship. For the Christian, acts of service, attending church and loving our neighbor are not acts which propitiate the wrath of God, but acts which express our gratitude for the gift of Christ who paid this debt to God on the cross so we don't have to.
Fowler, Geoffrey A. "Brunch as a Religious Experience is Disturbing Berkley's Karma." The Wall Street Journal 10 Feb. 2009: 1+.