Why anything (when religion is blamed for this world’s problems)?
For many of us, we rarely consider why we believe. We’ve spent countless hours mulling over what we believe, we’ve rationalized how we’re going to live out our faith life, some of us needing church weekly, others connecting just a few times a year if at all, and still some others just content to have a Christian burial when we die.
But why we believe is a powerfully unasked question.
Why in the face of rising antagonism to religion, do we find ourselves mysteriously and powerfully drawn to this journey? Why is Christianity still relevant today? For our journey through Lent, we will consider these questions and more, and as we begin, it’s good to talk about religion as a whole, as it has been much maligned.
It’s a very post (or post post) modern thing to abandon (religious) institutions, though it’s been brewing for the last couple hundred years. At the dawning of the Age of Enlightenment, the rise of science and industry moved religion out of the cultural and political arenas to a predominantly private matter. If you had faith, it manifested primarily personal ways, and had little to do with your corporate or societal life. It’s what you did on Sundays. And I’m ok with that.
For a long time, especially when Christianity acted out of an Empire mindset, there was no end to our religion’s power, seeing no problem to create laws that benefited us, and maligned those outside the faith. Religion hampered science (Galileo and Copernicus and Darwin) when new understandings of our place in the universe didn’t match up with Biblical truths. Religion had the power to both inspire and control art. The separation of church and state was needed, because just as we see in other spheres of life, the liberated oppressed often becomes the oppressor. We didn’t learn from the early days of Christianity when martyrs died for their beliefs; we rose to power and created martyrs in the quest to protect our beliefs. Thus over the last two to three hundred years, we have been relieved of this power to the last hundred years. While there was a resurgence in faith around the years of the world wars and the great depression, by the 1960s, an antiestablishment movement gave rise to the questioning of the infallibility of churches, and the further movement of religion to the sidelines of our lives. Speaking particularly about Christianity, the surfacing of the horrors of residential schools (run primarily by Christians) and the abuse scandals of priests and ministers, what our faith has become seems unrelated to the compassion and protection of the vulnerable preached by Jesus. I read about the Westboro Baptist Church, the KKK, and all those other interpretations of Christianity through the lens of hatred, and wonder if we’re reading the same Bible. When I hear those stories, I get defensive. That’s not the Christianity that I follow…that’s not the faith I try to practice…that’s not the community of which I am a part.
At least we know what it feels like to be a person of the Islamic faith who reads the papers when another person claims to be acting upon their faith while destroying lives. The majority of terrorist attacks in recent memory have had a religious affiliation, and have given people yet one more reason to fear religion. The perpetrators of these attacks, not all but most, claim that they’re acting on behalf of their religion, acting on behalf of their Islamic faith, as they take lives and cause destruction. The rest, white supremacy groups, seemingly don’t fit the narrative of fearing the stranger, our neighbours (because they look so much like us).
Karen Armstrong wrote a powerful book entitled Fields of Blood: Religion and the History of Violence, in response to this problem of religion’s seeming interconnectedness with hatred.
Her thesis in very simple terms is that humans are humans, and it is powerfully difficult to rise above our animal-like instincts when defending that which is ours. And that while it looks like religion is to blame for the sorrows of the world, it’s just one in a long list of reasons that cause destruction. Nationalism and territorialism (the defense of borders and territory), economic implications, and protectionism all played a part in recent wars – they weren’t fought for religious reasons, we weren’t fighting over the divinity of Christ, nor Crusading against those demonized by religious leaders. The closest thing that might be a religious war in the last many years might be the conflict between Israel and Palestine, but even calling it that simplifies an overly complicated mixture of religious and political reasons.
Armstrong goes on to say that what pushes most division, especially most terrorists to attack others because of their “so called faith” is not what the faith teaches, but an underlying despondency with life and their need to find meaning in it. If I take a life, if I bomb a race in Boston, if I drive a truck through a crowd of people, if I fly a plane into some towers, if I shoot up a theatre full of people wanting to see a movie, or if I shoot up a school, or a mosque…for a brief moment people will know my name. They will see my face on the news. I won’t be someone that is forgotten by the world. There will be a Wikipedia page for me. And that desperation is found in people around the globe and in all religions and none. To be known. To be (in)famous.
Human desperation and our need to be loved is universal.
I think it bears stressing that religion encourages us to treat others as we desire to be treated, the Golden Rule occurring in almost all religions, and I wouldn’t think it would be crop up so often, if we didn’t need that reminder so desperately. It’s telling that we’ve all faced this struggle with our human nature and our need to treat others with compassionate. We learn it as a part of our faith, we struggle with it day in and day out. If listening only to our nature, our DNA, we would take every opportunity to turn stones to bread, we would push our luck and seize power that is not ours (Matthew 4). These baser human drives fared our ancestors well when coming up against aggressors, but today, faced with our temptations, we’re taught a better way. It’s easy to hear this story from the Gospel of Matthew, and get all hung up on the words the devil, and Satan, as if it’s some little red guy with horns and a pitchfork.
Instead, these temptations assault us daily.
The person dieting hears that little voice as they walk through the grocery store “it’s only one chocolate bar…” the person investing their money hearing that little voice of greed “it’s only one unethical investment” the person seeking to love others reads the paper hearing that little voice of hatred “it’s only one Muslim…” It’s easy to personify evil if it is outside us. It’s easy to give it a name, to separate out from our humanity that which we fight against. And yet it’s so much a part of us. We may call it religion, nationalism, or fear of the other, or any name under the sun, except for the name that truly hurts us:
that face that looks back at me in the mirror is capable of so much goodness…and so much evil.
And I need religion, I need my faith because I am reminded when I fail. My religion taught me the need of confession, to confront that which I’d rather ignore. It teaches of forgiveness by God, perfection through Christ, and the grace-filled love of God surrounds me when I fall short. I don’t give up on myself, because I know God hasn’t. It teaches of the temptations of our human nature, of satisfying bloodlust, self-preservation, and self-satisfaction. Religion calls me to this table to share in an act that I don’t pretend to fully understand, to break bread and share resources in a world that teaches to get your own first. Religion has gifted me this act so that anytime I might break bread, I might consider the questions of how that bread got to my table, were the farmers well compensated? When it was transported as grain to mill to bread producers to grocery store, hands blessed this bread long before it reached my hands to break it. Religion reminds me of this blessing and sets a table before me that is not mine, not the congregation of St. James’-Rosemount, but God’s and God’s alone, envisioning a new hopefulness of the redistribution of God’s blessings. Religion calls me to a path that is not self-made, self-created…with rituals so mysterious and powerful that have existed long before me and will exist long after me.
Next week, we’ll talk about the benefits between religion and spirituality, and I encourage you as we journey through Lent, through a tradition hundreds of years old, in a faith thousands of years old, I encourage you to think about why you believe what you believe.