The questions we ask, consciously or unconsciously, determine what we will expect from our religion, and thereby also set limits on how much we will allow religion into our lives, how far we will go in committing ourselves to religious beliefs and practices. This much but no more.
Religion, as I said in my previous post of the way I am using the word in this series, is intended for control. We want to feel stronger, more centered, better able to keep on top of life. We want to be enabled to stay optimistic. Indeed, optimism is the modern North American creed, and so the religious are likely to exclude questions that delve too deeply into any negatives that challenge an optimistic outlook and a tacit belief in progress. Religion wants faith to dispel doubt even when doing so requires silencing our own fears, griefs, anxieties, and disappointments as well as the cries of the oppressed or cheated.
Here are some of the questions that belong to religion as I am using that term in contrast with faith and discipleship.
- How do I please God enough to keep God off my back, to be insulated from blame and guilt?
- What do I have to do to be a good (worthy) person and to believe I am one?
- What do I have to believe (assent to) in order to qualify as religious or good or saved or whatever is the term in my religious group for a validated person?
- How do I get blessings or good fortune?
- How do I overcome my fears and self-doubts well enough to maintain the positive, optimistic outlook demanded by our society?
- How do I become associated with the right kind of people?
- How can I come to deserve a long, successful, and happy life?
- How do I get into heaven (and stay out of hell or oblivion)?
- Can I get help with overcoming my fear of death or the living death of deep dementia?
- How much do I have to give?
These questions are not terrible or evil, but they are shallow and restricted to self-interest and the management of life for the security and prosperity of the self. Biblically understood faith does not obliterate self-interest. Jesus calls us to love our neighbors as ourselves, not instead of caring for ourselves. But the questions above allow me to be religious while centering my concerns in me. Even charitable deeds can be focused on how good they make me feel about myself for doing them and how grateful the people I help are expected to feel. An effusive thank-you note can go a long way toward securing another contribution or mission project from a church.
There are times in life when our minds need to be calmed with assurances, when trust needs to rest in its belief and not raise challenges. The Bible offers a great deal of comfort to the troubled, but neither the prophets nor Jesus came merely or even primarily to comfort and reassure the people. Moreover, the comfort truly offered comes within the context of the call to discipleship.
Let me close for now with an analogy. If I were to enter into love with only questions of, “What’s in it for me?” I would not be allowing myself to love for real. My expectations for a relationship would so restrain my commitment to giving of myself and letting myself become vulnerable that love would be choked off, strangled. Whatever relationship I might be able to maintain would be kept superficial and not allowed to mature. So it is with religion kept too self-restricted to grow into faith and discipleship.
The alternative, however, is not just zeal or being “on fire” for the Lord. Enthusiasm can be just as self-centered as rituals of comfort and reassurance. What we need is a deepening. My next post will seek to explain what that deepening means.