If someone were to ask me casually, “Dick, are you a religious man?” I would likely say, “Yes,” because people would not understand how I could be anything but religious when I am a Christian minister and retired pastor. My deeper answer, however, would be, “No, or at least I try not to be.” You can see, I’m sure, why that more honest answer would be injudicious in casual conversation.
Some theologians use the term religion in positive ways to indicate a shared life lived in faith, a life of piety (another positive term we use mainly with negative connotations, as in, “He’s so pious no one can stand him”). The Jewish philosopher Abraham Joshua Heschel, a favorite of mine especially for his work, The Prophets, is one of those. Most theologians I read use the term religion in contrast with faith and discipleship, seeing religion as the human attempt to gain either some measure of control over God (or gods) and life or at least an amicable truce with God. The more virulent among us use religion for political ends, but in this piece I’m sticking with the personal uses, rather than malignant political abuses, of religion.
We humans have always longed for ways to control life and fortune rather than suffer as their victims. For Modernism, the adoration of science (not to be confused with the actual practice of scientific investigation) and a persistently optimistic confidence in progress replaced or co-opted much of American Christian religion by including notions of inevitable progress in human goodness as well as in happy, successful living. Liberal Protestantism (where “liberal” actually meant something specific) became too easily and almost blissfully compatible with Modernism’s optimism about human progress in virtue and control over life (and maybe even eventually over death) to survive the devastating crises of the second half of the 20th Century, which was supposed to have been “the Christian century.”
Two world wars, the Holocaust, Stalin’s slaughter of millions, the “killing fields” of Cambodia, the threat of thermonuclear destruction, the ecological disasters our progress has wrought upon the earth, and the emergence of super germs played trump card after trump card against that optimism. In the analogy from Greek mythology used by the Canadian theologian Douglas John Hall, North American society tried to see itself as like Prometheus (the Titan who stole fire from the gods and gave it to humankind) but proved instead to be more like Sisyphus (who was condemned forever to roll his great rock up a hill each day but never reach the summit before the rock slipped from his hands and rolled back down again, ready for the next day’s futile labor). Seeing oneself as a Sisyphus rather than a potential Prometheus or at least as a person of significance in a Promethean society (the greatest country in the world!) can lead to despair. Hence the opioid epidemic, the escape into the frenetic world of video games, and the bitter delusions of conspiracy theories.
So it came to be that our North American societies are now regarded as post-Christian and postmodern. Again, following Hall and others, I suggest that we have opportunity to become deliberately post-Christendom rather than post-Christian. Our cultural establishment as the society’s religion, broken in Europe, is rapidly eroding in North America, despite the great efforts of evangelical and end-time churches or movements in the United States to strengthen Christian establishment into a sort of theocracy on their terms of power and glory. We can, however, still hear the call to discipleship and respond with a humility befitting a minority, no longer dominant faith. In this way, we can represent an alternative to our society’s apparent choices: between Prometheus and Sisyphus, between unrealistic optimism and narcotized despair, between power and glory on one hand and meaningless existence in quiet desperation on the other, and we can do so in ways that do not seek to flee this world God loves. We are not called to become world-hating escapists whose hope is for earth’s destruction. Neither are we called to flee earthly life in favor of heaven.
So, in succeeding posts, I’ll attempt to draw the contrast between religion and discipleship. I’ll go forward by seeking to identify the distinctly different questions of religion and of discipleship. I am convinced that right now it is more important for us to ask good questions than to parrot formulated answers.