From Liberty Street: Irreligious Religion

On this Easter morning, in supposedly one of the most religious countries in the world, the thought comes to me powerfully that our chief failing is not too much religion but too little. In truth, I sometimes think we have no genuine religion at all.

What we have, instead, is a set of attitudes we call religion which is pretty near its opposite.

The Americans who are most ostentatiously religious, those who designate themselves conservative Christians, or people of faith, are engaged in a crusade to transform the life of the soul into a nine-to-five existence in which the realms of myth, imagination, hope, creation, and faith are absorbed into something called values which, when looked at carefully, become a set of rules for cautious, bland, and unadventurous existence.

Their religion is akin to the impulse that drives one to live perpetually in a tidy room where nothing is ever out of place, where hands are always washed and hair is always brushed, and where the alarm clock is always set so one can unfailingly get to work on time and thus win favor from the boss.

This may be a practical mode of existence but it is not religious. It negates religion, subdues it, banishes it from the earth.

If you consider the principal doctrines of this worship of tidiness, its anti-religious character becomes obvious. Take, as an example, the supply of meaning by the promise of heaven. Meaning is the human problem that towers above all others. What is all this about? What is it for? Is there anything to justify it? Does it matter in any way that lasts?

These are questions which bedevil the mind of anyone who has attempted to think. Since they function to keep our minds alive, they are not questions to be resolved easily and certainly not in a greeting card fashion. Yet, what does the anti-religious religion tell us about meaning? It is taken care of by the promise of heaven, which most often is thought of as endless nine-to-five existence relieved of taxes and stomach aches. Heaven is a place where we'll get to see Uncle George again at a family picnic and say to him yet once more, "How ya doing, George?"

Perpetuity thus conceived does not seriously address meaning. It is, in actuality, a device for keeping meaning out of mind. It is like all the tenets of our sacred irreligion. They keep all important things out of mind so that we can get up every day on time, and go to work, and not upset any of the systems prepared for us by our betters.

Religion as presented to us by those who have genuinely struggled with it is about things unknown. And "unknown" means just that -- unknown. If these things were known we could manage them by accounting, and engineering, and medical research, all of which are honorable practices but none of which are religious in character.

Easter is about the myth of resurrection. I recognize that some might find the statement offensive. Myth for them is falsehood whereas resurrection is the truth. But it is precisely the misunderstanding of myth that screens pasteboard religion from any hope of truth. A myth is not a falsehood. A myth is a story that points to the truth but doesn't take the form of a historical narrative.  The myth of the resurrection is not a way of claiming that if a physician with a stethoscope had been present when Jesus was taken down from the cross there would have been a declaration of death, and then the next morning, if a camera had been present, there would have been evidence of life. That sort of thing has to do with scientific fact. It is not the truth of myth.

Religion as it is popularly presented to us is like buying an insurance policy. You purchase the policy, you meet your premiums, and then when you die, you get the payout. Can anyone seriously accept that eons of religious travail have been no more than this kind of jejune business dealing?

It's difficult to grasp why so many of us are incapable of distinguishing factuality from hope.

When you go out to drive to the store to get a loaf of bread, you don't hope the store will be where you think it is. You know it because you've been there before and unless there has been some unusual occurrence it will be where you know it is. You don't have to hope about it. Religious hope, by contrast, is about going where we have not been, and about making the journey into that unknown as rich, and exciting, and as meaningful as we can possibly cause it to be.

It takes no courage to ho where we have been or to go to a place when we have been supplied with a dependable road map. Neither does it take any faith.

So if religion is an act of summoning faith, and courage, and hope what's religious about perfect assurance? Assurance is for people with computers where their souls ought to be.

The truth of the resurrection is not about a biological occurrence. It is about the hope that we can remake ourselves. It is about faith that we can attempt to rise above death-like habits that have imprisoned us in a twilight of life. It is not a promise of what will happen. It is a promise that we can hope and find meaning in hoping. It is a promise that we can try to resurrect ourselves if we will. And it is most of all a faith that if we will attempt to lift ourselves anew, then the possibility emerges that meaning will reveal itself to us.

This is a faith more full, more replete, than some Hollywood science-fiction drama accompanied by trumpet music. It would be a fine thing if America could become a religious country and wean ourselves from the thin comfort of false gods.

Comment on this Article:
Please enter your comment below and then click the "submit" button. Your name and contact information is requested. We will publish your name and city, but will only publish your contact information by your request.

Return to the Table of Contents

Articles may be quoted or republished in full with attribution
to the author and harvardsquarecommentary.org.

This site is designed and managed by Neil Turner at Neil Turner Concepts