Thursday, December 03, 2009

Hard work (Sunday Reflections for December 6, 2009)

The words had my Lutheran sensibilities quaking. I was listening to a CBC radio interview of world religions scholar and author, Karen Armstrong. “No, no that’s all wrong,” my Lutheran consciousness was telling me. “Religion,” Armstrong had emphatically declared, “is hard work.” “But salvation is a free gift of God’s grace,” the theological voice protested. Yet as I listened to Armstrong I understood what she was saying and, what’s more, I knew she was right.

Armstrong is traveling around the world discussing her new book, The Case for God (I’m still working through it). As a young adult, she abandoned the Catholic faith which had led her to become a nun. Later as a journalist, Armstrong came to a new appreciation of religion. She became acutely aware, however, that religious conflict was poisoning its value in the world. As a result, she has been on a crusade to reassert the priority of religious practice over religious doctrine and beliefs.

Since the scientific revolution four hundred years ago, the world’s religions have become preoccupied with the truth of their words and ideas. This was done, in large part, to “compete” with the new claims to truth being made by science. In this competition, religion has basically fallen on its face. Worse, it has led to increasing conflict within and between religions, usually revolving around disagreements over whose “words” were right.

The intellectualizing of religion is a relatively new and disastrous turn. Armstrong’s goal is to re-center religion on its practice, rather than on its theological ideas. She believes this has, in fact, been the essence of religion through the centuries, around the world. By doing so, Armstrong hopes the world’s religions can regain a toleration and even appreciation for one another that characterized humanity’s earlier history. They will also rediscover their true purpose and find new ways to be of value to people in the 21st century.

Her recently launched Charter for Compassion is bringing religious leaders and adherents together in a commitment to the Golden Rule as a unifying ethos for all humanity. It is, Armstrong believes, the fundamental core of religious life: challenging people and teaching people how to live in harmony with their neighbor. That is the context of Armstrong’s assertion, “Religion is hard work.”

Would Luther have agreed with her? On some level I think he would. The Reformation, for all the words spilled in carrying it out, was nonetheless primarily about religious practice, about how the Christian life was lived on Sunday mornings as well as the rest of the week. It occurred at the dawn of the scientific age, however, and, as Armstrong says, evolved in response to it. As the Renaissance gave way to the Enlightenment, Lutheran theologians in particular just couldn’t stop talking, arguing and writing about all this. Bookshelves groaned under the load.

In the 17th century, there was an inevitable backlash against this “dead orthodoxy” (as it was called). Tired and bored with the unending stream of theological oratory (churches seemed more like lecture halls than places of worship), people began searching for religious experience—they wanted to feel something. Thus began the movement known as Pietism and, as when someone suddenly grabs the steering wheel, the church veered from one misdirection to another.

In the years since, these essentially have been the two options people have had to choose from: churches offering either an intellectualized Christianity or a “feel good” Christianity. You could either have your brain fed or your emotions. For a growing number of people, however, an awkward question began to be asked: Does any of this feed my life? The steady exodus of people out of churches in the developed world over the past two centuries is pretty good evidence that it doesn’t.

Are we “saved by grace apart from good works?” The failure of medieval Christianity was that it had become obsessed with one thing: getting to heaven. It nearly drove Luther crazy, saved only by his discovery of Paul’s teaching of justification by faith. Where Luther went wrong was in not realizing that the problem was not just the Roman Catholic Church’s answer but it was the question itself.

Christianity as a means of achieving immortality is a stunningly reductionist view of Jesus’ message (and of Paul, for that matter. Most New Testament scholars today think this was a relatively minor theme for both of them). Rather, Jesus seems to have had essentially the same concern as the prophets that preceded him: religiosity serving as a cover for injustice and a substitute for genuine spirituality. Hence, he embraced and taught the centuries-old core of the Jewish Torah: love God with all your being and love your neighbor as yourself.

In doing so, Jesus taught something else: Religion is hard work. Why? Because to love God and neighbor we have to turn our attention off of ourselves—one of the hardest thing for any of us to do. I think that the place where Christianity has most seriously gone off track is in its assumption that God is as obsessed with us as we are with ourselves. It has been often said that humans create God in their own image. It’s not a surprise then that we imagine a God who is watching and thinking about us all the time, just like we do.

According to Armstrong, religious practice the world over is about “dethroning ourselves,” wrestling our egos off center stage and out of the spotlight of our consciousness. Jesus, of course, teaches this repeatedly: lose your life in order to find it, don’t worry about tomorrow, if someone wants your coat give then them your shirt as well, take up your cross and follow me. It is, Armstrong and Jesus both say, a life-long journey and commitment.

Armstrong also says we talk too much about God. God is not an intellectual concept we are going to figure out. In fact, theologians past and present have said God does not “exist,” not in the way that anything in the world we experience exists. Rather, we experience the love and transcendence of God when we forget ourselves and reach beyond ourselves, in moments of silence, reflection and artistic expression; and in acts of charity and self-giving.

The truth of Luther’s and Paul’s (and the Bible’s) grace is simply that God is not some “thing” we have to worry about. God is not Santa Clause, “making a list and checking it twice.” In the mystery of our existence, God is instead both our companion and our destination. God is “our rock and our salvation,” our strength and inspiration for the hard work of religion, which is at the same time, and nothing less than, this joyous gift of our life’s journey.


Anonymous said...

Of course, some also feel God in the study, discovery and/or application (for good) in science (nature) too. Good Post. David Mc

Doug said...

Totally agree, David. I intended "reflection" to cover a lot, including our experience of the natural world. Thanks for highlighting science as one aspect of that.

Anonymous said...

I figured you did Doug, I was just sharing my experience.

I liken scientific research to an Easter egg hunt. It reminds me that usually we discover eggs we missed later by their stink (unintended effects of effects of technology). We have to get better at finding all the eggs.

Did Karen really use the term "crusade"? I'm dismayed that we're still using religion to justify violence to innocent persons and the earth. Our priorities are so messed up.

Hope I'm not straying from the intended subject. I’m being reminded lately “not to judge” (not by you of obviously). I’m finding that bit of wisdom troubling lately. Can't we just stick with “don’t hate your enemies?” - David Mc