Friday, November 10, 2006

Why does religion matter?

Admittedly, I need more time to explore this, but via the Mad Priest I find yet another internet article about religion and what it is supposed to do: i.e., it should, like everything else in this material world, produce something of value, and to the extent that it does, it can therefore be considered "good."

I'm tempted to say this is yet another form of Social Darwinism, but then I'd have to go off the rails of this discussion and elucidate the true conclusions of evolution. That's on my mind for reasons which will become plain in a moment, but also not entirely germane to the issues at hand; so I'll come back to it later.*

Went to bed last night looking for something to read for a few minutes, and plucked up Huston Smith's Why Religion Matters (New York, HarperSanFrancisco 2001), which I'd never finished reading. There I came across this quote, from Christopher Lasch, referring to Jonathan Edwards, the man perhaps best known for giving us the image of "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God." Mr. Edwards was quite a subtle theologian, though, and this brief reference to him by Mr. Lasch tells us a great deal about the current popular perception of that noble (and sometimes rather dismal) enterprise:

Intellectuals [writes Smith] typically present religion as comforting people with the agreeable illusion that they are the center of the universe, the object of God's loving-kindness and rapt attention, Lasch continues. But (in a paragraph that is not easy reading but is important enough to quote) Lasch points out that it is just this illusion that the most radical form of religious faith relentlessly attacks. Thus:

"Jonathan Edwards distinquishes between a 'grateful good will'(the root of religious feeling, as he understood it) and the kind of gratitude that depends on being loved and appreciated--the kind of gratitude, in other words, that people might feel toward a creator presumed to have their interests at heart. 'True virtue,' Edwards wrote, 'consists, not in love of any particular beings nor in gratitude because they love us, but in a union of heart to being in general.' Man has no claim to God's favor, and a 'grateful good will' has be to conceived, accordingly, not as an acknowledgement of the answer to our prayers so to speak, but as the acknowledgment of God's life-giving power to order things as he pleases, without 'giving any account of his doings.' "(Smith p. 117)
I have to say several things at once, because this idea spawns so many responses. One: it sounds very much like Annie Dillard in Holy the Firm or Pilgrim at Tinker Creek or (and most especially) For the Time Being. Two: it puts me in mind, too, of Bill McKibben and his book Hundred Dollar Holiday (a timely tome). Third: it puts me in mind of some work I did in seminary on the nature of faith and the material inducements we need; that's a very Protestant v. Catholic/Orthodox issue, but one still worth exploring further. And fourth, of course, it puts me very much in mind of Joel Osteen and Ted Haggard, and the "gospel of prosperity." Which brings me back to McKibben and Dillard and my senior year in seminary. All topics I hope to get back to. Somebody hold me to that, will you?

I want to say more about this now, but I'm pressed for time. This, at least, preserves that rather bracing observation by Edwards and Lasch for future discussion. Historically what intervened, of course, was Pietism; the same movement that gave Edwards his right to such emotional fervor, also went on (unintentionally, but then we all know about good intentions) to undo his view of the Creator in the name of the supremacy of emotional fervor. But that's topic no. 5. All I want to say right now is: when discussing what religion is, or is not, perhaps we first need to nail down a definitive definition of "religion."

D'ya think?

*oh, what does this have to do with evolution? Left that out, didn't I? Smith makes his discussion in the context of the clash between faith and evolution, an emblematic clash between science and religion. In brief, the idea that all believers are fundamentalist flat-earthers is false, but it's a false story perpetrated as much by non-religious observers as, by now, by religious leaders. Smith has some interesting insights into the "Darwin wars," which I also want to come back to. "Time, time, time, see what's become of me, while I looked around for my possibilities. I was so hard to please...."

No comments:

Post a Comment