The Proper Role Of Religion (According to Me)

A few years ago in my literary travels I came across Karen Armstrong. She is British, and was a nun in the 1960s. She left the convent and has done many things, but most importantly (for me) is that she is a terrific writer. I met her when she signed my copy of The Great Transformation: The Beginning of our Religious Traditions. She is creative, inviting, and challenging. I like that.

I recently finished her latest book The Case for God. I thoroughly enjoyed it, but had not thought about blogging about it until I read the epilogue. She states something I’ve felt for a long time, as well as I’ve ever read it expressed:

We have become used to thinking that religion should provide us with information. Is there a God? How did the world come into being? But this is a modern preoccupation. Religion was never supposed to provide answers to questions that lay within the reach of human reason. That was the role of logos [reason]. Religion’s task, closely allied to that of art, was to help us to live creatively, peacefully, and even joyously within realities for which there were no easy explanations and problems that we could not solve: mortality, pain, grief, despair, and outrage at the injustice and cruelty of life. Over the centuries people in all cultures discovered that by pushing their reasoning powers to the limit, stretching language to the end of its tether, and living as selflessly and compassionately as possible, they experienced a transcendence that enabled them to affirm their suffering with serenity and courage. Scientific rationality can tells us why we have cancer; it can even cure us of our disease. But it cannot assuage the terror, disappointment, and sorrow that come with the diagnosis, nor can it help us to die well. That is not within its competence. Religion will not work automatically, however; it requires a great deal of effort and cannot succeed if it is facile, false, idolatrous, or self-indulgent.

Frankly, I couldn’t say it any better. I find great frustration in the ways that religion gets misused these days. We use it manipulate behavior (“Do you think God is pleased with what you are doing?”), justify our actions (“God rejoices when an abortion doctor is murdered”), discriminate (“He looks like a good candidate for the job, but I worry that he doesn’t have a personal relationship with Jesus”), or rewrite history (“If the Bible says the world is only 6,000 years old, I don’t care about anything else: that’s what I believe”).

Too often we use faith and religion not to expand our world and increase compassion, but to exclude people we fear or justify our prejudices. That’s wrong. Our faith should not provide us an excuse to retreat into our fears, but a safe place to explore what scares us.

I pray that my faith makes me a better man; that it makes me more compassionate and understanding; that it makes my life more manageable and less fearful. I pray that my faith makes people of other religions respect and care for me, even if they don’t completely understand what I believe.

And I pray that Karen Armstrong keeps writing.

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