I get asked sometimes why I spend so much time critiquing the church from the inside. Why offer up strange church signs rather than walking away from the religion that churns them out? Why point out the oft-employed cliches of Christianity, rather than simply coming to terms with the fact that words mean different things to different people?
My friend, Phil Snider, pointed out recently that there’s a reason why Sigmund Freud called religion a social crutch, or why Karl Marx called religion the opiate of the masses. It’s not necessarily that faith itself is bad and that we should only rely on reason. Faith, after all, plays a significant role in science. Yes, we are bound by observable phenomenon by the scientific method, but its the persistent, creative, faithful imaginations in the possibilities of the as-yet-undiscovered that has tended to stretch the thin edges of science.
I don’t think that the critiques of the likes of Freud and Marx necessarily have to be a call to destroy religion all together, although some religious folks and those without a religious faith tend to misunderstand this point. It’s the way in which we employ religion that is the problem, not religion in and of itself.
The problems arise when we turn to our religious practices or our belief in a supernatural being to make everything all better. I hurt and I don’t want to, so God/Church/Jesus will make it go away. When we think about the possibility of there being no God – at least in the typical metaphysical, anthropomorphic “sky wizard” sense – it scares us, and so we cling to doctrine, ritual, scripture and the like to reassure us.
But if we try to mold faith into something more certain than simply faith, it becomes something else. A crutch, perhaps, or a drug. So how or when does this happen?
It happens when someone is suffering and we tell them that everything happens for a reason. In the bigger picture, this is that opiate of certainty and assurance being cast over all the chaos, suffering, and doubt in an effort to keep it all tied up neatly in a religious package. But what it creates beneath the surface is a bastardized image of a God who sits in the Great Beyond, plotting out our fortunes and misfortunes, causing loss and heartbreak in our lives for some greater unknown plan. This makes us no more than so much collateral damage in some narcissistic divine game.
Is that really the God we believe in?
It also happens when we stake claims based on absolutes about the nature of God. God is this; not that. We do this out of fear, because we don’t feel we can endure an existence in which we simply don’t know the mind of God, or even perhaps whether there is a “mind of God” to speak of at all. Does this mean that, in order to place religion in its proper context as something other than a crutch or opiate, we must kill God? Must we ironically become atheists in order to actually have a healthy faith.
Yes and no.
We do have to allow the false idols we’ve constructed out of our religious beliefs to die, to be purged by the refining fires of life’s experience. We also have to kill off our idolatrous images of God we cling to, worshipping some imagined construct that makes us feel better, but which no more represents God than money, sex, power, or any other idol we choose to worship.
So what are we left with once we dismantle all of these idols? Is this some cruel joke, snatching our security blankets from us, forcing us to stand, exposed, staring down into the abyss of the unknown?
It’s no joke; it’s an important step toward spiritual, emotional, and social maturity. We’ve clung to a sort of infantilized version of belief for far too long, all the while, ignoring the persistent call toward something more. Toward a more fully realized understanding and expression of love. Toward a beauty freed from even aesthetic limitations. Toward a yearning for justice and peace that surpass all human understanding.
Will we ever get there? Not in this life. After that, who knows? But our response to such a call is the very stuff of life, and it is the kind of real, authentic, mature, honest living to which Jesus invites us.
But to get there, we have to toss the crutches of assurance and the failed religious antidotes to doubt and suffering aside. It’s a journey only made once unencumbered of such things. Yes, it’s scary because it’s uncertain. But if it were certain, we would have no need for faith in the first place.
It’s time to lay down our mats and follow.
Christian Piatt is an author, editor, speaker, musician and spoken word artist. He is Director if Church Growth and Development at First Christian Church in Portland, Ore. Christian is the creator and editor of "Banned Questions About The Bible" and "Banned Questions About Jesus." His new memoir on faith, family and parenting is called "PREGMANCY: A Dad, a Little Dude and a Due Date."