Well, the blog is back from vacation, and I’m trying hard not to rant. Because our culture is too full of rant, and so I think perhaps I owe it to our public conversation to try not to lose it. However, I suspect our culture is losing it — and part of what is being lost is the positive role religion can play in our personal lives — which can make us more positive participants in our communal life.
Last week, I encountered two articles that each touched a nerve. One touched a sympathetic nerve: an article in TIME called I Want My Christianity Back — Without the Ugly Baggage. The author expressed a view that I share, one that is very close to my heart, about how difficult it can be to say that one is a Christian, given all the ugly baggage that “Christian” carries for so very many people. And, of course, this baggage comes from other people who claim the Christian faith. But they claim it in such a different way than I do, and than so many of us do. For them, Christian is full of heaven and (a lot more) hell, separating sheep from goats, putting women in their place, condemning gay people, condemning people of other faith traditions, and so on. I have written about this before, and so I am at risk, I suppose, of repeating myself. But for those of us who mean something different when we call ourselves Christians, and for those of us who believe that a relationship with God through the Christian tradition has powerfully shaped and transformed our lives for the better, making us more compassionate, less certain, and possessed of somewhat larger spirits, the ugly baggage Christianity is an increasingly huge problem. Because it gets the attention, for the most part, and it has profoundly shaped what increasing numbers of people in our culture believe Christian to be about. And they find in it nothing worthwhile.
That showed up in that other article I encountered, the one about which I could be in danger of ranting. It was an article from Slate magazine, entitled (rather provocatively) Is Religion Good for Children? and subtitled Secular Children Differ in Their Happiness, Mental Health, and Grasp of Reality. The author reluctantly acknowledged that there is some evidence that religion might have a positive effect on child mental health and happiness under the right circumstances. But the thrust of the article was that religious children have a more difficult time separating what the two studies cited regarded as “reality” and “fantasy”. And those studies, it seems, placed religion in the category of fantasy. The author noted that the studies showed that children between the ages of 3 and 6 from “a variety of denominations” (which were not named) were more likely, when presented with a series of biblical stories and non-biblical fairy tale like stories, to believe that the stories were true — in the sense that what the author called “magic” could be real and that the protagonists of these stories were also real. The author of the article was almost gleeful in trying to use these studies to argue that religious children have trouble separating what is real from what is not, and most definitely consigning religion to what is unreal.
He did offer the opinion of a psychology professor who seemed to suggest that these studies were not as rigorous as they might have been — but who also concluded,
“The problem with certain religious beliefs isn’t that they are incredible (science is also incredible) and isn’t that they ruin children’s ability to distinguish between fantasy and reality. It’s that they are false.”
You can probably tell why this article put me dangerously close to rant mode. But mostly, it makes me terribly sad. Part of that sadness comes from the ignorance of the article’s author — and, I suspect, those who conducted the two studies he cites– about religion. Like most of the so-called new atheists, he holds a very caricatured view of religion, and seems ignorant of the fact that there is a lot of nuance, depth, intelligence, and sophistication in the religious world. But then, he has undoubtedly received his view of religion from those ugly baggage Christians who have so popularized religious caricature that it has now become of the icon of religion in general and Christianity in particular.
Another part of that sadness comes from the article’s suggestion that the human imagination is incapable of connecting us to anything “real.” When he speaks of reality, what reality is he talking about, exactly? He seems to regard reality as defined by scientific materialism as that which is to be seen as “real”. However, there is much in human experience that science cannot explain, even as there are so many wonders that science opens up to us. Let me be clear: I am not at all anti-science. However, I am not willing to cede all of reality to that world-view. Religion, at its best, is the arena in which human beings seek to transcend themselves, to make meaning of our lives, and to open ourselves to growth. Religion mines the depths of human experience and finds within that experience indications of what Marcus Borg has called the “More” — indications that there is more to life, and to the universe, than meets the scientific eye.
Many people choose to regard religion as superstition designed either to explain that which has not yet been explained or used as a tool to insulate weak people from the vicissitudes of life. This, again, is caricature — though one can find many religious people who fit it. The noble traditions of religion, rather than being reducible to mere superstition, touch something profound in the depths of the human experience, something that speaks to One who is the More, who is Beyond Us and yet Intimately With Us. This is the heart of religion, missed by so many — and obscured by so many religious people who are unwilling to go beneath the surface of their traditions.
To the quote from the psychologist mentioned above, I would respond with this quote:
“Mystery creates wonder, and wonder is the basis of man’s [sic] desire to understand.”
None other than Neil Armstrong said that — a man whom science propelled into outer space, and once having gotten there and beheld the earth in the universe’s embrace, had a profoundly religious reaction.
Small children naturally live in an enchanted world, full of mystery — even, I think, the ones not raised religiously. I would hate for any of us to lose that sense of enchantment, of mystery, and of the wonder it leads to. Religion is not required for this sense of mystery, but religion, at its best, is meant to cultivate it. to name it, and to carry us into it. It is part of being human, and we need it. Otherwise, we shall be cutting off a part of ourselves, and we — and our world — shall be injured for it.
To those who think that religion is the well-spring of all that is wrong with our world, I would ask this: go beyond the media slants and the talking points, and embark on a genuine exploration of religion in all its depth and variety. And to those devoted to religion, I would ask this: go beyond the surface of your tradition, let go of the God made in your own image, and plunge into the depths of the fullness of your tradition.