Who’s Afraid to Face Reality?
Over the course of the last half a year or so I’ve slogged through pretty much the entire catalogue of atheist writings that have come out in the last four years. Not surprisingly, this hasn’t been the most edifying experience I’ve ever gone through, but at the very least it does force one to think carefully about the claims these authors make about religious folks. One of the consistent refrains found in Dawkins, Hitchens, Harris, Dennett, Onfray, Stenger and, before them, Freud, Feuerbach, and Marx is that religion is for people who are afraid to face reality as it is. The inability of religious people to deal with the harsh realities of life is claimed to lead them to wild flights of fantasy and delusion in order to provide comfort and security in a universe that, at rock bottom, is characterized by nothing but “blind pitiless indifference.”
I thought about this yesterday as I was sitting in church. Our congregation has had to deal with a number of difficult times in the last couple of years—one member murdered, others dealing with potentially serious complications in an unborn baby, one young man faced with the task of being the primary caregiver for his mother after a stroke, and many more dealing with loved ones suffering long-term physical and mental illnesses, and all of the pain that goes along with these things.
Yesterday morning, in particular, our corporate prayer time seemed to simply be an endless litany of tragedy and suffering. At one point, I looked around and saw a host of heads bowed, in sadness and in prayer, silently bearing corporate witness to the simple truth that our faith does not immunize us from the difficulties of the world. I saw no flight from reality here, only a determination to grieve and hope together in a world where God can, at times, seem inexplicably silent. I saw no exulting in death as the portal into a spiritual utopia; rather I saw a people who felt the full weight of the pain of the world, but who nonetheless resolved to face it together, and to put their faith in a God who we believe will one day redeem the evils of our individual and collective histories.
I couldn’t help but contrast this with what the average North American is fed on a daily basis through the various media of irreligious popular culture. Here the message seems to be: extract whatever pleasure you can from the moment, enjoy your youth while it lasts and anesthetize yourself with mindless entertainment or buy another product to dull the pain (or the boredom) of reality. Our highest paid citizens are those who entertain us. Youth, strength, and beauty are exalted and clung to desperately through various “anti-aging” techniques, surgeries, and products. A quick scan of the average newsstand or a glance at the options in a typical evening of prime time television highlights our cultural obsession with the minutiae of the lives of celebrities (and their children, it turns out—I recently saw a magazine headline proudly declaring that their current issue had four pages devoted to what Tom Cruise’s kid is wearing these days). Twenty years after Neil Postman complained that we were in danger of fatally compromising public discourse with our obsession with entertainment, little has changed—we remain in danger of “amusing ourselves to death.” All of this could lead one to the conclusion that there are many ways of avoiding the harshness of reality, and not all of them are religious.
At the conclusion of yesterday morning’s service we celebrated the Eucharist together. It had been a fairly long and heavy morning. The text our pastor had preached from was Jeremiah 23 where the prophet chastises the religious leaders of Israel for declaring “peace” when peace was nowhere in sight. It was an indictment on the prophets of Israel for falsely—for being afraid or unwilling to face reality as it was. Jeremiah wanted his people to see what lay ahead—a time of great difficulty and hardship. While he believed that their time of exile would ultimately come to an end, this did not minimize or detract from his understanding of the suffering that lay ahead. Jeremiah wanted his people to look reality squarely in the eye.
I wonder if the Eucharist might be symbolic of a determination to look at the world in a “realistic” fashion. Through it, we acknowledge both that the world is not yet as it ought to be and that the manner in which it has been and is being redeemed is through the suffering self-sacrifice of the God who created it. The symbol of Christian hope is the broken body and blood of a crucified Redeemer—a reminder that God himself did not attempt to avoid the pain of reality and that we ought not to expect to either.
At the same time, the Eucharist is, obviously, a symbol of profound hope—that our intuitions about the nature of the world will one day be validated and that the Christ event really is the key to history. We remember what redemption has cost, but we look forward to its ultimate consummation. And we do all of this, I would suggest, realistically—we acknowledge reality for what it is, but we also acknowledge ourselves for who we are—creatures designed to expect more from ourselves and from the world we inhabit.