I stumbled upon this article by British writer Julie Burchill around a month ago and it’s been bouncing around upstairs off and on ever since. It’s kind of a scattered piece and there are parts of it that just make me scratch my head (based on my brief perusal of the comments section, my criticism would definitely fall into the “mild” category). Nevertheless, I found one passage near the beginning to be a thought-provoking one. Describing her transition from atheism to Christianity, Burchill has this to say about what it means to be “religious”:
These days, many people reach out to faith “to find peace”. I had too much peace in my life already. In faith, I was looking to be troubled—on behalf of other people. Every film and pop starlet, trawling after a reason to exist, says, “I’m not religious—but I am spiritual”. I don’t have a spiritual bone in my body; but what I am, is religious.
There’s a lot about Burchill’s piece that I don’t agree with, but for some reason I resonate with this statement. I realize that “spiritual” and “religious” are notoriously malleable terms, but at the very least Burchill’s understanding guards against the all-too human tendency to filter all things through the grid of the self-discovery/actualization/interest. A couple of months working at a church has given me a brief window into the various reasons, factors, and circumstances that lead people to faith and the church. I’m fairly confident that looking to be “troubled” on behalf of others would not rate very highly on many lists (including my own).
There are many reasons to embrace religion—intellectual satisfaction, comfort in times of distress, desire for transcendence, and probably many more. But for all the faults of this little piece of polemic, Burchill does provide a welcome that true religion must always involve an orienting away from the self and toward the other (cf. James 1:26-27)—that religion must be more than a useful tool in the never-ending process of our own individual identity formation and maintenance. God knows our world could use more people who are troubled enough to be “religious” in this sense.