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Looking for Trouble in Faith

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.

8 Comments Post a comment
  1. Ken #

    At a church where I once served, I asked people joining the church what had attracted to them to join. The most common reply was that they believed it would be a safe place for their children.

    But there were other visitors who did not join. I would meet them sitting in the back rows or standing on the fringes of the property. The most common reason that they had come was to find peace – perhaps after a divorce or death, or during an illness, or during at time of unemployment, or just during a time of general emptiness. They did not find what they were seeking.

    The congregation was engaged in many acts of kindness and generosity and social justice to others through various programs and ministries, for which they felt quite proud, and yet they ignored the visitors sitting in the back and standing on the fringes. The minister was involved in his own spiritual and political goals and felt that he did not have time to talk to people who had come seeking peace – in his mind it was enough to preach well. And he did. I guess he conveyed that the church was a place for good people to raise good children in safety.

    I remember a young woman who worked as a cashier in a grocery store who was raising young children on her own, which she was barely able to do on her small income. She seemed to be seeking peace and, at the same time, a safe place for her children. The congregation, which was significantly more affluent and well-educated than this woman, could not connect with her. She was alone and invisible. She eventually stopped coming, and at the church, so busy trying to care for its own little heaven and to spread it into the world, no one noticed.

    September 19, 2008
  2. jc #

    “But it must be a faith that encourages one to transcend the self rather than dwell even deeper on it, be it in the shape of philanthropy, voluntary work or, in my case, both.”

    I don’t understand how this philosophy does not end up in self hatred. If I chose to adopt the philosophy of this woman I think I would end up like Schindler, at the end of Spielberg’s movie, wandering around in the infinite sadness of not being able to sell more of my possessions to save more people from the gas chamber. Apparently she believes that the way to happiness is adopt the role of a sacrificial human being.

    September 19, 2008
  3. Thanks, Ken, for a real-life reminder of the importance of looking beyond our own “religious” needs.

    September 19, 2008
  4. jc,

    I don’t understand how the view that a life well-lived requires looking beyond the self requires or leads to self-hatred. The scenario at the end of Schindler’s List isn’t the only (or even the logical) terminus of a Christian ethic.

    September 19, 2008
  5. Anonymous #

    There two aspects that I believe would lead to self loathing. The first being that placing other peoples interests above your own may result in feeling guilty anytime one commits an action in which they are the primary beneficiary. I don’t really think there are many people who act on their belief that acheiving to good requires selfless sacrifice. If one truly believes this there is more than enough causes to join that will always demand more of your time with little or no results. Secondly, it is a belief of mainstream Christianity that people who do not convert to Christianity are going to Hell. I think if one truly believes this and does not spend every waking moment preventing people from coming to that end, there will be a tremendous amount of guilt as a result. So like Schindler one will feel guilt, regret, and possibly even self-loathing reflecting on the times in their life that they could of spent more time trying to raise people out of poverty by offering some sort of charity or “witnessing” to some nonbeliever about Christ.

    September 25, 2008
  6. 1) The view that a life well-lived requires an orientation toward others does not have to lead to guilt any time you benefit from your own actions. Acting for the sake of others and benefiting from your actions are not necessarily mutually exclusive things.

    2) There are a variety of understandings held by Christians on issues like conversion, hell, and salvation. A more generous view of God and a more realistic conception of human beings would go a long way toward alleviating any self-loathing that might come about from not “doing enough” (whether that’s saving people from Hitler or converting them to Christianity). I would think that at least part of a healthy Christian social ethic would be an understanding that the fate of the world does not depend on us – we are simply called to do what we can, where we can, and when we can.

    September 26, 2008
  7. jc #

    In regards to the response to #2, one does not have to have the desire to do more than one can do bring in a factor of self loathing. I was merely suggesting that mainstream Christianity suggests that one ought to, as I believe Dwight Moody put it, behave as one were in a life boat and do whatever they could to save as many from drowning as possible. Saving people from Hell, I would think, would be every Christian’s highest priority. I guess if you do not believe that people will end up in Hell the situation would be less urgent. As you suggest, if there was no Hell to go to the situation would be less urgent. Do you subscribe to this belief? I was listening to an episode of “This American Life” entitled “Heretics” recently which told the story of Carlton Pearson and the consequences of him changing his view on Hell. I am not sure that new understanding of that doctrine would be so well received.

    September 27, 2008
  8. I personally don’t have much use for that “lifeboat” analogy, nor do I think that the Christian’s highest priority ought to be to save people from hell. That’s not to say that I don’t believe in hell, just that I don’t think that our mental consigning of this or that person to it is appropriate or even helpful.

    On the spectrum between exclusivism (only those who have heard and responded to the gospel will be saved) and universalism (everyone “gets in”) I would probably put myself in the “inclusivist” camp. I believe that each person is responsible to respond to God according to what light they are given, and that God alone is qualified to judge the matter. I don’t think the authenticity of one’s Christianity is measured by the how fixed their views on hell and who goes there are – I think that it’s got a lot more to do with doing what Jesus said.

    September 27, 2008

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