“And No Religion Too…”
Like most of the rest of the world, I spent part of yesterday watching the closing ceremonies of the London 2012 Olympics (yes, I realize that I was critical of these kinds of spectacles in a post I wrote a few weeks ago. I also admitted that I was a hypocrite, right?). Last night’s ceremony was, as expected, a spectacle for the ages.
One of the scenes at the closing ceremony involved John Lennon’s famous song “Imagine” playing whilst innocent little children with “Imagine” plastered across their pure white T-shirts sang along peacefully and multiculturally and Olympically (can I turn “Olympic” into an adverb? I think I just did!). The song concluded with a giant version of John Lennon’s face appearing in the middle of the stage. It was a carefully crafted moment meant to induce all kinds of goosebumps and goodwill and to point to the Olympic ideals of unity and peace and all the nations of the world coming together in harmony.
“Imagine” is a great song. I like it. But the lyrics—particularly the ones having to do with religion—have always left me scratching my head. “Imagine no religion” has, to me, seemed to be short for “imagine a world with none of the behaviours and ideas that I don’t like and which I attribute to/associate with religion.” But what are we approving of when we smile and nod appreciatively to big screens and little kids on a global stage exhorting us to “imagine” these things? “Imagine there’s no heaven…” Really? Imagine there is no consummation of what is good and true and beautiful in this world? Imagine there is no judgment of what is false and destructive and hateful? Imagine there is no prospect of the spectre of death losing its force (René Breuel has an excellent reflection on this theme here)? Can one not live both for today and for the future? Is living only for the moment really the best and most hopeful way forward?
And then there’s the famous “and no religion too” line. Of course, this sounds very open-minded and progressive and tolerant, but do we actually know what we mean when we say this? The truth is, I don’t want to imagine a world with no religion. I don’t think any of us would, if we actually stopped to think about it. To whatever extent is possible to speak of “religion” as a monolithic entity, it is far too enmeshed in the historical development of human thought and culture to just conveniently extract it when we’ve decided that we don’t like (parts of) it anymore. Religion has a deep and intrinsic historical connection to some of our most cherished institutions (universities, hospitals, legal systems) and values (the worth of the individual, freedom of conscience, the possibility of redemption) that cannot just be selectively severed whenever and however it pleases us to do so.
Well, actually, I suppose it can. People do it every day. John Lennon did it in his song which, as many have pointed out, actually draws upon deeply biblical themes of justice, peace, and equality. But I wonder how long our culture can live off of the unacknowledged and unappreciated religious capital of the past. A generation? Three? Five? At what point does the memory grow too dim? At what point do the narratives we have substituted for “religion” to give us meaning and hope prove unable to bear the weight of our hopes, values, and expectations?
Yet beyond the question of the historical connection between “religion” and the ways in which we think and hope today, I cannot imagine a world without religion on an existential level either. Specifically, I cannot imagine a world without Jesus (I can’t speak to other religious traditions because I am not a part of them, and my way of being in the world has not been shaped by them). I cannot imagine a world without the Crucified One as the centre around which so much of my thinking and behaving orbits. I cannot imagine a world without this reference point, without these maddening and liberating stories of death to self, love for others, and radical generosity, without this wild Messiah who baffles and irritates me, who inspires and strengthens me, who holds forth a vision of hope without which I would be, quite literally, lost.
There are days when I would love to ignore Jesus—days when I wish he would go away and stop haunting my every step, my every thought and inclination. God knows I have tried (whatever John Lennon’s experience might have been, it wasn’t “easy,” no matter how vigorously I applied myself to the task!). But my efforts can never be sustained for long. It is exhausting trying to outrun the hound of heaven. I cannot imagine a world—my world—without Jesus, and I don’t think that I (or the world) would be better if I tried.