From the Director - What is religion for?

A number of years ago I heard a psychiatrist comment that many of his patients only came once and then dropped off. His explanation was that when people came to see him, they expected to feel better with the first session. Instead, by opening up the problem initially it became worse, more painful. Then a year or so ago I read a similar comment about religion. “With religion the truth will save and heal you first, the comfort comes later.”

I suspect that many of us are a little childish with God and religion. We expect God to be easy and comforting and religion to remove all our doubts, worries and suffering.

The great sin of the Old Testament was idolatry, to make a God after our own image, our own needs. We imagine God as a bigger and more powerful version of ourselves and use him to reinforce and support our own ideas, loves and hatreds. But such a comfortable God is not big enough to challenge or satisfy us especially when confronted by major questions like suffering, evil and death.

The history of religion shows the danger of thinking we know who God is. Ultimately God is mystery and the most appropriate reaction before God is silence. The US theologian, David Tracey, made the telling point that our obsession with doctrine has drowned out silence before mystery. For him, theology is judged not by the answers it gives but by the questions it asks.

As a missionary, I have learnt to be interested in religion. We missionaries go to peoples of other cultures and religions and proclaim our religion but without any understanding of what religion is. What role does it play in people’s lives, what types of religion are there? So in the last couple of years I have been reading Karen Armstrong, a founder of the Charter of Compassion and a leading author on the history of religion, fundamentalism and dialogue.

In the Epilogue of her The Case For God she explains, “Religion’s task, closely allied to that of art, was to help us to live creatively, peacefully, and even joyously with realties for which there were no easy explanations and problems we could not solve: mortality, pain, grief, despair, and outrage at the injustice and cruelty of life.” Over the centuries people of all religions have found in living as selflessly and compassionately as possible, not concrete, certain answers but a silence and transcendence that helps them bear with suffering with serenity and courage. Religion does not take away the pain and the questions. It enables us to face them. 

For us Christians, Jesus is the revelation of who God is but we will never grasp “the length, depth and breadth of Christ”. We may know him personally but still have to admit that we cannot fully grasp who God is and that our Scriptures are as baffling and disturbing as they are comforting. This isn’t always an easy place to be but at least it is preferable to the fundamentalist position of knowing precisely who God is and therefore being harshly virtuous and disdainful of the ungodly. Religion may hurt at times but it is adult and healthy.

Fr Noel Connolly