What is your religion for? What do you get from your faith? When I hear people interviewed and asked this type of question in the public media, I am often struck by the very practical responses people supply. Their religion helps them cope with this or that in life; it gets them through their particular problem; it gives them a sense of belonging and identity; they find it a comfort and source of strength. Nothing wrong with that, we might imagine – but is that all? The real spiritual test, I think, is to ask yourself the question: “if I gave up my religion tomorrow, what actual difference would it make to my experience of life?” For, what strikes me about many people’s experience of religious faith, whether it be Orthodox Christianity or not, is how secular, how worldly their estimations and evaluations of it can actually be.
I once heard a clergyman of another denomination say, when asked the question: why do people go to church, ‘because their friends are there!’ He was being perfectly candid and under no illusions about role of religion. For many people, perhaps for the majority, religion is seen as beneficial; that it ‘does you good’. From within the small confines of subjective experience, religion makes you a better person, brings people together, has social and health benefits and gives meaning to our existence. True enough and none of these things can be anything but blessings – but is that all? What again is evident, is the very worldly benefit that is being promoted here yet, in that worrying phrase of St. Paul:
‘If in this life only we have hope in Christ, we are of all men most miserable.’ [I Corinthians 15:19]
If, on the other hand, someone were to answer that without religion, life would be a lot easier, we might be examining something a great deal more interesting. Like Jonah who fled God or Jeremiah, for whom the word of God burned like a fire within, belief can be a compulsion which, like the proverbial elephant in the living room has, in the end, to be admitted. The problem is that religious people are so often driven to promote their perspective on life and it purpose by publishing the benefits that religion has brought them, not how awkward or demanding it can be. This is increasingly so now, in an avowedly secular age. As the very practice of religion free-falls towards virtual extinction in Western Europe, we observe the phenomenon of the religiously minded advising their audiences of the advantages of religious faith. A prime example was given by a Muslim commentator recently, extolling the perceived virtues of Islamic family life and of what benefits such values could have for British society. Before, however, anyone imagines that they must submit to the faith of Muhammad in order to save the structures of British society, they need simply to realise that such social cohesion, desirable as it undoubtedly is, equally, is available to those fully secularised millions who inhabit this land. As the political and social commentator, Peter Hitchens recently remarked on BBC Radio, much of the infantile and adolescent delinquency prevalent among certain British children, would be avoided if their parents were simply married. This does not require religion, necessarily. Marriage, though, is an interesting case from the Orthodox Christian point of view. Orthodoxy takes a high theological view of marriage, even a mystical view, pondering its iconic natures as it reveals, like any mystery (sacrament), the communion between Christ and his Church. Marriage is seen as a gift of God in creation, an idea we inherited from the Mosaic faith (Genesis 2:24). But Orthodoxy has also the witness (martyrdom) of the monastic life (unlike the Qur’an which vehemently abhors monasticism). Marriage, for all its obvious and clear blessings, is not of absolute value according to the gospel. [see: St. Matthew 19:29; St. Luke 14:20]
Undoubtedly, sound religion has great social and personal benefits. Even the patronising, atheistic anthropologist will comment to this effect. Remember, Marx, in describing religion as an opiate, was viewing it positively, for most people are not like Nietzsche’s superman, able to endure life without anaesthetic. Marx fully expected religion gradually to perish in the final realisation of his imagined socialist paradise; conditions would be so good that people would not ‘need’ the comfort of religion. In one sense, Marx was right: comfort and material prosperity are poor soil for religion. Where he was wrong was in his economic analysis – it was Capitalism not Communism that gave the liberal democracies the paradise of material benefits of consumerism and the therapy of retail commerce. It is precisely among us that religion is dying; why, after all, should the contented seek the living God? The real test of your religion is not how you call upon the Lord whilst walking through the valley of the shadow of death but whether you do so in the green pastures.
The problem for so many of those who promote religion in our own day is that their vision is set so low. It has become the norm, for instance, to take an ‘enlightened’ view of those fiery preachers of the old revivals who threatened hell and damnation. And yet, this reveals precisely what has become of religion in the modern and now, post-modern world of Western Europe. The fiery preachers took a purely theological view of existence, whereas our contemporaries have become secularised in their world-view.
For the great Orthodox priest and theologian, Fr. Alexander Schmemman, this was precisely the issue in both Europe and America. In his book For the Life of the World, he presents Orthodoxy as not so much a religion as a way of life leading to eternal communion with God. Religion, in his analysis of it, so easily becomes secularised. Even though peoples from the earliest organised civilizations took a sacral and exocentric world-view, nevertheless, religion itself was ‘of benefit’. How else might organised religion have developed in human societies, when such natural religion (as opposed to cataphatic or revealed religion,) has so clearly demonstrated its social usefulness, promoting what the anthropologist, Durkheim, saw as social cohesion within the collective. For the late Fr. Alexander, the definition of the term ‘secular’ is precisely ‘the world, in and for itself’. To be secularised is to use life precisely for itself without reference to God; to use even religion to foster mundane benefits. After all, even the agnostic, the indifferent or the atheistic person can appreciate the ‘good’ that religion can do (as well, unfortunately, causing all those wars!) This has certainly been true of politics and Orthodox history has most certainly not been free of this tendency. One has only to recall how Stalin used the Russian Church ‘patriotically’ during the Second World War, yet this is not to say that Church leaders shouldn’t use such openings for the gospel, only that wisdom, wise as the fox and innocent as the dove, is called for on behalf of the saints. It needs to be remembered that when Fr. Alexander talks of ‘The Life of the World,’ in his title, he does not mean social cohesion, sustainability, justice, peace, commonwealth, order, civilization or any other benefit we care to mention: he means, communion with God, the source of that abundant ‘Life’ which is more than just biological functioning. [see: John1:4]
My mother-in-law told me the story of a woman who wanted to go along to church with her one Sunday. The woman’s husband had just left her for someone else and she felt that this religion would do her some good. After two Sunday’s attendance her husband had not returned to her, so she announced that religion, obviously, is no use; there is no point in going on with it. We hesitate to pass any comment on the woman concerned save to add, perhaps, that she had somewhat missed the point or, rather, she had grasped the point exactly from the secular view of religion: it should be about benefits, about being able to cajole God into letting life be as you seem to want it to be; not about repentance, the cost of discipleship; of ‘Thy will be done,’ or of communion with God. Secular religion, like all mundane things is subject to chance in this world. For many vainly imagine that they can establish a private covenant with God somehow outside the New and eternal one established in the death and resurrection of Christ. For many believers, even their understanding of prayer and intercession can presuppose an idolatrous god, fabricated in their own image – a god whose desires and needs in the world must, ineluctably, coincide with their own. These, though, are lingering remains of pagan gods, lesser deities that inhabit the unconscious mind and are invoked and conjured up like demons in a mundane attempt to control the world around us. Whereas, real prayer to the Living God, in the first instance, changes the believer. No one who encounters God in truth can remain the same.
Is this to imply that intercession has no place in the Christian life? Of course not, nor does it imply that social cohesion, sustainability, justice, peace, commonwealth, order or civilization have no value. We pray precisely because we have problems, have needs and experience sufferings. Orthodox Christianity does not ultimately view these as somehow ‘good for us’, as if sufferings are necessary to test us and form stronger characters; that, in the end, all our pain turns out for our good. This type of religious thinking is too much linked with that attitude which developed in Western Christianity, reaching a climax at the Black Death, which contemplated obsessively, the human sufferings of Christ as the propitiation of an angry Father-God and linked with both the Augustinian view of ‘Original Sin’ and the atonement theory of Anselm. In Orthodoxy, sufferings are evil and Death is the final enemy of mankind, not ‘Brother Death’ as he was for Francis of Assisi. Again, this is not to imply that we must keep people alive at all costs. This is a modern, secular notion, born of the idea that only oblivion awaits, beyond the grave. The Orthodox Church is vehemently opposed to medical euthanasia, as she is to all other modern medical paradoxes such as abortion and embryology which are so much part of the culture of death. This, however, does not mean that people must be kept functioning, biologically, even when it is obvious that the end has come in this world. Orthodoxy understands Death theologically, as a separation from God, the source of Life. In this world, the biologically dysfunction, medically termed death, is but the symbolic manifestation of a far more serious condition. For in Orthodox theology, death has entered our nature because we have fallen from God. We have not inherited guilt from Adam’s original sin through something akin to a sexually transmitted disease, as Augustine of Hippo imagined. We share, rather, Adam’s fallen nature which now is under the curse of death – that is, separation from paradise and the source of Life, communion with God. But thanks be to God, we have the victory even over death in the resurrection of Christ through the cross.
Should we pray, therefore, in time of need or is this too just secular religion? Of course we must pray in our sufferings. Sufferings are bound to come in this life [John 16:33b] so we must pray in the midst of them for it is these very sufferings that interrupt our communion with God. It was for this reason that St. Paul taught that the celibate life was superior to the married state as marriage, inevitably, involves one in the mundane and rightly so. The celibate, however, can have greater freedom for communion with God, albeit that celibacy is a calling for those with the vocation. [1 Corinthians 7:7-9;32-33]
The same attitude applies to the Liturgy itself. Orthodox people should avoid the common Western error, especially common in certain forms of Protestantism where liturgy and worship descend into a form of ‘entertainment’, a pious act done for the benefit of the worshipper. Secular religion will congratulate the minister on a beautiful service or comment upon how the worshipper ‘got a lot out of that service’. This ad hominem approach to liturgy loses sight of the object: worship is offered to God. We can only offer the best we can do. Of course the singing should be in tune, the homily well thought through and delivered, the readings clear, the words beautiful and inspiring, the treatment of our fellow worshippers, sensitive and loving. It is for this precise reason that Liturgy is so important in our understanding of the faith. The very word ‘Orthodox’ means right worship as well as right belief; Orthodox Christianity may be defined as rightly worshipping what we rightly believe in. The liturgy is not just a religious adjunct to our faith, a communal exercise, psychologically beneficial for the individual believer. For us, Liturgy is a foretaste of heaven and the life of heaven itself. No wonder The Divine Liturgy commences with the words ‘Blessed is the Kingdom…’, for when we begin the Liturgy we step outside the secular and enter into the ages of ages. No wonder our worship must be at its best, and must be Orthodox and correct, not as a form of entertainment – and certainly not mere ritual rectitude in and for itself but because it symbolises the best there can be: heaven and the life of heaven. For the Liturgy is the manifestation of the kingdom of heaven on earth and anyone who, with a pure and repentant heart, worships the triune God, even just for a moment amidst this busy world, might catch, from time to time, a glimpse, tasting the kingdom of God before seeing death [St. Matthew 16:28-17:2]. Unlike worship in secular religion, helpful in life from time to time, the Orthodox Liturgy is the essence of what it means to be Christian: it is the Kingdom of Heaven revealed on earth. In one sense it is the Parousia.
During the time that I write this, scientists have published evidence which they claim proves that human being are ‘hard-wired’ to believe in the supernatural. In other words, the species Homo Sapiens is naturally and innately superstitious, religious, pious, credulous, god-fearing, aware of coincidence, spiritually intelligent and prone to see ‘patterns’, given to awe and sensitive to the numinous. Be that as it may, what this means is that religious people are normal. Conversely, atheists must be distinctly odd; that peddlers of the post-modern ‘Scientism’ such as Prof. Richard Dawkins for example – rationalist and materialist to the very core of their being, presumably have something wrong with them. That, as they are bound to explain it, they are examples of the kind of genetic freak (rationalist, non-believers in their case) who must, eventually, contribute to evolutionary change. That, just as the evolution of the opposable thumb (an advantage in natural selection, it turns out) helped in the development of humans with better tools and weapons than chimpanzees could ever handle so, the evolved human with no religious sense, must prevail, eventually, on this planet, to produce a race as cool and as rational as Mr. Spock of Star Trek fame. The problem for them, of course, is that, historically, religion has been too beneficial for mankind from a secular point of view; that from the dawn of time, human groups with religion must have fared better than those without. But could mankind be so rational, so robotically ‘technologised’ as, in the end, to abolish himself as unnecessary. This must surely be the ultimate goal of utilitarian, rational secularism, dependent only on its own resources and cut off from the source of Life.
So, if we eschew the self-destructive force of atheism – the ultimate secular cul-de-sac and yet, equally reject secular religion, it must be clear how Orthodox Christianity, the one true and final revelation of God to all in this life, must answer our initial question: what is our religion for? The answer must clearly be unashamedly theological – it is for Salvation leading to eternal communion with God, there can be no other final purpose or meaning. And if the meaning of that is not yet understood, then one is still thinking in terms of secular religion. The answer to that, as St. Paul understood, is the remaking of our minds in Christ [Rom.12:2] – a gift that even evolution cannot grant but only the grace of God.
“Earthly life – this brief period – is given to man by the mercy of the Creator in order that man may use it for his salvation, that is for the restoration of himself from death to life.”
St. Ignatius Brianchaninov
“He who prays with understanding patiently accepts circumstances, whereas he who resents them has not yet attained pure prayer.”
St. Mark the Ascetic
“Marriage is more than human, It is a…miniature kingdom which is the little house of the Lord”
St. Clement of Alexandria
“Do not be foolish in your petitions lest you dishonour God by your ignorance. Pray wisely that you may be deemed worthy of glorious things. Seek precious things from the One who does not withhold; you will receive honour because of the wise choice of your will.”
St. Isaac the Syrian
“The way of God is a daily cross. No one has ascended into heaven through an easy life.”
St. Isaac the Syrian