Thou shalt keep thy religion to thyself! —Comedian George Carlin’s eleventh commandment
The young man sitting beside me on the train was heading back to college after Thanksgiving. Noticing the book I was reading (Modern Physics and Ancient Faith by Stephen Barr), our conversation turned to the spiritual. Aaron had grown up in a Catholic home and graduated from a Jesuit high school, but now he was having second thoughts. He believed in God, he told me, but he was uncomfortable with religious institutions. He summed up his feelings this way:
There has been so much damage done in the name of religion. The Palestinians and Jews are convinced they each have a God-given right to the same piece of land. Every religion thinks it has a corner on the truth, and in the name of God they try to impose their values on the rest of us. My faith is a very private thing, and I think we would all be better off if religious people kept their beliefs to themselves.
There are plenty of people who would applaud Aaron. The growing conviction that religious faith should be kept private is behind the debate over the words “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance, the push to cleanse public buildings of Christian symbolism, and the removal of sacred music from school programs during religious holidays.
These and similar efforts are excused by any number of reasonable-sounding motives: interpretations of the constitution; fairness to minority religions; a desire to build a progressive nation. Valid concerns, all. But these concerns fail to explain the growing hostility towards people of faith.
What I mean is that God was supposedly buried long ago. Post-modernism is the triumph of humankind over both science and religion. We have been freed from myth and empowered to create our own stories about the nature of humankind and the purpose of life. And yet, God still haunts us—and frightens us. Commentators have recently compared Christian conservatives with Islamic extremists and concluded that of the two, Christians may be far more dangerous to our cherished societal freedoms.
Catholicism and Protestantism are not merely flavors of faith. They are organized power structures able to shape the political and cultural landscape. People like Aaron worry about religion run amok. They point to the Crusades, the Inquisition and the more recent attacks of September 11 as examples of how “organized religion” has failed God and harmed society. We who claim to be people of faith are tainted by association.
Of course, any honest student of history will have to admit that secular power structures have done far worse. One need not go back very far to note that Nazism, Stalinism and Communism created Dachau, Lubyanka, the Gulag, the Killing Fields and other horrors exponentially worse than anything the church has done. And I don’t mean to imply that God grades on a curve. My point is that all human institutions, like all human beings, are ultimately fallen, broken and subject to moral failure—even those dedicated to serving God.
When people like Aaron say “my faith is a private thing,” they are putting distance between themselves and fallible human institutions. Distrustful of “religion,” the post-modern alternative is what I call “designer faith,” a self-styled set of beliefs and practices chosen from a buffet of the modern and the ancient, the eastern and the western. A designer faith is a spiritual diet high in sugar and low on nutrition. Fattening, but yummy.
That said, I’m inclined to think that the old excuse about the evils of organized religion is a smokescreen. What really drives people away from God is… God. Or anyway, their perception of God. The God of the Bible is terrifying. He brings us face-to-face with our shortcomings. He holds us to impossible expectations. He can’t be argued with. He can’t be bribed.
Flannery O’Connor, one of the South’s finest writers, examines the fear of God in her novel Wise Blood. Hazel Motes has had enough. As the son of a hell-fire preacher, he had grown up under the awful weight of Christ’s suffering and God’s justice, but he had never known redemptive grace. Tired of the terrible burden, he decides to chase Jesus out of his life. He proclaims himself the founder of a new church, the “Church Without Christ”. But it does no good. God relentlessly pursues him with a dogged grace born of love and blood. Even when he murders a man, God does not abandon him. Hazel imagines “…Jesus moving from tree to tree… a wild ragged figure motioning him to turn around and come off into the dark where he was not sure of his footing…”
Perhaps, like Hazel Motes, we take refuge in a private faith because we’re afraid of Jesus, that wild ragged figure, and the possibility of losing our footing. Faith, by its very nature, is a journey into the unknown. We meet the tour guide, but we never see the itinerary—an intolerable situation for us modern control-freaks.
Jesus illustrated God’s relentless, love-drenched pursuit of us this way:
Suppose a woman has ten valuable silver coins and loses one. Won’t she light a lamp and look in every corner of the house and sweep every nook and cranny until she finds it? And when she finds it, she will call in her friends and neighbors to rejoice with her because she has found her lost coin. In the same way, there is joy in the presence of God’s angels when even one sinner repents. —Luke 15:8-10, NLT
God is pursuing you, because God loves you. Ignore him, if you will. Create your own “Church Without Christ.” He’ll wait patiently outside the doors for a chance to slip into the back pews, where he’ll whisper your name and motion for you to step outside.
Love contains no fear—indeed, fully-developed love expels every particle of fear, for fear always contains some of the torture of feeling guilty. —1 John 4:18a, JB Phillips
God is pursuing you, because God loves you. What are you afraid of?