Friday, 25 November 2011

on religion as a crutch

In an interview with the Guardian earlier this week Bill Bailey credited the strength of support for live comedy on the recession and a need for people to be cheered up in these difficult times. Especially, he added, "now that religion isn't cutting it."

Bailey's assumption that people have a faith to make themselves feel better puts me in mind of that condescending remark sometimes heard from atheists: "I'm not religious because I don't need a crutch." Its perhaps not so surprising that in this age of individualism and self-importance people imagine faith to be yet one more consumer instinct. To be fair, the church hasn't always helped itself - the doctrine of personal salvation that is almost exclusively emphasised in some church traditions, and the more recent notion of Jesus as Life Coach, do lend themselves to a Christianity that is just a little bit too me, me, me.

Countless Christians can certainly testify to the way that their lives have been changed, and that they do feel better as a result of their faith. But that is not to say that this is the objective behind it.  It is an example of obliquity, where a positive outcome is achieved while aiming for something else.

Far from being about me, faith is firstly about God. And then about others. We are the object of God's unconditional love and he calls us into relationship with him so that we can love him in return and, from him, learn what it means to love our neighbours. As Marvin Gaye sings it in God is Love "God made this world for us to live in and gave us everything, and all he asks of us is we give each other love." I'm not suggesting that is a complete theology but its not a bad place to start.

Jesus put it this way:
"'You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.' This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: 'You shall love your neighbour as yourself.' On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets." (Matthew 22.34-44)
This is a faith that is always centred on the other rather than the self. Indeed, the story of God's people that is told in the Bible is one where they are continually seen to be leaning on artificial crutches (idols, wealth, personal security, self-serving religious dogma) rather then stepping into the freedom of spirit that God offers.

The possessions we pile up, the goals we pursue at the expense of others, an obsession with body image and lifestyle, the things we ingest or chase after in pursuit of happiness or comfort - these are the real crutches that God desires to liberate us from. Counter-intuitively, true freedom is found by taking the focus off ourselves and placing our faith in the one who brings us life in all its fullness.