Sunday, March 13, 2016

When "Religion" is a Dirty Word

I was interested to read the following comment from an interview with actor John Goodman about his recent weight loss:
(Photo from E! News Twitter feed)
“I think you’re trying to fill a hole that can’t be filled unless it’s filled with goodness, some kind of spirituality, not saying religion,” Goodman explained. “But just a belief in something higher than yourself, a purpose. But instead of filling it with booze or cocaine or food, you just acknowledge that it’s there. You can’t fill it. And you go on and live with it.”
To me, this is really reflective of a common view that "spirituality" in whatever vague form it is imagined is better than "religion."

Religion has gotten a bad rap in today's culture. Some people have negative childhood experiences with particular church situations or leaders, some associate religion with televangelists who try to persuade their followers to send copious amounts of money, many more people have not gotten the point of religion - which in reality is simply a system of beliefs and practices that should support a relationship with the divine.  They may only see the formal structure of the community and its hierarchy of leadership, the often-negative images of a judgmental God, a focus on sin rather than mercy or blessing and conclude that formal religion is both negative and irrelevant.

In Christian terms, Goodman's comment is based on an intuitive understanding of what is popularly known as St. Augustine's "God-shaped hole."    Augustine said, “We were made for You, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you.”

Interestingly, Goodman seems to know that spirituality (however he personally defines it) and goodness are the only things that will fill that void. Also fascinating is that he seems to think that living with the hole is the only alternative, as if he is somehow reluctant to fill it with that spirituality and goodness he mentions. (I rather imagine at this point that running through his head is Peggy Lee singing a chorus of "Is That All There Is?")

"Spirituality and goodness" - what better definition for a life lived in Christ? A connection to the person of Jesus and a commitment to live according to God's commands and focus on sharing goodness with others... this is the life of a disciple. It can be a life of joy and fulfillment for those able to make the full commitment.

For me this whole thing begs the question of how Christians today can rehabilitate the concept of "religion" to make it more attractive... or to take the focus off the system that "religion" represents and put the focus on the person and message of Jesus Christ. The secondary points of religion are the gathered community and its beliefs, celebrations and practices.

We have a lot of work to do to evangelize the culture and attract those who see church as an ingrown, uninviting institution instead of a community of people sharing the joy of God's love and the grace of shared care for one another. Pope Francis' call to us early in his papacy to be people who live and express the "joy of the Gospel" should not be sidelined, but should be the priority of every Christian. We should celebrate the liturgy with joy, share stories of faith and connect them to doctrine with joy and a focus on the love of God.

While we don't need "Honk if you love Jesus" bumper stickers to proclaim our allegiance, we do need to remember that if we love Jesus - and the community of his faithful who gather together to practice faith in liturgy and teaching - that we should tell our faces, so that our faith may be inviting and attractive to others.  If people outside the Church saw us as they did in the days, when Tertullian could report that the Romans would say, “See how they love one another!” our religion and its practice would be a visible source of joy, unity and love.

And so, we should pray with the psalmist: "Give me back the joy of your salvation." (Psalm 51:12) that we may have that joy to share with an unbelieving world.

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