When you begin talking to people about their faith, if you are listening at all, you discover that almost all of us believe a lot of strange things about God and the Gospel. It’s not uncommon for people to put together a spirituality that is a bit like a patchwork quilt – a combination of things, stitched together but not necessarily matching: A bit of what the church teaches, a bit of what the culture coughs up, a bit of what we thought we heard or wanted to hear, a bit of what we were taught or caught from influential people in our lives. And often it is all set in concrete by the time we turn sixteen.
There is one school of thought that holds that there is nothing wrong with this. At one level Americans have always embraced what Sydney Ahlstrom describes as “harmonial religion”: “…forms of piety and belief in which spiritual composure, physical health, and even economic well-being are understood to flow from a person’s rapport with the cosmos.” That form of spirituality can traced back to Ralph Waldo Emerson, Walt Whitman, Mary Baker Eddy, and Norman Vincent Peale – among others, and it has countless modern advocates, like the wildly popular, Joel Osteen.
Some people find this kind of religion appealing because of how it makes them feel about the world around them. Spirituality is not about what God is doing, but about what makes them “feel” a particular way. So, having faith becomes a matter of attending to our feelings — about fine-tuning our relationship with life — about holding pain and misfortune at arms’ length, and prayer becomes a matter of controlling the world around us. Pray with faith, nothing bad should happen to you or disturb your feeling of rapport with the world and – if it does – praying should get God to set it all right.
There are a lot of problems with this way of thinking about spirituality from a Christian point of view:
One problem is that the whole faith journey depends upon feeling a particular way. That’s a huge burden and it’s finally unmanageable. What happens on the days when your spirituality leaves you feeling flat, or bored, or just blank? I’ve worked with people in spiritual direction who have let this idea about the Christian faith seep into the way that they think and live, and it often destroys them. People who live their lives like this find themselves on an emotional roller coaster and there is never any getting it right.
Our emotions are dependent upon factors that have nothing to do with our relationship with God, and that makes our emotional state a poor indicator of the health of our faith. We can feel anxious because we have digestive problems. We can be depressed if we are not getting enough rest. We can be angry or hurt if someone is unkind or unthinking.
We can be affected even by the weather. I remember doing graduate work in England. One morning I walked out of the building with a fellow graduate student into brilliant sunshine we hadn’t seen for weeks on end. He did his Quasimoto routine, leaning over, looking up and sheltering his eyes from the sun, “Uh, master, what is that bright orb in the sky?!?” I felt a thousand times better about my work that day, but when I did a quick inventory not a thing had changed but the weather.
A second problem with harmonial religion is that it tells a very different story about our lives than the one the Gospel tells us. The Gospel tells us that things are not right and that – while God is already working on making them right – they aren’t now and they won’t be until Jesus comes again. Harmonial religion argues that things should be and they can be.
So, every time something unjust or unpleasant happens, we are completely caught off guard. And every time our prayers fail to change things, we come to the conclusion that either our faith isn’t reliable or our prayers are useless.
I talked to a man who was unjustly imprisoned some years ago, who really struggled to continue have confidence in God, because of what happened to him. And I’ve lost count of the number of people I’ve known who have faced illness and death as if the message of Christianity is that none of this ought to be happening. But from the Book of Genesis straight- through to the Book of Revelation, the message is: Life is a screwed-up mess.
It was no surprise to me that when my brother was battling brain cancer and people told him his illness was a blessing in disguise, that he stopped going to church for a while. What he was told didn’t match the facts. The sad thing was Christians told him those lies. As I said then, and I will say again, Christians know and they can also say, that sometimes “life sucks.”
Problem number three is that harmonial religion makes it sound as if the good Christian is a Christian who is always smiling and always moving up and onward. Don’t get me wrong. I like being happy. I like laughing. Come to that, I like successfully completing things.
But probably the single-most problematic thing about harmonial religion is the picture of Christians it portrays. To hear some people tell the Christian story, you would think that the giants of the faith are people who never suffer, never struggle, and get all of their prayers answered.
The odd thing about that picture, is that I can’t think of a single giant of the faith who lived a life of that kind. It certainly is not the story of Moses, David, Ruth, Josiah, Jeremiah, Isaiah, Mary, Paul, or Peter – just to name a few. In fact, it would be more accurate to have an advisory on the baptismal font that says, “Getting into this water could get you into a lot of trouble.”
And having ignored that fact about the Christian faith has actually produced a very strange batch of Christians: Christians who are fragile. Christians who wilt at the first sign of trouble. Christians who avoid doing anything hard or thinking anything hard.
Of course, problem number four is, that if the whole harmonial thing gets the Christian life wrong, it also gets the life of Jesus wrong. One of those stained-glass words about the life of Jesus that is worth reclaiming is the word “cruciform.” It means, quite plainly, that the Gospel is not about success or harmony or freedom from pain. It is a word of hope that arises from Jesus’s willingness to take up the cross. Or, to put it another way, Jesus hangs out in the dark offering a hand, not from outside but deep inside the things that threaten to swallow us up.
That’s a tough sell, I know, and most of us would like something for nothing, success without sacrifice, victory without struggle. But, because most of us also know that life isn’t like that, the fact that Jesus is with us, in it all the way, is a far stronger, far more hopeful way of living.
So, there are a handful of the problems with faith that feels a rapport with the cosmos. But the more fundamental problem with harmonial religion is that it confuses faith with magic.
Faith – as understood by the church – is faith in the goodness of God; faith as the hard work that God does of speaking hope deep from inside the things that threaten to swallow us up; faith in the person of Jesus Christ, who is the one who speaks that word of hope; faith in the work of God, which makes us the children of God and calls us to service in God’s Kingdom.
Magic, by contrast, is a religious system that operates on the assumption that the universe is something to be manipulated, by our words and actions, by getting our prayers right and thoughts adjusted. It is a religious frame of mind that is designed to make things go well for us, and things go badly for those who are hostile to us. And it is the enemy of true faith. Not just because it creates all the problems I have outlined, but because it also puts you and me right back in the center of things, acting as if we are God.
You can hear magic at work in the background when you hear people say, “Oh God, if you get me out of this, I will never do it again.” When you hear people say, “You aren’t being healed because you aren’t praying with faith.” Or when a Christian consults Tarot Cards for guidance. (Yes, those people are really out there.)
For a long time, I thought people who called out magical thinking were just being uptight and stuffy. People who really believed in magic were few and far between. But I am not as sanguine about it all as I once was. For one thing, magical thinking has wrapped itself around the Christian tradition and distorted it, leading thoughtful good people astray, so that they now treat the Christian faith as a form of magic.
I am also not as sanguine about magic as I once was because people who believe in magic are growing in number, even as our culture becomes more secular. 29% of Americans say they believe in astrology. 22% of Americans call themselves mainline Protestants. The cosmetic chain, Sephora, offers a witch’s starter kit – and, no, not just in time for Halloween. And a recent Pew study suggested that there are no over a million pagans and Wiccans in the United States.
Such developments should not be a matter of indifference to us. But what do we do?
One, we need to work to be more consistently Christian in the practice of our own faith. When we fail to think about our lives in a deeply Christian fashion, we inevitably adopt alternative ways of thinking and living. When that happens, we miss out on the fullness of God’s work in our lives. Praying for the fullness of God’s work in and through us is the essence of the spiritual life.
Two, we need to think critically. We have been so afraid of being thought of as fundamentalists, that we have mistakenly adopted the attitude that to ask critical questions is to be judgmental. That’s not the case. Critical people can and should ask: Where do your ideas come from? How do they hang together? And where will they take us? Judgmental people don’t ask those questions and aren’t interested in the answers. Critical people do, because they know that the wrong ideas about God can and do injure others. They also know that living the Christian faith is a deeply consistent fashion requires critical reflection.
Three, we need to recapture the wonder and adventure that is part of the Christian journey. Part of the reason that some of our children have turned to magic is because we have lost a sense of Christian adventure, leaving the impression that to be Christian is to be stuffy and backward looking. Nothing could be further from the truth. Rooted in ancient mysteries and prepared to shape the future in the name of Christ, the journey into God is an endless challenge. And those who have owned that truth have, with God’s help, transformed the world.