COMMENTARY: This Disaster Fosters an Immature Religion

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c. 2005 Religion News Service

(UNDATED) The tsunami had a peculiar impact in America. Many who had just celebrated Christmas demanding that religion keep silent in national life suddenly demanded that religion speak up to explain how the disaster fit into God’s plan, if God exists, that is, and if He has a plan.

Even those supportive of religion have turned the tsunami into a test for faith itself. Thus, the Wall Street Journal, William Safire in the New York Times and Rabbi Michael Lerner in Tikkun magazine call God into the dock for questioning, asking, Where do we find meaning in this terrible calamity?

The presumption beneath these anguished cries is that religion’s principal function is to give meaning to life by plucking some consoling theological rationale out of such whirlwinds to make them understandable and, therefore, more bearable by us humans.

This, of course, reduces religion to an instrument, a divining rod used to locate the deep spring of significance in the desert of our loss. As such, religion’s utilitarian function is to make sense out of the sorrow that is directly deposited into everybody’s account every day.

But the purpose of religion is not now, nor has it ever been, to explain life or death in simple, satisfying concepts. Expecting religion to explain life’s meaning or to answer our deepest dread-filled questions transforms it into just another button to push on the American Quick Fix console.

“Get over it” is practically a slogan for the Prozac nation that does not want to contemplate problems as much as get rid of them and thereby achieve the illusory goal of closure and the uncertain glory of moving on.

A mass killing at a school? A coal mine collapse? A plane crash? Rush in the counselors along with the clean-up crews to tidy up the physical and emotional damage so that we need not look at them or meditate on either the first or the last things of our existence. When horrors occur, religion, in this distortion, should relieve us rather than challenge us to plumb the depths of human existence.

You can tell immature religion because it views life as a disaster movie with salvation as a special effect. It gives ready answers and explanations for all its terrors. God is punishing sinners, it claims, and He’ll get you, too, if you don’t watch out. Sinfulness, it insists, explains everything from the tsunami to the AIDS epidemic, from the Democrats’ election defeat to the devastating West Coast rains.

Mature religion does not offer the cheap grace of explaining or even interpreting what happens to us. Nor, despite fiery television preachers _ many of whom have a better grasp of finance than of faith _ is religion’s principal function to scare us out of hell by scaring the hell out of us.

Religion is concerned with Mystery with a capital M that reaches beyond the galaxies, not to solve it, as Hercule Poirot does of mystery with a small letter m that is confined to the libraries of English country houses.

Religion’s function is not to explain but to allow people to experience the Mystery of being alive, the very thing they are prevented from doing by such all-purpose explanations as God is chastising humankind. These are offered by callow preachers who think that faith comes in pre-fabricated sections and that religion is the direction book on how to assemble it.

Religion does not give easy answers as much as it prompts us to ask ever more difficult questions. Far from completing the jigsaw puzzle of life, religion invites us into the Mystery that is within and beyond all our experience. Beneath the rock and roll tumult of every day’s misfortunes, religion bids us to recognize our song in what William Wordsworth called “the still, sad music of humanity.”

Religion opens us, as Joseph Campbell expresses it, “just as we are” to the “world just as it is” rather than as it either could, should, or might be. Faith concerns itself with that which we cannot avoid, fully fathom, cure, or distract ourselves from _ our own lives, for, when we taste even its dregs or feel its burning tears, we know at least that we are alive. The function of religion, to awaken us to what is taking place within us that takes us beyond ourselves _ the Mysterium tremendum et fascinans, the tremendous and captivating Mystery of being whose password of entry is always wonder rather than certainty, a question rather than an answer.


(Eugene Cullen Kennedy, a longtime observer of the Roman Catholic Church, is professor emeritus of psychology at Loyola University in Chicago and author of “Cardinal Bernardin’s Stations of the Cross,” published by St. Martin’s Press.)

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