Beyond Religion or Secularism
Often what people mean by religion is the attempt to escape this world into some imagined spiritual realm. You try to leave this world through prayer or meditation or ritual. Some religion seeks to escape the physical into a purely spiritual realm. You hear this called “pie in the sky by and by.” This kind of religion is out of this world – literally.
There’s another idea bouncing around: religion as a compartment of life unconnected to other compartments. For the philosopher-mathematician A. N. Whitehead, religion developed from ritual when we had the leisure to pursue it. The notion that your religion doesn’t affect the rest of your life, however, or that people would undergo persecution for leisure time activities, is absurd. People will only suffer willingly for a total conviction.
Secularism, on the other hand, is an attempt to live with only this world. Secularism reduces – even restricts – faith to private belief with no public value or consequence. No wonder secularists turn from any form of spirituality; it comes at a price.
Look what we get with secularism: greed as virtue instead of vice, furtive attempts to create progress where none is possible, people lapping up sex or drugs or even religion as an opium against a hollowness that cannot be filled by any of it. It may mean, as Ivan in Dostoyevsky’s Brothers Karamazov contends, that in a world without God, everything is permitted. That would not be a good thing. Along with everything else, your human values and compassion may go out the window.
But really, what else is there? Well, there is faith. Now faith can be good or bad. French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre spoke of bad faith as our attempt to escape from freedom and to see ourselves as objects rather than subjects. Bad faith leads us to believe what’s incredible, even when we know it’s incredible. Bad faith attempts to pull yourself up by your own bootstraps. Bad faith amounts to self-deception. Bad faith leads us to hate others in the name of God. Bad faith leads to violence and away from compassion.
Good faith, however, is possible. Good faith is intellectually credible and sets you firmly in this world as a free person without loss of spiritual depth. Good faith has implications and impact in your whole life. Good faith is not private alone but public, even universal. Good faith is also not easy but is hard won in the fact of real obstacles and objections that may not be ignored. We have to honor and respect those who disagree and disbelieve, seeking to understand their antipathy from the inside rather than writing them off.
Genuine Christianity offers such good faith because it weds the spiritual to the material realms, thus moving beyond either religion or secularism.
What is the Christmas season about?
Christmas is God entering the world deeply. The material and the spiritual realms are intertwined, but not blurred. They are also not separated, not any longer. In moments of wonder and of awe, even a hardened cynic may see the connection. The ancient promise, broken when we drifted into alienation, transgression, and isolation, has been fulfilled. We need eyes to see.
What if God became one of us? God did, and now we can move beyond religion or secularism. We can live in the spiritual world in the midst of the material. No! It’s that we can only live in the spiritual world in the midst of the material. We’re not allowed to forget one or the other; we may now take them together. That’s what Christmas was all about.
PUBLISHED 15 AUGUST 2008