Saturday, January 10, 2009

Towards a Substantial (R)eligion

On the Church Then and Now blog, Kurt Frederickson writes,

Abraham Joshua Heschel in God in Search of Man despairs about the impotency of religion:

"It is customary to blame secular science and anti-religious philosophy for the eclipse of religion in modern society. It would be more honest to blame religion for its own defeats. Religion declined not because it was refuted, but because it became irrelevant, dull, oppressive, insipid. When faith is completely replaced by creed, worship by discipline, love by habit; when the crisis of today is ignored because of the splendor of the past; when faith becomes an heirloom rather than a living fountain; when religion speaks only in the name of authority rather than with the tone of compassion—the message becomes meaningless."

My heart is moved by Heschel's words, but not my head. Heschel falls into the modernist trap of either-or thinking, pitting faith against creeds, worship against discipline, love against habit, authority against compassion. This is like setting the Son against the Father.

Or think of it another way. At the risk of sounding too Aristotelian, there is matter and there is form; and then there is the union of the two which is substance. (r)eligion embraces either matter or form; but (R)eligion encompasses both, and is substantial. Purely material (r)eligion or purely formal (r)eligion is indeed "irrelevant, dull, oppressive, insipid." One can miss the mark as much by focusing exclusively on the crisis of today as by focusing on the splendors of the past. One can fail just as much by mistaking sentiment for compassion as by mistaking domination for authority.

But the living fountain that is substantial (R)eligion is a both-and affair: both the solid structure of the fountain and the flowing water it offers. Substantial (R)eligion is always relevant, sharp, illuminating, active, and liberating.

Heschel writes, "religion declined not because it was refuted." If one makes the distinction between (r)eligion and (R)eligion, then it is not accurate to say that (r)eligion has declined, but rather that (R)eligion is rare, which is not saying anything new. (R)eligion always has been, and always will be scarce, this side of heaven. As GKC once said, "Christianity has not been tried and found wanting; it has been found difficult and not tried."

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