What is the point of a Religion?

Just what is the point of a religion – any religion, I ask?

One rather cynical reply is that it is a means to keep control of the masses. Another, a bit more positive, is that it is a civilising force down the centuries, bringing Law and Order, Justice and Peace instead of anarchy and mayhem.  But when you consider all the religious wars that have taken place, the murder, pillage and torment down the ages, all in the name of religion or God, the very least you can do is wonder what God thinks of it all!!

During the Medieval times the Christians brought barbaric bloodshed to the Holy Land through the Crusades. Those atrocities reverberate down the centuries and have been mentioned today to justify the 9/11 and the London bombings – although I agree that might be too simplistic a comment.  But there has been over 400 years of bloodshed in Northern Ireland between Christian Protestant and Christian Catholic – and the existing peace is so fragile at the moment.  There has been conflict for over 3,000 years between Jew and Arab in the Middle East which shows no ending in sight.  The Inquisition brought utter terror throughout parts of Europe.  There have been the witch hunts; burnings of people on both sides during the Reformation; the wholesale slaughter of Druids and Pagans in the UK and the expunction of the Cathars in France.  The list can continue on and on.

On a much smaller scale religion provides the theatre of power play and jealous manipulation and back stabbing in every parish. I have been a parish priest so I have been there, done that and got the T-shirt!  It goes on at such things as PCC meetings, in the Flower Guilds, choirs and Synod meetings.  You cannot pretend it does not happen to some extent everywhere – it does – because we are all human with all the weaknesses and frailties that humanity brings.

So perhaps, like me, you sometimes wonder what the point of it all is. Perhaps the world would in fact be a better place without any religion in it!  So let us pretend what might happen if tonight, on the point of midnight, every religion and every trace of religion vanished.  No churches, no mosques, no temples, no bibles, no Koran, no theological works of any kind, no priests, no Imams, no Holy Men or Women, no evidence of any kind of continuing religious influence remaining.  What might happen?

Then tomorrow there might be a walker on Dartmoor watching the dawn come up and with a sense of wonder and awe feel also frustrated and at a loss because he or she cannot find the concepts or words to express that wonder. There is nothing there!

Or perhaps at a local hospital, on the maternity ward, a young mother holds a new born baby up to her husband or partner and together they delight and share the most intimate moment of the miracle of new life created between them, but then find they cannot really communicate the depth of feeling or wonder or awe at the mystery of new life that is presented there. They do not have the concepts, words or understanding to convey those feelings.

Or perhaps an old man is holding the hand of his wife, a wife of 50 years plus who is gradually dying. And as they look at each other in love they find they do not have the concepts, words or means of giving comfort to the other with a shared hope of what is to come.

I somehow think that by the end of the day a thousand new religions would have been started; religions that come about as people try to share their experiences, finding greater significance in the sharing with like minded people and in the sharing find a greater facility of understanding – new religions are born. It is evident that there is something hard-wired in the human psyche that requires an acknowledgement of something greater than self that most people acknowledge to some extent or other, even though there is a tiny minority who would love to dismiss such a claim.

I am not a parish priest, although I was one about 30 years ago. My ministry has been one of counselling, and I am the Administrator of a counselling agency.  So when a person comes to me who is confused, distressed and feeling overwhelmed by problems or a horrendous situation, then it is no good me telling them to pull their socks up, forget everything and get on with life.  That does not work.  Things would have long gone past that stage.  Yet you cannot just pretend that the bad or sourness does not exist for they are causing such distress.  So you have to gently – but firmly – help that person to look at the negative or painful situations – not run away from them; accept all the nasty feelings of anger, jealousy or hatred as well as the more positive ones of love, compassion and wanting to get through the pain, all in order to find a better understanding of what is truly happening and sort out the fantasy from fact.  And it is only then that you can also help them to find resources and strengths to cope with the fears and darkness, to work through the situation and grow stronger and wiser as a result. That is the point of counselling.

So let me return to religions and worshipping communities, for it is the same thought processes that exists in counselling.

As a member of a worshipping community, it is no use to simply pretend that the bad or sourness does not exist. Of course it does.  It is no good to say to a person who has been stabbed in the back by other members of the community, metaphorically speaking, or discovered that their child has been abused by their parish priest, or a relative blown up by a terrorist bomb, to say “turn the other cheek and forgive” or a religious cliché such as “smile because God loves you” and hope those awful emotions and thoughts will go away!  That will not work.  People who have been so terribly hurt will be livid and wanting justice – justifiably so.  Those negative feelings and thoughts of jealousy, pain or even revenge will be present no matter how much others tell such people to forgive and forget.  Pain and negativity will get in the way of truth, fellowship and communion with each other and God.  They need to be explored, accepted and understood – just like in counselling – because they are part of a person’s humanity; accepted and owned before any action can be taken.  That is why, instead of counselling sessions, there are sermons, Lent and Advent courses, Alpha courses, Confirmation classes and Sunday Schools.  That is why in the practice of the Christian religion there is Confession, Absolution, Penance and Forgiveness, Sanctification and Spiritual growth.  And in the complete privacy and honesty that is present within our minds during prayer, for God knows the darkest secrets of our hearts, then a person’s humanity can be owned or embraced with all its frailty and weakness.  It is only then that a person can see how much of an impact hurt and pain can have on their soul or ‘psyche’.  It is only then that forgiveness may be discovered and spirituality may stand a chance to become more apparent.  Spirituality may grow and the people grow in faith despite and through the pain and suffering – or in Christian terms, to come through from personal crucifixion to personal resurrection – to spiritually grow. THAT is the point of a religion.

A religion – any religion – if it is to have any worth, is not an intellectual exercise. It is not a thought experiment.  If it was then it is no more than a philosophical debatable issue.  A religion is an experiential phenomena.  It is to help express the inexpressible; to accept the paradoxes of the mysterious; to find ways of understanding this thing called ‘spiritual’ or appreciate the presence of something great and wonderful about a place or person that can grow in that appreciation and influence – and the reverse of that in perceiving the essence of wrongfulness, curses and evil; to find some kind of relationship with that presence that most people understand as God and God’s ways.

If that is not foremost then the religion has lost its way!!!

No matter how high sounding or important a cause or issue may be it must still be secondary to matters spiritual for that religion. Even if the cause is a just and prodigious struggle against cruelty, poverty, misuse of political power, abuse, slavery, paedophilia, or a thousand and one just causes to crusade about – even an evangelistic zeal to promulgate that religion, it is still a consequence of spirituality.  It is but a response to that communion or atonement or awareness of God. Of course a religious person may fight the good fight, but that should never be the prime motivation for that person.  The fight is a secondary response and a consequence of the primary experience of relating in some way to God.

So how does the good old C of E rate on that issue?