The Disappointment of Religion
Fr. Stephen Freeman · July 1, 2012
Our feelings and desires are trained by our culture to seek satisfaction. In our spiritual life, we often need to learn how to be disappointed. Fr. Stephen looks at the "disappointment of religion."
Reading the lives of the saints often raises our expectations, we read of someone transfigured with light, or someone who is present in two places at once, we read beautiful descriptions of the inner life of an awareness of our union with God, a clarity in regard to the nature of all things.
And in comparison our own religious experience will seem sterile, a voice crying out in the wilderness met with stony silence.
For some such comparisons can lead to despair, or others these comparisons make them doubt the authenticity of saints lives and in many cases we discover what I term the Disappointment of Religion.
The modern religious search often begins in disappointment, the rhetoric of “religious believing” and the reality can be miles apart. There can be very legitimate reasons for this disjunction. The Truth claims of many religious groups borders on the absurd, complex dogmatic constructs quickly reveal themselves to be the intellectual fabrications of cultural and psychological forces. Thus disappointment leads to disbelief.
A hallmark of the modern world is emphasis on the individual.
Religious systems that cater to this emphasis, whether knowingly or unknowingly often find rapid success. The same rapid success can be followed with rapid disappointment, the criteria of individual values rooted in emotion and psychological states are notoriously changeable. Those who live by experience, die by experience.
Experience is the great watershed of individualism. The greater the emphasis on the individual, the greater the emphasis on psychology and emotion for these are the primary aspects of individual experience.
If the focus shifts from my place in a network of relationships to my place within myself, then the focus necessarily leaves me with nothing but me.
Love ceases to be a set of practices and simply becomes a feeling.
Feelings and psychological states are inherently a part of the human experience but they’re a very poor basis for human community and culture. The rise and dominance of consumer culture is result of experience being exalted to the pivotal point of our existence, we shop, we buy, we consume, in order to feel good.
And the feelings which we deem good are themselves those which are sold to use in the deeply psychologized world of advertising. That God makes me feel good, can be little more than saying “I like salt, sugar and fat.”
People are always hungry for salt, sugar and fat, and people always have an array of feelings and psychological states, but these are secondary elements of human existence, they’re meant to be balanced, made whole, and subservient to our greater life.
Consumer societies will never be happy, stable or healthy, their happiness and stability can be managed by those who have the power of propaganda. By themselves they will never create a healthy civilization.
Now the purpose of the Church is not to create healthy civilizations, nor does the Church exist to be yet one more outlet of good feelings and neurosis. The Church is that place where God is being reconciled to man, and man to God.
It is that place where all things are being gathered together in one, in Christ Jesus. It is the ecclesia, the divine community of the Body of Christ in which we may be made whole and which the truth of our existence can be made manifest.
So how does that make you feel?
Depending on the state of our lives, feelings in the ecclesia can be terrifying, satisfying , depressing, meaningless, in fact everything that human beings are capable of feeling. It’s also inevitable that we bring with us into the divine community, the brokenness of our own psyches, thus we are prone to use others in distorted ways, we attach ourselves to the leaders, and use their confidence or eloquence, or far darker things, to patch together the shattered pieces of our own psyches.
We use our peer groups in destructive ways to create islands of belonging, fleeing the alienation and abandonment of our inner history.
These and many similar things are the distortions of individualized consumers. We do not know how to live without meeting the irrational demands of our feelings, our psyches have no training in how to heal, only in how to use things and people around us for comfort, defense and need.
Now this cultural reality makes it very difficult to speak of authentic Christian experience for we speak to one another as addicts, we largely know experience as an alcoholic knows alcohol, that an alcoholic might prefer vodka to wine tells me nothing about vodka or wine. Religious experience tells me almost nothing about God, the Church, truth or anything like that.
It is God, the Church and Truth viewed through the fog of distorted modern perception. Facebook offers us the icon of our modern senses…“I like it”
Well not surprisingly Orthodoxy is not well adapted to modern existence, you may or not like it, Orthodoxy does not care if you like it, or at least it should not care whether you like it. There are many drawn to certain aspects of orthodoxy, conversions are common place today, conversions that are similar to the consumer variety, those that populate the world of denominationalism and non-denominationalism are not unknown, but they are productive of three things:
It is this latter that is the proper goal of the transformation of the mind as Paul describes in Romans 12:2.
Now that transformation from being simply a consumer governed by the passions to becoming a disciple of governed by Christ is the very heart of the Christian life. In it’s earliest stages it is deeply disappointing and necessarily so, our passions need to be disappointed and reordered. I’ve written and spoken elsewhere that 90% of Orthodoxy is just showing up, I meant then and repeat now, that the slow work of transformation requires our presence within and to the ecclesia, the Church gathered. My forgiveness of others is often a rebuke of my own passions. I find you irritating because I’m governed by my passions, so I confess them as sin.
Christianity, from the time of it’s gifting to us by Christ, has consisted of the daily taking up of our cross and following Him. It is a road of dispassionate living. Learning to live within the Church, is learning to denounce the distortions of individualism and the dominance of our desires. We don’t renounce our individuality we rather take up our individuality as persons, that is, as those who live for and with others.
My individual life is not strictly my own, my life is a common life, the life of Christ that dwells within His Church. This new life is far from a disappointment, it is fulfillment, but those who would be fulfilled must first be disappointed. A beloved friend once advised me the “Truth will make you free…but first it makes you miserable.” Glory to God.