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The Problem with Religion

January 27, 2013

PubPharIn the West, religion is often understood in terms of conformity to an external moral code that becomes the standard for judging human behavior.  Those who violate the moral code are considered to be bad people, while those who adhere to it are viewed as morally good and upright. Religion’s goal is to produce good people, meaning people who strictly follow the moral code.  And yet outwardly following rules and regulations does not always coincide with a transformation of the inner man as the Pharisees of the Gospel make painfully manifest. Salvation and the Kingdom of God begin from within.

Empirically speaking, formal religion understood outwardly is an abysmal failure.  Ideological agendas have been pursued, wars have been fought, and countless numbers have been oppressed, all in the name of religion.  External adherence to a moral code bears no fruit unless it corresponds to an inner change, which is not possible if all one’s efforts are placed solely on exterior conduct.

Fyodor Dostoyevsky, the great Russian novelist, recognizes the pharisaical goals of religion and rejects them.  For Dostoyevsky, the goal of life is love, a love that transcends morality and is ultimately capable of bringing healing to the human soul racked with contradictions. The Fathers say as much. In Ancient Christian Wisdom, I mention Saint Gregory of Nyssa who “considers love [agapë] to be an ideal long-term goal, because it reflects divine perfection, encompasses all the virtues, and can thus guide Christian behavior at every stage in the spiritual life.”  This guidance comes from within and is enlivened by the grace of God, two traits absent in the perfunctory observation of a moral code.

For Dostoevsky, the problem posed by human existence is not a moral one, but a profoundly existential one. Man – every man – is a mixture of cunning and simplicity, chastity and lust, kindness and meanness.  One of his characters, Dimitri says:  “I was a scoundrel, and yet, I loved God…  Good and evil are in a monstrous coexistence within man.” The Grand Inquisitor is impressed by this contradiction in people:  corrupt people are often good-natured; criminals are tender and sensitive, puritans and moralists are callous and cruel…everyone is equally capable for good and for evil. As Saint John Chrysostom put it, “there is no righteous person without sin, but also no sinner bereft of goodness.”

Dostoyevsky recognizes the following sublime truth: man is not capable of saving himself through a moral regimen or a system of laws and regulations.  Dostoevsky undermines the arrogance of humanism, which believes that with morality, it can eradicate evil from the world.  In this manner, Dostoevsky theologizes patristically:  the salvation of man cannot come from man himself, but only from God.  In a similar vein, true spirituality is set apart from psychological techniques including those employed in cognitive therapy and refuses to accept them as an ultimate panacea because man is not capable of self-salvation.  It is only in relation to the Other-to God in which we recognize in ourselves and others the love to which we are ultimately called.  This love is made manifest in the self-sacrificial example of love given us by Christ on the Cross as we bear others burdens lovingly.

Religion, at least in its present conception, must be rejected because it has become more of an affair of the head than the heart.  When the focal point is the intellectual machinations and schemings of the rational discursive element, religion becomes a farcical character.  Spirituality is a way of life whose focus is the transformation of the heart in dependence on God who is the source of Love.  Love alone is worth our pursuit for love alone can bring us to our true fulfillment and destiny.

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