Last March I put a short essay on this blog with the title “religion is fun.” Ever since then I have had second thoughts. I wonder if I took religion seriously enough. Or better, if I took love seriously enough.
When I re-read the piece, it seems satisfactory. But it does need to be supplemented.
My basic point in that essay was that people do not continue to do things if they find no reward in doing them. So if people keep “doing religion,” they must be getting some kind of reward.
Philosophically, that is pure utilitarianism, and it is not enough to describe how we human beings behave. There are many examples of people who keep doing things that are very costly to themselves. A philosopher could say “Well, yes, but they must be getting some reward out of it when they do it.” But that does not take into account how the people themselves would tell the story of what they are doing.
Even more importantly, the philosopher’s statement does not take into account the example that Jesus used: “There is no greater love than to lay down your life for your friends.” It is hard to see how my giving up my life is going to result in a reward for me.
The purist will say “But the giver experiences a reward in the few moments before he or she gives up life for someone else,” but I don’t think that is what is going on. People who give up their lives for others are acting in the moment, without thinking, and especially without thinking of themselves or their reward. I suspect that if there is any story line going through their heads, it is, “God will take care of me. I need to do what this other person needs, even if I lose my life doing it.”
In other words, in such life and death situations, religion is deadly serious, literally. It is definitely not “fun.” It is love, pure and simple. I think of the statement in the Song of Songs: “For Love is strong as Death, . . . Its arrows are arrows of fire, flames of the divine.” (8:6)
Religion is not only fun, but it is also deadly serious. It tells stories about ultimate issues, and those stories help us to go on living, and even to quit going on living because we love someone else.
I recently read a book by two priests, Michael White and Tom Corcoran, who argued that the biggest failure of the Catholic Church, and probably of other Christian churches, is that we have come to see parishioners as consumers rather than as fellow disciples of Jesus. Consumers act on the basis of rewards, on the basis of what is “fun.” Disciples make their story the story of Jesus.
People need more than fun. They need love, and love is even stronger than fun.