True religion is about sharing, not self worship and self esteem

January 10, 2004
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Published in The Times, 10th January 2004

Bel Mooney's recent book, Devout Sceptics, is yet another reminder that people have not ceased to search for God. It’s just that they are no longer looking for Him in organised religion. They are turning instead to eastern mysticisms and New Age movements.

Why is it that the religious establishment is failing to provide spiritual satisfaction? There are surely many answers. But one is that mysticisms give us an elegant escape from the world. They let us breathe the still pure air of the soul instead of the messy, complex world of communication, relationships and the public square. They are “in here”, not “out there”.

The new religious movements are to the Judeo-Christian tradition what psychotherapy is to more ancient methods of healing. Long ago, Philip Reiff pointed out that in all traditional societies, to heal the broken-hearted was to reintegrate them with society. Psychotherapy is unique in turning the sufferer inward toward the self. The new religious movements are precisely what one would expect religion to look like in a therapeutic age.

The Hebrew Bible makes a simple remark about the self. “It is not good for human beings to be alone.” For Jews, religion is not what an individual does with his solitude. It is the opposite. It is what we make of the life we share. It is a religion of marriage and the family, community and society, responsibility to the past and future, the intricate choreography of reciprocity and restraint.

It is about a drama that began long before we were born and will continue after we are no longer here. It is as if each of our ancestors had written a chapter in a book which was handed to us with a blank page that bears our name. We are asked to write our own chapter, one that no one else can write but that is none the less a continuation of their story. No wonder it is deeply at odds with the values of our time.

Today, it would be fair to say that Christianity finds itself for the first time in a situation familiar to Jews for 2,000 years — the condition of being a minority in a world whose values we do not entirely share. The Jewish experience suggests that that is a good challenge, perhaps the best.

For religion is at its worst when it has power, and at its best when it wields only influence. That influence comes from being willing to challenge the idols of the age, whatever the idols, whatever the age. The idols of today are unmistakable — self-esteem without effort, fame without achievement, sex without consequences, wealth without responsibility, pleasure without struggle and experience without commitment.

The great religions face an immense challenge but an inspiring one: to show that life is more than shopping; society more than an arena of politics and power; that you don’t need worldly success to have dignity; that the spirit is sustained not by a succession of pleasures that gradually fade but by wisdom that gradually grows; that love needs loyalty to be worthy of its name. It is about being lifted by lifting others and being part of a community united by a vision of the common good.

Religion can be an escape from the world or it can be an engagement with the world. The latter is messy, conflict ridden, full of potential heartbreaks and, quite frankly, plain hard work. But that is what changes lives and gives history its dimension of hope.

And if it is unfashionable, so be it. The best things always were.