[Every Saturday the English newspaper “The Daily Telegraph” has a column entitled “Meditation”, and the author of the articles is Edward Norman. This recent edition is worth recording.]
PRIDE is a great inventor of religion. We set up ourselves and our needs, and then select religious beliefs which cater for them; our souls are fed a diet of self-satisfaction. We seek a God who will flatter our self-esteem; who will grant our wish to find meaning and purpose in life, who will preside over a personal universe of ordered and uninterrupted happiness; whose ways are our ways; whose provisions meet our wants; whose laws we can easily obey without personal cost.
The religion of modern people demonstrates their exercise of individualised sovereignty; it is the aspiration of those who recognise no discipline beyond their own judgment. This is a religion fashioned by emotional indulgence, selected from available beliefs by chance decision. It is the projection of a craving for generalised and sentimentalised regard for humanity – not as it is, corrupted and morally frail, but as people yearn for it to be; an idealised extension of their own sense of self-worth.
Today’s religion hopes to achieve a sense of beauty and spiritual repose; a therapy exercise derived from an interior world hugely at variance with the actual world experienced by our predecessors in traditional society – who were not insulated from reality by the comforts of modern lifestyles and sanitised death.
Human life envisaged by today’s religious entrepreneurs is all Goodness and Truth and Human Virtue; a check-list of generalities without observable content, detached from the nastiness of living and breathing people, and unrelated to the possibilities for evil lurking in daily social exchange.
It is astonishing that after millennia of human development the men and women of today, with all their knowledge of the material workings of the planet, and their intellectual resources, should reveal themselves to be so juvenile in their understanding of what authentic religion is all about. They really do seem to think it is a phenomenon of the emotions, a matter of beautiful experience – rather like bourgeois appreciation of art.
Consider, in terrible contrast, the torn flesh and the excruciating reality of the man on the cross. Now there is true religion; the death of the man of innocence at the hands of the sinful, a cosmic drama representing an eternal act of mercy – as the Creator of all things purchased redemption for a people who were certainly, by any worldly assessment, not worth it.
True religion is about sacrifice and personal pain, discipline and offering, the disgusting yet spiritually cleansing service of the unclean and rejected. It is about the things we do not want to do, and it derives from beliefs that are not pleasant to have to believe. At the foot of the cross we are very far from the therapy religion of modern society; there we are confronted not with conventional beauty and serene experience, but with the Saviour of the world in agony.
This is not the easy vision of the moralists and their human panaceas; it is the world we are called by Christ to serve face-to-face. The greatest service we can offer to others is not the short-term palliation of material applications but the knowledge of salvation. This is religion with real demands, for it goes against our self-regarding instincts and causes us pain. The gate is narrow and the way is hard; those who try to discern the way need the help of Christ himself, and it is his suffering which, in the act of acceptance, is converted into joy.