I've been reading a lot in the critique of religion which has been given fresh oxygen lately. It's not really anything new. In fact, in work I am currently writing, I'd like to argue that the critique of religion lies at the very heart of biblical faith.
But there are some lovely snippets which I'd like to share just now.
Having just acquired a new copy of John Keats' poetry—my old copy, 43 years old, has fallen apart—I have relished many of the poems I have loved for years. But here is one I did not know:
Written in disgust of vulgar superstition
The church bells toll a melancholy round,
Calling the people to some other prayers,
Some other gloominess, more dreadful cares,
More hearkening to the sermon's horrid sound.
Surely the mind of man is closely bound
In some dark spell; seeing that each one tears
Himself from fireside joys, and Lydian airs,
And converse high of those with glory crowned.
Still, still they toll, and I should feel a damp—
A chill as from a tomb—and did not know
That they are dying like an outburnt lamp;
That 'tis their sighing wailing ere they go
Into oblivion—that fresh flowers will grow,
And many glories of immortal stamp.
Clearly Keats sees the religion evoked by the church bells as dreary and life-denying. It draws people away from 'fireside joys' and other enriching activities. It is not faith in God or appreciation of God's creation that Keats denies. On the contrary, he hopes for 'fresh flowers' to replace the sighing wails of a form of religion he thinks will soon die, burnt out by its own damp dreariness.
More recently, another English poet, David Stevenson, has written of 'religion' which narrows the heart and divides the human community. One verse of a poem by Stevenson is quoted in John Selby Spong's most recent book, Eternal Life: A New Vision (HarperCollins, 2009), page 151—the poem is as yet unpublished:
Religion is no more—
with doctrine, creed
and narrowness of heart.
Not darkly through a glass
Truth stands at length
in beauty unaffected
A prospect indivisible
Love is her only name.
Many would be delighted to announce the end of religious divisions, 'narrowness of heart'. If only!
Still, we may affirm with joy this affirmation of beauty and love: 'a prospect indivisible'. The question is surely whether this is a truth, standing in its own right. Is there not something demanded of us, to make it so? Surely there is. And that might just require something positive in place of 'religion'.
Here I am guided by the Bible itself. More of this another time, but for now just this one deliciously-provocative sentence from Terry Eagleston's work, Reason, Faith and Revolution: Reflections on the God debate (Yale University Press, 2009, at page 8:
'There is a document that records God's endless, dispiriting struggle with organized religion, known as the Bible.'
That's a theme I hope to spend some more time on. And following that, the long history of protest, from within the 'religious' tradition, and to which I belong: faith beyond religion.