Beyond Religion (1)

15 Apr

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in John Selby Spong's most recent book, Eternal Life: A New Vision (HarperCollins, 2009), page 151—the poem is as yet unpublished: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—
Fragmenting humankind
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.

4 thoughts on “Beyond Religion (1)

  1. Thanks Frank for this one,
    Perhaps it is with such poets, and in being surrounded by the beauty and generosity they see/hope to see too, that i can find community, community such as i cannot find in churches or with religion’s defenders from all of which i now mostly shrink (unless such churches are empty and religion’s defenders prepared to sit in silence that acknowledges words are so often, no matter how well meant, disastrously bruising and separating.
    The only point on which i think i differ is that i think the Bible in its writing and how it has been put together is so often part of the problem … a “text of terror” (in even more ways than Trible specifies). Perhaps it is necessary to read the white writing around that so black text and wonder at humanity’s dispiriting and endless struggle to know itself and its motivations. Is this too heretical?

  2. Thanks, Dorothy. I appreciate your vulnerability in making comments like this.
    I want to add a couple of things. First, I agree with you about the existence of the texts of terror. Even more, about the use of texts for terror.
    But I think it also fair to say that the bible does include within it many voices, not just those of the dominant exploiters: this is what is so fascinating about it, especially as an ancient text: that the voices of the ‘others’ have survived also. Not least the women, despite often being ‘nameless’ and marginalized.
    I guess the other thing I want to say is that the quest for ‘community’, and the anguish you express in not finding it, is something many, many of us share. I could say a lot more about this, ‘off air’.
    Perhaps things like this blog exist precisely as expressions of this concern, and lack.
    But we do not give us hoping.

  3. No Frank, we do not give up hoping. As you say, i very much agree your blog and the attempts to respond seem to me to be a particular part of, and an expression of, the hope and also the longing that i agree many many people share.
    I think the hoping and the articulating of vulnerability and the responding to it, also vulnerably, are part and parcel of what surely is asked of us in your question, “Is there not something demanded of us, to make it so?” I cannot agree more with that question even if I cannot answer what response could be “best” or “effective” or “sufficient”. I do not believe beauty or love is handed to us on a platter so to speak, that God/Love stands “over there”, distant, superb, awe-some etc, etc. Like you, I imagine a God of conversation, community and relationship, a God who wrestles with us, who shares not only love but a love that hopes and also that acknowledges its seeming impotence, despair and frustration. Again last night it came home to me as once again I read those poignant powerful words imaging God’s seeming agony of not knowing what to do with Israel, ‘his’ errant love in Jeremiah 8 &9.

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