Religion is a disease, a symptom of our problem, despite the fact that religion presents itself as a ‘solution’ to our problem.
One of the reasons religion all too often has the effect of making our problem worse, rather than alleviating it, is because the people who most fervently promote religion forget that religion is the primary sign, the primary manifestation, of the very problem it wants to solve. This will always entail that religion is ambiguous and problematic, a peculiar paradox. It can help, but it can also be, and too often is, the primal hindrance, the mother of all hindrances..
The people who do not comprehend this ambiguity, this paradox, this problematic nature of religion, the people who are dewy eyed and wholly positive about religion, are always the first victims of religion’s inbuilt pathology. Zen Buddhism is almost uniquely honest about this difficulty, in speaking openly of ‘the stink of Zen.’
However much this reference to Zen may offend the ultra-pious, those few who are profiting from religion will immediately recognize its truth.
Had mankind not ‘Fallen’ into what Buddhism calls the primal Ignorance, or Judaism calls the original Sin [and in the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible, the word for ‘sin’ means ‘failure to hit the mark’, and this failure is ontological and existential, not just moral], there would be no need for religion. God did not create the world, and place humanity in it, in order to spend our time in a temple worshipping God, or spend our time in an ascetic desert sweating for God. God created us to live. Most people are so dead, as a result of the Fall, they think by ‘created to live’ it is meant that God created us to eat ice cream, buy computers, get drunk on drugs or beer, screw whatever is not nailed down, and do a spot of mugging to enhance one’s paltry earnings. Pathetically people call all this ‘wild living.’ This is not ‘real living.’ But equally not real living are all our religious activities, designed to return us to God. If we were alive, as God created us to be alive, we would both experience God and manifest God in every small and ordinary ‘everyday’ activity we do, and in every great and deep ‘heroic’ action we do. God would have been our life, and thus neither the desert of ascetical self-control, nor the sacred temple of worshipping God, would have taken up any of our time. God wanted us to live, and to know God in the living. God had no need for any specialized and split-off area called ‘religious’ as opposed to another dualistically separated area called ‘profane.’ This split is itself the Fall= nothing is more emblematic of our Fallen condition than this split.
In those rare moments when we are really alive, whether attending to or doing something little or big, we discover how dead we are, how far from ‘life more abundant’, how denuded of ‘real life.’ In real living, everything contains God. Our coming and going is God, our sexual love-making is God, our creativity is God. Drinking and eating is God. Tying our shoe laces is God. Looking out our window and seeing the evening imperceptibly coming on is God. Parenting our children is God. The animal life all around us with whom we experience our primal affinity is God. Dancing is God. Friends are God. Sharing is God. Fighting is God. Play and laughter is God. Blood sweat and tears is God. If we had not Fallen away from this living of God– that God was meant to be our life is the meaning of the Tree of Life in the Garden of Paradise– then there would be no religion of any description whatever. That there is religion in the world ‘is not a good thing’; it is ‘a bad thing’, however ‘necessary’ it may be.
Religion starts where we lose God, but religion disappears when we refind God. Our goal is life. Religion is not our goal. Our goal should be to shed religion and live again.
Religion recognizes the reality, the truth, of our disconnection from God, and as its name says in Latin, religion seeks to ‘re-connect’ us to God. That makes religion more honest, down to earth, humble, than what a lot of people call ‘spirituality’, which easily becomes whatever you want it to be to expand you and make you feel better than the pain and desolation that reveals your Fallen condition, and points toward the need for its redemption. But it is not that simple, not that straightforward. Religion belongs to the Fallen order of things, and the wrong attitude to and practice of religion does the converse of what it promises to do= it sinks us further into Fallenness. Religion is part and parcel of our Fallen condition, indeed its main expression, and therefore we should treat it in a way that allows us to shed it as we attain what it points toward. This is like the Chinese saying that a leader should govern a nation like cooking a tiny fish= ‘lightly.’ Those with a ‘heavy’ investment in religion are almost invariably going wrong with it, being led astray ever more into Fallenness by it; those with a ‘lighter’ relationship to religion are those more aware of and dedicated to the living God whose goal for us is nothing like religion because God’s goal for us is life.
Religion is a means to a much more wonderful end. Beware of confusing the means with the end, and beware even more of making the means the end. This is what makes religion so sick, as it so often is. The sicknesses of religion are legion= mummy worship, daddy worship, pervasive and endless childishness; the narcissism in guruism; Satanic harshness and judgementalism; Luciferian arrogance and self-love; thinking we in religion are the good children and will be specially protected and specially rewarded, uniquely loved, as distinct from the bad children not in religion who will be abandoned, punished, unloved. Or another example= using the Zen disciplines, including meditation, which were set up to overcome the ego, yet allowing the ego to infiltrate even the methods designed to slay it, so that in the end the person is doing the right thing for the wrong reason. Or= impatiently wanting mysticism as exit from this world, a quick and painless transcendence of the world and all in it, giving up on its slow, difficult redemption; or using asceticism to aim at getting rid of the body in order to become an angel, rather than a human being, like so many of the monastics. Or the priestly caste always, because they are householders not nomads, selling out to the bourgeois spirit. Religion stinks. It contains every pathology that afflicts humanity, and because it sets itself apart, and regards itself superior, it becomes less redemptive, less the salt in the earth, less the leaven in the bread, than the worst Fallenness in the world. In the end, religion has the capacity, even the likelihood, to become worse in Fallenness than the Fallenness it is supposedly trying to remedy.
The paradox and danger of religion= the cure becomes worse than the illness.
For religion makes us think worshipping God in the sacred temple is in opposition to ‘just living’ in the world, and that worship in the sacred temple is better than living in the world; but in the unFallen condition, just living in the world will itself include worship and yet be fuller than it. The same applies to asceticism= religion makes us think the restraint of something distorted is better than living out the distortion, but in the unFallen world the true life of what has been distorted is far greater than any restraining of its twisted form.
William Blake wanted to shock the pious into this realization when he said, ‘sooner murder an infant in its cradle than nurse unacted desires.’
This is why those in no religion, those who have rejected all religion, also witness to the coming redemption that is coming for all, and will end any Fallen notion of winners and losers, saved and damned, rewarded and punished. Christ, in the parable of the sheep and goats, points to the fact there are two ways to dwell in Fallenness, one that is Christlike toward its ‘least’ and ‘worst’ = a redemptive way, and another way that is not Christlike and redemptive. It should be noted that the latter includes, mainly, the religious people who are keeping the rules but missing the whole thrust, missing the real point. But by the time Christ dies on the Cross, and says ‘forgive them all, they none of them know what they do’, he performs the deed that overcomes even the duality of sheep and goats, he pays for all, and wins redemption even for the religious who have got it so wrong, as well as for the non religious who are simply manifesting Fallenness. Among the goats, there are plenty of religious people, as well as the ordinary sinners who have never tried to do anything else. Nonetheless, it is in the Cross that Christ grows to his full stature, ceases being the prophet, ceases being the Oriental healer and teacher, and becomes finally what he was born to= he becomes the [universal] Redeemer.
But the sheep and goats is a terrible warning, and the warning is as much, if not more, to those in religion, as it is to those outside any religion. Those in no religion, and outside all religion, are not the damned, the rejected, the lost. Their refusal to do anything religious also bears witness to the truth= for these people are no more or less sinning than religious people, but what they witness to that so often religious people fail to witness to is Life. Just living, in the world, doing little and big things. This Life, without religion, may not yet be fully flowered and in full fruition, because redemption has not arrived, but it is a witness to that coming Life in its way. Zorba the Greek is an ikon of the redemption to come, precisely by staying away from religion and finding God in the living of life, whilst many religious people, whether monkish or priestly in orientation, have given up on Life, and fallen in love with religion as the ultimate idol= the final substitute for real life.
God says, ‘I am the God of the living.’ He never said, I am the God of the religious; he never said, I am owned by the religious. And Christ said of God, the sun shines on the just and the unjust alike, and the rains come down on the good and the bad no different. The bigger truth is that in the Fallen condition of mankind, religion is one extreme side of that Fallenness, for in religion we do not live in any fullness, whilst being outside any religion at all is the other extreme side of Fallenness, for in turning to the world for an answer to our personal and communal deadness we do not live either. There is ‘a’ truth in religion — we must reconnect — but there is ‘a’ truth in just living without even a hint of religion — we were created to live, created to find God in life.
But we preferred the Tree of Knowledge to Life. Religion is part of the Tree of Knowledge, as is no religion; one tells us to refind life, the other reminds us that, in the end, life is all, and life is enough.
The abuse of religion, which has always been so widespread and is pervasive today, will not be tolerated by God forever. God is perfectly capable of sending lightning to bring down the temple, the mosque, the church. If religion does not help us shed religion and return to life, then in Christ’s own words, religion becomes the salt that has lost its savour and is ‘good for nothing.’ Much religion is no longer any salt to the earth, any leaven in the bread, but is itself part of the toxic poison killing the earth and polluting the bread.
This cannot go on, and I do not believe God will tolerate it going on. When God strikes worldliness, as a tower built over a pit, and brings that tower down in order to expose the pit beneath it, religion too will be part of the crumbled and wrecked tower. Worldliness is one idol, but religion is the greater idol, and both will come down, and crumble to bits.
When worldliness and religion both end, then there will be Life. Our goal is Life. Our God is living and is the God of the living. Redemption will return all, with no sheep separated from goats, to Life.
Life is what we were created for, and Life is our end.