Religion = Reality + Relationship + Redemption

So what’s the nub of religion (or faith, or spirituality) for you – what’s it all about? Is it  about religious observance and believing the right things, or leading a decent life, or getting to heaven and avoiding hell, saving souls or making the world a better place?

As I may have given away in the title, for me the essence of religion is three things – reality, relationship and redemption. Let’s start with reality.

The pursuit of reality

‘Mysticism is the art of union with reality’ Evelyn Underhill
‘Mental health is a commitment to reality at all costs’ M. Scott Peck

God is Reality (which isn’t to say that reality is God). God is the ultimate Reality, the great ‘I AM’; the source and ground of all that is; the underlying Reality behind our reality. All other reality – all that we see and touch and are – springs from the original, essential Reality of God. ‘In him we live and move and have our being’.

So for me, religion is about first seeking to understand Reality in all its fullness, and then doing our utmost to align ourselves with that reality – the reality of God. Religion is the unswerving pursuit not of happiness or success or prosperity, but of the deepest and truest reality.

Many see religion as the avoidance of reality, an escape into a comforting fantasy world because real life is too hard to face. And that’s certainly tempting. But true religion (or Christlikeness) is never about avoiding painful reality; it’s about embracing it and seeking the deeper reality beyond or behind it that gives it context and ultimately meaning.

And the pursuit of reality can and should include the practical insights of science and psychology. I’ve argued elsewhere against the idea that atheism is the true embrace of reality, and that science is inherently anti-religious or vice versa. I’ve also argued that physical things are spiritual things.

All pursuit of truth is good, whether mystical or scientific. But I think some truths are more foundational than others, and that science makes more sense when seen in the context of a God-illuminated universe.

Embracing reality, warts and all

I believe that a good way of evaluating the goodness and usefulness (or otherwise) of any beliefs is the extent to which they line up with reality, or help us line up with reality. Or to put it another way, how much they promote emotional and spiritual health.

So anything that just promises to give us comfort without effort, or to shield us from all unpleasantness and pain, probably isn’t the real thing. Anything that over-simplifies the complexity or airbrushes the messiness of reality probably isn’t the real thing. And anything that just sounds like pseudo-spiritual bunkum quite probably is what it seems. Though not always.

We need to seek, face and accept the full multi-faceted reality of God, of the world, of other people and (perhaps most difficultly) of ourselves. In other words, we have to accept these things as they truly are, not as we want them to be or think they should be. It’s reality, warts and all.

That isn’t always easy of course. We tend to fear and avoid reality, because it’s often painful and unpleasant, at least at first. We often have to go through pain to the good that lies beyond, like pushing through the pain barrier when we’re starting to exercise.

The path to healing and freedom always lies through honesty and reality, not denial or fantasy.

Real vs ideal?

But of course ‘reality’ means very different things to different people. We talk of Realpolitik and ‘living in the real world’, meaning a pragmatic, anti-idealistic approach to politics and people and religion. In this view, we have to work on the basis that everyone is basically selfish and unlovely, and that we have to accept and even exploit that to achieve what we need to. Is this what it means to ‘line ourselves up with reality’; to ‘embrace reality, warts and all’?

This is a thorny issue and one I’d like to devote a whole post to sometime. For now, I’d just say that to an extent, yes, we do have to live in the world as it is and not as we’d like it to be. Sometimes there is no perfect solution, and we may have to compromise, to accept the lesser of two evils. Sometimes the ‘right’ way isn’t clear or isn’t possible. But that’s only the start, not the whole story.

Present and future reality

I’ve written before about the two kinds of real – the ‘present imperfect’ of this broken and messy world, and the ‘future perfect’ of the coming Kingdom that is now in bud. And when I talk about lining ourselves up with reality, it’s primarily the latter I’m referring to – the deeper, better reality currently hidden in God. (Or mostly hidden – just occasionally it breaks through into our lives, giving us a glimpse of what will be.)

In other words it’s the potential reality of what can be (and what we can be) in God, more than the present reality of what now is – though that’s important too, as that’s where we have to live for now. But we’re always seeking to bring our current imperfect reality more into line with the perfect reality of the Kingdom – the burgeoning realm of love and beauty, of redemption and restoration.

So our current reality, our actual lives in the physical world, is the raw material of redemption. It’s our real lives that are changed by and into the greater reality of God as the two kinds of reality come into contact with each other.

Rejecting unreality

C.S. Lewis’s The Great Divorce is the best book I’ve ever read about heaven and hell. In it, Lewis depicts heaven as more real, more solid and substantial than our current reality. By contrast the ‘shades’ who dwell in his hell have ever-decreasing reality and substance to the point where they barely exist at all. To be able to dwell in heaven, the characters in the book have to become more substantial, more real – otherwise they would simply be crushed by the weight of glory.

I love this image, and it sums up what I’m trying to get at about the two kinds of reality. The reality we possess and experience now is only partial and incomplete. We need ultimately to become more real than our present reality, and one of religion’s great tasks is to point us to the greater Reality, prepare us for it and gradually transform us into its (or ‘his’) likeness.

So perhaps the easiest way to think of Reality is simply as the opposite of unreality – of falseness and lies and self-deluding fantasy, which for me is what hell is about if it has any meaning at all. God’s reality leads us out of these traps and prisons, sets us free to be fully alive and truly ourselves.

Though of course, I might just be talking a load of pseudo-spiritual bunkum 😉

Next time – relationship and redemption…

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About TheEvangelicalLiberal

Aka Harvey Edser. I'm a web editor, worship leader, wannabe writer, very amateur composer and highly unqualified armchair theologian. My heroes include C.S. Lewis and Homer Simpson.
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24 Responses to Religion = Reality + Relationship + Redemption

  1. jesuswithoutbaggage says:

    Enjoyed your post. I thought this statement was very well put: “So anything that just promises to give us comfort without effort, or to shield us from all unpleasantness and pain, probably isn’t the real thing. Anything that over-simplifies the complexity or airbrushes the messiness of reality probably isn’t the real thing. And anything that just sounds like pseudo-spiritual bunkum quite probably is what it seems. Though not always.”

    I very much agree with you. Some believers put a lot of trust and emphasis on such things as you mention which do not seen at all aligned with reality. I am not too quick to take away their comfort without providing something better in its place, but I do think it often accompanies a simplistic, immature form of faith or belief and can, in some cases, be very harmful.

    My hope is that those who live this type of faith eventually grow on to a more substantial and wholesome level of faith and belief.

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    • Thanks Tim. Yes, unfortunately I think that a lot of what passes for Christian or religious teaching is often spiritualised wishful thinking or unhealthy fantasy fulfilment. And that’s not just the ‘nice and fluffy’ beliefs but just as often the harsh and judgemental ones, wishing hell and judgement on our enemies in the name of the Bible.

      There are so many ‘Christian’ (or pseudo-Christian) beliefs which seem to me out of kilter with reality – the Rapture (and most fundamentalist interpretations of Revelation), Young-Earth Creationism, limited atonement, total depravity, double predestination, King-James Only-ism, Eternal Conscious Torment, the Prosperity gospel, some of the extremes of wacky-end charismatic theology… I could go on and on.

      You’re right though – it’s not always helpful to take away people’s beliefs too soon, especially if it’s not immediately possible to replace them with something more positive. Rather than attacking other people’s beliefs, I hope to try and point towards healthier, more helpful forms of belief if possible.

      Of course, I know many atheists and agnostics would argue that all Christian beliefs are inherently out of kilter with reality, and I can understand that, but then I don’t see reality in quite the same way that they do. For me the fundamental reality is Love – though not as a force but a person.

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      • Terry says:

        I think you just need to name it and claim it, Harvey.

        Lewis’s The Great Divorce has collected dust on one of my shelves for a couple of years now. I know you’re something of a Lewis groupie, but is it really worth blowing the cobwebs off it sooner rather than later?

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        • jesuswithoutbaggage says:

          Terry, you are so funny! ‘Name it and claim it’ indeed…

          I cannot speak for Evan, but reading Great Divorce many decades ago was a turning point for me. At the time, I believed all the eternal torture by God in a burning hell doctrine I was taught. This book was the first thing that caused me to consider that I might have the wrong idea about the subject.

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        • Like Tim (aka Jesuswithoutbaggage), The Great Divorce was a turning point for me, and it’s probably had the most profound influence of anything on my views of heaven and hell. I read it as a relatively new Christian and its ideas and imagery have stayed with me over the years. And like Tim, it was the first book by a respected Christian that suggested that the mainstream evangelical doctrines of hell and salvation might not be the only legitimate ways of thinking.

          I’m not sure how much you’ll like it though – I know you’re not as much of a Lewis fan as I am, and it’s admittedly a little dated in places. Plus I suspect your preferred approach to theology is more rigorously academic than mine or Lewis’s. The Great Divorce is somewhere between vision/dream, fantasy and theological treatise, with a nod to Dante’s Inferno. But for me, it’s been hugely important.

          As an aside, I’ve lost some of my hero-worship of Lewis recently – I can acknowledge that he was a fairly deeply flawed human, and I strongly disagree with some of his thinking on (for example) warfare and gender roles. And I’m not such a fan of his works of apologetics or even The Screwtape Letters. But his poetic fantasies have opened up aspects of Christianity to me – particularly heaven and hell, and the character of Christ – in ways that nothing else has.

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          • jesuswithoutbaggage says:

            Evan, I feel similarly about Lewis. He had a tremendous influence on me through many of his books, but I certainly don’t agree with him in all things. Like you, I don’t care for the Screwtape Letters, but Lewis is on record for not being fond of that book, himself. He was very unhappy that it became by far the most popular book among his works.

            I also feel that one of his other passages–the Lord, Liar, Lunatic argument–which was adopted and highly promoted by conservative believers, is fatally flawed and a very poor piece of apologetics. However, I cannot deny Lewis’ great contributions even though he wrote some lesser stuff along with it.

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            • Yes, I completely agree about the ‘Lord, Liar or Lunatic’ argument (or ‘trilemma’ as I think some have called it). For someone famed for his logic, Lewis misses out several other obvious possibilities – for example, that Jesus’s words were misremembered, misreported or misunderstood. So while I do personally accept that Jesus was Lord, and do broadly accept much (not all) of the gospel witness, I just don’t think Lewis’s argument really works here. Though I know some find it helpful.

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            • Terry says:

              Doesn’t it work for its rhetorical effect, though?

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            • It’s certainly a nice memorable alliterative phrase!

              For me, Lewis’s logic isn’t his strongest point – though it can be quite good. Rather it’s his mythic (mythopoeic?) imagination, his ability to portray truth not in propositions but in symbols, images and types. That doesn’t work for everyone, but for me it conveys something of spiritual or divine reality that can’t otherwise be expressed, except perhaps in highly technical and specialist language that leaves me cold.

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      • jesuswithoutbaggage says:

        Evan, you say things so well!

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  2. Terry says:

    By the way, Harvey, you and Tim may be pleased to know that I’ve begun reading The Great Divorce. And I did have to blow dust off it!

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    • Very glad to hear it Terry.

      Mind you, I was a bit disappointed first time I read it, having expected it to be a light-hearted tale about a marriage ending in a really fun and happy way. 😉

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    • jesuswithoutbaggage says:

      Be sure to let us know what you think of it when you have finished. I might have to bring out my old copy for a refresher.

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      • Terry says:

        Okay, I’ve now read The Great Divorce. I read half of it one afternoon while travelling; then I forgot about it for a couple of weeks. But it’s done now.

        I have to say it was an interesting read, but not the (literally?) earth-shattering experience I’d anticipated. There were some interesting conversations in the chapters, and I can’t help but think the conversation relayed in Chapter 5 (I think; the one with the (Arch-)bishop) is relevant to this particular blog post. The nagging wife monologue towards the end was well done, too, I thought. I’m glad I read The Great Divorce, but there’s still part of me wondering what the fuss about Lewis is all about.

        It’s been a while since I read it, but for speculative storytelling about heaven, the vignettes in David Lawrence’s Heaven . . . it’s not the end of the world take some beating, in my ever-so ‘umble opinion.

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        • I think either you love Lewis or you don’t. I grew up on the Narnia stories and they’ve gone deep for me. And The Great Divorce came at a formative moment in my Christian journey (or whatever you want to call it) and made a huge impression. If I came to it now for the first time, maybe it wouldn’t seem so profound.

          But I do think that a lot of it is simply down to personality and personal taste. At the risk of committing heresy and blasphemy, neither Man Utd nor Marvel comics hold much interest or delight for me – I have to accept in faith that they must have value as they are important to you, but I lack the insight to perceive their importance myself. Maybe I can still be saved though…

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  3. Paul says:

    To say I was shocked after reading this post is to put it mildly. So I read it again and then for a third time with the same result. As one who finds himself more on the liberal side of most issues I for the life of me couldn’t find ONE thing to disagree with. Lord have mercy 😀. Great post!!

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  4. Alfiethedog says:

    Shall look forward very much to your post on ‘living in the world’. In my experience the term is almost always used as a synonym for ‘in the business world’ – which is of course part of reality, but only a minuscule one. More generally, I might also want a fourth ‘r’, namely ‘relishing’. Relishing God, other people, the world, yourself. All part of the joy that religion is surely also intrinsically about.

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    • Yes, I completely agree about ‘relishing’. Hugely important and quite a major omission! ‘To love God and enjoy him forever’, to paraphrase the W.S.C.

      For me a lot of the ‘living in the real world’ dilemma is the tension between pragmatism and idealism. How much can we truly live out what often seem like the wildly unrealistic ideals of Christianity – say, of the Sermon on the Mount – within this messy real world of messed-up people, chief among them being ourselves? Given that within this present world the dominant forces seem to be greed and selfishness and desire for power, how much should we seek to work with that (say, with ‘Christian marketing’) and how much should we stand against it?

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  5. Alfiethedog says:

    I’ve no answer, of course, other than that those who go in for authentic, against-the-grain Christianity need to do it together, and hence using a variety of mutually complementary approaches. Goes not least for the workplace: for every person who denounces bad ideas or dishonest people with what we like to think of as ‘refreshing directness’, you need someone who might seem to compromise, even trim, but might actually achieve more. Cunning as serpents, innocent as doves, thick-skinned as rhinoceri, unequivocally adorable as labradors – we, together, need to be all of these and more. I suppose.

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    • Very well put! I’ll put in a word for cats too… ‘blissfully selfish as cats’ perhaps.

      It’s a tension I’m trying to work out for myself, because of course I’m in a work environment whose overarching values and ethos I no longer feel I can fully sign up to, but I’m also not sure how productive it will be to directly protest against. It’s the whole ‘living in the world but not being of the world’ dilemma, and I’m not sure there are any easy or one-size-fits-all answers. As you say, maybe we need the activists and also the diplomats, the protestors and also those who work more quietly from within. Though maybe I’m just saying that as a cop-out!

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