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.
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…