“It is customary to blame secular science and anti-religious philosophy for the eclipse of religion in modern society. It would be more honest to blame religion for its own defeats. Religion declined not because it was refuted, but because it became irrelevant, dull, oppressive, insipid. When faith is completely replaced by creed, worship by discipline, love by habit; when the crisis of today is ignored because of the splendor of the past; when faith becomes an heirloom rather than a living fountain; when religion speaks only in the name of authority rather than with the voice of compassion – its message becomes meaningless.”
-Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel
I originally found the meme on Facebook but it led to James F. McGrath’s blog (which is at Pathoes and thus cluttered with too many ads that slow the blog page from loading in the browser) where he doesn’t say that much more about it. All McGrath commented on was this:
The quote was circulating on social media recently, and so I thought it should be turned into a meme. I made the one above and scheduled the post. Then yesterday I saw that Christians Tired of Being Misrepresented had made their own meme with (a truncated version of) the quote. And so I am including that one too, below. I am glad Heschel’s words are getting this much attention just in time for Evolution Weekend, for which they seem especially appropriate.
See also Jim Kidder’s post on the attempt of the Discovery Institute to do precisely what Heschel criticizes.
The former article begins:
At its core, Christian life is set of sacred traditions linking generations of sacraments and Sunday school lessons, youth ministry morals and family gatherings sanctified by prayer. An unbroken circle, in the words of an old hymn.
Maybe that’s the problem, assuming it’s true. If the rituals, sacraments, and Sunday school lessons don’t connect to anything but the life you lead on Sunday morning and evaporate immediately afterward, then religion is no more relevant to your day-to-day existence than watching an hour-long television show once a week. In fact, given how much attention entertainment is given in our culture, that TV series may actually be more relevant, since it has a much wider audience, thus giving you more people to relate to through the show.
In the latter story, the first question it says millenials are asking is “Is our church real or relevant?”
I guess the question I’d respond with is “Are you real or relevant?”
OK, that was a tad snarky, but hear me out.
In any human endeavour, it can be said that you will get out of it what you put into it. I think that extends to the world of religion and faith as well. If you want a “relevant” relationship with God, you have to seek it out. It’s not just going to happen.
Sure, God can do anything including override your free will, but experience and the Bible teach me that He’s not going to do that. He requires much, and we only find relevancy and a sense of our faith being real when we respond, not just for a few hours on Sunday (or on Saturday if you’re Jewish or otherwise attend a synagogue), but for seven days a week during each waking moment.
I know, I know. Easier said than done, and I’ll be the first one to admit that I don’t attend to the desires and requirements of God every time I take a breath. It’s too easy to get distracted by our jobs, home life, taking kids to soccer practice, dozens and dozens of mundane tasks where, in order to be mindful of the living God, we must make the extra effort to turn to Him, even as He’s waiting for us to do that.
I think the problem with the perceived lack of relevance of religion in modern life is the misunderstanding on what religion is. Yes, part of it has to do with ritual, and particularly for observant Jews, set times for prayer, gathering with a minyan, blessings upon donning a tallit and laying tefillin, blessings before eating, different blessings depending on what you’re eating, blessings after eating, blessings over lighting the Shabbos candles, blessings over…
If that’s your total vision and understanding of your religion, it’s going to eventually get either really boring or a less-than-mindful habit that you practice by rote. Perhaps comforting, but ultimately meaningless.
Christians do this too, it just isn’t called “ritual”. Go to church, get greeted at the door, chit-chat with a Bible in one hand and a cup of coffee in the other until the service starts, go through the ritual of the service, listening to announcements, standing and sitting, singing, greeting the people around you when you’re told, putting money in a plate, more music, listening to the sermon (maybe even taking notes but more often than not just zoning out), going to Sunday school (or not because it’s boring and you have better things to do), agreeing with the standard party line during class and not asking questions that you don’t already know the answers to…
That’s really tedious as well. No wonder there’s a mad rush to leave for Sunday brunch afterwards and then maybe get in a quick game of golf.
Because if decades ago, Rabbi Heschel could recognize this problem, and in this day and age, the problem seems worse than ever, just dropping the message into a single blog post and walking away isn’t going to have much (or any) impact.
Is your church or synagogue boring, not real, irrelevant? Maybe that’s because you are. If you want something more out of your religion, start putting more into it. Stop acting like religion is something you’ve just added to your pre-existing life, and start acting like you can’t live without an active, pulsating, moment-by-moment encounter with God.
Easier said than done, I know.
I can’t tell you exactly how to do all that. I’m still figuring it out for myself. This is as far as I can take you, assuming this is territory you want to explore.
I know what I’m about to say is full of trap doors, but your relationship with God isn’t wholly dependent on ritual and religious celebrations. It’s more about stopping whatever you’re doing right now and turning toward God. Then it’s about doing that again as often as you can.
It’s about seeing human needs all around us as opportunities to serve God in a real, meaningful, and relevant way. Donate food to a food bank and your old clothing to a homeless shelter. Visit a sick friend at their home or in the hospital. Comfort the widow who has just lost her husband. Donate clothing, toys, and any other necessary items to foster children.
If you want your religion to be real and relevant, live a real and relevant life. I said I didn’t know how to take you any further, but all of the suggestions I made in the previous paragraph are based on what the Bible says God wants us to do.
If your religion is boring, it’s because of you. If you’re religion is relevant, same answer. All you have to do is listen to God and your faith will never be boring again.
Our problem is we don’t always listen. For some of us, we listen so infrequently that we’ve forgotten (or never learned) what God’s voice sounds like.