Sermon given at Matins on Sunday 2 October 2011
2 October 2011 at 10:00 am
The Reverend Professor Vernon White, Canon in Residence
A menacing crack of thunder, a nightmare, or just some unaccountable frisson of fear…and a young child runs to its mother. The mother instinctively gathers the child up. ‘It’s all right’, she says, ‘everything is all right’. And because, to the child, the mother is all powerful, the child believes and is reassured.
And so, some say, religious belief is also born. That is how religion is constructed. It is born precisely out of that deep need for reassurance that we all have in a hostile world. A reassurance we find temporarily in our earthly parents, if we are lucky, and then unconsciously we project our parents into the heavens and come to believe in the divine Father figure. Our ache for security is so great we invent God…and then hand him down in religious beliefs and practices which take on a life of their own. Religious beliefs which then take even deeper root because they not only make us feel safe: they also give us purpose, pride, identity, belonging. They meet our deepest needs and desires at every level, personal, social, sometimes national too.
So – has religion all just been invented out of these needs? The realization of this possibility can be a real challenge to our belief. Such a realization received huge impetus in the 19th and 20th century from those great masters of suspicion: Nietzsche, Feuerbach, Durkheim, Freud. They brought new insights of psychology and anthropology to bear on the origins of religious faith to show how easily it could all be seen as humanly constructed.
And for some this was quite liberating! It still is. For those brought up under the yoke of an oppressive guilt-ridden religion it helps them break free. It helps them resist the seductions and spurious sense of authority of the dangerous extremisms of religion. After all, to see through something is the first step to freeing ourselves from it. But for others this possibility that it’s all made up is, of course, deeply disturbing. We feel that childhood frisson of fear more deeply still. If there really are no everlasting arms beneath the mother’s arms then this can be terrifying indeed. It means everything is not all right. And there is no guarantee it ever will be.
But we need not be so alarmed. The realization that much religion is humanly constructed is not something new which must inevitably undermine true faith. Our Judaeo-Christian faith has long recognized that religion can be constructed, false, even dangerous. The prophets frequently warned against false ideas even in their own religion. ‘Do not think you are safe when you come into your own Temple’, Jeremiah railed to the people of Israel in the 7th century BC: ‘your Temple has become just a false symbol of national pride; by which you to evade the demands of God’s real covenant, and the justice it requires’. But - acknowledging this falsity in religion did not for one moment mean Jeremiah had abandoned all belief in the true and living God. Jesus likewise, much later, is depicted in John’s Gospel warning us against trusting too much the religious systems of his time. But again, this was in no way a scepticism about all truths of faith. It was to make room for the true God of Spirit and Truth, who was found most reliably not in this religion or that (not ‘on this mountain or in that Temple’), but in living personal relationship with Christ Himself - the Way, Truth, and Life, who stood not only within a religion, but also beyond religion, and sometimes in judgement of religion. One of the greatest 20th century theologians echoes these biblical teachers: ‘in religion man can bolt and bar himself against God’, he wrote. This doesn’t mean we can dispense with all communal, organised religious practices. God most certainly can and does meet us through them. But it is a reminder that we have always seen how easily they can be made into a fantasy, a false refuge, a source of false pride - an evasion of the very God they are supposed to mediate.
My point, then, is simply this. The fact that this self-awareness and self-criticism has always been at the heart of faith should be reassuring. It is not that our ancestors in the faith were naïve and simply hadn’t realized how much is humanly made-up. They knew well and still they believed…
But have those more recent insights of psychology and anthropology added something new? Something which might require us to really abandon it all? No! They have made us more aware of the mechanisms by which we sometimes create our beliefs: mechanisms like childhood fears or social needs. But to understand these mechanisms better does not in itself discredit the truth of what they point to. After all, in ordinary experience we do not normally reckon that uncovering the mechanism of our needs and desires means that what we need and desire does not actually exist. Understanding my hunger for food or for love in biological or evolutionary terms does not mean there is no such thing as food or love. If anything, it is actually a sign they really exist. So why should it be any different with our ache for God?
Our religious longings, like most other instincts, are indeed double-edged. They may well seduce us to invent a god of false security, and evade the deeper mysteries and demands of the real and living God. But at the same time they may also be a sign of that real and living God: a God more mysterious and less accessible than the instant arms of a mother, but actually one more real, more enduring, a more ultimate security to us. In short, these deep instincts are two-way traffic. They carry our own perilous fantasies and constructions. But they also carry God’s real revelation to us. The revelation that there really is a God, standing at the source and end of our longings. The revelation that God is not our creation. We are His.