In today’s pluralist, spiritual-but-not-religious world, it’s worth asking: Why Christianity? A lot of people are asking that question these days, if not in words then in actions. You know the statistics: falling church membership, those who still attend not accepting the tenets of the historical faith, even growing atheism. More people are content with a personal spirituality or with no spirituality at all. Even Christian believers, if they are thoughtful, honest people, may ask themselves whether Christianity is objective truth or just what they happen to prefer.
If you’re even reading this, you have some thoughts about what purpose religion serves. Well, what is the purpose of religion, and is religion in general, and one religion in particular, the only way to achieve that purpose?
Being a good person
This is certainly what many would offer as the foundation of religion. All the world religions, and most of the philosophies, deal with what we have to do and how we have to live in order to be good people. We have to align ourselves with the mandate of heaven, or follow the Five Pillars or the Ten Commandments; we have to recognize the balance of dharma and do works of mercy to people as well as rituals for God or gods; we have to embrace suffering and develop impassivity, or we have to embrace pleasures and revel in creation. The stated goal of these religions and philosophies is to be better – to please God, sin less, be more in control of behavior, follow the rules more exactly, and (let’s be honest) look better in the eyes of neighbors.
But religion has hardly cornered the self-improvement market. Secular systems also offer options for improvement. Psychotherapy can make it easier for you to behave as you should in your society and in some cases is more effective at that than religion. Physical training can make you stronger, healthier, and more attractive. Wealth and success also promise improvements in both personality and circumstances. There are courses, books, retreats, and advice any where you look, and some of them actually work to some degree.
So if it’s self-help you need, Christianity is not your best option. In fact, if you look carefully, Christianity discourages its followers from simply trying to be good. It even assures adherents that they won’t succeed at it. And there are plenty of Christians illustrating the principle that their religion doesn’t make them good people, and plenty of people of other religions, or no religion at all, who are generous, humble, and wise.
Finding inner balance and outer peace
The message of Christianity here, as with being a good person, is disturbingly mixed. Jesus tells us he brings peace but also a sword. And Christianity’s track record in achieving world peace is – well, it doesn’t really have one, does it. It probably has a better claim to bringing about inner peace, but even in that case Christianity can point only to a minority of genuinely contented individuals. Most Christians are as frazzled and angry as the people around them.
If it’s inner peace you want, several religions focus more on that than Christianity does; so does psychotherapy. And for avoiding outright war, you might as well go to the United Nations or the Hague as to church. So why not embrace instead the meditating Buddha, the Zen path to enlightenment, or the Baha’i effort to erase racial and national differences?
Achieving insight into the universe
Although this is offered as a function of religion, I’m not sure how many people are even interested in unveiling the secrets of life, the universe, and everything. Most of my students, for example, just want to get a good job, provide for their family, and be comfortable – that’s enough. But those who are driven by a search for truth are less and less likely to look for it in religion. Science is the door to knowledge nowadays, according to many, and if science can’t explain something, they think, then it isn’t real. (This is the attitude of average non-scientists, anyway. I hear it a lot in the classroom and in other world at large.) Because Christianity’s claims about the nature of God and humankind can’t be tested in a laboratory, they lack credibility.
But science has its failings, too, and those who have lost their – well, faith, for lack of a better word – in science may go to the opposite extreme from the laboratory in their search for knowledge. They want the out-of-body, mystical, emotional experience that comes from, oh, gnostic initiations or hallucinogenic drugs. The quotidian duties of Christianity don’t satisfy them for long.
In fact, pretty much anything you might expect to get from Christianity you can get from somewhere else, in some cases much more easily and thoroughly.
So why Christianity?
Because Christianity is for losers.
Christianity is not for the successful but for the disillusioned and hopeless. Christianity begins where everything else ends. When you’ve tried the therapy and the rule-following and the exercise routine; when you’ve been to Mecca, meditated until you’re stuck in the lotus position, or spent your savings on plush retreats in the California hills, and you’re still the same sinner you ever were – that’s when Christianity has something to say to you. And what it says is that God understands that we are broken and we can’t fix ourselves. And that’s pretty much how things are going to be in this life.
It’s true that the Son of God worked some miracles, that he “fixed” a few people, but not many. Most people were and are left just as damaged as they were before meeting Jesus. So he didn’t come just to fix us here and now, even though that’s what we’d really prefer. He came to keep us company, to be God with Us.
Only Christianity shows us a God who is hungry and dirty, rejected, abused, and killed, all in solidarity with prostitutes, shake-down artists, adulterers, cheaters, and all the rest of us twisted by sin. Christianity shows us a God who joins us in our fallen world to weep over the dead, and to sweat in terror in the face of his own death. He is the sacrifice freely given in our stead, while we spit on him. He is also the father who runs to greet us after we’ve tried all those other routes to happiness and success that have ended in the pigsty. He is not far from us; he comes to us when we are still far off. He does not require perfection by our own efforts.
God’s humility offends the people who are still convinced that they can achieve some form of goodness by their own efforts, and that the universe is set up to reward those who try hardest. But those of us who have seen all earthly methods fail, and who know our own failure, can relax into the embrace of the shepherd, the loving mother, the longing father who knows our humanity and has blessed it by his presence. If all the other systems for human perfection are working for you, then the God of failures, killed as a thief in a dusty and obscure corner of the world, has nothing to offer you. But to me, he is hope and rest and peace.