Today’s question comes from Stevie. She writes: “Today I watched an interview with Father Richard Rohr, whom I know you read and respect. He said, ‘Religion can be the best of things and the worst of things. It can be the best place for a person to hide from God.’ What is your take on that statement?”
Stevie, you are right. I REALLY respect Father Rohr’s work, and one of his works – Falling Upward – has been a seminal influence in my life.
Let me just say when I heard the quote, my first response was very positive. It took a great deal of courage and clarity to make that statement. While I did not hear the context in which he made those remarks, I can offer a few reflects of what his statement raised for me – and then invite others into the conversation as well.
Let me start with the first sentence: “Religion can be the best of things and the worst of things.” I totally agree.
As someone from Generation X, I grew up around many who were very dismissive of religion. They obsessively focused only on the bad things that have been done in the name of religion (especially the Christian religion): the pogroms, the Holocaust, the Crusades, the oppression of indigenous populations, the misogyny, the homophobia, and the wars started by religious groups to name just a few.
Whenever I encounter someone who comes from this place, I try to listen and let them complete their laundry list of horrors. Then I ask if they are done with their list of the church’s “accomplishments”. If they are, then I saw something like, “I know that if we want to put together a list of ‘accomplishments’, we should be fair and include EVERYTHING on that list.”
With that I go on and add a list of good things that have been done in the name of religion: the schools and hospitals that have been created; the foodbanks and domestic violence shelters that have been formed; the social movements for justice and inclusion ranging from the Abolitionist movement toward the movement to equal marital rights: the Just-Peace movement; etc.
Once absolutely everything has been laid out, then we can do what Father Rohr did: acknowledge the “best” and “worst” things religion has accomplished. (And keep in mind the things I have listed are only the social impacts of religion. A similar list – on both sides – could be drawn up for spiritual matters.)
Those are my thoughts on Rohr’s first sentence. Let me move on to the second: “Religion can be the best place for a person to hide from God.”
One of the challenges those of us in religious institutions face is how easy it is for us to set up structures that quickly become a substitute for God and/or an experience of the Divine. The structures themselves can become our God if we aren’t careful!
We have weekly worship services, for instance, where people arrive (sometimes at the last second), sink into a pew, have an experience that others have crafted for them, and then leave. If an individual is not careful, they can treat the experience as if it were no different than a television show or play. They can either say they “liked it”, or “didn’t like it” – all the while thinking of it in terms of their personal preferences and not whether the experience facilitated for them an experience of God.
Same thing can happen with Bible Studies. People can get so focused on keeping up with the reading material, that they forget to actually engage the material. The goal, then, becomes completing an assignment – not having an encounter with God.
Even mission work can suffer if we are not careful. Local churches can become so focused on generating a flurry of mission activity designed to “help others” that participants lose sight of why they are helping people.
The long and short of it is that people participating in religion can become so focused on what I would call “being around God”, that they lose opportunities “to be with God”.
One of my goals in parish ministry is to slow things down and create more opportunities where individuals can have direct experiences of/encounters with God. Once that happens, individuals will be less likely to “hide from God” in the flurry of religious activity. At least that’s my story: and I’m sticking with it J
So what about you? What thoughts did Richard Rohr’s two sentences raise for you?