I have been wondering lately why people are religious. I suppose plenty of academics have spent their entire careers pursuing this question, so I doubt that I will resolve an answer in the space of this essay. And, honestly, it does not make much difference why other people are religious, but it is crucial that I understand my own interest in religion. Why do I spend so much time meditating on the Scriptures and praying and writing about my experiences? What am I after?
Michael Frost and Alan Hirsch structured their whole book, The Shaping of Things to Come, around the premise that people are searching for a deep, meaningful spirituality, even after having rejected whatever it is that the modern church is offering. To illustrate, they tell the story of a young man who became disillusioned with church, so he recruited a friend and they went boating on Sunday mornings. A few Sundays into this change of schedule, he started feeling a bit guilty, so he asked his friend if it would be ok if he read some Scripture. So he read a Psalm while his friend listened. Then they launched the boat. Each Sunday they continued the practice of reading a Scripture and pretty soon, others joined in to listen. Then they all went boating. Every Sunday, there was a Scripture reading. Every Sunday a large group of guys gathered ‘round and listened. Who could argue that this simple act of hearing a word from God was not meeting a deeply felt need amongst these men, and doing so in a way that the church had failed to do?
But, what, exactly, is this need?
On the other end of the Christian theological spectrum from Frost and Hirsch, Joseph Chalmers wrote,
People are searching for more; they are searching for depth; they are searching for something which will respond to their deeply-felt hunger; they are searching for God.
The BBC series, Soul of Britain, noted while church attendance fell over 20% during the decade from 1989 to 1998, 76% of the population reported a spiritual or religious experience that was still affecting them. That is an absolutely remarkable pair of statistics. What are all these people seeking?
Even if we label our deepest need as “God,” do we know what it is that we are searching for? Will we know it when we find it? And then there is the question, will we be able to tell when we have found something that looks like God, but isn’t?
At the Christianity Today blog, outofur.com, Url Scaramanga wrote about his experience teaching a World Religions class at a community college. He writes,
In the first assignment, the students wrote about their experience with religion from their earliest memories to the present… none of them reported leaving the faith of their youth because they had a traumatic experience or because they ultimately disagreed with the community’s teaching. Rather, most of them just stopped going. One week they went; the next week they didn’t. Services didn’t make any real difference in their life. (my emphasis)
In a separate essay on the same topic, Scaramanga observed,
Even… committed Christians failed to recognize what difference their faith made, say, in their marriages or careers. They could point to superficial things—like wanting to be married in their church, which meant they had to marry a fellow Christian—but couldn’t go much deeper than that… If we spoke of the Christian life more in terms of the inner life… maybe our young people would have an easier time identifying how their faith affects the rest of their lives. (my emphasis)
Is that what we’re looking for… some belief system or guiding force in our lives that will make our marriages better or enhance our careers? Is that the difference we’re wanting? Did the holy Lamb of God really get beaten and bloodied and spat upon and crucified so that I could be a better leader or a more beautiful person or take better care of my finances?
Somehow, I think there was a whole lot more on the line for Jesus. Whatever that was, he did it for me. Not my marriage. Not my career. Not my bank account. For me. He got arrested. But he refused to call on the legion of angels that was waiting right there in the wings. And he did it for me. He was humiliated in front of Pilate, and then Herod, and then Pilate again. He answered not a word. For me. The soldiers beat him and taunted him and tortured him. Still, he did not call for a rescue. For me. When the Romans, whom Jesus had created one by one, turned on him and fixed him to the cross like so much siding on a house, the cavalry did not come.
Jesus did all this, for me, because he knows what I, along with the rest of humanity, am after… even if I don’t know. “Since we have confidence to enter the holy place by the blood of Jesus… let us draw near.” In that place, I will find what I am searching for, even if I don’t know ahead of time exactly what that is. Any reluctance to draw near to God is to put myself in Pilate’s palace, spitting on Jesus. No matter. He died for me anyway. It was that important to him, and he knows what I am seeking.