Wednesday, October 21, 2009

On the comfort of religion

It's fashionable these days to see religion as the root of all evil, and to see believers as at best misguided fools, at worst vicious creeps who use their beliefs as tools in hatred. When we look at the American right, or at the Islamists who would gladly murder each of us had they the chance, it's easy to credit this picture.

I am reminded of my brief acquaintance with Brisbane's secular humanists. I consider myself a humanist, in that I believe that humans have value, that we can rely on ourselves to sustain ourselves, that we are capable of creating a world that is good for all of us to live in. Fundamentally, in my view, humanism is an expression of faith in ourselves, and however misguided that faith can at times feel, I have never abandoned it. However, these people focused on the "secular" part of their name, to the point that "religionhating humanists" would have been more accurate -- even "inhumanists", because when you despise a person's ideas that they hold dear to that extent, you are hating them; and given how many of us have beliefs that are not wholly rational, not wholly grounded in science, that will lead you to hating all of us, the antithesis of humanism.

I think many -- most -- believers would not recognise them in the picture some sceptics paint. Theirs is not the wrathful, unpleasant God that seems to motivate the likes of Rush Limbaugh or Mahmoud Ahmedinajad, but a God of comfort, who helps them cope with a sometimes confusing and difficult life. Who among us has not woken in the middle of the night, troubled, and wished to have a friend to share the burden? At times, I have wished I could believe in someone stronger -- and I am mostly rational, I think.

It is easy to have the wrong idea. I remember attending a Catholic mass, many years ago now. I was expecting a stern, rather solemn service, but it was nothing of the sort. It was much more like the friendly, open gatherings that I had attended as a child after Sunday school, when we would take the morning service at the Methodist church. The people had a genuine sense of community and togetherness, which I found touching. I don't know whether it is a tradition of Catholics or just of that church that they wish peace on each other in the service, but they did so with genuine warmth, even to me, who they knew to be a nonbeliever.

In Africa, I found people whose religion permeated their lives day to day, who observed the strictures of Islam closely, but simply as part of the fabric of their existence, not as an imposition. They too were unconcerned that I was not a Muslim, and indeed their understanding of Islam led them to be kind and helpful to strangers. I could not help thinking that if this is how religious people are led to behave, let us all be religious. For them, Allah was not a forbidding moraliser. He understood them, understood and accepted their frailty, and gave credit for their doing their best. Their Allah was a human god.

I was reminded powerfully of the concept of the god of comfort when someone used to be a friend of mine told me about her favourite hymn. This is my kind of god speaking! This is your older brother, the comforting arm around your shoulders, a friend who does not wish you to suffer for your inability to meet the strictures of tough rules, who loves you for who you are, understanding that you are doing your best:

Come as you are. That’s how I want you.
Come as you are. Feel quite at home.
Close to my heart, Loved and forgiven,
Come as you are, Why stand alone.

No need to fear, Love sets no limits,
No need to fear, Love never ends.
Don’t run away, Shamed and disheartened
Rest in my love, Trust me again.

I came to call sinners, Not just the virtuous,
I came to bring peace, Not to condemn.
Each time you fail, To live by my promise,
Why do you think I’d love you the less.

Come as you are, That’s how I love you,
Come as you are, Trust me again.
Nothing can change the love that I bear you,
All will be well, Come as you are.

The striking note for me in that hymn is in the final verse. Here is a god who does not demand that you fear him, are awed by him or are obedient to him. Rather, he approaches you as a supplicant, asking for your trust. This god knows what he offers us.

This is rather different from the often stirring and passionate hymns that we sang as children. I am impressed by the deep compassion that the man who wrote this hymn believes his god represents. I will not despise a religion that holds as its central figure an entity who far from setting us a tough moral course wants only to love us.

There are, of course, other ways to express the belief in a god of comfort. My own favourite hymn -- which I enjoyed to sing above all others when I was a child, more even than I vow to thee my country, which is something like the national hymn of England -- was written by a man at death's door, who was able to transcend his fear of death by appealing to his god to comfort him.

I am particularly moved by the verse in which Lyte asks that God come "not in terrors, as the King of kings, But kind and good, with healing in Thy wings". This was the god of my Methodist friends: a god of kindness and charity, a god to alleviate the pain of this world as much as to assuage fear of the next.

I will end with the words of my favourite hymn, which I find as moving as any poetry, and beneath them, a lovely version by Hayley Westenra, which I hope that even if you are not a believer, you can enjoy all the same.

Abide with me; fast falls the eventide;
The darkness deepens; Lord with me abide.
When other helpers fail and comforts flee,
Help of the helpless, O abide with me.

Swift to its close ebbs out life’s little day;
Earth’s joys grow dim; its glories pass away;
Change and decay in all around I see;
O Thou who changest not, abide with me.

Not a brief glance I beg, a passing word;
But as Thou dwell’st with Thy disciples, Lord,
Familiar, condescending, patient, free.
Come not to sojourn, but abide with me.

Come not in terrors, as the King of kings,
But kind and good, with healing in Thy wings,
Tears for all woes, a heart for every plea—
Come, Friend of sinners, and thus bide with me.

Thou on my head in early youth didst smile;
And, though rebellious and perverse meanwhile,
Thou hast not left me, oft as I left Thee,
On to the close, O Lord, abide with me.

I need Thy presence every passing hour.
What but Thy grace can foil the tempter’s power?
Who, like Thyself, my guide and stay can be?
Through cloud and sunshine, Lord, abide with me.

I fear no foe, with Thee at hand to bless;
Ills have no weight, and tears no bitterness.
Where is death’s sting? Where, grave, thy victory?
I triumph still, if Thou abide with me.

Hold Thou Thy cross before my closing eyes;
Shine through the gloom and point me to the skies.
Heaven’s morning breaks, and earth’s vain shadows flee;
In life, in death, O Lord, abide with me.


Blogger Looney said...

I little expected to read your blog and find my faith encouraged, but you have done so. Thanks...

November 6, 2009 at 6:42 AM  

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