The Inconvenience of Religion

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4 Oct 2015  – Rev Dr Patrick T. O’Neill preaching, The Inconvenience of Religion.

As one theologian puts it, ‘Faith is something one believes, while Religion is something one practises.’ Human nature being what it is, of course, there is almost always a gap between the two. Religion includes something more than just the privacy of the heart; also includes a willingness to have one’s inner harmony disturbed on occasion by the recognition of the pain and the brokenness of the less fortunate in the world around us, and the need for healing action in the world. A conscience is an inconvenient thing!


The Inconvenience of Religion”

A Sermon by Rev. Dr. Patrick T. O’Neill

Delivered at Rosslyn Hill Unitarian Chapel in London, UK

October 4, 2015

The story is told of Mohandas Gandhi that on one occasion, after he was imprisoned and beaten for taking part in a non-violent demonstration against British oppression in India, he was asked by a reporter what drove him to do such things at such great risk to his personal safety.

“I am a Hindu,” the Mahatma replied, “and fortunately for me, that fact has consequences.”

My revered colleague in ministry, Dr. Phillip Hewett, has written,

“(Religion) is for some people one isolated department of life, without much bearing on other departments; a sort of private hobby for those who like to indulge in it. Like the best china, it is brought out on formal occasions and then packed away and forgotten. Religion they say is all very well in its place, but it should be kept in its place, and that place is a very limited one.

This results from a very narrow interpretation of what is meant by religion,” writes Hewett, “If it were true that being religious consisted in nothing more than repeating a formal and superficial creed, then such an attitude would be justified. Where belief goes no deeper than this one may endorse the oft-heard remark that it doesn’t really matter what a person believes as long as he or she lives in a decent and law-abiding way. But beliefs which are genuinely held have an inescapable effect on the life of their holder.” (Phillip Hewett, An Unfettered Faith, Lindsey Press, London, 1955. p.135)

Gandhi had it right. His Hindu faith had consequences. Fortunate for him. Fortunate for India. Fortunate for the world. His beliefs had consequences. They called him to step forward, to step up to the oppression that enslaved his homeland. His beliefs had consequences. They called him to speak up in behalf of principle and justice. And when he did so, his beliefs gave him the courage and strength to face all manner of threat and attacks on his life.

Beliefs have consequences. For how are all compelled to live. For how we view the world and everyone in it. Our beliefs call us to be in the world in a certain way, with certain duties and obligations to our principles.

Gandhi may have accepted the full consequences of his beliefs as a Hindu, but the ethic of our time seems not so ready to embrace consequences which are inconvenient or difficult, let alone dangerous. If Gandhi’s actions and consistency in living out his beliefs we easy, we wouldn’t hail him as a modern day prophet. “How can we change the world?” a student once asked him. “Changing the world is always an illusion,” replied the Mahatma. “Start with trying to change yourself. That would be miracle enough.”

Belief has consequence. In fact, within most of the major religious traditions of the world, one’s life is profoundly proscribed by the requirements and practices that touch on virtually every aspect of daily living, from the way one eats or fasts, to the clothing one must wear, to how and how often one prays, to how one worships, also how one relates to others; how one behaves; the kind of art, music, dance, and drama one can produce, and ultimately the kind of civilization one strives to create. Islamic observance of the Ramadan fast, Jewish dietary laws, Hindu practices, Christian Commandments and Lenten observance acknowledge some aspect of belief that is not merely intellectual or mental, but distinctly corporeal and psychological.

This is religious practice that involves the full human being, body and soul, physical and mental, corporeal and cerebral. The genius of such involved systems of belief and theology is that such systems can be understood and practiced on any number of levels, by all types of people, regardless of their station or their education level.

Thus, it was part of the genius of Medieval Catholicism that it could be appreciated and practiced by both the European peasantry and the intelligentsia at the same time. It could claim the genius of a Thomas Aquinas or an Erasmus at the same time that it captured the pious hearts of illiterate workers pausing for Angelus bells in the fields.

The peasants had neither the need nor the ability to argue the faith as canon lawyers, but their faith infused their daily lives so as to affect everything they did.

According to the latest statistics, you are among the 3 million or so people in the UK who chose to attend a worship service this week. Of course, that means there are another 63 million or so folks who, by choice or by circumstance, will not grace a house of worship with their presence this week.

I was wondering about exactly what it is that the Unitarians of Hampstead might share in common with those other 3 million people in the churches and temples of their choice this week – and I was also thinking about the ways in which we might be a wee bit different from most of them.

You see, I’ve always been curious about what it means to be a religious or spiritual person, in general, and what it means to be part of a liberal religious community, in particular.

Thinking about this sent me back to one of my favorite books when I was first studying for ministry many years ago. The book is entitled, I Asked For Wonder (Crossroads Publishing, New York, 1983) by Rabbi Abraham Heschel, the great Jewish theologian who died in the 1970’s. In his book, Heschel proposes that there is one basic consciousness, one realization, if you will, that is the beginning of all religious consciousness. It is the notion that “something is asked of us” simply by virtue of our sharing the great gift of life. Something is asked of us.

It makes the bold proposition that as sentient, spiritual human beings, something is asked of us in life, and unless we find some way to respond to this primal consciousness, this primal request of existence, we run the risk of waking up some morning in mid-life with a surprising vacancy and emptiness in our hearts.

Something is asked of us. If life is a gift, then we who share in it are debtors, and try as we might to escape the notion, unless we find a way to give something back to life, then sooner or later we are likely to encounter that hollowness that T.S. Eliot referred to in his image of the hollow men of the twentieth century.

Rabbi Heschel puts it quite plainly. He says that unless we find a way to be givers in a world which seems to reward only takers — unless we find a way to be of some service in a world which seems to encourage self-centeredness, then ultimately we are walking the way of the empty heart.

Something is asked of us. This is, I believe, the realization that distinguishes the truly spiritual personality from the non-spiritual, whether inside churches or outside, Baptist or Unitarian, Humanist or Theist, it doesn’t matter. However you wish to phrase it, this is the one common experience of existence which spiritual people never really need to debate, and which non-spiritual people are always loathe to grant. This feeling, this non-rational, intuitive sense of being called to give, this sense of primal request and obligation: the knowledge that something is asked of us.

I submit to you this morning that to be “Spiritual” or “Religious” is to hungry for and ever in search of ways to respond to this great eternal, internal human request.

And exactly what is it that is asked of us? In a world where so many of our brothers and sisters on the planet, in our country, in our own city lack for adequate housing, adequate food, adequate health care, and the minimum necessities for a life of dignity – what then is asked of us? Do we really not know? We ask the question as if it were some innocent philosophical exercise, and not really the most pressing ethical question a human being, or a human society, could ask.

Do we really not know how we ought to respond to the condition of a permanently broken world, do we really not know in our heart of hearts what we owe to each other in the name of our humanity, how we should be treating each other, person-to-person, nation-to-nation in a perilous age? I think we do know.

In truth, it seems to me that the one major moral difference between us and every other people who precede us in history is that we – you and I – can never again hide behind the excuse that “we didn’t know what was happening in our world during our lifetime.”

In this glorious and painful hundred years now ending, this century of Auschwitz, and the killing fields of Cambodia, and the ethnic cleansing in the Balkans or in Indonesia, this century of mass starvations and genocides in Africa and Armenia, of the reckless deforestation of the Amazon regions, this century of unchecked nuclear weapons proliferation – it is simply no longer a credible or acceptable excuse for any privileged, literate Westerner to say, “I didn’t know.”

It simply won’t wash anymore for any of us to say, “We didn’t know what was happening in that part of the world over there. We didn’t know the plight of those poor unfortunate people over there…” We cannot say that ever again.

Because now we do know, and we know immediately about virtually every tragedy, every war, every earthquake, tremor, and flood, every aggression that happens in every part of the world. We have instant, overwhelming, and unavoidable knowledge of literally every wounded corner of our world. And as a result of this terrible knowledge, we face some really overwhelming ethical dilemmas as a people, such that no power or nation has ever faced before.

The truth is that as a society we can never again claim ignorance for the evils and injustices of the world. Oh, we can say, “We didn’t care, ” or “we didn’t want to know,” or “we chose not to be involved with certain messy situations that didn’t immediately affect us or our individual national Interest, or we chose not to try to be the saviors of every tragedy, or the policemen of every conflict, or the arbitrators of every injustice in the world,” but in the eyes of history, this privileged and uniquely gifted nation of ours will face many difficult and unprecedented ethical quandaries in the generation ahead. And we will carry the burden of history’s judgment for our responses or non-responses to those situations, for our silences and our complicity, as well as for our heroics or compassion.

We have a terrible, inescapable burden of knowledge of the way things are in our world today, and that knowledge places inescapable moral implications on the way we must live – every one of us, on how we spend our days, on the causes we will choose to support with our time, with our talents, and with our treasure, on the lessons we must teach our children and our grandchildren.

Here in the second decade of the twentieth-first century, more than at any other time in history, it is essential that individual people ask aloud the primary religious question, “What, then, is asked of us?” Those with eyes to see and ears to hear the travails of the world today, those who are awake and witness to the realities around us, will never really have to search long or hard for answers to that question.

Surely the oldest religious – spiritual – questions of history come down to this: What must I do, how shall I live, to find meaning and substance in my life? What is required of me to be a person of integrity and humanitas? How should I live so as to be an agent of hope and justice and equity in the world, so as to know joy and contentment and inner peace with my conscience? It’s the same question that the rich young man was asking Jesus 2,000 years ago (“Master, what must I do to be saved?”) and it is the same question that the prophet Micah was answering for his people 4,000 years ago. It is the same variation on a theme again and again down through history, and the prophets and religious masters and greatest teachers consistently offer us profoundly simple answers to these questions.

They say to us, “Love God and love your neighbor.” They say, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” They echo Micah’s great injunction: “Love mercy, do kindness, and walk humbly with your own God.” They say what Jesus said, “Follow the commandments as you know them in your heart: Feed the hungry, clothe the naked, shelter the homeless, comfort the afflicted.

Ralph Waldo Emerson, a Unitarian minister, once put it that the purpose of a church is to comfort the afflicted and to afflict the comfortable. If your faith is genuine, and if your values are deeply held, you can be sure that this will sometimes call you and your community into places you never thought you’d ever go, into activities you never expected to join, into relationships you never thought you’d enter. Because beliefs have consequences, and faith is sometimes an inconvenient thing to have. It’s going to prick your conscience now and then. It’s going to call you out of your spiritual comfort zone now and then. It’s going to cost you your complacency on occasion. And it’s going to require you and our beloved Chapel here on occasion to walk our talk in the name of principle and ethics and justice and compassion. And it’s going to change you.

–Patrick T. O’Neill