I like religion less and less, the older I get. To explain why, let me mention two examples from my own family of Christian faith. The smell of corruption that presently emanates from the Vatican is stomach-churning, and Pope Francis’s attempts to clean house seem to have called forth from his critics, not repentance but denial, dissimulation and unseemly finger-pointing. In the USA, many Christian politicians pander to people’s greed, fears and stupidity rather than appeal to their sense of justice, compassion and fair play. I was very amused, years and years ago, when a distinguished Christian leader observed ruefully that, in the church, very often it’s not cream but scum that rises to the top. Not that I quite believe him. My own experience is that it’s mediocrity that often wins out, with the trivial telling the talented what to do.
Look at the wider world of religions, and much the same could be said. And I haven’t even mentioned the propensity of some religious people to turn to violence in order to further their demented and wicked causes.
I write these words, ironically, upon my return from church. Why, I ask myself, do I still attend to the things of religion?
Two reasons, I suppose.
The first is that I take John Wesley’s point that it’s difficult to be a solitary Christian (or Muslim, Buddhist, whatever). There are many excellent religious people and I find that they keep me in faith and hope and love. They have done, throughout my life. When I lived in India, forty years ago, Christians, Muslims, Hindus, Parsees and others looked after me, who was the newcomer and the immigrant, because they had been shaped by their beliefs to love the stranger. Long years later, they continue to inspire me to show compassion, and to want to be good.
The second reason is that religion has all the best stories, and I’ve found them to be life-changing and life-enhancing. As I enter into the Christian story and stories, my life is challenged and changed by what Christianity’s narrative tells me about how to be a grown up in a world where it’s so much easier to be a 63-year-old perpetual adolescent, whining, entitled and angry. I’m not always as adult as I ought to be, but religion encourages and resources me to try harder.
The stories of Christmas appeal to me most. So I shall read Matthew and Luke, sing carols, read the season’s best poets, and be grateful that Christianity exists for, without it, such stories would never be told and I would be another person entirely. My gratitude will be tempered by embarrassment and horror at those religious people who, noisy as they are about their beliefs, haven’t got the point.
Merry Christmas, everyone. And a Happy New Year.