When religion is transformed from a response of faith in the God of heaven into an instrument for getting things done on earth, it is disfigured. It may retain the accoutrements of true religion – ritual, liturgy, personal prayer, offerings – but its essential nature has been altered. It preserves “the form of godliness,” as the Apostle Paul put it, while “denying its power.”
For as long as people have been religious – which is to say, for as along as there have been people – this has been a problem. When God ceases to be “the Beginning and the End” and becomes the means to an end, religion becomes a merely human tool.
There are illustrations of this phenomenon in the Bible itself. One particularly revealing instance happened early in the history of the nation of Israel. The Hebrews first identified as a distinct people group during the centuries they spent in Egypt. After their escape from Egyptian oppression and their migration to a suitable homeland, Israel operated under divinely given laws, summarized in what we know as the Ten Commandments.
The Ten Commandments themselves were engraved on two stone tablets and kept in a specially made and ornately decorated box known as the Ark of the Covenant. (Think Raiders of the Lost Ark.) The ark, which was considered sacred, was only to be moved by religious professionals and was never to be directly touched.
As sometimes happens with items of treasured status, people began to think of the ark superstitiously, as if the box itself possessed inherent power. So, when Israel’s war against the Philistine kingdoms began to go poorly, someone floated the idea that the ark could be used to rally the troops, bring God’s favor, and win the war.
The immediate effect of bringing the ark into battle was everything Israel’s leaders had hoped for. Their soldiers were inspired and their enemies were intimidated. But it is dangerous to try to use God as a means to an end, no matter how important the end. The Philistine armies crushed Israel’s troops, forced them to retreat, and captured the ark.
Religion is not a way to use God to attain one’s own ends, though the attempt has often been made in Christian history. For example, in the literary cycle of the Matter of Britain, King Arthur and his knights are regularly using sacred items, the name of Jesus, and the sign of the cross as instruments for winning battles. In the stories, this succeeds. In real life, it inevitably fails.
The practice of exploiting religion to attain personal goals is hardly limited to ancient history. It happens today in Prosperity Gospel circles, where greedy televangelists appeal to greedy viewers and everyone attempts to use God to get rich.
It would, however, be a mistake to think this is only a problem with the “name it, claim it” crowd. We need look no further than the machinations of so-called Evangelical religious leaders to see religion used to attain and retain political power. In the end, that will prove about as effective as taking the Ark of the Covenant into battle.
Lest anyone think the misuse of religion to serve a cause is an exclusively conservative failing, I would suggest that this is the chief temptation faced by religious liberals. The theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, whom President Obama once described as one of his “favorite philosophers,” wrote in Moral Man and Immoral Society: “…the most effective agents will be men who have substituted some new illusions for the abandoned ones. The most important of these illusions is that the collective life of mankind can achieve perfect justice. It is a very valuable illusion for the moment…”
It is in the context of “the social Gospel project” that Niebuhr speaks of “these illusions.” For him, the question was not whether these religious ideas were correct but whether they were “valuable,” whether they could serve the more immediate purpose of cultivating a just society. The trouble in all these scenarios is that religion loses its power when it is repurposed to serve human desire, whether that desire is for selfish gain or a just society. Religion is not a shortcut to attaining our goals but a response to God’s self-revelation.
First published in Gatehouse Media