It’s not theodicy that’s the problem, but religiodicy. How can you justify religion, or religions, in this world where they are perceived as being part of the problem, rather than the solution they always claim to be?
Of course you can take this right back to theodicy when you start to ask, What the fuck was God thinking of, inventing this (or that) religion and starting all this trouble in the first place? Trouble is, I’m convinced God is Somewhere wringing God’s hands and saying, “This isn’t what I meant at all! I didn’t intend this intolerance, bigotry, hatred, persecution, judgmentalism, war. In fact, I spent quite a lot of time in my Scriptures telling people not to do all this. But did they listen?”
So I found myself thinking, as so often before, How can religions which are supposed to be about relating to a loving God, or a covenant God, or an all-merciful all-compassionate God, turn into such ghastly travesties of what they are supposed to be? Citations not needed.
And in a moment of what felt like a revelation, I thought I heard the answer: It happened as soon as people began to ask themselves, How can I use this incredible idea to make people do what I want them to do? 1
It’s just possible some of them had reasonable intentions. They may have started off thinking, I believe God wants us to behave in such-and-such a way. And the next minute it’s, I want what God wants (of course I do), so I want people to behave in such-and-such a way, too. Even St Paul, who at one minute is asking, Who are you to judge the servant of another and tell them how to behave? is very soon giving pretty definite lists of forbidden behaviour.
And by the time of the emperor Constantine, with Christianity being declared the State religion, we’ve come straight to the point of religion being used as a tool for the governing classes to make their underlings behave just how the powerful and wealthy want them to behave. 2 And the sad thing is, there are always enough people who buy into this, who think it’s to their own advantage to say Yes to the powerful, and accept their view of what God wants, rather than take the trouble to discover what God’s character and wishes really are.
So what’s the answer? Some people think the best thing would be to abandon ‘organised religion’ altogether. But I’ve always taken the view, If you don’t like organised religion, just try what disorganised religion tastes like. (It’s a bit like what you’ve got in North America, or in every part of the Anglican Communion where clergy and congregations think they know better than their bishops.) Humans being what we are, it’s better to have some kind of society and authority, rather than everyone just doing what seems right to themselves.
And yet, the answer is also to let go of much of what organised religion has done and said, to go back beyond it to the words and deeds of the founders, and to find in them the traces of the nature of the God we all have it in us to know. For me, yes, the clearest of those traces can be found in the life and teachings of Jesus. At the end of the day, I hope we shall see clearly whatever is true in what each of the religions teaches. For the time being, we travel in uncertainty, trying to untangle the strands of mystery, trying to catch the glimpse of God that most nearly accords with what life has taught us.
Whether we think the questions are much more important and interesting than the answers, or vice versa… perhaps that is one of the things that either justifies the ‘religion’ we hold, or casts doubt on it?
- Like with the Internet. Possibly the most wonderful invention, promising true knowledge and free, open-source sharing between everyone in the world, and what do people do? They start asking, How can I make money out of this? ↩
- Of course, Islam got there even quicker by having a political structure almost from the word Go. ↩