IS RELIGION A CRUTCH?

OCTOBER 17, 1999
R.M. FEWKES


He wasn’t much on religion, he said.
Seemed like a crutch to him, instead
He’d stand on his own…go it alone;
Because the whole thing is all in the head:
So he drank of beauty, but couldn’t share it…
And seized on truth, but couldn’t swear it…
Craved for love, but couldn’t spare it…
All in his head, he couldn’t bear it…
And only then, when his heart cried out,
Did he find what religion was all about.
(Francis C. Anderson, Jr.)

Good old Jesse "the Body" Ventura, former wrestler and Governor of Minnesota, has given new meaning to the notion of politics as entertainment. In a recent interview in Playboy magazine he said a lot of dumb things that no politician in his right mind would put out to his constituents. The comment that got him in the most trouble was his statement that "organized religion is a sham and a crutch for weak-minded people who need strength in numbers. It tells people to go out and stick their noses in other people’s business." I think he can safely write-off the Evangelical vote in his next run for office.

Jesse’s comment has generated a lot of response in the media. David Nyhan, writing in the GLOBE, says it was indeed a stupid bozo statement by an exuberant politician trying to be provocative for a girlie magazine, but then he reminds us that we all say or do bone-headed things from time to time, don’t we, and shouldn’t a politician be able to say something dumb and not have to be boiled in rhetorical oil? I suppose. But then I wouldn’t have anything to say in response and I do need a sermon for Sunday morning.

E.J. Dionne, Jr., another syndicated columnist, asks Jesse if Martin Luther King, Jr., was weak-minded because he used organized religion to further the goals of the civil rights movement; or Dietrich Bonhoffer, the German theologian, who was martyred by the Nazis because he opposed Hitler; or Mother Teresa who used her faith to organize an order of nuns to work with the poor of Calcutta. Were their acts of courage and compassion a sham and a crutch and an excuse for sticking their noses in other people’s business? Hardly.

Nonetheless, Gov. Ventura, does raise an important question about the nature and purpose of organized religion. Is religion a crutch, and if so, is that necessarily bad? What about Unitarian Universalism? Are we guilty sometimes of over emphasizing individualism and freedom of belief so much that it ends up as freedom from any belief and no commitment to organized religion whatsoever?

I remember once calling upon an older man in my former parish in Middleboro. He told me that the reason he never came to church anymore was because Unitarianism had taught him to be so independent that he no longer needed religion anymore. He had become a church unto himself. An interesting notion, I thought at the time. A few months later he died. The family called upon me, the representative of the institution of the liberal church he had presumably outgrown, to perform the funeral. They would never have understood if I had suggested to them that he do it himself, but the thought crossed my mind.

The poet W.H. Auden once noted that when he went to Spain during the Civil War in the 1930s he was stunned and dismayed to see so many of the churches in that land standing closed. He then realized that though he had himself ignored the ministrations of the church for the past 16 years he nonetheless sub-consciously expected it to keep functioning anyway. There’s lesson here for church canvass committees to remember when they have to canvass people who are reluctant to support the church. The message they need to get across is, if you expect the church to be there when you need it you have to give it your support even when you think don’t need it. If you don’t you may have to do your own funeral. That may be the price we have to pay for outgrowing religion—the death of the church, even the most liberal of churches.

My former parishioner in Middleboro had talked himself into believing that he had outgrown religion, but he and his family wanted and expected the church to be there and to respond to their need when faced with the extremity of death. You can’t have it both ways—a radical individualism, which eschews religious association—and then in extremity call upon the institution of the church which is based upon the recognition of the need for human community.

Unitarian Universalism has often tried to have it both ways. On the one hand we trumpet the self-reliance taught by Emerson, our preeminent Unitarian philosopher, and then on the other hand, we want our members to support the institution of the liberal church that Henry Bellows, Emerson’s contemporary, said was so essential for our spiritual formation. If we were all to become radical individualists there would be no liberal church to serve our needs in times of extremity or joyous celebration. In the end individualism must yield to communitarianism. Our vaunted individualism makes no sense apart from our connections to community, both religious and secular.

19th century German theologian, Frederick Schleiermacher, once defined religion as "a feeling of absolute dependence." By this he meant the fundamental recognition of the derivative character of human existence and the realization of the finite limited nature of that existence. We did not create ourselves. We are all of us derived from a power, a reality, and an evolutionary process that precedes our coming into being, and transcends our going out of being. The realization of this existential fact of our human condition is what Schleiermacher meant by a feeling of absolute dependence, and he claimed that religion, its rites and rituals, its ceremonies and celebrations, grew out of this feeling of dependence upon powers and sources of being beyond ourselves.

So when people like Jesse Ventura say that religion is a crutch—and they certainly don’t need a crutch—they are acknowledging that human beings are dependent upon powers and persons beyond themselves for their very survival, but denying that this applies to themselves. Of course, it is true, there are those who use religion to foster an unhealthy and unrealistic dependence upon what may seem to us illusory or inadequate realities—but this does not change the fact that we derive our existence from sources and persons beyond ourselves. We need the powers of being in nature and creation, we need the approbation and support of other human beings, to complete the house of our human selfhood. We shall be forever building that self so long as we draw the breath of life.

In isolation from nature and others we are nothing. In relation to those same realities we become fully human. We all begin life as helpless infants (absolute dependence) and move ever so slowly towards the independence of adulthood. But the independence of adulthood is not one of "absolute independence" but the mature recognition of our human interdependence. We need one another to become whole and loving and free. A healthy psychology and a healthy religion affirms and celebrates the reality of our human interdependence.

Kenneth Patton has written, "Not until a man has helped himself can he help another; not until he has made himself strong can he lift his brother or sister." Certainly there is truth here. However, it is also true that sometimes before we can help ourselves we must first be schooled in the art of helping ourselves by those who are wiser or stronger than we are. There are few of us who have pulled ourselves up by our own bootstraps. We have all had various sources of help and guidance and encouragement along the way. And we are grateful we had it when we did, for we know we would be less than we are today had it not been there when we needed it. In other words, all of us have needed a "crutch" at some time or other to get over the rough spots on the road of life. Sometimes it’s a minister, sometimes a relative or a friend, sometimes a stranger. Sometimes it’s overtly religious, sometimes covertly so.

I know in terms of my own development it was overtly so. When my parents divorced when I was 14 years old it created an emotional gap in my life which the church helped to fill. I became active in a local church youth group near my home, becoming President of the group in my senior year of high school. I made new friends, grew in my sense of self-worth, befriended the minister who was advisor to the group, and received from all these associations inspiration to consider the ministry as my future life vocation. It took me two years into a college engineering course to finally make that choice, but I have never regretted it.

I have always been grateful that the church played a vital helping role at a critical time in my own life. The core dimension of myself wanted to return what I had received, and so I went into the ministry. If this amounts to using religion as a crutch then I make no apologies. I’m just glad it wasn’t a rubber crutch. It helped me to stand on my own two feet, though it seems like I hobbled along for long time, and I still have my days when that’s the best I can do. How about you?

Who of us is so strong that we can say we never needed a helping hand until we were strong enough to go it alone? And those of us who have achieved some measure of inner strength know that the very strength we draw upon has come from weakness we once faced with the help and assistance of another. Sure, we threw the crutch away, but we were glad it was there when we needed it. And there will be days when we will need it again.

The negative connotation attached to the charge that religion is a crutch goes back to Freud who wrote a little book in 1927 entitled, The Future of an Illusion. Freud argued that the belief in an almighty personal Father-God, who created the world, authored the moral codes of culture, and rewarded the faithful and righteous, was based on the dependency of the child self on parental figures, most notably the father, and projected onto the cosmic screen of existence. Freud likened the collective rites and rituals of religion to the obsessional neurosis of children, a neurosis that will eventually be outgrown as humanity grows in scientific understanding of the self and the forces and powers of nature. Religion is grounded in an illusion that must eventually be let go of in a mature rational scientific understanding of the world. Freud never said that religion is a crutch, but that is clearly the inference that one must draw from his analysis of religion.

What Freud never seemed to allow was that it might be possible for religion itself to evolve beyond the primitive stage of child dependence and illusion to a recognition of the reality of the natural world and of human needs in that world. Freud used a model of neurotic and immature religion. He assumed there could be no other model that merited the name of religion. Freud was truthful (speaking of himself) when he said that "he who goes no further, who humbly acquiesces in the insignificant part man plays in the universe, is irreligious in the truest sense of the word."

To go no further is indeed irreligious, for it fails to pay heed to the human need to celebrate life in all its pain and glory; to sing, to dance, to enact the drama of human being-becoming; to acknowledge the mystery beyond and within all our scientific knowledge and insight; to inspire and be inspired, to express gratitude for being; to offer models of hope and courage and endurance in the face of disappointment, fear and moral turpitude. All of these are religious and spiritual needs in the truest sense of the word, and they are needs that humanity will never outgrow and still be human.

I like what Marion O’Donnell, one of our former parishioners, said in a lay sermon some years ago. She likened Unitarian Universalism to a religion with a shovel rather than a crutch, a shovel to clear a pathway through the densities of life. "The shovel of our religion," she said, "is not an idle one, but truly useful, yet in times of crises, when our way in life is rough, and we need support, our shovels can be very sustaining." And so she concludes, "Of course you can lean on your shovel!"

So to those who say, "Religion is a crutch," we can answer, "Well, maybe sometimes it is, and that’s not always so bad, but in our religion we try to exchange the crutch for a shovel. Now if you’re selfish and lazy that’s one thing, but don’t blame us for not coming to church. We’ll give you a shovel if you don’t want a crutch. Better yet, bring your own. If you’re as strong and independent as you make yourself out to be, then others need your help. And you can be sure, you will have your day as well."

Marion quotes one of my favorite UU religious writers, Robert Weston: "We look upon our tasks as opportunities to serve, and upon our failures as keys to fresh knowledge. This is religion: not that we never fail, but that we try greatly; not that we make no mistakes, but that we face the future with undiminished courage and good cheer; not that we be free from wrong, but that we have faith to do better."

O Thou who art our deepest and truest selves, we need the encouragement and support of one another’s caring along the way, to share the grief and enhance the joy, to offer strong hands and a chorus of voices, to uplift the heart in hope and song, in the dark mystery of our days upon the earth.