Is Organized Religion (or Politics) a Crutch?

January 20, 2013
Rev. Richard M. Fewkes, Minister Emeritus

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.)


Some of you may remember Jesse "the Body" Ventura, the former wrestler who served a term as Governor of Minnesota (an Independent), who once said in an interview in Playboy magazine that "organized religion is a sham and a crutch for weak-minded people who need strength in numbers."  That's kind of like Mitt Romney blaming his recent political loss on gifts and give-a-ways to college young people receiving government loans and scholarships, to elderly folks receiving Obama Care, and Latino immigrants receiving an easy path to citizenship - those in other words who were part of the 47% who were addicted to government aid and voted in greater numbers for his opponent. Is religion, and by inference government, becoming too much of a crutch for people who should learn to stand on their own two feet and not become overly dependent on organized religion, or organized government?

These are important questions. Let us begin with the religion question, and I'll return to the political question from time to time as we go along. 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 whatsoever to organized religion?

I remember once calling upon an older man in my very first 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 a lesson here for church canvass committees to consider when they have to canvass people who are reluctant to support the church. The message they need to get across is this: 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 end up having 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 or Mitt Romney say that religion (or government)  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. That's kind of like Tea Party enthusiasts declaiming: "Keep your dirty government hands off of my Medicare" - a contradiction in terms if there ever was one.

Of course, it is true, there are those who use religion or politics 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, and I would add a healthy politics, affirms and celebrates the reality of our human interdependence.

The paralytic in the Gospel of John at the pool in Bethesda had been waiting for 38 years for someone to help him into the healing waters to no avail. Someone always got in ahead of him leaving him in the lurch. Jesus clearly recognized that the man needed help, but that he also needed to take some initiative to start the healing process. He gave him just the right amount of "medicare" to get him moving and when he did so the man discovered he could begin to walk. And so it is for most of us in this weary world of ours.

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. As it says in one of the Doxologies in our hymnal: "From you I receive, to you I give, together we share, and from this we live."
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, and yes sometimes a helpful government social security, Medicare or disability program with a supplemental check to help us get through the month and enabling us to mend our bodies as well as our souls. Sometimes it's overtly religious or political, and sometimes covertly so.

I know in terms of my own psychological and spiritual 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.

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 a portion of 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 my arthritis flares up 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 and authored the moral codes of culture, was based on the dependency of the child self on parental figures, and projected onto the cosmic screen of existence. Religion he contended was grounded in an illusion that we must eventually let go of in a mature rational scientific understanding of the world. What Freud never seemed to allow was that it might be possible for religion itself to evolve beyond the primitive stage of childhood dependence and illusions. Freud used a model of neurotic and immature religion. He assumed there could be no other truthful model. 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 my former parishioners in Norwell, and now in Brockton, said in a thoughtful 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. If you don't want a crutch we'll give you a shovel. 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. And when you do, of course you can lean on your shovel."

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."

And so in conclusion I ask you: Can what we affirm to be so, for the kind of organized church and religion we wish to build, be any less so for the kind of political structures and programs we would want to be in place for the nation-state we each hold so dear in our hearts and minds?

And the obvious answer is: How could it be otherwise?

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.

From you I receive, to you I give,
Together we share, and from this we live.