What makes religion work?
Answering that question requires first a long, patient examination of the thorns arranged around and within that simple four word phrase. It’s a loaded question, regardless of whether or not it’s meant to be so, and rushing to answer it on the basis of an instinctive sense of its meaning can easily send the would-be apologist adrift in unhelpful equivocation. Grasping the question too hastily will hurt the attempt to answer and can do one of two things for the one asking. If asked in innocence, it will naively take up the questioner’s presuppositions nearly wholesale and give a blandly thin description that fails to enlarge those presuppositions. It leaves the questioner able to depart the conversation with no doubts they have already understood the lion’s share of what what precisely religion is.
But if it isn’t asked in innocence, if it’s asked as a maneuver to draw the apologist into a pincer movement, it will confirm the questioner’s suspicions that religion qua religion is, in fact, something easily comprehensible and comprehensible in terms of what goes into making a desired outcome come about. To answer well, the question must be asked: what does this questioner mean by “religion”?
Karl Barth, in §17 of his Church Dogmatics, famously described religion as the efforts of human beings to grasp and comprehend God rather than allowing themselves to be so grasped by him. It is a noble failure born out of fallen self-will, such that even its best attempt to respond to God is a defeat. Barth’s answer to the question has much to commend it, and while I do not think it is wrong, I do think its concentration on the eschatological impossibility of fallen religion due to the reconciliation that is in Jesus Christ isn’t patient enough of the present phenomenology of religion. That is, Barth supplies us with an answer that responds from the fullness of the future and tracks that answer’s course into the present but perhaps doesn’t sufficiently attend to practices and structures which we here and now would describe as and gather under the heading, “religion.”
But what if we supplement it with a more immanent approach? Wolfhart Pannenberg, in the first volume of his Systematic Theology, observed that religious studies, rooted as they are in philosophical anthropologies, described well enough the effects of religions but do not and can not arrive at their cause. That is, there is insufficient engagement with the often frightening strangeness of the world that seems to impose itself upon human beings, individually and communally, and this traffic (real or imagined) between things non-human and human. This is not of itself knowledge of God, but it is an intuition that grasps, however murkily, the openness of human beings to the infinite. This is another pole to hold opposite Barth’s, together forming a net with which to critically sift those enterprises we dub “religious.”
But we still are lacking for an analytic by which to identify the “religious.” The danger here is that of lumping and lashing together too many things on the basis of purely formal similarities or through a kind of lowest common denominator approach. For instance, the claim that all religions pursue the same end but through slightly different means enjoys a wide currency but can be demonstrated as categorically false. The trouble is that careful work that respects the different religions’ claims in their own terms must be done to show the incommensurable differences between them. To arrive at a basic material likeness requires shaving off enormous amounts of particularity from real, lived-within religious systems, in effect creating virtual religions from those portions that can be abstracted to fit a schema the interpreter has already decided upon.
How best, then, to preserve those particularities while searching out unifying features? Keith Yandell proposes that religion is any “conceptual system that provides an interpretation of the world and the place of human beings in it, bases an account of how life should be lived given that interpretation, and expresses this interpretation and lifestyle in a set of rituals, institutions, and practices” (Philosophy of Religion: A Contemporary Introduction [London and New York: Routledge, 1999], 16).
Following all of this, we must ask: How does the word “work” function in this sentence? Is what religion accomplishes under examination? Or how it is practiced? Or how its ends are reached? These questions are all related to one another but remain distinct. Directly answering the question head-on could give the impression that religion in its essence is about certain results, and more specifically, that in the absence of those results, religion has not “worked.”
Given the contours we have sketched of what religion is, materially and formally, we can admit that many manifestations of religion are indeed centered on proper performance in order to arrive at certain outcomes. The Christian will rightly demur that the grace Jesus Christ is annuls such a pathway between performance and outcome, that Christianity “works” on the basis of what Jesus Christ has done and is presently doing.
Of course, there is another sense of “work” that Christians must, in the interest of critical awareness, be able to answer. Because it isn’t for nothing that the polemical trap of the second type of questioner is often laid for Christians After all, how often do you hear Christians (forget other Christians, how often do you yourself) ask, “Who is it that benefits from this?” In one, vitally important sense, the sinner reconciled to God benefits from the religion named by Jesus Christ. I will in no way contest that. But there are other benefits, some of them materially unrelated in any way to Jesus Christ, that not only accrue to some and not others, but are detrimental to those others.
Consider how many Christians in the modern West too easily identify themselves as persecuted and hemmed in all sides by hostile cultural forces. That this is not in fact the case in our context seems certain given the hostile fragmentation our churches find it worthwhile to fight for. Rather, lamentably, it seems that many of these culture warriors are all too swift to count criticism as persecution. To question the implementation of a strategy or the wording of a mission statement or anything else is often perceived as though it were a full-blown attack upon the gospel itself. Perhaps it is here that the insecurity of Christendom is most apparent. After all, is there really no way in which Christianity has served the powered interests of Christians over the course of history? It’s patently absurd to contend that sinful men and women have never utilized Christianity as a means to effect an end that has nothing to do with the glory of God and the good of human beings— one need only contemplate the slew of sex abuse cases in evangelical and Roman Catholic settings in the past year to get a sense for how power structures that pay lip service to Christ can aid and abet the will to power.
Christian animus against wider American culture must be diagnosed for what it really is: a ressentiment provoked by a lost hegemony. Many contemporary Christians loathe that the socio-political privilege they formerly enjoyed is now challenged, but this loathing is veiled under the guise of a pious concern for the wider world. Incomprehension and resistance are to be endured by those who are no longer citizens of the present world-system, not obnoxiously demanded exemption from. The machinery of the Christendom project has, it seems, established and perpetuated a plausibility structure that renders Jesus Christ’s conception of the Kingdom opaque or even unintelligible.
The only way out of this trap is to acknowledge the truth: Christians have, unsurprisingly, done exactly as other religious practitioners have— they have wielded religious apparatus to secure power over others. But it’s excruciatingly difficult for many Christians— I have felt this same way in the past— to do so. To admit to this, I believe they feel, would risk calling into question the confession of Jesus Christ as Lord by delegitimizing the various routes Christians have taken in transmitting the gospel. It’s as if the intuition that improper means have been used (perhaps even extensively used) already exists subconsciously and we cannot abide bringing that judgment to speech.
Acknowledging this, however, does not entail that Christianity, at bottom, is nothing more than a machine by which to tame and exploit transcendent reality. On the contrary, to deny this is to remain trapped in the futile defensive postures that inhibit faithful apostolic presence in the world.
What makes religion work? Ultimately, it depends on which we’re talking about.
In the recent film, Apostle, the viewer is swept into an adventure of dark intrigue that often carries significant overtones of 1973’s The Wicker Man. Here, as in that classic, a kidnapping compels a man to investigate the inner workings of an island cult. That man, Thomas Richardson, is intimated to be a drifter, returning out of self-exile at the behest of his withdrawn and uncommunicative father. An intermediary has summoned Thomas to commission him to rescue his sister Jennifer from the remote Welsh island of Erisden.
Here, Prophet Malcolm leads a utopian community centered on the worship of Her, a female entity who seems to encapsulate the life of the island itself. Malcolm washed ashore on Erisden several years prior with two other escaped convicts, Quinn and Frank (the film hints that they were imprisoned for their anti-crown radicalism), and together they discovered Her. An arrangement was made in which she became the patron of the fledgling community, promising prosperity in return for worship. Malcolm claims to speak Her’s words but it’s difficult to parse out how much of his pacifistic, anti-imperial rhetoric is Her’s, his own, or a conflation of the two.
There’s a problem with the romantic alternative Erisden presents to the world, however: the fertility Her had once seemed to guarantee has been failing. Bloodletting and animal sacrifice have not been enough to satiate Her and the island doesn’t have resources enough to continue the sacrifice economy. Moreover, something is defiling the island itself: creatures there are dying from terrible birth defects. Jennifer therefore has been kidnapped so as to provide a ransom that will subsidize food for the island’s inhabitants. Besides the failure of the cult’s goddess to reciprocate, this kidnapping scheme speaks to the corruption of the values Malcolm preaches to his followers, values he insists separates Erisden from the decadent liberalism of the British Empire. How could they have sunk so low?
As in so many similar historical instances, the leadership of Erisden are panicking due to the threat the island’s fertility crisis presents to the status quo. They fear the social glue their alternative religion had fostered will dissolve when the islanders discover that their observance isn’t “working.” Malcolm wants to keep the crisis hidden from the community but another of the leaders feels something more must be done.
Quinn, after seizing power late in the film, reveals the depth of his brute pragmatism to Jennifer and Andrea, Malcolm’s daughter. He was the one who captured Her and put her to proper use as the fuel for the island’s productivity. “She’s no god,” he barks. “She’s just a machine. You feed her, and she delivers.” Malcolm, he contends, “fell victim to faith,” and introduced stopgap measures— collecting blood from every cultist, for instance— instead of doing “what needed to be done”: feeding Her with human flesh. For Quinn, the outcome is what truly matters, and the community’s leadership should fall to whoever has the will to guarantee that outcome. This is the same civic religion Malcolm had repudiated in the past but under a different guise. Quinn is aware of it and embraces it, but Malcolm is in denial.
This emerges after the revelation of Thomas’s past, a past which could not contrast more starkly with the Erisden regime. In a moment after he has come face to face with Her, Thomas informs Andrea that her father and the island’s leaders have kidnapped Jennifer and want Thomas dead. Andrea resists this and Thomas cautions her that “the promise of the divine is but an illusion.” Andrea sees the scars on Thomas’s back and asks how he received them. She is stunned to learn that Thomas had served as a missionary in China during the Boxer Rebellion and the film’s patient guarding of its secrets renders her surprise as our own.
Prior to this the viewer is left to assume Thomas has been a prodigal son squandering his life on trivialities. This of course means that Thomas’ father never disapproved of Thomas’ profligate living as he never indulged in any such thing— religion drove a wedge between Thomas and his father. Thomas’s father recognizes no benefit from Thomas’s religion but cost-benefit analysis compels him to call on Thomas’s help when religion threatens his daughter. To him, Thomas’s Christian faith and the pagan practices of Erisden alike disrupt the civil religion that has provided him with position and privilege.
The distance between father and son began before Thomas ever sought his self-effacement following the eradication of his church and his branding by Boxer insurgents. And the distance obviously never narrowed when Thomas most needed the love of his family to help him in his psychological and spiritual collapse. Thomas’s sense of having been abandoned is all but complete: his screaming out for God to arrive on the scene and save his parishioners is met with silence; no communication comes from his father whatsoever until his father’s necessity demands it. Is there no one who is for Thomas?
Religion is not a sufficient condition of being delivered out of the predicaments of being alive. I wonder if Thomas’s zeal was ever examined by his mentors, whether he was ever urged to remember that martyrdom is a real possibility in the course of serving God. Because he appears to expect God to vengefully arrive on the scene as his parishioners are being executed en masse and abandons his faith when God fails to so arrive. Had no one imparted to Thomas that suffering after the pattern of Jesus Christ is the part and parcel of true religion? But if this indicts a certain naivete to Thomas’s prior faith, it certainly pronounces as vain the buoyant idealism of Erisden’s cult. Here, they claim, all is well; all defilement can be left behind. The human can be abstracted from the sin and entropy of the world and Paradise regained.
But Thomas knows these are empty promises. Undoubtedly his sense of abandonment intensifies his drive to rescue his beloved sister— he will not have her undergo what he has already endured. “This world has taken so much from me,” he tells her, “but in all my pain, even in my darkest days, I swore it would never take you.” In her letter to their father Jennifer had written that she feared “our Lord no longer hears my prayer. Yet still I pray for your presence; for my savior.” The one who has been broken is the one who brings the presence of the Lord, who brings salvation to Erisden.
Thomas ultimately lives up to his apostolic namesake as it takes nothing less than witnessing the reality of the island’s goddess and the evil perpetrated by those who exploit her powers to be awakened to the reality of the faith he had formerly professed. Seeing, he believes. As one villager is fleeing the chaos of the cult’s unraveling, she tells Thomas, “God be with you.” In full earnestness, Thomas responds, “And also with you.” In the inversion of that liturgical form (a layperson declaring, “God be with you” to the failed priest), an invitation is extended to Thomas: materially, he is already on the trajectory of reconciliation with his past and with his faith, but now he is formally reincorporated into the apostolic faith. In the same way that the Lord’s question to Peter, “Do you love me?” negates Peter’s denials and restores him to his calling (“Feed my sheep”), this woman’s extension of the eucharistic preface to the one who should preside at the liturgy of the table restores him as a servant of the Lord.
But all doesn’t end so tidily. For in what should be Thomas’ final moments he sees Andrea’s and Jennifer’s boat escaping the island and slumps over, dying, yet satisfied he has rescued his sister. But something strange happens: he notices that the blood flowing from his wounds is being soaked up in the soil beneath him and that vegetation is blooming around him. The land is healing itself and absorbing Thomas in the process, cocooning him in tendrils and leaves and flowers. Thomas unmistakably resembles Her, the island’s goddess who had also been so cocooned.
The machinery of the island’s religion is coded into the soil and flora of the island itself and claims his body for itself. I was left wondering if Her was ever, in fact, a goddess, and not simply some unwitting human vessel who had previously been claimed by the island in a similar manner. Perhaps religion is first and foremost how we name those schemes that envelop us and drive our desires towards outcomes we could not otherwise have foreseen.
In that case, there is nothing all that remarkable about the fact that the island came in time to resemble exactly the mainland Malcolm so vociferously denounced in chapel. This simply is the course things follow when the non-human gives itself as manipulable as a means to assert oneself over others. In a way, it doesn’t matter whether the non-human is an entity like Baal or Artemis or YHWH or an abstract notion such as capital or Romanitas— the course that exploitation of these things takes follows a consistent downward slope.
But right alongside of that, perhaps religion names the parasitic relationship with wild, inhuman forces which humans are drawn into as a consequence of their simply sharing a world with them. In the final scene of Apostle Thomas doesn’t ask to be subsumed within the island— his body is simply hijacked by the powers that indwell Erisden. Similarly, I am sure that our remote ancestors didn’t go about searching out entities to whom they could offer worship: rather, they found themselves visited by, brought into awe-filled contact with, powers which before that moment they had never named nor scarcely imagined as possible. Contact and overtures were made with our ancestors and expectations were placed upon them in return. Some, of course, recognized in these patterns of exchange and allocations of power the means to take hold of or consolidate positions of privilege over their peers.
These instantiations of religion are simple enough for Christians to denounce. But even the sincerest among them can inadvertently fuel the machinery of religion when they lose sight of the centrality of suffering, of dispossession, of weakness, and of mercy to the Kingdom vision which Jesus Christ is. Person and mission are one in the living Word, who is not only Creator, not only Redeemer, but also archetypal embodiment of the being and end of creaturely existence. The devotion to the Father Jesus exemplified is the pattern of authentic religion. Life is in him, and that life is light (John 1:4); not the cold, sterile light or the humming, alternating current of a machine, but the activity and thought and feeling of a living thing. This life doesn’t coerce or demand: it divests itself of the need to control.
The will to power can find itself reacting to or funded by the frightening things with which we share the world, the things from which the machine of religion draws its impetus. It is a fact of human nature that much of the time, in response to provocation and threat, we can do little but react. We all have contributed, purposefully and inadvertently, by what we have done and what we have left undone, to the destructive power of machine-religion. But these deformations will never be undone by simply resisting with greater force— this is simply responding to their exertions of force on their own terms. The recurrence of violence and coercion stem from the ad infinitum sequence of exploitative power dynamics being fought against, displaced, and ultimately reinscribed. There may be a time where the sword is the only way to deliver a people out of slavery, but the sword will never be sufficient to effect a new thing, and make no mistake, that which is truly apostolic is indeed the Word making all things new.
So, what makes religion “work”? In many, many instances what makes religion work is fear and force; much of the time, strong men play the part of racketeer and promise protection either from hostile powers within the world or guarantee protection due to their alliances with such powers. The humility that the recognition of superhuman forces ought to evoke is routinely perverted so as to demand dehumanizing obedience to unscrupulous men who hope to shore up their own power. Sadly, even decadent forms of Christianity can participate in this same type of thuggery while sincerely never recognizing that the regimes they construct have nothing to do with the lordship of Jesus Christ.
Thomas’s suffering in Peking is the praeparatio evangelica which enables him to lose everything to rescue his sister and dismantle the domination system ruling over Erisden. Liberating action and suffering unite in Christian witness. Commenting on Barth’s exposition of witness, George Hunsinger writes, “The special vocation of the Christian is to share in the living self-witness of the Crucified. This sharing results in a fellowship of action and a fellowship of suffering” (How to Read Karl Barth: The Shape of His Theology [New York: Oxford University Press, 1991], 183).
This is what sets Christian faith apart from religion as purely human phenomenon. Other systems of behavior will at times sound out consonant notes, and for this we can and should be grateful. And yet the drama of the Son’s mission into the far country to rescue and restore the ungrateful and undeserving is sui generis, inimitable in terms or images other than its own. There is something on offer here the singularity of which cannot be apprehended apart from its own particular form. Christians confess this to be true, that this is how the world will be saved, but must be vigilant to never allow this confession to become a weapon with which to crush anyone. We are not to try to save the world with it. For if we are not vigilant, we will slink back into patterns of the will to power and do precisely that.