Monday, April 4, 2011

Not useful does not equal not true.

I just finished reading a short article on Fox News titled "Is Religion Really Dying?" by Rabbi Brad Hirschfield. The motivation behind the story was a study conducted by the University of Arizona and Northwestern University on the religious sensibilities of the world. Interestingly, they found that there are nine countries in the world where religion is effectively dead. Thankfully, the United States was not one of them but if the trend continues it could easily make the list in the future. What was, perhaps most intriguing to me was Hirschfield's comments about how our traditional religions may die out and that is some sense they should. This comment is found at the conclusion of the article:  

No faith can succeed if it does not work in the lives of the faithful. This study just reminds us, particularly those of us connected to organized faith traditions, that we must never lose sight of that fact, and if we do, we probably deserve to go extinct anyway.

This statement in and of itself is not particularly incendiary. Even as Christians we would admit that people must see the fruit of our faith in Christ in order for them to believe there is a life-transforming power in it. The old adage of, "actions speak louder than words" fits nicely in this scenario. However, there is a more intriguing underlying idea that one must have read the entire article to see. Previously Hirschfield quoted the authors of this study as saying, "The model predicts that for societies in which the perceived utility of not adhering is greater than the utility of adhering, religion will be driven toward extinction.” Followed by his own comment; Isn’t that how it ought to be? Let me boil this down for you if your having trouble understanding what is said here (it took me a few passes to get it straight in my own head). These authors are saying that in order for a religion to survive it must provide a higher return on investment than not following the religion. Let me put this into real life terms. For a person in a given environment or culture they must see more benefits from being a Hindu than from not being a Hindu. That is, if they can be just as successful in life and be non-religious then they will. Am I the only one who is disturbed by the idea that "religion" must now offer a higher rate of return in order for it to remain viable?

May I pose this question to, what is certainly, a meager audience: "What happened to the truth?" It seems that we are now running the religious climate the same way we run the stock market or an IRA. Please do not misunderstand me, I am not trying to put all religions on the same level here but when ideology and philosophy and theology become tickers on a marquee we have reached a terrible point in our world. The follow-up question I have for Hirschfield and those who conducted this study is this: "How do we tell if a religion is 'working' in people's lives?" If we apply this to Christianity we must then determine if people are actually "getting saved" to see if it is working. This is preposterous (I'm so glad I got to use that word)! Perhaps that is the wrong thing to look for. Perhaps what we really need to examine is if people are "living Christian lives." This just lends credence to the idea that we live in a time when humans have before them the Giant Super Religious Buffet. "Hey, if you don't like the taste of Hinduism try some of the Buddhism. If Christianity makes your stomach upset, try some of the New Age. If none of it suits your religious inclinations and none of it meets you needs then don't eat here again." Here is the bottom line. Children, many times, do not like green vegetables but that doesn't change the fact that they are essential for a healthy diet. I don't like oil and vinegar on my salad as much as Thousand Island dressing but the fact is Thousand Island isn't that good for me. Truth is not up for discussion.

This may seem like a crude image but I was watching an old episode of "24" yesterday and Jack Bauer was talking to Nina Myers. She said she did not believe what Jack was telling her. Jack's response was, "I don't care if you believe me or not." What we want to believe and what we find comfortable or useful does not change what the truth is. It doesn't matter if a religion is useful or not. What matters is if it is true and matches with reality. That alone should be the measure of a faith. Yes, a religion should die if it does not meet the test of truth but the truth should not die because we, fallible humans, find it uncomfortable. 2 Timothy 4:3-4 says this: For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine; but wanting to have their ears tickled, they will accumulate for themselves teachers in accordance to their own desires, and will turn away their ears from the truth and will turn aside to myths. Paul was right 2000 years ago and his words are more correct than ever in 2011. Why? Because he spoke the truth and the truth is timeless and unchanging. Try as we may, we cannot kill the truth and the consequences will be eternal and terrible. Stand for the truth and stand firm on Christ, the ultimate truth.

Godspeed,
Christian

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