Tuesday, June 28, 2011

"True Religion"

"Keep us, we pray, steadfast in your true religion..."
(Collect for the feast of St. Irenaeus, Bishop of Lyons)

In a discussion today on our Order of Julian Affiliates' network, someone mentioned "accidentally" seeing part of televangelist Joel Osteen's message, broadcast on Sunday, as I'd also done. Osteen,in touching upon prayer, urged his congregation to "marshall their evidence, and make their case to God", promising that their petition would be "granted". Osteen proceeded to grab phrases from here and there, e.g., from Proverbs 31, speaking of one's children "rising up and calling her blessed", and another phrase from the Psalms: "He makes the woman of a childless house to be a joyful mother of children." The televangelist seemed to believe that all one needs to do is to cite chapter and verse, reminding God that "you promised me ______, now keep your promise.
Osteen cited stories of people doing this and getting what they wanted: children; a better relationship with a spouse, or a grown child, etc.

My colleague who viewed all this went on to say: "This stuff gives religion a bad name, yet it is undeniably popular. I remember someone giving me a copy of The Prayer of Jabez, either written by or advertised by Robert Schuller of the Crystal Cathedral... telling me, 'This is brilliant, you'll love it!' I couldn't make it through, so offensive did I find it. More of this same thing, more specifically about gaining personal wealth. God cannot be manipulated, and the answer is sometimes 'no.' 'No' is still an answer... Doesn't this simplistic kind of preaching, in the first place, set people up for failure and unbelief following, and in the second, do violence to the text of Scripture? This guy was saying, 'God says to YOU, this is what I will do for you, and all you have to do is ask for it.'" My friend then quoted Archbishop of Canterbury WilliamTemple's famous comment: "When I pray, coincidences happen. When I don't, they don't.

I sent my colleague an email, commending him on his observations. I'd also caught a few minutes of Joel Osteen's message, as much as I could stand of his version of the "prosperity Gospel". I made the observation that I find it interesting that Osteen often seems to be preaching to the ceiling, eyes fluttering constantly, as if he's unable to look at the camera or the congregation straight in the face! Please understand that I don't question Osteen's sincerity or his right to preach what he conceives the Gospel to be in any way that he wishes. My comments are, I suppose, simply a personal reaction to what I perceive to be "this" kind of religion. 

While praying the Office this morning, I was wondering about the phrase in the Collect for the feast of St. Irenaeus, cited above: "Keep us, we pray, steadfast in your true religion...", challenging myself to try to articulate what I myself understand by "true religion". I may not have it, any more than Joel Osteen may not. But it seems to me that our job in praying and in being "steadfast in your true religion" has something to do with being faithful, not necessarily being "successful" or "prosperous", as Osteen seems to understand it.

It all gets a bit sticky because we're dealing here with human beings and their finite perceptions of the Holy God and the bond which exists between them and this God. Certainly, "true religion" is intimately bound up with being familiar with and having seriously studied the Scriptures, especially the words and actions of Jesus, and recognizing that this is a process which goes on continuously until the end of our human lives. There can be no pat answers; there's always more mystery to comprehend. I believe, too, that one must be attuned to what the Church has discerned through many minds and hearts, in many centuries of reflection, discussion, debate, and prayer. Finally, I believe that one must be open to what all our human experience, individual and corporate, continually reveals to us about the living God. 

In the end, can anyone of us claim to make a definitive statement as to what constitutes "true religion"? No, and perhaps that's why the Church, on this feast of one of the truly great teachers and theologians, Irenaeus, reminds us to constantly pray that God may keep us "steadfast" in our ongoing pursuit of what is truly true in our relationship with the Holy God. It surely has to be much more than presumptuously thinking that we are the ones calling the shots, that we have the right to remind God of his promises, as if God needed any reminding, and, like petulant children, to demand that God deliver!   

1 comment:

John-Julian, OJN said...

Thank you, Father—a splendid posting.

The business of prayer is probably the most confusing dimension of Christian life (next to the Holy Trinity!). The Idea of "productive" prayer is so engrained in people's minds that it is almost inescapable. If one prays in order to get, have, see, avoid, or receive anything at all, then prayer has become wholly selfish—i.e., one prays in order to "obtain what you want"—whereas the real purpose of prayer is to reveal one's intimate one-ing with God and God's will. It's like each prayer needs to contain something like: "Whatever you are going to do God, help me to recognize your will and cooperate with it."

(the wv is "flyme"!)