Last time I wrote about how my pastor referenced in a sermon the subtitle to Gary Thomas's book, Sacred Marriage: What if God Designed Marriage to Make Us Holy More Than to Make Us Happy? My pastor saw a connection to Christianity in general, and I think he's on to something.
It does seem that many people view religions as ice cream flavors, and we the grubby children clutching our dollars and trying to decide which best suits our tastes. Many of us have an expectation that religion exists, like antibiotics and air conditioning, to make our lives more comfortable. This is certainly how social scientists write about it, with their analytical and precisely wrong-headed treatises on man's religious impulses. Even neuroscientists get in on the act, trying to identify the part of the brain that is pleasantly stimulated when a person "practices spirituality."
In that worldview, it is only the logic-wedded atheist who refuses the tonic, choosing to see the universe for what it is, an indifferent mass of elements in which by chance we have been situated. That's a self-serving explanation of non-belief, of course, because if the atheist really does have only the here and now, the rational thing to do would be to take the tonic, and allow himself to be persuaded of a pleasant afterlife. Eating, drinking, and being merry, in other words, would logically include a self-delusion about the coming paradise.
The reason the atheist doesn't allow this notion, however, is because even the most watered-down stories of God dethrone the Self. We are prone to fancy ourselves princes and princesses, after all. So the atheist does not bow down to God because his knees won't bend -- yet. For some this leads to a great sadness and searching, but for others it leads to self-adulation for their clarity of thought, as if the razor-sharp scientists, philosophers, and theologians of centuries past, who shaped the ideas on which even the atheist depends, were all muddle-headed fools.
I've been thinking about what it means to consider God as John F. Kennedy admonished us to consider our country. That's a scary thought, to ask what we can do for God, rather than what he can do for us, because it suggests perilous paths. All this business about tending to the sheep and spreading the word tends to get one crucified, in one way or another. Isn't there a sweeter flavor of ice cream in the freezer?
And there certainly is, there always is, because man specializes in sweet nothings. But what if Christianity really isn't about making us happy? What if it really is about holiness? Not the self-righteous holiness practiced by those who think their Sunday suits disguise their stench, but the holiness that is separateness in spirit, combined with closeness in flesh, the famous in but not of the world that we Christians so often get completely backwards?
It's a frightening notion, and an exhilarating one at the same time.