A recent newspaper editorial caught my attention; it was written by a Philosophy professor who offered an explanation for the current trend of declining interest in organized religion. He said that the decline in participation in organized religion is the result of the relative degree of peace and prosperity enjoyed by western society.
The professor claimed that religion has fared best in times of fear and distress, and that the only hope for a revival of interest in religion in the west would be a widespread economic, social or natural disaster. There is some anecdotal evidence to support the professor’s ideas. For example, there was a noticeable increase in church attendance that followed the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.
The professor’s claim that participation in organized religion increases in times of trouble, and decreases in times of peace, is plausible as long as one understands religion as engendering, and depending on, fear as a motivational force. When the initial fears regarding the 9/11 attacks subsided, so did the uptick in attendance at churches. It might be much too facile, however, to claim that as long as people feel they control their own destiny, religion serves little purpose.
The truth is, of course, that many religious leaders depend on fear as a means to motivate their followers. The reliance on fear as a means to motivate or control is emblematic of all fundamentalism: Christian fundamentalism, Hindu fundamentalism, Muslim fundamentalism, all fundamentalism is religion based on fear. However, if one understands religion as something that functions independently of emotions such as fear and distress, then the argument fails to convince.
The professor who wrote the editorial failed to make a valuable distinction among the many forms of religious practice. While all fundamentalism is religion based on fear, not all religion is fundamentalism; therefore, not all religion values fear as a means to control others or self. It’s more than a little ironical that a philosophy professor composed a faulty syllogism, but much of the fault lies with those who misuse and misrepresent religion.
There are some Christians who use the teachings of Jesus to assuage their fears, and there are some who use fear to convince others of the truth of Jesus’ teaching. A cursory examination of Jesus’ teachings reveals the flaws in these opinions. In today’s Gospel Jesus greeted his disciples by saying, “Peace be with you.” (John 20:19) His greeting, before it was translated into Greek and written down in the Scriptural text, would have been “Shalom.”
The Hebrew word “Shalom” is a common greeting used by Jews even today. The root of the word connotes a debt that has been paid or a quality of completeness that pertains to a situation. The greeting itself indicates familiarity with the person addressed, and is often used as an expression of desire for the addressee’s prosperity or well-being.
The greeting, “Peace be with you” (John 20:19), was an expression of both Jesus’ desire for his disciples and his gift to his disciples; he wished, and granted, peace to them. In short, this greeting represented the opposite of fear.
The Gospel tells us that the disciples were in hiding because of their fears about Jesus’ death and their association with him. (John 20:19) It would probably be a mistake, however, to interpret Jesus’ greeting as solely a response to the disciples’ state of mind at the time. Jesus wanted more than to reassure them; he sent them to continue his ministry. (John 20:22-23)
It wasn’t the disciples’ fear that motivated them to leave their hiding place, nor did they preach a message of fear when they accepted the Lord’s command to continue his mission. Jesus sent them to be ambassadors of reconciliation. (John 20:23) After their encounter with the Risen Lord they left their fears behind, and offered the world a message of hope.
The fears that are often associated with religion, and which the editorialist appropriately lamented, have their origin in our human nature rather than in Jesus’ message of reconciliation. The Good News preached by Jesus, and handed on by his followers, is the Gospel of peace, reconciliation and freedom. Although there is room in the Lord’s flock for all people, there is no room for religion based on fear. This is a distinction worth keeping in mind.
It is common enough to hear threats from people who consider themselves religious. Some ardent proselytizers threaten eternal damnation to those who do not accept their message. Some pious people threaten divine wrath to those who do not share their values or practices. Fear based religion is so widespread that it even appears in the secular news reports.
If we take Jesus’ teaching seriously we are obliged to remember that fear is the opposite of faith, and that love both requires and strengthens personal freedom. On this feast of Pentecost we remember and celebrate the beginning of the disciples’ preaching about the Resurrection of Jesus. The proclamation of the proximity of the Kingdom of God, which Jesus handed on to the disciples, is not a message of fear, nor is it accurately portrayed by a religion of fear.
In their encounter with the Risen Lord the disciples found courage and freedom; these are the hallmarks of faith in Jesus. Given the ubiquity of fear-based religion, this is a message worth repeating often.