When Religion Goes Wrong: God and the Modern Self (Part 3)

In Part 2, we examined the anti-religious attitude of defiance. When we think of God primarily as power, especially unjust power, we feel a rising urge to defy. This urge is amplified in the mind of the modern self by its self-understanding as autonomous. If I am defined as a real person by my free will to do as I please, an all-powerful God looms a threat to my identity and dignity. But not every modern person is a Prometheus, willing to endure torture and destruction just to witness to the Power’s injustice. Even if we think of God largely as an undefeatable authority, most of us take another approach. I shall call that attitude subservience to distinguish it from submission, which is an act of faith and love. The subservient resist the urge to defy and give precedence to their desire to survive. Better a dog alive “to lick the foot of power” than a lion dead but defiant to the end.

Subservience is a religious attitude that views God as the inescapable law of reward and punishment, the ultimate source of blessings and curses. Ancient pagans worshipped the gods to secure their favor and ward off their wrath. Divine favor brings bountiful crops and fertile animals. Divine wrath brings floods and earthquakes. Subservient religion is religious worldliness, a science of the divine capriciousness. For people who think this way, God is part of their personal economy, a means to the end of wellbeing here and now. They may seem very religious, but it’s the world they love, not God.

Doubtless there have been a few pagan critics of subservient religion, but its earliest, severest and most radical critics are found in the Bible. The prophets of Israel, Amos, Isaiah and Jeremiah, warned their people against viewing temple worship and sacrifice as replacements for justice and mercy. They championed relating to God with inner devotion and ethical behavior. By criticizing idolatry they insisted on God’s transcendence over nature and his immunity from religious manipulation.

Jesus takes up the perspective of the prophets and radicalizes it even more, if that is possible. External acts of religion are empty and even offensive if not accompanied by a pure heart, that is, with wholehearted and undivided devotion. Hypocrisy is a mismatch between two parts of life, public and private or internal and external. One wishes to appear pious and morally upright for the worldly advantages such appearances give while retaining the “advantages” of a worldly life practiced in secret. Jesus condemns hypocrisy in the strongest terms, reminding us that God knows the secrets of the heart and sees what goes on in the dark.

Paul follows his Lord in demanding that we give our whole heart to God, become new creatures, be transformed in our minds and live by faith. Above all, he urges us to love. Heroic acts of self-sacrifice, stirring worship performances and great acts of generosity count for nothing—indeed they are displays of pride and hypocrisy—if not motivated and accompanied by love (1 Cor 13). Not to be out done by Paul, John helps us enter into God’s heart by reminding us that “we love because he first loved us.” If we see how much God loves us, we will love him back. And in loving him back and loving our brothers and sisters, we will experience his love from inside. In the Spirit, God’s love and our love become one heart and one spirit.

In his beautiful essay On Loving God, Bernard of Clairvaux (1090-1153) follows Jesus and his disciples Paul and John. Bernard outlines four stages of love beginning with pure self-love. Once life’s hard knocks teaches us that we need God and others we move to stage two, loving God for what he can do for us, that is, subservience. We enter stage three when we learn how beautiful God really is and how much he loves us, that is, we begin love God for his own sake. Ultimately, we must learn to love ourselves only in our love for God. Listen to Bernard as he struggles to find words to explain why we should love God:

“Could any title be greater than this, that He gave Himself for us unworthy wretches? And being God, what better gift could He offer than Himself? Hence, if one seeks for God’s claim upon our love here is the chiefest: Because He first loved us (I John 4.19). Ought He not to be loved in return, when we think who loved, whom He loved, and how much He loved?… In the first creation He gave me myself; but in His new creation He gave me Himself, and by that gift restored to me the self that I had lost. Created first and then restored, I owe Him myself twice over in return for myself. But what have I to offer Him for the gift of Himself? Could I multiply myself a thousand-fold and then give Him all, what would that be in comparison with God?”

Subservience is religion gone wrong. It views God from the outside, as a law or a power to which we relate in external acts because we must. It resists the Holy Spirit who wants to join our hearts to God’s heart, so that we live in his life and love with his love. In subservience…

“We…pledge to give God whatever God asks, but earnestly pray that God does not ask for too much. We want what God wants for us only when we want it anyway; we submit our wills to God in areas where we would prefer something else only because we must…[subservience] manifests itself in our lack of passion for God, in our inability to love God with our whole heart. We do not consciously think of God as a threat, but neither do we see God as our soul’s passion, the one thing for whom giving everything up is worth doing. We do not rise to the level of loving God for God’s sake (God, Freedom & Human Dignity, p. 63).

Note: This post can be used as a companion to Chapter 3 of my book God, Freedom & Human Dignity (“Subservience: The Religion of Idols, Hypocrites, and Hirelings”).

Questions for Discussion

1. Describe the subservient attitude in its distinctions and likenesses to defiance.

2. What are some modern forms of subservient religion? Explore some ways it can appear so deceptively like true religion.

3. What is the central feature of idolatry and how does it embody subservience?

4. What is hypocrisy and how is purity of heart its opposite? Give examples.

5. How do the Old Testament prophets and Jesus and his disciples understand pure and true religion; and how does this view of religion fit with their view of God and God’s actions?

6. Explain how Bernard of Clairvaux’s four stages of love progress from one to the other.

Next week we will examine the attitude of indifference.

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