What’s Good About Religion?

For your consideration today, I’m posting a thought from Frederick Buechner, first published in his book Now and ThenA Memoir of Vocation, addressing the question every spiritually-minded person should have at some point (probably at many points) in their lives – “What’s so good about religion, anyway?”  There’s certainly a lot bad about it.  Or rather, there’s certainly a lot of religion that get’s put to bad purposes.  Organized religion seems at times almost comically susceptible to abuse on a massive scale.  At best, its rituals and pageantry, its codes and adherence to out-dated wisdom, can seem like grown-up playacting, meant to distract us from cold, hard truths about the “real” world.  At worst, well, we see the results of that in the news everyday.

And there is some truth to that criticism.  Christianity is a kind of playacting, as Rev. Buechner points out.  But when did we decide that play was such a terrible thing?  When did we decide that “growing up” meant actually rejecting our childhood selves?  Just as children who play well are laying the groundwork for the adults they will become, so we may find that by playing at being our best selves – our most loving, giving selves – we may one day wake up to become them.

Here’s Rev. Buechner:

What’s Good About Religion? 

FOR A WHILE THE dean’s office made an exception to the rule about required church. The edict was handed down that a student might attend a religious discussion group instead, and those groups were scheduled to take place before church in order to prevent boys from attending only so they could get a little more sleep on Sunday mornings. For that reason only the most radical dissenters attended, and it was one of those—a lean, freckle-faced senior—who turned to me once, thin-lipped with anger, and said, “So what’s so good about religion anyway?” and I found myself speechless. I felt surely there must be something good about it. Why else was I there?

But for the moment I couldn’t for the life of me think what it was. Maybe the truth of it is that religion the way he meant it — a system of belief, a technique of worship, an institution — doesn’t really have all that much about it that is good when you come right down to it, and perhaps my speechlessness in a way acknowledged as much.

Unless you become like a child, Jesus said, you will never enter the Kingdom of Heaven, and maybe part of what that means is that in the long run what is good about religion is playing the way a child plays at being grown up until he finds that being grown up is just another way of playing and thereby starts to grow up himself. Maybe what is good about religion is playing that the Kingdom will come, until — in the joy of your playing, the hope and rhythm and comradeship and poignance and mystery of it — you start to see that the playing is itself the first-fruits of the Kingdom’s coming and of God’s presence within us and among us.

– Originally published in Now and Then

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