David Hartman, a Jerusalem-based rabbi and philosopher, recently sat down for an interview with CNN's Izzy Lemberg. In the interview, Hartman wonders whether religion is really helpful to the human condition. "There's a whole bunch of myths that religions use to sort of make reality not as overwhelming and as significant, "he said." Hartman argues that life is full of uncertainties, so "religion is in some way the battle against contingency, vulnerability, precariousness … you anchor your life in a god who in some way provides for you a picture, an opportunity to leave reality …"
Hartman believes argues that religion is a trip into "fantasy," a trip into "another world." However, when people encounter adversity, that fantasy quickly dissolves. Instead, he says, religion should offer a way for people to make sense of life's uncertainties.
What do you think of Hartman's comments? What's the real role, do you believe, religion should play in the human condition? And if religion is a trip into fantasy, as Hartman says, how can people avoid falling into this trap?
Boy, I have thought a lot about this topic the last four years as a psychotherapist. As an ordained minister working as a full-time pastor, I believed, and still believe, God helps us in times of adversity and times of peace simply because he is the Truth, the Way, and the Life. I truly believe Christ to be savior and the way to eternal life — and the way to daily direction and healing from trials and adversity.
As a therapist, my thoughts have gone further. I treat many people from different religions. I do not proselytize them — this not my job as a therapist. My job is to respect their beliefs, direct them to personal healing from whatever diverse issue brings them into my office, and have them come out the other side healed, healthy and living a quality of life that is life-giving to them and to those they encounter.
So how do I view those that serve a religion that does not necessarily fit my personal belief? I understand that spirituality and religion are a comfort. Spirituality and religion take one's eyes off the immediate crisis in life and set it aside to a higher power, whatever that power may be in the spirit of the human. And for some reason, this brings peace, perspective and the ability to make it through life's troubles.
If I were to explain this in psychological terms, I would put it this way: Faith is a way of taking what is in the prefrontal lobe — the lower, primitive brain that houses all our memories, emotions and fears — and helps us to use our higher cognitive brain to set it aside and keep going in life. We allow our rational thinking to trump paralyzing emotions so we can keep living and make it through the day, week, month, or life. Religion — faith — does this. It enables us to go on when life would cripple us. I personally believe that Christ goes beyond that in my above explanation of how I view Christianity. Faith comforts us and allows us to keep living. My personal beliefs are that living extends to eternity through faith in Jesus Christ as our lord and savior.
The Rev. Kimberlie Zakarian
La Vie Counseling Center,
This exploration is consistent with that of recent In Theory columns exploring how (if) prayer works. It is helpful for me to note from inside a religious tradition that many continue to view a spiritual path as the "opiate of the masses" — an illusion, a fantasy, that prevents one from experiencing true reality and, therefore, true happiness.
I can see how one might come to this conclusion if one is only occasionally skimming the surface of religion: channel-surfing by televangelists, looking at titles in shopping-mall bookstores, and reading the headlines of religious scandals. There is a lot of money being made on allegedly religious formulas to the successful navigation of an uncertain existence. And there are, allegedly, religious leaders who have taken advantage of people's anxiety and vulnerability for their own gain. I get it.
But when you do more than skim the surface and roll your eyes, you'll find in many traditions a deep wisdom accumulated over millennia of human existence. And you'll find that this wisdom is not focused on magic and false promises made up by humans on behalf of God. Instead, you'll find well-tested, divinely-inspired approaches to becoming a person — a people — of inner spiritual strength and creativity in the face of very real life challenges.
The "heroes" of the Christian faith are people like Dietrich Bonhoeffer, whose faith led him to courageously resist the warped Christianity of Nazism. They are the abolitionists who lost jobs and pulpits by refusing to agree that God sanctions slavery. They are the civil-rights activists who lost lives by standing up for God's intentions for justice. These are heroes who have been shaped by a sacred path that is in no way about fantasy escape, but is in every way about turning our attention away from our anxious navel-gazing and toward the big picture of what God is doing to heal the world.
Religion, at its best, shapes us so that we can participate fully in that great project.
The Rev. Paige Eaves
Crescenta Valley United Methodist Church,
My first reaction is to wonder how a Jewish rabbi can hold to such an atheistic philosophy. Is his own religion only a trip into fantasy? Does he believe there is a true faith expressed toward a God who really exists? If there is no God and no objective truth about him in which to trust, then, as Israel's apostate leaders said during Isaiah's day: "Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we may die." (Isaiah 22:13). According to them, the best you can hope for in life is the maximum degree of comfort for the years you have before you cease to exist.
But is that reality? Our souls cry out within us that there's more to life than that. God himself has cried out to us so that we might turn to him to know him and find purpose and hope and help in real life, and eternal life with him when this life is over. That's the role of faith in real life.