Religious Americans have answered the question variously. Worship is one answer. Millions gather each week to acknowledge their higher power. The chance to experience community is another. Healthy congregations are more than civic clubs. They are surrogate families. The opportunity to serve others also comes to mind. Americans feed the hungry, clothe the naked and house the homeless largely through religious organizations. Yet as important as community, worship and service are, I am convinced that religion’s greatest contribution to society is even greater.
Religion makes us want to live.
Viktor Frankl’s revealing research in the Nazi death camp at Auschwitz led him to a startling conclusion. It was not the youngest, strongest or even smartest inmates who tended to survive. It was those who had found meaning in their lives. People, it turns out, need a reason to live.
For Frankl, that meaning wasn’t necessarily religious — although one could argue that anything that deals with a person’s deepest concerns is in a sense “spiritual.” What Frankl was talking about could be found in deeds — in the handful of individuals who shared their meager rations with others and went about encouraging their fellow prisoners. But meaning could also be found in attitudes — particularly in the ability to face suffering with dignity and grace. As Frankl expressed it: “Man is that being who invented the gas chambers of Auschwitz; however, he is also that being who entered those gas chambers upright, with the Lord’s Prayer or the Shema Yisrael on his lips.”
A building block
Man’s search for meaning — whether in a Broadway penthouse or the darkest corner of hell — is the most basic building block of a successful life. Without a sense of purpose, many people will simply shrivel up and die, whether figuratively or, in some cases, literally.
I suspect that in postmodern America, the need for meaning is as great as ever. While our ancestors were too busy fighting off starvation to worry about such things as self-actualization, today’s Americans live lives of relative ease. Higher education, a shorter work week and regular vacations have enriched our lives but have also provided abundant opportunity to consider whether our lives have meaning and purpose. The result isn’t all that encouraging. Millions suffer from depression. Millions more escape their lives through drugs and alcohol. Far too many give up the struggle altogether and commit suicide.
Alas, many of us have discovered purpose for our lives through religion. Inside America’s churches, synagogues, temples, mosques and ashrams, we wrestle with the great questions of life. And with due respect to my atheist and left-leaning friends, most of those questions are not amenable to the scientific method.
Why are we here?
What does it all mean?
How should we then live?
These are the things that matter most. Not whether Pluto is a real planet or the atomic weight of carbon is 12 or 13. Even Nietzsche recognized that if one can answer the why of life, he can cope with most any how.
Frankl came away from Auschwitz convinced that there are two basic types of people: decent ones and indecent ones. Some are stronger in their disposition than others, of course, but basically we are decent or indecent. Here’s the interesting thing. Decency and indecency do not fall along national or political lines. There were decent Nazi guards just as there were indecent inmates.
Living decent lives
The same is true of our congregations. While we teach justice, forgiveness and love of neighbor, no doubt, there are indecent souls among us. Even indecent congregations. Not all religion is good, and no person is sicker than a person who is sick on religion. Don’t just think of Osama bin Laden here. I’m also talking about the fearful, guilt-racked, shell of a human being that can result from a fundamentalist Christian upbringing. Good religion, as the great humanitarian and Nobel Prize winner Albert Schweitzer put it, is always “life-affirming.”
Here’s the point: I think religion makes it easier to be decent. The positive core values, mutual accountability and constant striving for self-improvement help one to be a better person. And I want to be a better person. Not because I’m afraid of God. Because I’m grateful for another trip around the sun and, like a good house guest, want to leave this place in better shape than I found it.
There is a lesson here for America’s clergy: Keep your eye on the ball. It’s not so much about this doctrine or that, Mass or the Lord’s Supper or even Ramadan or Yom Kippur. It’s about purpose, meaning and whether I ought to get out of bed in the morning.