One of the more irritating trends one finds in many books is the way that a great deal of people who fancy themselves to be rational and smart people think of religion merely in a utilitarian way, as a hack that they can engage in to make their brain work better without taking it very seriously at all as a means of self-examination or of a path to any kind of salvation. The truth of how religion is practiced by those who take it seriously is far different, and since this story is not nearly often told enough when it comes to writing it is worth sharing a story about an interaction I had today online with one of my online friends, who happens to be a conservative Saudi Arabian from a good family who is a university student in engineering.
As sometimes is the case in our interactions, the conversation found its way to the subject of religion. Specifically, my friend was curious about what Christians had to say about matters of the end times. We chatted about comparative beliefs concerning religious deception, what the false religious figure is going to be like, how one knows that one’s eschatology is correct–namely that it ends up happening, and the like. It was interesting to see how a conservative Muslim had fairly and broadly similar views as to the end times to someone like myself, and although religion can be a rather contentious subject to talk about with other people, especially people from different faith traditions, I think the conversation was mutually enjoyable and enlightening with regards to where there are similarities and differences.
One lament we both shared is that there is a considerable gap between faith as it is professed and faith as it is practiced. This has long been a criticism that people have labeled at Christians, that there is a nobility in Christianity that one does not often see in Christians, and this condemnation is all too frequently just. One sees the same problem in Islam, and for the same reasons, namely that we are all people who fail to live up to our ideals, and who frequently judge ourselves by what we think are good intentions and judge other people by their flawed results, something all of us have in at least some areas of our lives and sometimes in a more widespread manner.
One of the aspects of genuine religious belief is that people are responding to reality and not merely seeking to make religion work for themselves personally. The attitude of those who view religion as merely something that the human brain somehow responds to and therefore that we ought to make it part of our lives for selfish reasons is little different from the attitude of those who seek to manipulate the religious faith of others for their own selfish benefit. Such people do not represent religions well because their attitudes are self-serving, and all genuine religious belief systems involve the acceptance of reality outside of the self and humility in the face of that ultimate spiritual reality. This does not mean that any of us practice our faith perfectly–we do not–but merely that what we are responding to is a genuine aspect of reality, however imperfectly practiced or understood. Included as aspects of that reality is the involvement of God in history for His own purposes and according to His own plan, and if such matters are not always pleasant to think about, that does not make them any less an aspect of reality, however much some people wish it was not so.