Pass the Thermometer: Can Religion be Healthy?

When I decided to enter rabbinical school, many of my friends were incredulous at the thought. They said, “Don’t get us wrong, we think being spiritual is important….come, let’s find God on the mountaintop, but Matthew, Organized Religion, you must be out of your mind.”

Who knew that they, now too old to be labeled, “millennials” would be so prescient? For sure, they were rebelling against the “institutionalism” of it all….the arbitrary lines; being preached at, sung at; told what to do without explanation.

Now, in religious circles, it seems that daily, smart and articulate opinions are expressed about how to retrofit and renew the connection between the seeker and those who might help cultivate meaning. I am not one of those who fret for our spiritual future. I believe that if we but permeate the borders with wisdom and courage; if we really listen to the authentic search for meaning, if leaders don’t too caught up in our egos, there will be great possibility ahead.

However, when my friends warned me about organized religion over 25 years ago, they were more concerned with religious fanaticism than they were with feeling bored by religious school or sermons. And all of these years later, I want to make sure that while we are busy reshaping our “walls”, we don’t forget that so many are driven away because the loudest religious voices say the things that make many run as far as they know how to run.

There continues to be a toxic tension between what some call healthy and unhealthy religion.

Unhealthy religion continues to represent a revolt against modernity. Unhealthy religion is about easy answers to complex questions; it is about seeing everything in black and white; it is about fear of change and societal progression. Unhealthy religion is about a faith that seems steadfast, but is actually simplistic because there is no room to ask questions which emanate from deepest parts of us. Unhealthy religion brainwashes; it makes people robots, demands that people march in step, so that everyone and everything looks alike. Everything is left up to God and little is left to individual choice. Unhealthy religion is about people claiming to know and own a monopoly of God’s truth.

Those of us who are involved consistently in religious circles write unhealthy religious behavior off as a form of spiritual insanity. But we need to be careful because so many still choose not to affiliate in religious circles at all because they think, “Why be part of any religion, when all it does is break people down?”

So, I’d like to make a “rally call” about the virtues of healthy religious living.

It is true that religion has fostered war and division, but it has also helped set people free. Healthy religion respects the sacredness of human life; it demands that we see each other made in the image of God, despite, race, religion or sexual orientation. Healthy religion teaches that new beginnings are always possible…in our relationships….in our work….in our communities.

Healthy religion chooses hope over cynicism; grey, over black and white; paradox over myopia; dialectic over singularity; sophistication over simplicity; change over status quo; choice over indoctrination; vulnerability over insensitivity. Healthy religion allows us to question and doubt…it tells us not to wait for the Messiah because we are the ones, we have been waiting for. It teaches us that life is complicated, but our faith can guide us through the trials of life, not offering simple answers to the dizzying maze. It enables us mix together a healthy balance of Tradition and Modernity, inculcating us with the ability to make smart and balanced decisions.

A former student of mine at age 16 was living with his parents, in the Midwest … living a normal, American, teenage life. One night, he went to a party where he was, in his words, “trying to meet a pretty girl.” He heard noise from the girl’s bedroom and found a group goofing around and telling jokes. He heard one of the young men, say, “Hey, cool: where did you get this gun?” The young lady said, “My parents gave it to me for protection.” The young man started to play with it. And then my student remembers hearing what sounded like a balloon pop. He felt a sting under his shoulder blade and went down. He remembers the other teenagers yelling, “Oh my God, are you okay, are you okay…..call 911.”

My student almost died that night. The bullet missed his heart by and 1/8th of an inch. He woke up in the ICU several days later, only to be told that he would never walk again. And then, his pastor came to visit him. He said, “My dear son, this is a real tragedy. Let us pray to God together, but before we do that, you must tell me: What did you do to deserve this? Search yourself to see what sin you must have committed.” My student barely had enough energy to talk, but mustered strength to say, “Get the hell out of my room.”

Despite, his strong will, he has never walked again. A couple of years later, he went off to college and took every religion course possible to intellectually disprove the existence of God. He stayed angry and sad and lost. By chance he met the rabbi on campus, who allowed him to not believe in God…..a rabbi who pushed him to ask as many questions as possible…..who did not connect his actions to his fate. My student followed a new path of exploration, questioning and doubt. He learned to allow Tradition to dialogue with modernity; to live in the center of his paradoxical predicament; to be angry and comforted all at once. He moved to New York, found his real talent as a photographer and met the woman of his dreams. Several years ago he was married. “And rabbi,” he said to me years later, “…the irony is that I spent so much time trying to disprove God, only to find my faith stronger now than ever before.”

In the midst of it all, he found a spiritual life in its healthiest form. If we want a chance for religion to survive, so must we.

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