Monday, 26 September 2011

Losing my religion

You may have heard that the band R.E.M have announced they are going to split. This was certainly news to me as I didn't know they were still together (!) but I immediately thought of some of their songs and in particular, "Losing my religion", a wonderful track full of  anguished lyrics such as, "That's me in the corner, that's me in the spotlight, losing my religion." Losing my religion is apparently an idiomatic phrase which means something like "at my wits end" and, according to the Internet, was inspired by attempts to grapple with a guitar chord rather than a Jacob-like wrestling match with the maker of the universe. However, there has to be more to it than that as a whole generation found a mystical focus in the song - yes, it said so on the Internet (who needs religion anyhow with such a source of infallible knowledge and wisdom at the click of a mouse...)
Well, I've done a little bit of questioning, doubting and journeying in terms of faith and religion over the years, so I decided to have a look at the lyrics. I couldn't quite make my mind up if they were  "profound" (the Internet told me so...) or " complete bollocks" (the humble opinion of a commenter on one thread I looked at), but they did seem to me to be about more than just breaking a nail on a guitar string. I felt there were two key strands in the song. The first is that our faith becomes poisoned when we cannot be ourselves with God, or when we think that we can hide from him,
"Every whisper, every waking hour, I'm choosing my confessions."
The idea that we can hide ourselves from God goes right back to Genesis when Adam first sins and is aware of his nakedness and tries to hide from God. Of course, it is futile to try to hide from God because he is all seeing, but I am not sure that is the point, the point is more that shame can cause us to hide from ourselves and to hide from God and it is only when we can be open and vulnerable with God  that we can understand ourselves to be loved completely and that we can have faith in ourselves and our potential for goodness as made in the divine image (I'm not saying REM was saying all that, you know, most of that is me being profound...)
The second idea that I noticed was very similar - the idea that to have faith we have to be able to trust that  God is good.  This is by no means as easy as it seems. The concluding lyrics of the song show a desire to believe in  a benevolent God, but a doubt and suspicion that overcome this:
" I thought that I heard you laughing, I thought that I heard you sing, I think I thought I heard you try... but that was just a dream... just a dream."
Does God laugh with us, or at us? Is his response to human suffering one of compassion - tears - or the laughter of a cruel or capricious deity? Given all the horrors of human existence, is the belief in a God of love a pipe dream that only the most misguided cling onto? It always affects me when I hear stories of people who have suffered great tragedy - the death of a child  is the most poignant example- who lose their faith. It affects me because I know that I cannot say, hand on heart, that I would not be the same, that I would not blame God and feel angry and disbelieving rather than cling to my faith.   I wonder how many of us could say the same?


  1. Yet another good post Sue. Whether it is just you "being profound" or getting to grips with some of life's knottier problems, you always make me stop and think.
    No mean feat!

  2. It is just three years this week since my nephew’s funeral – he died at the end of August 2008, but because of the circumstances of his death (suicide) a month past before his body was released for cremation. At the bunfight afterwards, I was talking with my cousin about the pain of a parent losing a child, as my sister had done. We then talked about our grandmother, who saw four of her eight children die before her. Two of these children died in infancy. An examination of my family tree revealed my paternal grandmother lost four children; my maternal grandmother lost a son aged five and my maternal grandfather had lost a wife and child (wife died in childbirth, the child a few weeks later) before he married my grandmother. Another generation backwards (late 19th century) and although all my grt grandparents had lots of children, several of these died in childhood.

    A trot around a Victorian graveyard suggests it was common for young children to die. Yet there was a high level of religious belief and nearly half the population regularly attended church in the mid-19th century. Why is it that when life was more perilous, religiosity was greater? This is echoed in the developing world at present.

    Personally I find it hard to believe in a ‘personally loving God’ who is there to deal with all my needs, hurts and wants. I worked for seven years on the cancer wards of a hospital. I worked with people aged 16 onwards and saw them die – often dying cruel, painful, protracted deaths, leaving young children without a mother or father or parents without a child. I despise the happy-clappy glib Gospel of ‘just pray to Jesus and everything will be okay...’ – because lots of my clients were Christians and they often told me Jesus would heal them. They all died. I don’t think you can truly be a Christian unless you have contemplated such deaths or the Holocaust or Pol Pot’s reign of terror or the wickedness of ‘Christian’ Britain allowing 3 million Irish people to die of starvation or pestilence in the 1840s; or the enslavement of peoples and nations under the yoke of ‘Empire’.

    The only way to retain faith, is to understand the horror of the Cross. Yet this must not be in the facile and arrogant manner of some Christians who like to portray the crucifixion as ‘the worst death imaginable’ - because one thing man is good at doing is devising horrific deaths and crucifixion is but one of many! It is rather that God as man chose to pay the price of sin. If we believe that death came because of sin, then death is the ‘natural’ result of anyone’s life – not just because of personal sin, but because of the stain of Adam, the fallen world is just so. Yet God as man could, by an act of will, release himself from the ‘natural’ fallen order and refuse to suffer and die. He did not do this, but so loved the World that he became one with humanity so that once again humanity could become one with God – entering again into the communion of love and self-giving that is the Trinity. Suffering remains our lot, for that is what it means to be human, but by faith in Jesus we have a way out. It doesn’t mean life will be any easier – indeed often the reverse – but it does mean it has purpose.

    This is how I reconcile the notion of a ‘God of Love’ with the horrors of the world. Yet sometimes I just think this is a load of kak and self-delusion. However I don’t get overly worried about thinking this, because this also is natural – read the Gospels, even after seeing Jesus Transfigured, Peter doubted and denied Jesus. I think we NEED to acknowledge our doubts, failings and fears – as you have done above. If there was a good deal more honesty in religion, I think the churches might be a good deal fuller... But that is another matter altogether! Thanks for this.

    Peter Denshaw.

  3. Thanks Peter, some challenging thoughts there.