for today: Is religion only good for the 'good'?
ELIGION is only good for good people." Once heard, Mary McCarthy's aphorism resounds repeatedly in one's head. Its cutting edge matches in its sharpness a question posed by Lord Acton: Why do we heap so much praise on liberty when the wealth of interpretation given it "has caused more bloodshed than anything except theology'?"
Religion is certainly used for Many more purposes than for glorifying God. Witness the insensitive mother who threatens her child with the fires of hell for not putting his toys away. We are all guilty in varying degrees of using instead of serving religion and nobody's motives are entirely pure.
Sometimes when it is said we should do this or that for the love of Christ, we can't help wondering whether the only thing that Christianity has brought into the world is a new vocabulary.
Christ's name should not be used as a means of blackmailing the devout into doing things without first having to convince them by argument that such thines arc intrinsically worth doing. I have a friend who says that when someone of his acquaintance mentions the Holy Ghost he knows he is going to try to pull a fast one.
No one ever remotely rivalled Christ in heaping scorn upon the "religious" man who uses rather than serves religion, and who uses it particularly for selfgratification. His disparagement of the scribes and pharisees seems to have been a major preoccupation.
These men, so scrupulous in their religious observances, sedulously tithed their herbs; and neglected justice and mercy and faith. They strained out gnats and swallowed camels; they spotted the splinter in their neighbour's eye and overlooked the plank in their own.
To the chief priests and elders who plotted his death—though they had scruples about putting Judas's silver pieces into the treasury—Jesus said: "The tax-collectors and the harlots into the kingdom before you." Yes, religion can be bad for bad people.
It is, however, in the parable of the pharisee and the publican that we come across the severest comment ever made upon the religious man. The pharisee was a very respectable gentleman, indeed. He was generous, he fasted more than he needed, he kept all the commandments, he did all that the law laid down.
Here is the supreme example of the religious man, a positive paragon of virtue. But while the sinful publican, who simply lowered his eyes and beat his breast for mercy, was justified, the pharisee was not.
We are Christians exactly in so far as we take this parable seriously, for never did Christ show so sure a touch as in the relating of it. It is not a story that a mere man would have dared tell, nor is it a story to which a mere man could have given the remotest degree of plausibility. It tells of God's judgment on the hearts of men, a judgment which is very much a reversal of purely .ethical considerations.
Translated into more modem terms the parable might read: Two women, one a virtuous wife, the other a prostitute who spent her nights on the streets. dropped into a church to say their prayers.
The virtuous wife thanked God for giving her eight lovely children. She had not resorted to artifiCial methods of birth con
trot like some of her acquaintances she could mention. She had been faithful to one man, her husband, unlike this hussy who was praying—ineffectually, as wa evident—before the statue of the Virgin.
Her own children she had brought up in the Catholic faith and sent them, not without sacrifices, to Catholic schools. She had given two sons to the Church as priests—one was a missionary in Africa—and one of her daughters was a nun. And the harlot merely beat her breast and said ...
Two monks in an odd moment dropped into the chapel to pay a visit to the Blessed Sacrament. One was a very good religious indeed. He spent all his free time in front of the altar upon his knees. He had kept all the rules from his novitiate days.
He answered every bell like a butler; he kept the Great Silence of the night hours with unswerving fidelity; he interpreted his superior's will before it was ever spoken, which St. Thomas Aquinas said was the sign of a very obedient person. He thanked God for the manifest advantages he had been given over his confrere in the chapel.
The latter was certainly not everything he was vowed to be, nor everything his founder would have wished. In fact, poor fellow, he had been struggling to keep his head above water from the day he entered. When he didn't actually break the rule he bent it beyond all recognit ion.
His laughter was louder and more raucous than was seemly in a monk, and many a pious visitor to the guest house was at least mildly surprised to see just how many cigarettes he managed to cadge from them in any single day. His one (literally) redeeming feature was that under the folds of his habit he kept a fist ever ready to pound his breast while he said . . .
To the daily Mass-goer, to the strictest of seminarists and monks, to the most prim and proper of matrons, the Lord may still say: "The tax-collectors and the harlots go into the kingdom before you."
While religion can be bad for people, itis only good for people who recognise that they are bad. It was his moment of intensest irony when Jesus said to the pharisees: "I came to call sinners, not the just."