Religion: Job Description for a Meaningful Life
Posted on 04 October 2012, 13:53
One of the first things I learned at St. Mary’s when I was five years old was that God knew me by name and would take me to heaven at death to live eternally with Him. I hung on to that philosophy for the next twenty years. It brightened my day when I woke up every morning. It fortified me in junior high when targeted by bullies. It shielded me from depression in high school when the girls found muscular football players more desirable than skinny me.
And it gave me the courage I needed in Vietnam to live with death close by.
With the poet John Donne I could say, “Death, thou shalt die.” Death was a doorway to a better world. Believing this, I could live fearlessly.
How different are most of our children these days! Last week I asked my class of college freshmen and sophomores if they could answer the following questions:
Student after student confessed they didn’t know. Many had never thought about these questions.
Religion has traditionally provided a job description for people stepping onto the planet. It’s told them how to live and what to expect after death. Too often our kids are like people who are hired to do a job, put on the payroll, but aren’t told what to do. They’ve never been encouraged by their parents to practice a religion.
Another problem is that the job descriptions of old are often rejected by our kids. Forty years ago Ernest Becker wrote that the crisis of society was due to the crisis of organized religion: “Religion is no longer valid as a hero system, and so the youth scorn it.” Today organized religion is out of fashion among many of our youth, often the brightest, just as it was then. So are the world’s scriptures.
And often, I’m afraid, for very good reasons. Too often the world’s religions conflict with each other. At other times they tell stories unworthy of God or gods. Smart kids pick up on this and become skeptics.
But skepticism isn’t going to provide us with a job description either. Without a religious outlook we are likely to agree with Thomas Carlyle that earth is “a hall of doom,” or with William James that no matter how hard we try to forget our plight “the skull will grin in at the banquet.”
This view of the human condition is the product of a materialist philosophy that accepts as real only what the senses (or their instruments) can vouch for. Immaterial phenomena like feelings of love and forgiveness are reduced to electrochemical brain states. Materialism is the religion of many scientists; it provides their job description. The trouble is that it gives a fatally bleak answer to the question, “What can you expect when you die?”
A better job description is based on a wider knowledge of what it means to be human. Science provides one kind of clue. The world’s religions provide another. The almost endless array of spiritual and artistic experiences coming at us from many different cultures provide a third. And the expanding domain of psychical research provides a fourth. Taken as a whole, they suggest that human nature is far too complex to be packaged as “material only, handle with care.”
A more complete job description would read something like this: You are a blend of material body and immaterial soul. Your body is intended to be the soul’s instrument. Your task is to grow your soul by a wise management of this instrument as you navigate through a challenging and often dangerous material environment. Along the way enjoy yourself, “find your bliss,” but not at the expense of others’ wellbeing. At death you will drop your body and continue on into a less dense material environment where you will reap the harvest, for better or worse, of your actions, and where soul-making will continue, possibly unto eternity.
Too many of our kids have been diminished and downsized by the absence of a worthy job description. If we don’t help them develop something like the one above, they will drift through life aimlessly and despairingly, never guessing their true worth or what they are capable of.
Stafford Betty is a professor of religious studies at California State University, Bakersfield, and author of The Imprisoned Splendor and The Afterlife Unveiled.
The Imprisoned Splendor is published by White Crow books and available from Amazon and other book stores.