Content and Not Content

I have been told often that religion teaches us to be content with the way things are. I’m not sure where this idea comes from because I’ve never been taught that throughout all the denominations I’ve visited or been a member in. And if one surveys the historical record, then this argument is even more patently false. If religion were simply content to look at the world and say, “Eh, it’s not worth doing anything” then would we have hospitals? Remembering that modern hospitals come from the religious order of Knights Hospitallers? How about universities? They came from monastic orders. The list of the foundations of modern society within pre-modern religious context could go on and on.

Gregorian chanting is foundational to western music.

That includes Ke$ha. This is why monks never stop repenting.

But okay, I mean those religious orders did all their stuff long ago. They don’t really do any of that today. I mean businesses and the state have taken over all that work, patted the monks on the head, and sent them back to their cells. In the modern world, surely religion simply teaches us a brand of fatalism? Right?

I suppose that’s why the United Methodist Church gives away 29% of all its income every year to aid and charity? (For those of you thinking 29% is not much, it’s actually quite high for a non-profit organization that has many other costs.) I suppose that’s why Catholic Charities serves roughly eight million people in poverty every year? Why the Orthodox Church in Greece has recently been providing meals for 20.000 needy people every day?

The problem is not that religion is content with the problems of this world because we’re so focused on the “pie in the sky” of the next life that we just can’t be bothered. A great many of Jesus’ claims and commands had to do with precisely this life. How we are to live, how we are to treat others, how we are to participate in the newly inaugurated kingdom of God.

I run the hotdog-on-a-stick stall!

In fact, the whole thrust of Christianity is that we not to be content with the way things are. Perhaps why some critics think that we are is because we simply prefer to act somewhat differently. We believe that the change starts within us. Beyond that, quite often the Church remains skeptical about various “movements” or “ideas” for improvement. This is not because the Church doesn’t want to improve, but rather for a variety of quite good reasons. Perhaps the idea of what an “improvement” can be is not well-enough defined. As the old saying goes, the road to hell is paved with good intentions.

The Church tends to take a long-term perspective on changing the world and helping others. Perhaps to some this appears as inaction, but only if you’re ignoring the facts. How many well-meaning movements burn out within a relatively short amount of time? The Church recognizes that social movements are confined to the society at large. That is, if the society changes or even falls, the movement is gone. How much good has been accomplished then? Perhaps a little bit for a little while, but the tougher task is to create lasting change for the betterment of all.

Such as the abolition of Schlager music

The Church outlasts societies. That is both a historical fact and a point of belief. So perhaps we don’t feel the need to jump on every cause bandwagon. Perhaps we prefer to be measured, thoughtful, careful, and invested in the long-term outlook. And that is precisely the problem with the criticism that religion teaches us to be happy with the way things are. It is a false criticism deeply rooted in our society that demands change and demands it NOW (and usually demands it “my way” too).

So why did I title this “Content and Not Content”? Because religion does call us to contentment. But it is a contentment not of inaction and fatalism. It is a contentment of foundation, in God. It is a contentment of peace; that we are called to serve, but we are also not Superman and can’t save the world single-handedly.

Although Superman does have a dog.

The Church calls us to contentment so that we don’t foolishly pursue our selfish, harmful, short-term interests for our own aggrandizement. Instead, we pursue the (often anonymous) good of service to and with others so that we may serve God in others. As the Scottish mystic, pastor, and author George MacDonald once said that in order to do good to others we must first make a careful study of how not to do harm.


~ by crossingthebosporus on July 16, 2012.

9 Responses to “Content and Not Content”

  1. This is superb, and accurate, I think. A very good exposition of who and what we are.

    • Thank you. Part inspiration goes to Jess with her posting of Kipling’s poem last night, although the theme that the Church acts perhaps slowly compared to what many people would prefer is one that has been kicking around in my mind for quite a while. The Church has a 2.000 year perspective, longer when you consider the Hebrew scriptures. It’s very difficult for anyone to think in such a time frame (and take it as foundational), especially when the needs are so present and immediate.

      • I agree completely. Kipling has a way, for me at least of concentrating the mind particularly on concepts that I’ve been kicking around. You’re right also that a 2000 year institutional memory would tend to taking a long view, just like we say (how accurately, I don’t know) about the Chinese.

      • It’s funny you mentioned that, because I find Taoism and Buddhism to be perhaps the most compelling religio-philosophical systems after Christianity.

      • That’s interesting, I made the remark from a political perspective but, that’s because I know almost literally nothing of them. I do believe good judgment comes from experience so perhaps its natural for me.

        Along that line Chalcedon’s series on Leo has me thinking about the differences between Islam and Christianity, in the sense of building on experience rather than stalling on the written word.

  2. Thank you, I am glad Kipling helped – he usually does 🙂 There are ‘eternal verities’ (as my co-author calls them) and then there are passing fancies, in the end the former win out. I’m with NEO, this is a great post – don’t know why some folks thing the Church is some sort of comfort blanket – my adolesence would have been a deal easier if I’d been an atheist.

  3. This is precisely why the “prosperity gospel” teachings are so shameful and heretical (there, I used that word). God is there to make us rich, healthy, and happy, so we can drive fancy cars and live in lavish mansions.

    • I pretty much agree with that, although with the caveat that I don’t believe God has any problem with you being prosperous, if you become prosperous in accordance ewith his teaching, which is pretty much consonant with the fundementals of real capitalism.

      When your goal becomes to be rich (in whatever sense of the word) instead of providing a service, then you will fall afoul of the teaching of both.

    • Heretical is probably the nicest descriptive I have for “prosperity gospel.”

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