What is our true religion? What is our true faith? What is the god that we worship?
I think the answer varies. For some, the answer is pretty straight-forward: an established, traditional, religion or denomination.
In some cases, the answer is a bit more complex, subtle, and hidden. Sometimes I think there is an overlap between the two where the true faith is hidden beneath what one can see on the surface.
And of course, there are more than just these two simple answers – it is a range of answers really.
For example, one could argue that one of America’s true religions isn’t Christianity, so much as it is Comfort. Sometimes the religion of Comfort can take on the outward appearance of Christianity – having all the trappings of the faith. A passing glance, and sometimes more, would easily confuse the two. There are worship services, churches, pastors, organizational structure, etc. Often, the religion of Comfort co-exists and uses the church institution for its form. You can even hear the words of Christianity that make it hard to discern the difference. The religion of Comfort has no need to create its own structure – it can just piggyback off an existing structure. Creating it’s own structure would be too uncomfortable anyway.
But the religion of Comfort is different from Christianity. The religion of Comfort proclaims a message of status quo – that salvation comes through the maintenance of the status quo. It proclaims that a person’s life should not change. The religion of Comfort is happy to talk about Jesus, but only certain aspects of Jesus – the nice Jesus, the friendly Jesus. Not that Jesus who calls on followers to deny themselves daily, pick up their cross, and follow Jesus. Not the Jesus who tells the rich to sell their possessions and give to the poor. Not the Jesus who calls on us to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, welcome the stranger, care for the sick, visit the imprisoned. Those are not comfortable.
The religion of Comfort has boundaries for God. Comfort believes that god can have limited access to a person, based on what the person wants and desires. If the person wants to close god off from their finances, so be it. Same for relationships, or health, or work, or anything else. The main practice of the faith of Comfort is to avoid stirring the pot or upsetting the status quo. Or anything that would require a change in one’s life. That would be uncomfortable. (And yes, I am using lower-case “g” to refer to the god of Comfort.)
The public practice of the religion of Comfort ultimately looks more like a public duty, rather than a faith-filled life. One does a duty because it is the “right” thing to do, but there isn’t much attachment to it beyond that for most people. This is no different than how most people see jury duty or voting – we do it because it’s the right thing to do and you are supposed to do these things to be good citizens. But in reality, most people don’t really enjoy these things.
The faith of the religion of Comfort rests on a belief that god is abstract, not personal. The core of this faith is a belief that this abstract god tells its followers to be good people, whatever that means. Even this idea remains abstract and gives plenty of wiggle room to excuse behaviors and rationalize away anything that needs to be explained away. Remember, Comfort is the key.
An abstract god therefore, by definition, has no relationship with its followers and makes minimal requirements from them. How could such a god have any relationships of value? And because of this, the abstract god doesn’t mess with people’s lives. The god of Comfort is distant and barely a real entity – more there in case of an emergency and if nothing else seems to work. Otherwise, this abstract God is out of sight and out of mind, except for the times of public duty.
The abstract god is more of an acquaintance, rather than a personal God who calls followers to be disciples who are all in. Such a god is more concerned with making members of a social club rather than making disciples who proclaim a life and world-changing message that they themselves have experienced.
Membership has its privileges. Members are served and comforted. The money that comes in to the church of Comfort, stays in the church of Comfort. Disciples, on the other hand, have a responsibility and are taught how to go and serve – to follow the lead of the Master. To go where it is messy and uncomfortable. To go when it is inconvenient.
The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote about this over 50 years ago. His words were prophetic. While he didn’t specifically name the religion of Comfort, he sure did describe it.
Things are different now. So often the contemporary church is a weak, ineffectual voice with an uncertain sound. So often it is an archdefender of the status quo. Far from being disturbed by the presence of the church, the power structure of the average community is consoled by the church’s silent–and often even vocal–sanction of things as they are.
But the judgment of God is upon the church as never before. If today’s church does not recapture the sacrificial spirit of the early church, it will lose its authenticity, forfeit the loyalty of millions, and be dismissed as an irrelevant social club with no meaning for the twentieth century. Every day I meet young people whose disappointment with the church has turned into outright disgust.
(Source: Letter from a Birmingham Jail, MLK, Jr)