I am in the middle of a fascinating and disturbing memoir by a young woman who escaped a very conservative religious community.
The world she was born into required close observance of religious strictures, including a very limited role for women (to quote from the book, to be ‘baby producing machines’). Their compliance was monitored closely.
Like all young women of this community, she was forbidden to enter tertiary education. This restriction was particularly galling as she was intelligent.
A marriage was arranged for her at age 18.
And the community’s rationale for requiring submission to such a restricted and restrictive life… The community had suffered grievously in the past. Its religious leaders interpreted this tragedy as a sign of God’s punishment for not following God’s commands strictly enough.
They could avoid a recurrence of such suffering by adhering even more rigorously to their law and religious practices.
There is a deep irony here. The prescribed religious observances caused women especially to suffer and be diminished.
This story is one example of the way religious belief systems are co-opted to explain suffering.
In the 19th century, Karl Marx wrote, ‘The philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways. The point, however, is to change it.
Christianity remains true to its founding vision when it seeks not to explain suffering but alleviate it.
Marx wrote about religion, ‘Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.’
In Marx’s view, religion functioned to dull the pain of suffering, as opium does, at the same time providing people with pleasant illusions.
The opium of religion is its attempt to provide such blissful escape from reality by ‘explaining’ suffering.
Authoritative religious explanations subsume suffering into a new worldview, often premised on personal guilt and failure.
This explanation, when embraced, pushes suffering underground and thereby ensures that it continues.
We need to listen to Marx’s critique.
Whenever you find yourself about to employ God as an explanation of why something happened, stop and pause:
Allow time to embrace the sadness, or grief, or tragedy of the moment and stay with it…
Allow time and keep explanations at bay.
Especially at Easter time, when the church is full of explanations, such wariness is essential. (The death and resurrection of Jesus may be the most interpreted event in human history.)
Easter explained is Easter diminished; it is Easter made to fit into our ‘normality.’
Interpreting Easter in various ways does not change us or the world.
On the other hand, if you resist explanations, you allow yourself an opportunity to be drawn more deeply into the mystery of God.
That mystery breaks open the world.
Easter is not an explanation. It is an invitation to allow your world to be broken open.