People often turn to religion as a source of strength for troubled times, a means for spiritual renewal, and an expression of charity. Despite these noble objectives, the reality of much religious experience is anything but peaceful and uplifting. Why does the actual experience diverge so readily from the anticipated and fervently desired effect of religion?
In seeking an answer to this paradox, I look to the concept of conflict that seems to permeate so much religious thought in our “Christian” society. God is seen to be at war with the forces of evil, locked in a seemingly endless struggle that has lasted for thousands of years and could go on for thousands more. Believers are called into service to participate in this struggle, by defending the right doctrine, by converting the unbelievers, and by resisting the evildoers both within and without the “church”.
Conflict, as you may have noticed, does not bring peace and it is not the motivation for charitable acts either. Therefore, the concept of eternal struggle is diametrically opposed to the desired inner peace and charitable expression that seemingly draws people to religion in the first place. A theology based on conflict and struggle can never do anything but perpetuate pessimism, emotional turmoil, and a restless hope to escape.
Paradoxically, though we are initially drawn to religious thought by a message of peace and joy, we soon find that the real message is that of perpetual aggression toward “evil”: evil men, evil doctrines, evil institutions, evil supernatural powers, etc. We seek peace but the church makes us warriors. We seek reconciliation with God, but theology demands that we alienate ourselves from the men created in God’s image. We seek to grow spiritually, and our doctrine says that all truth must conform to previously established orthodox thought. The boundaries on spiritual development are therefore set in stone before we even get started.
How does something that holds so much promise, miss the mark so dramatically? How does this message of love and peace become diluted and finally overwhelmed by the idea of eternal struggle between good and evil? Many would say that Christ’s work to bring peace and joy is incomplete, awaiting a future return. Therefore, the struggle continues unabated. This response begs the question of what did Christ really accomplish during his earthly ministry nearly 2000 years ago, if the real work of dealing with evil remains to be done. If the forces of evil are trying to destroy us spiritually, and if we must persevere in resisting these forces, then peace is a hoax, a chimera. We can be no more at peace than were those before Christ.
Wouldn’t it be more logical to accept at face value the declaration of peace that Christ proclaimed those many years ago. If Christ’s work is not incomplete, then real peace is possible. If peace eludes us, perhaps it is only because we insist on continuing to struggle, not against evil per se, but against the reality and sufficiency of Christ’s victorious work.