Really Hard Religion

22 Aug

very_large_telescope_largeSo, they’re watching some black hole in our galaxy suck up an enormous gas cloud 26,000 light years away—which means that the sucking up actually took place 26,000 years ago, and we’re just now getting the word.

Gautam Naik did a great job describing all this in his recent WSJ article, and it’s terrific and very interesting, but I have to admit that the only detail that stuck with me was the VLT. Here’s where it popped up in the article:

Using data from the European-funded Very Large Telescope, or VLT, perched high up in Chile’s Atacama Desert, Dr. Gillessen’s team recently concluded that the front of the gas cloud is traveling 310 miles per second faster than its tail.

I love that! The “Very Large Telescope”—right to the point. No insufferably long or convoluted descriptors, no obscure terms or even geographical identifiers. Just call it what it is: A Very Large Telescope. VLT. Awesome.

It got me thinking about Christianity. How about we call Christianity the RHR—the Really Hard Religion. Lousy marketing, no doubt, but maybe it would help clarify things for potential converts and others.

Case in point: Today’s reading from Judges, where Jephthah makes a vow in order to win a battle:

“If you deliver the Ammonites into my power,” he said, “whoever comes out of the doors of my house to meet me when I return in triumph from the Ammonites shall belong to the LORD. I shall offer him up as a burnt offering.”

The Israelites are victorious, but when Jephthah returns home, the first one out of his house is his daughter, an only child. “Alas, daughter,” he says, “I have made a vow to the LORD and I cannot retract.” Surely God will prevent this father slaughtering his only child, right? Like Abraham and Isaac? Right?

Wrong. Very matter-of-factly, the narrative relates the exact opposite. After the daughter gets a brief reprieve in order to mourn her short life, Jephthah “did to her as he had vowed.”

The commentaries talk about Jephthah simply imitating the human sacrifice practiced by neighboring pagan nations, and it’s true that the biblical author only records the event without approving of it. But there it is: God’s chosen doing this horrendous, unthinkable thing. Why didn’t God intervene?

Years ago, we occasionally attended Communion and Liberation gatherings at Notre Dame. We’d chat, sip tea, and discuss the writings of Fr. Luigi Giussani, CL’s founder. We were new to South Bend, looking to connect with other young parents, and it was a plus that these folks were erudite, orthodox, and normal.

One night, however, as the discussion progressed, something in Giussani gave rise to a thought that escaped my lips before I could edit it. “After all,” I blurted out, “Christianity is a horrible religion in temporal terms.”John_of_the_Cross_crucifixion_sketch You can imagine the awkward silence.

That was our last CL appearance, which meant that I never had a chance to unpack my incendiary comment. I’m sure I left the impression I was some kind of crypto-apostate or worse.

What I was getting at is this: In temporal terms—i.e., in purely human terms rooted in self-preservation, self-interest, and comfort—the Christian story is nuts. It’s filled with Jephthah moments that fly in the face of the impression you get at Christian bookstores that the Faith is about being nice. Christianity may be a lot of things, but it’s not nice. The God of the universe is hanging up there on a cross, and we are called to do likewise.

No facile explanation or justification follows here; just a suggestion—one that Pope Francis made in an Angelus address last weekend:

To live the faith is not to decorate life with a little religion, like a cake is decorated with a little frosting. No! It’s not that. To follow Jesus requires renunciation of evil, of egoism, and choosing good, truth, justice. It also requires sacrifice and a renunciation of self-interest.

In other words, Christianity is an RHR, and it can’t be part-time. I don’t like to hear that.

One Response to “Really Hard Religion”


  1. Really Hard Religion | One Thousand Words a Week - August 25, 2013

    […] Read more… […]

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