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Religion and Anxiety

Anthony Falbo - Be anxious for nothing

Religion and Anxiety

What is religion for? I know there are some Christians who don’t like to describe themselves as religious (‘they have a relationship with God, not a religion’) but I think it is a useful term. The root of the word ‘religion’ may mean to bind up again (the same root gives us the word ‘ligament’): ‘religion’ is to bind something up again, to put something back together which had fallen apart. In short, religions aim to fix things – and they do this by giving us rituals and structures that repeat themselves. Helpfully, this means that we don’t have to imagine what God might be like afresh each week and how we should approach this God – we have a liturgy, an order of service, that helps us.

Of course, whether we allow these religious structures to help us actually get back in touch with God or whether we treat them as something to be worshipped in their own right is a moot point. Those Christians who feel uncomfortable using the term ‘religious’ rightly put their finger on what happens if we simply allow ourselves to get hooked on tradition. So, religion, I’d like to suggest, is a neutral thing. Whether being religious is good or bad depends on the aim and the spirit with which it is carried out.  Religion that takes a fragmented, disjointed human life, and puts it back together with the intention of making a violent person is clearly bad religion; but religion which takes fragmented and disjointed lives and puts them back together to make peaceful people is clearly a different matter. And, it seems to be, that any particular religion can be at times good or bad…

Why the lecture on religion? Last Sunday I attended a Creationist event at a local Catholic church. You’d be correct in thinking it’s not my natural haunt. I listened for several hours to two impassioned speakers earnestly speaking about how the Earth was only six thousand years old; how Genesis chapter 1 had to be interpreted as a historical account; how there was a real Adam and Eve; how there was a great flood that covered the whole earth at once. Questions about carbon-14 dating were raised; statements from previous popes and saints were adduced proving the authority of scripture as historically true about the Garden of Eden. And to cap it all I was shown a photograph of an 800-year-old carving which was said to depict a stegosaurus, thereby proving that dinosaurs must have been around only recently.

If you’ve ever been to an event like this it’s easy to get sucked in, either in agreement or in passionate disagreement. But I’d decided to try to control my temper by taking notes because what I really wanted to do was to understand the structure and motivation of the argument: what was it that could drive these speakers to give of their precious time to share their beliefs: what was so important to them?

It turned out that questions about science weren’t in the driving seat. No: it was anxiety that was the driver. In this case anxiety about changing sexual identities and roles today. You see: the speakers believed that if you did want to reaffirm traditional Catholic gender roles for men and women, and to reassert that heterosexuality should be the norm, then you needed the Genesis story to be historically true: for it was in Genesis 1 that God had revealed the perfect template for human sexuality: Adam and Eve together in the garden. But if evolution threatened the historical truth of Genesis 1, evolution had to be shown to be wrong.

Now, this seems to me a case of the dogmatic tail wagging the scientific dog: a problem with restating traditional Catholic morality resulted in an argument that tried to  overturn the last century and a half of biological thinking. Now, whatever we think a Christian view of sexuality and gender ought to be (and that should certainly be something we care about and argue over), nevertheless, I think that most of us would agree that denying the day-to-day work of modern biologists is probably not the best way to do it. Or, if I can try to put it more pithily: if we’re unsure of what our doctrine should be, the answer won’t be found in doing worse science, it’ll be found in doing better theology.

But, stepping back from these questions, what interested me most was to discover the role of anxiety: this anxiety about LGBT+ rights and around the apparent loss of heterosexual marriage. You’ll recall that a while back I mentioned ‘religion’ may mean to put back together again what is disjointed? Here was a case of religion trying to put some disjointed, worried faithful traditionalist Catholics, back together. But (I dare to observe) I don’t think it was very good religion. Not just because it rested on bad science, but because it was driven by an anxious need for security.

So here we get to the actual sermon: how do we deal with insecurity? Insecurity about anything – in our relationships, in our work-life, when it comes to our health or our future?

How can religion help with anxiety? One response might be to look to Christianity to provide us with firm answers. And it does provide us with some. Jesus was, in some ways, deeply conservative and firm about several matters: think of the Sermon on the Mount’s attitudes to money, forgiveness, non-violence. But in other ways the religion that Jesus shares with us is at the same time radically liberal, particularly when it comes to dealing with anxiety…

In our Gospel reading this morning we hear about the shepherd who leaves the 99 sheep for the one that was lost; and about the woman who sweeps the whole house to find the one lost coin. What could each of them have done instead? I guess the shepherd could have said, ‘Well, I still have 99! Never mind, I’ll focus on protecting what I’ve still got’. And what of the woman who had lost one of the coins which were often worn as jewellery and probably consisted of her precious dowry – her only source of independent wealth? I guess she could have spent the day shopping for a very strong box, then polishing each coin in turn and placing it safely inside, vowing never to wear them again. (That suggestion reminds me, by the way, of a story of the Queen visiting an elderly lady for tea. Whilst sipping from her mug the Queen points to some fine bone china on the dresser. ‘Those look lovely’, she says. ‘Yes,’ says the lady, ‘I save those for best’.)

But neither the shepherd nor the woman do these things. In the face of the anxiety of loss theirs is not a withdrawal into safety. These are parables that affirm the worth of moving towards what was lost, in hope, rather than seeking to avoid further loss by retreating into greater security.

Of course, both parables are about grace – Jesus is communicating his sense that God’s instinct for love means that God doesn’t avoid risk; God moves towards what is lost, in love and in hope. It’s approach to life that is the opposite of allowing fear to close down… Jesus’s life, rooted in God, incarnates the same attitude: he chooses not to avoid the risky encounter with the polluted or the morally compromised which might lose him favour or put him in the bad books of the authorities, or indeed open him to the challenge that he was being unfaithful to scripture. Indeed, just think of how little time Jesus spends in the Temple (the secure, safe, place); and instead how much time he spends on the margins of Israel. And this divine life which he takes on, Jesus passes to his disciples when he says, follow me… So, in the face of anxiety do we retreat or courageously journey out again?

Two years ago I conducted the funeral of a distant relative, Dick. He was a hoarder: most of the rooms of his house were full to the ceiling with bags stuffed with things that he ‘might one day need’. Dick rarely set foot outside. I think much of the world beyond his door felt to him frightening. But he didn’t start out that way – his hoarding was (I would guess) the end destination of many individual choices to retreat because it seemed the safest option. Few of us are so extreme as that, but all of us have choices about what we do in the face of uncertainty, and one path leads to withdrawal and another, apparently riskier path, leads outwards.

Our anxieties may take many forms: they may focus on our jobs, like the uncertainty of a parish job after a good curacy; or like the uncertainty of a parish as it awaits a new vicar after difficult past experiences… It may deal with our health, mental and physical; our experience of ageing.

And on top of these personal uncertainties we find, too, that we live in increasingly complex times, politically and environmentally. In the face of uncertainty about the effects of climate we could, if we wanted, withdraw into positions of self-protection. In extreme we might try to hide from the painful truth in climate denial; or perhaps start behaving in ways that try only to limit the consequences for ourselves. In the face of difficult international relations, that make us fear losing control, we could say that we have had enough of experts; we could listen to voices which offer simple solutions rather than the complex process of arguing for change.

These things are, of course, easy to say, but far harder to live – for none of us likes anxiety or uncertainty. I find, time and again, that these two responses (each of them offered by different ways of doing religion) can be reduced to two simple gestures: the clenched hand, or the open palm. In the face of whatever uncertainties we meet, shall we cultivate the daily prayer of letting go, ‘into your hands I commend my spirit’; or shall we cultivate the prayer of security: Lord, make me safe?

When it comes to dealing with anxiety, what is it that we want from our religion? As we approach the communion table, it may be that we will find that a clenched hand makes it more difficult to receive what God would like to give us.

Mark Laynesmith, 15 September, 2019

Image . Anthony Falbo – Be Anxious for Nothing