June 2013:What difference does religion make?

The Western countries are collectively in a cultural period we call 'post-modern'. As a gross simplification we might say that this is characterised by relativism, the idea that we each have our own idea about what is true, and that this may vary depending on our circumstances. Absolutes are rejected, including much religion; what follows, therefore, is written as if seen from a point 'outside' faith.

Our economy is presently based on capitalism, and (put simply) capitalism in the absence of absolute values seems to lead organisations to see people simply as assets to be employed or not as the business of the organisation needs; thus humans become slaves to the market, rather than having the market satisfy real human needs. Increasing unemployment among the young and old (as well as marginal groups) are indicators of a culture that does not care about people any more, but seeks only to maximise profit or minimise cost.

What happens to us as individuals when we are treated this way? Again, this is a gross simplification: as adults, most of us need to feel valued, that we belong where we are, and to be useful in some way that is rewarding, and not only financially - or at least, to have some real hope of having these needs met. Such needs are often hidden until something happens that leaves us not belonging, or not feeling useful, such as being unable to find work, or losing a loved one. If that state persists, we might lose hope, and this is one way of becoming depressed. Some might seek solace in drink, or drugs, or risky behaviour - it depends on how resilient we are.

In my time in the IT industry, I observed that people under stress display different levels of resilience; some struggle more than others, even if their circumstances are less difficult. There are several factors in this, but one of them is whether there is a place for something else, such as faith, in their lives. A deep faith, lived-in rather than just believed-in, is an indicator for greater resilience, and it is my belief that such faith actually builds greater resilience. Increased resilience helps to combat the dehumanising nature of the Western world today.

How does this happen, then? By transforming our minds - that is, by offering us different ways of looking at the world together and deciding what is important, by helping us to see things in a greater context, and by joining our short, personal stories with a much longer one, spanning millennia, that offers us new purpose and hope. Deep faith fills the gaps that post-modernism leaves, and so fuels resilience.

Another aspect of today's world gets in the way at this point, however - we want it all, now! But faith doesn't work like that. It needs an amount of surrender, trust, deliberate change, persistence, and hard work. To put it in Christian language, simply 'believing' in Jesus isn't enough to make a difference to resilience - you need to put that belief into practice, to try to live as Jesus taught, and to reflect prayerfully on what happens as the Spirit of God helps you do it. The result will be a slow transformation of your mind, if you are willing - you will come to see things differently, and gradually become more resilient. Often, people give up too soon, and try some other 'easier' way - always testing the water, but never daring to go in! Or they get stuck, treating faith shallowly, as if it were a magic wand. It just isn't that easy to change deeply or to become more resilient.

Bad things happen to religious people, and good things happen to non-religious people; and vice-versa, of course. But it seems to me that, to take a view from the outside, the value of religion today is that it offers us extra resources and resilience to deal with the hard stuff that comes our way. Sooner or later, we all need a bit of that!

Parkdale Church of Christ 2012-18 —A community of faith, hope and compassion.