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Making God a “Convenience”

The Templeton Foundation tells us,

Almost half of all Americans feel God’s love at least once a day, according to a new national survey. Eight out of ten have this experience at least once in a while. A similar number have felt God’s love prompting their compassion for others at least occasionally, with almost a third feeling this compassion daily or more often. Furthermore, the experience of divine love proved to be the most consistent predictor of six different forms of benevolent behavior studied in the research. Whether giving time or money, helping friends and family, or working to make the world a better place, the findings suggest that for many Americans, the experience of divine love and practical benevolence are inseparable.

I always have mixed feelings about this kind of study — or perhaps I should say, I have mixed feelings about the use religious believers tend to put it to. Often I have heard them say, “See? This proves that we should encourage Christianity, because Christians make society better and stronger.”

In relation to this, and to the very similar issues raised in Rod’s recent post, I think some words that C. S. Lewis gave to the demon Screwtape are relevant:

We do want, and want very much, to make men treat Christianity as a means; preferably, of course, as a means to their own advancement but, failing that, as a means to anything — even to social justice. The thing to do is to get a man at first to value social justice as a thing which the Enemy demands, and then work him on to the stage at which he values Christianity because it may produce social justice. For the Enemy will not be used as a convenience. Men or nations who think they can revive the Faith in order to make a good society might just as well think they can use the stairs of Heaven as a short cut to the nearest chemist’s shop. Only today I have found a passage in a Christian writer where he recommends his own version of Christianity on the grounds that ‘only such a faith can outlast the death of old cultures and the birth of new civilisations’. You see the little rift? ‘Believe this, not because it is true, but for some other reason’. That’s the game.

If Christianity is good because it increases benevolence, what happens if someone comes up with a pill that increases benevolence still more? Not that I have anything against benevolence, or social cohesion, or orderly societies, to be sure. But it’s worth remembering that if Christianity is true then it’s true whether it brings about social circumstances we find desirable or not.

about the author

Alan Jacobs is a Distinguished Professor of the Humanities in the Honors Program at Baylor University in Waco, Texas, and the author most recently of The Book of Common Prayer: A Biography.

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