The news media and internet have been abuzz with discussion of a statement made earlier this month by Senator Barack Obama. At a fundraiser on April 6 in San Francisco, Barack Obama said the following;
“You go into some of these small towns in Pennsylvania, and like a lot of small towns in the Midwest, the jobs have been gone now for 25 years and nothing’s replaced them. And they fell through the Clinton Administration, and the Bush Administration, and each successive administration has said that somehow these communities are gonna regenerate and they have not. And it’s not surprising then they get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren’t like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations.”
Obama’s campaign has attempted to spin his statement as a positive remark about the value of “those things that do not change.” However, everyone understands that it was an elitist statement that cannot be spun away.
Blogger and news commentary has been an interesting mix of rant, rage, glee, embarrassment, and equivocation. However, not once have I heard a single person deal with the substance of his claim that people who are experiencing difficult times turn to religion. Do they?
I had planned on writing an essay on the topic, but after spending several weeks organizing my thoughts I realized that what I wanted to say has already been said by J.B. Phillips in his little book, Your God Is Too Small. The following fifteen paragraphs have been excerpted from Phillips’ book.
The critics of the Christian religion have often contended that a religious faith is a form of psychological “escapism.” A man, they say, finding the problems and demands of adult life too much for him will attempt to return to the comfort and dependence of childhood by picturing for himself a loving parent, whom he calls God. It must be admitted that there is a good deal of ammunition ready to hand for such an attack, and the first verse of a well-known and well-loved hymn provides an obvious example–
Jesu, Lover of my soul,
Let me to Thy bosom fly,
While the nearer waters roll,
While the tempest still is high:
Hide me, O my Saviour, hid,
Till the storm of life be past;
Safe into the haven guide,
O receive my soul at last.
Here, if the words are taken at their face value, is sheer escapism, a deliberate desire to be hidden safe away until the storm and stress of life is over, and no explaining away by lovers of the hymn can alter its plain sense. It can hardly be denied that if this is true Christianity then the charge of “escapism,” of emotional immaturity and childish regression, must be frankly conceded. But although this “God of escape” is quite common the true Christian course is set in a very different direction. No one would accuse its Founder of immaturity in insight, thought, teaching, or conduct, and the history of the Christian Church provides thousands of examples of timid half-developed personalities who have not only found in their faith what the psychologists call integration, but have coped with difficulties and dangers in a way that makes any gibe of “escapism” plainly ridiculous.
Yet is there in Christianity a legitimate element of what the inimical might call escapism?
The authentic Christian tradition, and particularly the biographies of those who might be considered in the front rank of Christian “saints,” show that throughout the ages heroic men and women have found in God their “refuge” as well as their “strength.” It would be absurd to think that people of such spiritual stature were all under the influence of a childish regression, and we are forced to look farther for the explanation.
It has been well said by several modern psychologists that it is not the outward storms and stresses of life that defeat and disrupt personality, but its inner conflicts and miseries. If a man is happy and stable at heart, he can normally cope, even with zest, with difficulties that lie outside his personality. For example, a man who is happily married and can return daily to a happy home is not likely to be defeated by outward trials and strains. But the same man could quite easily go to pieces and find life altogether too much for him if his marriage, for instance, were to collapse–if in fact the centre of his operations were destroyed.
Now Christians maintain that it is precisely this secure centre which faith in God provides. The genuine Christian can and does venture out into all kinds of exacting and even perilous activities, but all the time he knows that he has a completely stable and unchanging centre of operations to which he can return for strength, refreshment, and recuperation. In that sense he does “escape” to God, though he does not avoid the duties or burdens of life. His very “escape” fits him for the day-to-day engagement with life’s strains and difficulties.
But having said this–for it must be said–about the legitimate periodical retirement of the Christian into conscious contact with his God, let us return to the inadequate idea of God which is all too common with certain people–the god in whose bosom we can hide “till the storm of life be past.”
Those who are actually, though unconsciously, looking for a father- or mother-substitute can, by constant practice, readily imagine just such a convenient and comfortable god. They may call him “Jesus” and even write nice little hymns about him, but he is not the Jesus of the Gospels, who certainly would have discouraged any sentimental flying to His bosom and often told me to go out and do most difficult and arduous things. His understanding and sympathy were always at the disposal of those who needed Him, yet the general impression of His personality in the Gospels is of One who was leading men on to fuller understanding and maturity. So far from encouraging them to escape life He came to bring, in His own words, “life more abundant,” and in the end He left His followers to carry out a task that might have daunted the stoutest heart. Original Christianity had certainly no taint of escapism.
But those who try to maintain this particular inadequate god today by perpetuating the comfortable protection of early childhood do, probably, unknowingly, a good deal of harm. Here are examples.
1. They prevent themselves from growing up. So long as they imagine that God is saying “Come unto Me” when He is really saying “Go out in My Name,” they are preventing themselves from ever putting on spiritual muscle, or developing the right sort of independence–quite apart from the fact that they achieve very little for the cause to which they believe they are devoted.
2. By infecting others with the “to-Thy-bosom-fly” type of piety they may easily encourage those with a tendency that way to remain childish and evade responsibility.
3. By providing the critics with living examples of “escapism” they are responsible for a misrepresentation of the genuine Faith, which repels the psychologically mature who, naturally enough, have no wish to embrace a sentimental Jesus.
4. By “retiring hurt” instead of fighting on, they prevent the implications of the Christian message from touching whole tracts of human life and activity which badly need redeeming. The late Oswald Chambers once asserted that “the Christian has no right to lurk in the bosom of Jesus because his thinking gives him a headache”–which sums up this aspect of the matter very neatly.
A gibe that was levelled at the early Church was that Christians were nearly all drawn from the criminal or debased slave classes. The answer to the amount of truth contained in that thrust is that those who knew they were sinners, and those who knew how hard life could be, were naturally more likely to respond to a gospel offering a solution to the sinful and oppressed, than those who thought they were “good” and were comfortably protected against many of life’s cruelties. But the Christians did not remain criminals after their conversion, and many of the spineless slaves became capable and responsible servants.
Today the gibe is that the message of Christianity attracts the psychologically immature. Even if that charge were true, the answer to it would be that those who know that they are at sixes and sevens with themselves are more likely to respond to a gospel offering psychological integration (among other things), than those who feel perfectly competent and well-adjusted. Nevertheless the true Christian does not long remain either immature or in internal conflict. It is only if he becomes “fixed” with the inadequate god of escape that he exhibits the pathetic figure of the habitual bosom-flyer.
[J. B. Phillips. Your God Is Too Small. NY: The MacMillan Company, 1961]
For Further Reading: