Against the “Usefulness” of Religion

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I once saw a martial arts competitor on TV, complete with mustache and mullet. The interviewer asked him what had brought him success, and he listed off the various elements: diet, discipline, hard work. Then he said, “And, I am a Christian, so I use the Lord to give me strength.” The memory is old, but clear as a bell because it struck such an odd tone: he uses God?

There is a tendency among some to treat God as though he were a Golden Ticket: if only you can get a hold of him, all your dreams will come true! We see it in the “Health and Wealth Gospel” preachers, who assure their arena audiences that if only they accept Jesus Christ as their personal Lord and Savior, “all these things will be given you besides,” including a yacht, the latest model Mercedes, and your long-lost hair.

Perhaps the most odious example is the political pundit who extols religious freedom for the nation because “religion makes good citizens.” Montesquieu had no great love for the Church, but in The Spirit of the Laws he wrote approvingly of religion as a force in society–not for improving the lives of people, but for checking the power of the state. Never mind whether your religious beliefs are true; they’re useful. With such an attitude we are not far from promoting the Noble Lie of Plato’s Republic, the false narrative told to the populace to unify them.

In On Christian Doctrine, St. Augustine distinguishes between those things that are to be used for other things (uti) and those that are to be enjoyed in themselves (frui). God, says Augustine, is always frui, never uti–God is always to be sought as an end in Himself, never as a means to something else.

We were made by God for God, to be in union with Him forever. The world, when approached and used rightly, is given to us as a means to reach God. If we instead use God to try to gain things in the world, we’re headed in the wrong direction.

“What does it profit a man to gain the world and lose his soul,” that is, lose his connection to God? Our relationship with God is worth more than all the martial arts victories, all the yachts and Mercedes and hair, all the political powers there could be. Let’s not reduce God to a tool.

Photography: Kelli Ann Cresswell