I generally don’t like going to funerals, but they come in many different forms and feels. Some seem sadder than others; some feel more hopeful. But often there’s an unexpected bittersweetness. We are all there because of something good—the life, love and relationship that we are there to remember and honour—that has come to a tragic end, always too soon.
With their various cultures and traditions, these gatherings draw on, test and reveal our deepest hopes and fears, doubts and beliefs. Even among those who do not seem to give much thought to faith at other times, such occasions invariably feature some form or fragments of religious faith and, as ill-formed, borrowed or haphazard as it might be, at least a provisional theology of life and death. These are employed for their consolation and the orientation they offer amid an otherwise disorientating event.
Yet this is one of the criticisms often levelled at faith in its various forms and practices—that it is a mere consolation. It is dismissed as a crutch for coping with life, its tragedies and its disappointments, particularly for those who are weaker and otherwise ill-equipped for getting by. As such, faith is considered a kind of escapism that encourages a naive and misguided detachment from reality. Rather than stoutly overcoming the setbacks in our lives and the challenges of the real world—so the argument goes—faith promotes passivity and urges its adherents to focus on some kind of other realm, altered consciousness or afterlife.
There are three equally legitimate responses to such criticisms: yes, no and yes.
The critics are right
First, yes, faith has too often been substituted for action in the face of harsh realities. Like any cliche, there is a truth behind it. Faith has been used as “the opium of the people”—to quote Karl Marx’s infamous line—by those who hold power in various societies. But, at times, faith has also been embraced by the people themselves who have used the consolations of religion as a way of shrugging their shoulders and grimly making the best of the status quo.
Faced with the inevitabilities of life, death and all the disappointments, injustices and sorrows in between, faith has been used to normalise tragedy, excuse the inexcusable, cultivate complicity with injustice and adjust our sense of the eternal to the realities of mortality. And if this is all there is to faith, its adherents are rightful objects of criticism and even pity.
No easy road
On the other hand are many people of faith who would argue that their faith is not a retreat from reality, but the catalyst for their fuller involvement with life, with the world and with resisting the seeming inevitability of the status quo. As Indian social activist Vandana Shiva has put it, “A spiritual leaning used to mean total inactivity in the world, while activism tended to be associated with violence. But suddenly the only people who seem to have the courage to act are the deeply spiritual—because it’s only those who know there is another world, another dimension, who are not intimidated by the world of organised power.”
This is one sense in which it is more correct to say, no, faith is not necessarily a consolation. Faith is not a bubble that insulates us from the world around us; rather, it is a calling that can render life more difficult, less comfortable, even more dangerous. History recounts countless stories of people for whom faith did not make their lives easier, better or more successful.
Instead, they suffered for their faith, and in pursuit of the vocations and tasks it called them to. Living, acting and speaking against injustice, against the powerful, against the assumptions of the society around us is hard and often thankless work. Many such activists would prefer a quieter life and a less troublesome vocation. But, in this sense, their faith is more conviction than consolation.
When confronting personal tragedies and disappointments, the belief that that there is some kind of Power or purpose behind the scenes sometimes raises more questions than it resolves: Why do bad things happen to “good people”? What is the meaning or purpose in apparently senseless tragedy? Why would an ultimate Good allow suffering to continue? Why does following one’s faith so often cost so much? Such questions can compound, rather than relieve, the experiences of sorrow and suffering for those who claim faith.
But then again, yes, faith is a consolation—and a necessary consolation. We should not be ashamed to admit that life is difficult, often tragically so. When we have been to too many funerals, when we face our own mortality, when we experience our own pain and sorrow, when we see and feel the suffering and brokenness in our world, even our disappointment, fear, frustration and anger prompt us to look outside ourselves. We seek meaning, grasp for hope and yearn for something more.
So many people have found these necessities—these consolations—in faith. As human beings who feel pain, suffer injustice and need hope, we do not need to apologise for consoling faith. It is a way of living meaningfully amid life’s tragedies and disappointments. On those bittersweet days when we bury those we love and stare down mortality, faith can help us do it well and draw us together as we do.
Nathan Brown is a book editor for Signs Publishing in Warburton, Australia. A version of this article first appeared on the Signs of the Times Australia website and is republished with permission.