The religion of "Me"


During a recent episode of the NPR programe "This American Life", the author Shalom Auslander tells the story of how he lost his faith in God. The story is presented in all seriousness, and there is no suggestion that Auslander is pulling anyone's leg; and yet it comes across as so absurd that I have to wonder what to make of it.

According to the story that Auslander tells, he once wanted to see a New York Rangers playoff game, but it took place on a Saturday. As an observant Jew, he could not drive to the game on the Sabbath, so he walked (along with his wife) from New Jersey to New York City, getting blisters along the way. Unfortunately, after all that personal suffering that he underwent as a loyal fan, the Rangers managed to lose the game anyway. Apparently he felt that this defeat was some sort of punishment or betrayal by God, which led him to lose his faith. After all, he did the things that God expected him to do before the game, and yet his favorite sports team still didn't win.

Wow. Did he think that the whole universe revolved around him? That his own religious observances were so crucial to the fabric of the natural world that sports teams would win or lose based on how observant he was? Did he think that professional sports results were dictated by the religious observances of fans? Did he think that hockey results were high on God's priority list of omnipotent intervention when we live in a world of unsolved problems involving war, disease, and hunger that are just begging for a powerful Deity to fix? And what if the Rangers' opponents also had religiously observant Jews on their side? Did Auslander's piety count for more than the piety of a fan of the opposing team? Suppose someone walked even farther than he did and got even more blisters than he got?

Auslander seemed obsessed by the idea of God as a stern, difficult figure who had to be placated by self-denial and punishment. To him, a relationship with God was a selfish bargain--if he would just follow God's rules to the letter to the point of suffering on God's behalf, then God would rearrange all the superficial, trivial things in the world that would make him happy. When God didn't provide the results he demanded, he just took his ball (or, in this case, puck) and went home. This is the stunted, self-centered religion of a five-year-old.

I suppose one could argue that this isn't much different from the prosperity Gospel that is preached in Christian churches. This is a religion of "me", the idea that God rearranges events in the universe to suit certain people if they just follow certain rules. This is something that the author of Ecclesiastes rejected a few millenia ago. But there are people who still cling to this kind of theology even today.


Cynthia said...

How pathetic!

I used to get mad at God for calling me to ministry and to motherhood--two mutually exclusive vocations that have seemingly wreaked havoc in my relationship with God.

Only recently did I confess that it was I who signed on for this life; no one twisted my arm. It came from me.

Feeling adrift as I do right now I was about to pray "God, what do you want me to do next?" when I realized that no, it had to come from me, from within. No more whining and blaming God for getting me into this.

Jaume said...

It is a side effect of believing in a personal God. Although this kind of belief may have some benefits (e.g. prayer seems to be more meaningful if addressed to a personal divinity rather than to "the Universe" or whatever), it also makes the human-divine relationship more like an interpersonal relationship. And just as we would be frustrated by a friend who shows no interest in our efforts at pleasing him or her, some believers may be upset by a God that does not pay attention to their actions and concerns. Probably this man will believe in God again when he sees a rainbow, thinking that God has put it there for his visual pleasure.