My husband and I were having an email exchange last week with my dad, who is an atheist and recently spent a couple of years living in Abu Dhabi. The subject of Muslim culture came up and he mentioned that he was pretty impressed with what he saw of Islam, mainly, I think, because of the seriousness with which Muslims take their religion. For example, he talked about how this past year Ramadan fell during some really hot months, and he would see people passing out in the street as they tried to function in triple-digit temperatures without eating or drinking anything all day long.
Here’s one excerpt from one of his emails on the topic:
It’s impressive to see how seriously the average Muslim takes their religion, especially coming from the U.S., where 90% of people who call themselves Christians are hypocrites. [In Muslim countries] people stop what they are doing five times a day and cleanse themselves and get on the floor to pray, and that first prayer is before sunrise. Most people who call themselves Muslims do this (at least where I was in AD). We had the little mosque outside our office and I would see flip flops and Guccis at the door. Everyone prayed, from the janitors to the General Manager.
I had been wondering what my father would think of living a place where he was surrounded by people who took their religion very seriously and followed rigid rules based on their beliefs, and it was interesting to hear of the respect he gained for his Muslim friends and coworkers.
Meanwhile, around the same time as we were having this email exchange, I came across the story of St. Dominic, who fought the Albigensian heresy in the 12th century. When he arrived in the area of France where this belief system had taken over, he saw that one of the things that had converted so many people was the extreme austerity with which the Albigensians lived. The leaders maintained high standards of asceticism, shunning all worldly pleasures in dedication to their beliefs. St. Dominic quickly found that if he had any hope of getting through to the people who had been converted to this belief system, he and his companions could no longer stay at nice inns, travel by horseback, have servants, etc. They too had to embrace a life of austerity.
All of this crystallized something I’d always noticed but had never articulated: we humans seem to have some innate sense that religion shouldn’t be comfortable. Like my dad with the Muslims and the French people with the Albigensians, there is something compelling about a belief system whose adherents do not make themselves comfortable in the world. But why? Here’s my theory, carefully formulated while cleaning the kitchen and grocery shopping this morning:
I think that humans “know” on some subconscious level that one of the hallmarks of a belief system that was actually in tune with a Creator would be willingness on the part of its adherents to experience discomfort. Throughout human history we’ve all had some kind of understanding that something in this world is amiss, that things are not fair, not the way they “should” be. So it would make sense then that if a group of people were able to tap into knowledge of some other realm, our true home, where things are “right”, where there exists the perfect justice and pure good that we all so deeply crave, that they’d have no problem blowing off all the comforts of this life and this world. Presumably, if the next life is so great and it lasts for eternity, people who have figured out how to get there would not feel attachment to the things of this life such as status, luxury, surface-level pleasures, etc. Believers would stand out from non-believers.
This is not to say that austerity on the part of believers makes a religion true. But it would seem to be a compelling data point in its favor, one that resonates to outsiders on some deep level.
I think that this is one of the reasons that Christianity has so little respect from non-Christians: at least in America, we’re pretty comfortable. We don’t fast, we don’t take pains to make Sunday a true day of rest, our standards for the kind of cars we drive and the houses we buy are no different than anyone else’s, we don’t stress if we miss church here and there, we don’t inconvenience ourselves to carve out time for prayer (many of us don’t even pray before meals if we’re in public), etc. etc. Obviously these are broad generalizations with plenty of exceptions, but there’s a lot of truth to it, truth that has not gone unnoticed by non-Christians.
And this is what I’ve been puzzling about all morning: is that a bad thing? Is it wrong that we as American Christians have, by and large, made ourselves very comfortable in the world? That in terms of daily lifestyle Christians blend right in with secular society?
I’m really not sure.
On the one hand, I could see the perspective that the main thing that matters is what’s in each person’s heart, that it’s fine that most Christians don’t turn their lives upside down for their faith so long as they’re truly seeking God in their hearts, that outsiders should evaluate the faith based on its claims and doctrines alone, that externally visible signs of devotion shouldn’t matter either way.
On the other hand, I could see the perspective that Christians shouldn’t fit right in with secular culture because we’re not supposed to be “of the world”, that amidst our decadent society you’d just kind of expect followers of Christ to stand out like sore thumbs more than they do, that true dedication to Christ would naturally result in more external signs of devotion than you currently see.
In a rare turn of events, I really don’t know what I think about this one. And that’s why I have a blog: so I can ask you! I’d love to hear other thoughts on this: does it matter that American Christians are not exactly renown for their austere lifestyles?
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