James Martin writes on the Jesuit blog, In All Things:
To that end, one of my quotes about religion comes from the Scottish philosopher John Macmurray, who contrasted “illusory” religion with “real religion.” The maxim of illusory religion is: “Fear not; trust in God and He will see that none of the things you fear will happen to you.” Real religion, said Macmurray, has a different maxim: “Fear not; the things that you are afraid of are quite likely to happen to you, but they are nothing to be afraid of.”
I’m neither awake nor inspired, as it’s been a long and tiring day in an eternity of long and tiring days, but I can’t keep myself from commenting on this quotation because it appears to me so utterly perverse. It underlines my suspicions that contemporary Westerners are so far from being religious that we cannot remember any longer what religion was when we had it.
The geist Martin channels from Macmurray is not “religion” per se, except insofar as one might wish to designate Stoicism a religion. Even Macmurray’s quote betrays this, contrary to its intention – God is invoked for what he terms “illusory” religion, but falls completely out of discussion when Macmurray introduces his secular maxim. This is not coincidental. God falls out of discussion because the sentiment is simply not a religious one.
Macmurray’s “real religion” has no churches and no votaries, at least not on a scale recognizable as a “religion”. It is a kind of passionless eudaimonianism of the rich and contented who realize (yes) they have to die one day and not everything happens according to convenience, so a prudent man will manage his expectations in order to maximize happiness and minimize disappointment. Avoid passion and attachment; minimize desires and make certain that they are in accordance with reason. Ask nothing from the gods but to no longer be put in a position of needing to ask. This is a philosophy for a man (always a man) who possesses sufficient resources and authority to secure his autonomy from decisions made arbitrarily by others at his expense, existing in a social stratum which is stable and orderly enough that honest labor can find its modest reward. One can forswear luxuria and embrace temperance and renunciation because one possesses more than surfeit of what is necessary to survive. One can live in accordance with reason because one’s world possesses a modicum of order and permits one to do so. The cost of doing business for the Stoic is to give up a little of one’s surfeit to pay a dividend in increased happiness, completing (if one is lucky) one’s autarkeia to the point one is no longer dependent even upon God. With quiet dignity, the Stoic recognizes fate and necessity as tragedies that will take everything away someday to avoid troubling himself with reckless hopes and fantasies for immortality which might disappoint.
What does the Stoic know about real religion, which is a madman’s fever come down upon his soul to save him from far deadlier madness? What can autarkeia mean when every bully, strongman, committee, boss, company, institution, priest, or government is your master and every decision imposed upon you is the threat of destitution, misery, death, and damnation staring you in your face? Without God as your protector, can you ever be free from the all-consuming fear and sleep peacefully even a single night? What do reason or frugality or temperance or industry mean when the fruits of your labor are stolen from you to enrich another man’s surfeit or else devoured by famine, drought, storm, fire, unemployment, debt, illness, or misadventure? Will you give puritanical diligence for things you know you will never get anyway, renouncing the use of the few pleasures that fall into your hands, or will you join the carnivals and feasts and orgies of the gods? Will you accept the inevitability of death, not when it is far away or when it is YOUR death promising you the end of a life that has sickened and exhausted you with its vanities, but when it presses down upon you NOW or ANY MINUTE or BY YOUR OWN HANDS or comes for your spouse or your only lover or your parent or beloved child so that when it comes it will rip your soul away also but leave you living?
“Fear not; trust in God and He will see that none of the things you fear will happen to you.” This is the creed of Fatima, of Lourdes, or Velankanni with their pilgrims in the millions. You believe religion will cure you when you’ve got a terminal disease and you know you’re going to die because it is necessary. Your believe your dying son will recover because if he perishes you will lose your soul. You believe God will heal your heart and soul when you know damned well you are irreparably broken, and you do this because it is necessary. You believe that God will turn away words of contumely and protect you from an abusive spouse or blunt a knife or stop a bullet in a world of violence and pain because human body and soul are weak and vulnerable to pain and cannot but cry out for protection. You really believe you will get the money or the title or the status or the job that will bring you autonomy and freedom because the human soul cannot face eternal helplessness in the face of injustice and cries out for freedom. Religion is believing that we really will be protected from all the evils flesh is heir to and helped in obtaining all the desires that are salutary for body and soul. Religion believes in the irrational and magical because only madness and the supernatural can save the wretched human race from certain knowledge that we are lost. And we are not lost, even when we are lost.