In Theory: What is the role of religion?

David Hartman, a Jerusalem-based rabbi and philosopher, recently sat down for an interview with CNN's Izzy Lemberg. In the interview, Hartman wonders whether religion is really helpful to the human condition. "There's a whole bunch of myths that religions use to sort of make reality not as overwhelming and as significant, "he said." Hartman argues that life is full of uncertainties, so "religion is in some way the battle against contingency, vulnerability, precariousness … you anchor your life in a god who in some way provides for you a picture, an opportunity to leave reality …"

Hartman believes argues that religion is a trip into "fantasy," a trip into "another world." However, when people encounter adversity, that fantasy quickly dissolves. Instead, he says, religion should offer a way for people to make sense of life's uncertainties.

What do you think of Hartman's comments? What's the real role, do you believe, religion should play in the human condition? And if religion is a trip into fantasy, as Hartman says, how can people avoid falling into this trap?

Boy, I have thought a lot about this topic the last four years as a psychotherapist. As an ordained minister working as a full-time pastor, I believed, and still believe, God helps us in times of adversity and times of peace simply because he is the Truth, the Way, and the Life. I truly believe Christ to be savior and the way to eternal life — and the way to daily direction and healing from trials and adversity.

As a therapist, my thoughts have gone further. I treat many people from different religions. I do not proselytize them — this not my job as a therapist. My job is to respect their beliefs, direct them to personal healing from whatever diverse issue brings them into my office, and have them come out the other side healed, healthy and living a quality of life that is life-giving to them and to those they encounter.

So how do I view those that serve a religion that does not necessarily fit my personal belief? I understand that spirituality and religion are a comfort. Spirituality and religion take one's eyes off the immediate crisis in life and set it aside to a higher power, whatever that power may be in the spirit of the human. And for some reason, this brings peace, perspective and the ability to make it through life's troubles.

If I were to explain this in psychological terms, I would put it this way: Faith is a way of taking what is in the prefrontal lobe — the lower, primitive brain that houses all our memories, emotions and fears — and helps us to use our higher cognitive brain to set it aside and keep going in life. We allow our rational thinking to trump paralyzing emotions so we can keep living and make it through the day, week, month, or life. Religion — faith — does this. It enables us to go on when life would cripple us. I personally believe that Christ goes beyond that in my above explanation of how I view Christianity. Faith comforts us and allows us to keep living. My personal beliefs are that living extends to eternity through faith in Jesus Christ as our lord and savior.

The Rev. Kimberlie Zakarian

La Vie Counseling Center,


This exploration is consistent with that of recent In Theory columns exploring how (if) prayer works. It is helpful for me to note from inside a religious tradition that many continue to view a spiritual path as the "opiate of the masses" — an illusion, a fantasy, that prevents one from experiencing true reality and, therefore, true happiness.

I can see how one might come to this conclusion if one is only occasionally skimming the surface of religion: channel-surfing by televangelists, looking at titles in shopping-mall bookstores, and reading the headlines of religious scandals. There is a lot of money being made on allegedly religious formulas to the successful navigation of an uncertain existence. And there are, allegedly, religious leaders who have taken advantage of people's anxiety and vulnerability for their own gain. I get it.

But when you do more than skim the surface and roll your eyes, you'll find in many traditions a deep wisdom accumulated over millennia of human existence. And you'll find that this wisdom is not focused on magic and false promises made up by humans on behalf of God. Instead, you'll find well-tested, divinely-inspired approaches to becoming a person — a people — of inner spiritual strength and creativity in the face of very real life challenges.

The "heroes" of the Christian faith are people like Dietrich Bonhoeffer, whose faith led him to courageously resist the warped Christianity of Nazism. They are the abolitionists who lost jobs and pulpits by refusing to agree that God sanctions slavery. They are the civil-rights activists who lost lives by standing up for God's intentions for justice. These are heroes who have been shaped by a sacred path that is in no way about fantasy escape, but is in every way about turning our attention away from our anxious navel-gazing and toward the big picture of what God is doing to heal the world.

Religion, at its best, shapes us so that we can participate fully in that great project.

The Rev. Paige Eaves

Crescenta Valley United Methodist Church,

La Crescenta

My first reaction is to wonder how a Jewish rabbi can hold to such an atheistic philosophy. Is his own religion only a trip into fantasy? Does he believe there is a true faith expressed toward a God who really exists? If there is no God and no objective truth about him in which to trust, then, as Israel's apostate leaders said during Isaiah's day: "Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we may die." (Isaiah 22:13). According to them, the best you can hope for in life is the maximum degree of comfort for the years you have before you cease to exist.

But is that reality? Our souls cry out within us that there's more to life than that. God himself has cried out to us so that we might turn to him to know him and find purpose and hope and help in real life, and eternal life with him when this life is over. That's the role of faith in real life.

When Moses asked God what his name was, he replied: "I am who I am." (Exodus 3:14) There is a God. He is one, and he has communicated truth to us in scripture that helps us understand why he allows trials and how we can find comfort and wisdom and strength to emerge triumphant from our trials.

Ultimately, God revealed himself in his son Jesus Christ, who said, "He who has seen Me has seen the Father .…" (John 14:9). Of those who follow him, Jesus said, "I came that they might have life, and might have it abundantly." (John 10:10). Jesus' resurrection from the grave vindicated and validated everything he taught.

The worst and most destructive retreat into fantasy is to imagine that there is no God, that we have no accountability except to ourselves, and that we determine what is right or wrong. The first step toward help and healing and understanding is to turn to God and trust in him: "The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, and the knowledge of the Holy One is understanding." (Proverbs 9:10).

The Rev. Jon Barta

Valley Baptist Church,


I would write out each of Rabbi Hartman's thoughts on a separate card, lay them all out on the dining room table, and shuffle them around till they looked something like this:

Life is full of contingency, vulnerability, precariousness. Religion at its best teaches us a graceful way to live among those uncertainties. It lets us anchor our lives in the certainty of God's abiding presence with us even, and especially in, the midst of chaos.

And religion (still at its best) gives us a theological language that frames reality differently and helps us make sense of life's uncertainties: for all our human sin and brokenness, there is redemption and mercy; against all our instincts to survive by fearfulness and selfishness, freedom is found in letting go and loving; grace can dwell at the heart of our pain; and it is always possible for life to come out of death.

This is not a fantasy or another world; it is simply a choice to see God's presence, purpose and power within the world around us, just as it is.

It's true that religion at its worst can quickly devolve into all the fantasy optimism and rosy rationalization that Hartman accuses it of. Take your attention away from religion's integrity for a second and you'll find it written up as a Hallmark card when you turn back around, with a cute little Hummel figurine to go with it.

It is a constant temptation for us to make religion into a falsely palliative comfort, instead of trusting it to be what it was meant to be: the gritty strength it takes to hold on loosely, holiness blowing through our hair, as we ride the storm of life's ambiguities.

The Rev. Amy Pringle

St. George's Episcopal Church,

La Cañada Flintridge

If we look upon religion as a deep and abiding relationship with God in Christ, it is far from fantasy. As a matter of fact, it is what grounds us in reality. Such a relationship allows us to face reality head-on, knowing full well that Christ is with us, wants only the best for us (our happiness) and will never abandon us. He is the source of our strength and, as Paul says, "His Spirit at work in us will do infinitely more than we could ever ask or imagine."

Religion in this sense is not a haven to run to; it is a life to lead. It is personal and communal. It is focused on Jesus but moves through the entire Body of Christ — the community to which we belong — and to the church at large. Through this community we come closer to Christ and to one another as we encounter him in word and sacrament. Such an encounter sets the stage for us to once more face the day-to-day aspects of life in our world.

Religion is not a set of rose-colored glasses that somehow allow us to let the problems of the world pass us by. No, we are very much confronted by these problems and difficulties, as is everyone else. However, we are strong enough in our faith to know that these exigencies of life will never conquer us, but we will always win out in the end.

No, true religion is never a fantasy. It is a realistic way of facing life everyday together with Christ by our side and in the midst of our community of faith.

The Rev. Richard Albarano

St. Francis Xavier Catholic Church,


My freshman philosophy professor gave my first paper a C- and quoted it as a typical example of our limited grasp of the subject. I've successfully avoided it at any serious level since that quarter ended.

Similarly, I leave the role religion "should" play in the human condition to others, beyond insisting that religious strictures not invade our laws and policies. (We could use more of religion's compassion, though.)

I can talk about my belief that it is the other way around, that the human condition leads us to create and recreate religions, in endless variety, throughout human history. Hartman says we humans use religion to "battle against contingency, vulnerability, precariousness"; political philosopher Karl Marx said it more simply, that religion is the "heart of a heartless world."

I agree with them both here, but I disagree with Hartman's negative characterization of the use of fantasy in human life. Within fantasy (defined as creative imagination; unreal mental state; a whim; creative works of the above nature; a "day dream" in psychology) I include religious myths and scriptures, which, like other good fiction, often are spun from kernels of fact.

As humans face adversity, our hopes and dreams revealed in fantasy are a useful and common coping mechanism in all cultures.

If I didn't have a far-out hope that the 99% of U.S. voters not filthy rich will someday wise up to their real economic interests and replace all Republicans and almost all Democrats with a Congress that actually represents them (Bernie Sanders will survive and Russ Feingold will be re-elected), I certainly couldn't stomach U.S. politics for very long. To continue working for peace, we must imagine that humans will someday realize there are only losers in war — and stop.

To quote Rodgers and Hammerstein, two great musical philosophers, "You got to have a dream, if you don't have a dream, how you gonna have a dream come true?"

Roberta Medford



When Hartman says that religion should offer a way for people to make sense of life's uncertainties, I think he's asking the wrong thing of religion.

The truth is, in my opinion, there is no way to make sense of life's uncertainties. As I have told my congregation, being a religious person doesn't make one bulletproof. Just because I believe does not mean I'm guaranteed a safe, worry-free trip through life. Also, one believes because one believes, not because one expects to gain anything by it.

I have heard it said that faith in God is a gift, and I believe that statement. In fact, I have a parishioner who does not believe, but who wants to believe; that's why he keeps coming to church.

What role should religion play in the human condition? None.

What role should the living God play in the human condition? Everything.

Also, if religion is a fantasy, as Hartman claims, then to paraphrase St. Paul, we are, of all people, most to be pitied (1 Corinthians 15:19).

The Rev. Clifford L. "Skip" Lindeman

La Cañada Congregational Church,

La Cañada Flintridge

Christians understand religion as simply the means of relating to God. You may hear someone deny we even have religion, but instead, have a relationship with God. That's half true. We have a personal relationship with God, but our way of relating to him is what everyone identifies as our religion.

We have a revered text (the Bible) an assembly we attend (a church) and a God we worship (the one and only). So our religion is the totality of beliefs and behaviors associated with living for the will of our God, and he is the one who incarnated as Jesus Christ. We believe this religiously.

Our religion holds to fundamental assertions, and we understand them as reality-based. Frankly, if I thought Christianity was simply a mythical system that merely got me through my day, I'd dump it in an instant. I don't need religion if it has no terminus in God, and there are many "religions" that don't even believe in God — Buddhism for example. Buddhists define religion differently than I, but for me, identifying Buddhism as a religion is like identifying bowling as a sport. Sure, there's competition, some walking (and drinking) but not the physical rigor typically associated with fit athletic engagement. Same with religions; books, beliefs, and behaviors, but God?

This is why I find it absurd to posit the belief that all religions lead to God. Certainly they don't if many don't even acknowledge him. Yet here's a Jewish rabbi that seemingly finds his culture more important than the God to whom it owes its creation. The stuff of God appears to him to be so much make-believe, while the real world is made of holocausts and meaningless disappointments.

As a Christian, I'd affirm that this world is hardship from the get-go, but God makes it meaningful — not so we can escape reality, but because our every endurance has a lasting consequence as a natural consequence of there actually being a God. If my religion is but fantasy, let me pillage and plunder, "eat, drink, and be merry," for tomorrow I die, and all is pointless (1 Corinthians 15:31-32).

The Rev. Bryan Griem

Montrose Community Church,


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