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Religious feeling

By Peter Sellick - posted Thursday, 24 March 2005

Feelings, people who have feelings, are the luckiest people in the world. B Streisand.

It is that time of year again when some of us go to hear performances of St Matthew’s Passion and revel in those slow majestic chorals centered on the suffering of Jesus: “O sacred head sore wounded, with grief and shame weighed down”.

I did not see the film, but I hear that Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ, in contrast to the slim descriptions of the crucifixion we find in the gospels, milks the suffering of Jesus to the full. The church itself has not shrunk from a preoccupation with the blood and the degradation. On the Protestant side this has been muted except for the above-mentioned music of Bach. On the Roman side it has been given full reign as in “The Stations of the Cross”. The motive for graphic representation, indeed dwelling on, the physical suffering of Christ, is to shift the scales in the economy of salvation: The more he suffered the more we owe him, and the more we are saved.


But there is no meaning in suffering per se. In our time Jesus’ execution could have been by lethal injection. Would the meaning of his death have been diminished if it had been quick and painless instead of drawn out and cruel? It is not the suffering of Christ that is redemptive but the conflict between the death dealing powers of the world and the life-giving power of God. Therefore it does not benefit us to dwell on the suffering of Jesus as if there is some message there for us. Neither is there a message for us in the death of thousands in the tsunami, other than the obvious one that we are creatures that are vulnerable to chance event.

Any theology that posits human suffering as a necessary and redemptive component of creation ignores the thrust of the first creation story in which the whole creation was seen to be good by its creator. In the second narrative man was not put in to the garden to suffer and hence become a more spiritual being, he was put in the garden to till it and keep it and for joy in his partner. Being a disciple of Jesus, even when it is described as “taking up the cross”, does not necessarily lead to suffering, although of course it might, as the martyrs found out.

We know that we will all suffer some way or another; it will come round to us. But that is not to say that we were made for suffering or that suffering in itself is redemptive. It may be that great sufferers will be even greater personalities or it may be that suffering simply grinds us down and leads us to the grave. While the ancient Greeks would invoke the Gods in this, the Christian tradition has remarkably little to say on the matter, except to indicate that fate has nothing to do with God. God is not in the cancer cell or in the motor vehicle accident, if indeed it was an accident.

For many, religion is to do with sentiment. We can spot the sentimental in art because it is formulaic, the child’s footsteps in the snow leading to the half frozen lake in the Victorian painting, the miner’s wife being comforted by neighbors, the triptych The Pioneer by Frederick McCubbin that shows a hopeful beginning and a tragic ending. These paintings tell a sad story and the viewer, when he interprets this story, is meant to feel sad. Our experience of the painting relies on our compassion for the actors betrayed: we feel along with the story. It is not necessarily the quality of the painting that is important but the feelings elicited by the story. Of course, in McCubbin we have both a good painting and a sad story.

Some of us have more of the tragic-romantic component of our personality than others and we love music in a minor chord and Wagnerian opera that centers on unrequited love and death. If we are Christian we love the psalms of lament: “I am a worm and no man!” and we love Good Friday over Easter Sunday. There is often suspicion of and a feeling of not belonging on festive occasions: such is our melancholy frame of thought.

I would suggest that this is entirely the wrong way to experience the passion of Christ. The gospel writers were not interested in eliciting our compassion, as if we suffered with Christ. They were interested in relating the event in terms of politics, in terms of the cosmic conflict between good and evil. What is at stake here? Who is this Jesus who should upset the powers and walk calmly into the maw of the beast? Who were the powers, what part do we play? When the passion is approached sentimentally, then the main action is missed, so involved are we in our own feelings.


This is all grist for the mill for psychologists who specialise in the religious affect, but where does it lead us? Thought and feeling go together. If we attend the Good Friday liturgy and feel nothing, then we would wonder at the wholeness of our humanity. But there is a difference between maudlin sentimentality and feeling that is elicited because we understand the dynamics of the passion. One is self indulgent, even narcissistic (what sensitive persons we are to feel so deeply), the other springs from real profundity. In one we use the story for our own purposes, in the other, the story strikes at our lives.

I am trying to distinguish between the maudlin and the sentimental response from a response that is based on more than sadness which many of us actually enjoy. One is a superficial emotional response that evaporates very quickly, the other an enduring memory that is connected to an understanding of what is at stake.

In other words, the importance of the passion of Christ is in the content, not the details. Crucifixions were common, so were religious martyrs, what was so important about this particular one? We do not need the passion of Christ to remind us of the depth of human suffering, surely there are horrific tales of suffering enough even in our own street. Wallowing in the darkness is not a sign of a sensitive spirit nor of a spiritual hero. It may be just an attempt to feel something in a life barren of feeling. It is interesting that attendance at Anzac Day services has become popular among the young in Australia. I am suspicious that there is something of the tragic-romantic going on here, a wish to draw near to something momentous and awful, which contrasts so much with the superficiality of modern life.

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About the Author

Peter Sellick an Anglican deacon working in Perth with a background in the biological sciences.

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