The Hidden Functions of Religion

In The Sacraments: The Word of God at the Mercy of the Body (not the same book as I am currently summarizing), Louis-Marie Chauvet has a fascinating diagram illustrating some of the psychological and social advantages that people can seek in requesting the Church’s rites of passage, focusing on baptism and the wedding:

Expressed Motivation Reference God Function of Religion
“It’s always been done in my family” The God-of-our-ancestors Religion-Tradition
“We want the child to be like everybody” The God-of-the-tribe Social integration
“Like this, the child will receive good principles” Guardian of the established order Morality
“If anything bad should happen to the child….” The God of retribution Insurance for the hereafter
“We want to give the child ever possible chance” The all-powerful God Protection for the future
“We aren’t dogs…” Feeling of something “Sacred” Transcendence
“This makes a beautiful celebration possible” Reference to God’s “beauty” Festivity/esthetics
“They’re so innocent at that age!” The God of childhood, of lost innocence Religion-nostalgia

These desires are mostly unconscious, and are not limited to those who seem to be somewhat less than appropriate and completely suitable candidates for these rites. Chauvet’s purpose is to articulate the potent psycho-social motivations that, as latent and unconscious, can be even more powerfully formative and determinative for requests for the Church’s rites.

Chauvet’s insistence is that, rather than simply dismissing these motivations as naive, we need to be aware of their existence and engage with them, without losing sight of what might be natural or necessary within them. The pastoral interview must be an occasion where pastors try to establish and engage with the wavelength that the requesters are on. Rather than seeking merely to ‘assuage’ the idea of faith and the Church as a cultural heritage or religious system, they must ‘convert’ it by directing it to the continuing life of personal faith and commitment, not abandoning the institutional, cultural, and traditional elements of the faith for some impossible mirage of ‘pure faith’ that is detached from any socio-cultural or institutional form.

About Alastair Roberts

Alastair Roberts (PhD, Durham University) writes in the areas of biblical theology and ethics, but frequently trespasses beyond these bounds. He participates in the weekly Mere Fidelity podcast, blogs at Alastair’s Adversaria, and tweets at @zugzwanged.
This entry was posted in The Church, The Sacraments, Theological. Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to The Hidden Functions of Religion

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