Reign of Christ | John 18:33-37
Lectionary Project—Part of an ongoing three year project of weekly posts based on the Gospel reading from the Revised Common Lectionary.
Faith, Religion, and Van Gogh’s Starry Night
Pilate was sick of religion. We can also tell, just from his portrayal in John’s Gospel, that Pilate was still bound by it.
“What is truth?” That is what he said when Jesus claimed to be the voice of truth. At least, that is the story that we have from the Gospel. We are not told who else was in the room, who might have reported the conversation. The Gospel claims that one of the disciples, not named, was known to the household of the high priest, that he got Peter and himself inside; perhaps that disciple or someone else was also known within the household of Pilate.
We do not know. Perhaps Pilate himself told the story of what happened between him and Jesus, thinking to absolve himself.
What is truth? It might be the answer of a man who knew the arguments of philosophers and theologians. It might also be the answer of a jaded politician, tired of the lies that surround anyone in power. Likely, it is both.
One of the most interesting points in John’s account is further down, in v.19:8 — Pilate is afraid when he hears accusations that Jesus claimed to be a son of God. It is an interesting response from a man with so much power. The Jewish leaders are angered by implications that Jesus is of God; Pilate is afraid. The Roman pantheon included many gods and many children of the gods. No doubt Pilate had heard the stories from an early age, and even this philosopher who could disparage the concept of truth still clung to his fear of gods.
Was that a sign of faith from Pilate? Or was it only the trappings of a faith that had degraded into mere religion and superstition?
How much of what we do is faith, and how much is just religion — habit, ritual, upbringing, superstition, magical thinking? It would be so much simpler to embrace atheism, just to rid ourselves of the entanglements of religion. The logic would be cleaner. Our role in the universe would be clearer. Imagine there’s no heaven, as the song goes.
The world would also be simpler without poets and story-tellers, without painters who transform our world into something new, something it is not, giving us some new way of seeing what we have overlooked or never realized.
Lay aside, for the moment, the question of who is right, of which faith group has the proper understanding of God, of whether there is a right understanding to be had among us. Even if our search for God is wrong, even if the vision of our faith is dim, hampered by blinders, are we better off without it?
Life is simpler without faith, but is it better?
Consider Vincent van Gogh’s Starry Night. The painting isn’t very realistic. One may argue with perfect logic that gazing at the image might distort one’s apprehension of the true appearance of stars. Were we to burn van Gogh’s Starry Night, would our appreciation of the night sky improve?
The stars are more than I can see with my eyes. The energy riding in waves through this universe slips by unnoticed. I do not know what Van Gogh understood of such things, but his painting reminds me that life is more than what I see, more than I understand.
Bumper stickers tell us to Keep It Simple. Whatever life is, it is not simple. It is layered, complex, nuanced. It is beautiful. It is infinite.
Religion can be wrong, is often wrong. It can limit our thoughts, trap us in a too small cage built by rules and guarded by closed-mindedness. The rote practice of religion is only the ossification of faith, a thought experiment turned into prison walls.
A failed experiment is no reason to stop trying. On the contrary, it is the reason we try something new.
Rote religion is what happens when we think we already have all the answers. When we keep looking for truth, that is the expression of faith.