Jonestown—Waco—the Solar Temple—Heaven’s Gate. Just some examples in recent years of cults with strange ideas of ‘the other side’, and of followers led like lemmings to a murderous or suicidal fate because of this, by strangely unqualified leaders.
Somehow, all this resonates well with a remark that Kathleen Norris makes in her recent work “The Cloister Walk”—that there is real value in the dullness of conventional religion, and the repetitiveness of its ritual. Truth in theology may not be as dramatic as the fantasies of a ‘Star Wars’ imagination. Hopefully, though, ‘mainline’ religion, with its orthodox theology, its sometimes pedestrian sermons, its repetitive ritual, and the discipline of a daily ‘rule of life’ of piety and charity, can keep us free from the excesses of misguided belief. Having faith is all very well, but as St. James says, “the devils believe, and tremble”. These cult suicides teach us, alarmingly, that believing in error often has worse effects than no belief at all.
What is so particularly sad, it seems to me, is that these people who commit suicide are so close to the realizations that in orthodox Christianity lead to conversion and Baptism. Yes, most of us find out after a time that the rewards of the material life are hollow. To pursue them is futile, since success only makes death a more sorrowful parting from all we have ever lived for. A life lived for oneself, once we fully realize that such a life is finite because our material bodies are finite, has no purpose at all. In Shakespeare’s words, “It is a tale, told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing”.
Perhaps we do not realize that Baptism is the answer of our ‘mainline’ churches to this dilemma—because Baptism is, symbolically, suicide. It is “a death unto Sin”—but also a “new birth unto righteousness”. We don’t have to take an imaginary space ship to a distant galaxy in order to commence the spiritual life. It is something that can start, sacramentally, right here on earth. And, once we have come to this realization, the convenient cop-out of suicide is perhaps no more than a selfish, Disneyland way of wasting the remaining life God has given us on earth, rather than ‘redeeming the time’ in Christian love and service.
It’s so easy to think of the faith we follow as a matter of personal convenience and preference. Surely, it is much more than that. In the confusing world we live in, it is our means of sanity and survival. It is also something we can and should be willing to share with our fellow humans—for the sake of their sanity and survival as well.