His disciples said, “ . . . Now we know that you know all things and need none to question you; by this we believe that you came from God.”
Jesus answered them, “Do you now believe? The hour is coming, indeed it has come, when you will be scattered each to your own home, and will leave me alone; yet I am not alone, for the Father is with me.
John 16: 29-32
One of the pervasive critiques of religious faith is that it is an avoidance of reality. In The Future of an Illusion Sigmund Freud writes:
Religion is a system of wishful illusions together with a disavowal of reality, such as we find nowhere else but in a state of blissful hallucinatory confusion. Religion’s eleventh commandment is “Thou shalt not question.”
Today’s gospel passage offers us a bit of a Socratic dialogue between the disciples and Jesus in which Jesus represents the opposite of Freud’s critique. He points out to the disciples, who believe they have come to the point beyond questioning, that the belief they now have is not yet the union with the Father that is the only source of peace. They now claim to understand who Jesus is and where he comes from. But, Jesus points out, they are not yet ready to enter with him into the passion that is to come, into what life is to bring, that is also the Father’s work.
What Freud brilliantly understood was that human character is in large part a “disavowal of reality.” It is a filtered presence to the world, a mode of survival that sees what it can bear and refuses to see what seems to be unbearable. In Freud’s view religion was merely a support for this dissociation from reality. The disciples engage in a version of this as they say to Jesus, in effect, we now have the answer and so have no more questions. But Jesus immediately points out that in the next few hours they will scatter – abandoning him, (the one they say is the answer) – because He does not seem to be the answer to the threat before them. Not until they live his oneness with the Father in every moment of life will they have “the peace that the world cannot give.”
Are we capable of living a life whose primary value is not survival and self-protection? For Freud, as for materialistic cultures, the answer is no. Thus, material or secular “religion” is but a buttress for shoring up our own personal survival and self-actualization. This is not the life of the child of God, of communion with the Father that Jesus offers. The value for him is to know and live the communion with the Father that is our true life. To know our life in God is to receive everything that is part of our life as the Way. We shall always, as the disciples, tend, at moments of stress and fear,” to scatter each to . . . [our] own homes.” What seem to be the impossible demands of love will often lead us to choose the way of fear for our own survival instead. Today, Jesus challenges us, as well as the disciples, to practice turning from self-preoccupation and self-gratification to the way of love, which is the only pathway to peace, to forget ourselves and offer whatever little we have in love, knowing that “the Father is with” us.
The very familiar Serenity Prayer, attributed to Reinhold Niebuhr, exemplifies this teaching of Jesus. It tells us that it is not in avoiding the harshness of reality but only in “accepting hardships” and “taking the sinful world as it is, not as I would have it” that we can know the pathway to peace. It serves to remind us that, as Jesus promises, the Father is always with us, and so we are able to know and to follow the way of love even in the most difficult of times.
God grant me the serenity
To accept the things I cannot change;
Courage to change the things I can;
And wisdom to know the difference.
Living one day at a time;
Enjoying one moment at a time;
Accepting hardships as the pathway to peace;
Taking, as He did, this sinful world
As it is, not as I would have it;
Trusting that He will make all things right
If I surrender to His Will;
So that I may be reasonably happy in this life
And supremely happy with Him
Forever in the next.