The journey towards more fervent religious life so often begins with personal turmoil. Some people turn to religion because they are lonely, some are looking to cope with feelings of mortality, while others may turn to religion in the hopes that it will serve as a respite from a broken family. As a religious educator, it is hard to ignore the gnawing feeling that the object of these people’s search is not authentic spirituality, but a very, almost secular driven, emotional catharsis from the everyday pain of life. Of course, as an educator, there is a duty to remain egalitarian as to the religious motivations of those who seek counsel; but can I be faulted for noticing that so many people who are seeking religious commitment would seem to be better suited in finding simple healthy social interactions? Does the teenager looking to make sense of her or his parents’ impending divorce really need theological purpose or would she or he be better suited with the guidance of a mental health professional and a friend?
I don’t think I am the first educator to develop fatigue from watching many who began with intense motivation and then slowly watch said motivation (d)evolve into either disappointment or disuse. The prime suspect, in my eyes, of such abortive entrances into religious life was often the nature and substance of the motivation that brought them there in the first place. Perhaps, I wondered, if people came to religion for the “right reasons,” if such can even be said to exist, the resulting religious experience would be more fruitful.
Of course, I recognize that everyone is welcome to seek meaning where they see fit, but my frustration was couched not so much in the breadth of what motivates religiosity than by incredulity towards the religious commitment that emerges from such fleeting emotional pain. A person can surely find God after a devastating diagnosis, but what enduring sense of duty could such motivation produce? Can religious motivation devoid of theological urgency still foster lasting religious commitment? It is an uncomfortable question to ask, for who has the authority to question others’ religious search, but it was a question I nonetheless found myself asking, however quietly.
I don’t know if I ever found a definitive answer to my difficulties, but my frustrations were assuaged, somehow. In December of 2014 I was invited to deliver a series of classes at a weekend program for teenagers. Many of the participants would have the personal backgrounds that typically irked me in my endeavors at religious education. But, those classes changed my view on the varieties of religious motivation and experience. My classes focused on a personality, who I learned, dealt with a set of frustrations and difficulties similar to the ones with which I had been grappling. His name was Jonah.
Jonah was approached by God to convince the people of Nineveh to repent and return to Him. Instead of listening, Jonah chose to run. Why did Jonah, a prophet, decide to run?
Like many biblical characters Jonah’s underlying religious ethos was alluded to in his name. He was Jonah the son of Amittai, which derives from the Hebrew word emet – meaning truth. Jonah was a man of truth. He was not interested in religious comfort or convenience. He was not concerned with escaping the terror of death and finitude. Jonah was motivated by truth. Jonah’s religiosity was founded on theological fact and doctrinal integrity.
After fleeing, Jonah found himself on a boat in a tempestuous storm. His fellow sailors began to panic. “And the mariners were afraid, and cried every man unto his god.” Throughout the story the operative description of the sailors is fear. The religious motivation of the seamen was based on the impending crisis of their own mortality. Jonah, however, took a nap. He was not interested in being a prophet on this boat. The task of reminding them of repentance so as to escape death’s grasp is the very job he absconded by running away from Nineveh. Jonah understood that the people on that boat were not seeking religious truth, but rather religious comfort.
After being thrown overboard in the midst of the storm, Jonah is saved from drowning by miraculously being swallowed by a fish. Inside the fish, Jonah prays and recommits himself to God, who in return ensures he is safely returned to dry land. Jonah, now seemingly reformed, agreed to return to Nineveh – which he did. The Nineveh community, hearing Jonah’s exhortations to repent, promptly responded with a communal commitment to return from evil, which God just as promptly accepted.
Jonah, however, is still in pain. His outreach work still leaves him unfulfilled. He finally discloses to God why he ran:
וַיִּתְפַּלֵּל אֶל ה’ וַיֹּאמַר, אָנָּה ה’ הֲלוֹא זֶה דְבָרִי עַד הֱיוֹתִי עַל אַדְמָתִי—עַל כֵּן קִדַּמְתִּי, לִבְרֹחַ תַּרְשִׁישָׁה: כִּי יָדַעְתִּי, כִּי אַתָּה אֵל חַנּוּן וְרַחוּם, אֶרֶךְ אַפַּיִם וְרַב חֶסֶד, וְנִחָם עַל הָרָעָה.
He prayed to God and said: Please, God, was this not my contention when I was still on my own soil? Because of this I fled towards Tarshish; for I knew that You are a gracious and merciful God, slow to anger, abundant in kindness, and who relents of evil.
While Jonah clearly intends to offer an explanation as to why he ran, his justification at first glance still remains unclear. A close reader, however, will notice that Jonah invokes the opening of the familiar refrain of Moses (or God, depending on who you ask), known as the Thirteen Attributes, that are repeated throughout the High Holiday season – albeit, with one exception. The standard sequence of God’s attributes that most readers are surely familiar with ends not with the term “niham al ha–ra’ah,” but rather with the term “emet”—truth. The word niham derives from the word nehamah, comfort. Jonah in his aggravated description of God substitutes comfort for truth. Jonah the son of Amittai finally discloses his frustration with outreach to God. “You want to know why I ran away? Because for most people God, religion, spirituality—it’s not about truth—it’s about comfort.”
Why did the fear of death and mortality seem to have no bearing on Jonah’s religious outlook? Perhaps, it was his childhood. I Kings ch. 17, presents the story of the widow Zarephath, whose son died only to be revived by the Prophet Elijah. That son, according the Midrash, was Jonah. Death for Jonah, then, was not an abstract fear lurking in his future, but a reality he had already experienced. Having already lived through the terror of death, Jonah sought another motivation to ground his religious commitment: truth.
Jonah’s concern has been articulated by many critics of religion. David Hume, in his History of Natural Religion, considers the concerns which motivated the advent of religion commitment. Hume, who was quite skeptical of religion, assumes that religion began not in the search for truth, but rather in a search for comfort:
But what passion shall we here have recourse to, for explaining an effect of such mighty consequence [i.e., religion]? Not speculative curiosity surely, or the pure love of truth. That motive is too refined for such gross apprehensions; and would lead men into enquiries concerning the frame of nature, a subject too large and comprehensive for their narrow capacities. No passions, therefore, can be supposed to work upon such barbarians, but the ordinary affections of human life; the anxious concern for happiness, the dread of future misery, the terror of death, the thirst of revenge, the appetite for food and other necessaries. Agitated by hopes and fears of this nature, especially the latter, men scrutinize, with a trembling curiosity, the course of future causes, and examine the various and contrary events of human life. And in this disordered scene, with eyes still more disordered and astonished, they see the first obscure traces of divinity.
His pessimistic view of the underlying motivation for religion is shared by many philosophers. Ernst Becker, in his Pulitzer Prize winning book The Denial of Death, flatly declares that “religion solves the problem of death.” No doubt, this view is best encapsulated in Karl Marx’s often cited declaration that “religion is the opiate of the masses.” An opiate does not bring its users truth, of course; it is a specious solution for the harsh pain of a harsh world.
Long ago, Maimonides was also concerned with this issue. In his Laws of Repentance (10:2), Rambam makes an important distinction regarding the proper motivation for religious commitment:
Whoever serves God out of love, occupies himself with the study of the Law and the fulfillment of commandments and walks in the paths of wisdom, impelled by no external motive whatsoever, moved neither by fear of calamity nor by the desire to obtain material benefits—such a man does what is true because it is true…
The ideal form of religious commitment, according to Maimonides, is founded upon truth as opposed to the solace religion proves in the face of calamity. Of course, he readily concedes, most will never achieve such purity of motivation – but it stands as an ideal nonetheless.
In 1967, Gordon Allport wrote “Personal Religious Orientation and Prejudice,” an important essay that invoked a similar dichotomy in religious motivation to that of Maimonides. According to Allport, religious motivation can be characterized based on two binary poles – intrinsic versus extrinsic motivation. He succinctly defines this scale as follows:
Perhaps the briefest way to characterize the two poles of subjective religion is to say that the extrinsically motivated person uses his religion, whereas the intrinsically motivated lives his religion. As we shall see later, most people, if they profess religion at all, fall upon a continuum between these two poles. Seldom, if ever, does one encounter a “pure” case.
Using Maimonidean terminology, those motivated by truth could therefore be considered intrinsically motivated, while those motivated by fear of calamity or, for that matter, by social, emotional, or any other form of temporal comfort could be typified as extrinsically motivated. Thus, what plagued Jonah was his insistence on pure intrinsic motivation.
The story of Jonah can be read as the narrative of a frustrated outreach professional. As a prophet, Jonah has proclaimed God’s impending wrath to wayward communities and time and again he sees them repent out of fear. Man, when confronted with his own mortality, finds comfort in the community and eternal promises offered by religion. Jonah, however, grew tired of serving as the temporal haven for man’s fear of crisis and transience. If religion is only a blanket to provide warmth from the cold, harsh realities of life, did concerns of theological truth and creed even matter?
What was God’s response to Jonah’s religious torment? The story of Jonah ends abruptly. God provides a tree for the ailing Jonah to find shade. After momentarily providing Jonah comfort, God summarily destroys the tree. Jonah is crestfallen. With the sun beating down on Jonah, he pleads for death. God, in the closing statement of the story, rebukes Jonah for becoming so attached to the comfort of the tree, while still failing to develop any empathy for the religious struggle of the people of Nineveh.
Comfort, God reminds Jonah, is a need inherent in the human condition. The comfort provided by a tree no more obscures the role of God, than the comfort that religion provides. The means through which we find solace need not obscure the ultimate source from which all comfort derives.
Christian Wiman, a noted American poet, knows that his religious motivations are looked at with suspicion. After living as an atheist for much of his teens, he rediscovered God following a bout with cancer. As he acknowledges in his brilliant collection, My Bright Abyss: Meditations of a Modern Believer, “[t]hat conversion often happen after or during intense life experiences, especially traumatic experiences, is sometimes used as evidence against them.” As he surely was accused of himself, “The sufferer isn’t in his right mind. The mind tottering at the abyss of despair or death, shudders back toward any simplicity, any coherency it can grasp, and the man calls out to God.” Wiman, however, does not accept this skeptic narrative of religious motivation, “[t]o admit that there may be some psychological need informing your return to faith does not preclude or diminish the spiritual imperative any more than acknowledging the chemical aspects of sexual attraction lessens the mystery of enduring human love.”
Religious motivation, however fleeting, however fearful, can still beget dignified religious commitment. Many people seek out religion, just as Jonah thousands of years ago desperately sought shade. Few, if any, are purely and intrinsically motivating by theological truth – but the story of Jonah teaches that their stories are still endowed with religious depth and significance. Perhaps this is why the story of Jonah is read on Yom Kippur. People come to synagogue for all sorts of reasons on Yom Kippur; many come only on this day. Reading the story of Jonah is an apt reminder that it doesn’t matter what brought you to synagogue, be it comfort, truth, or otherwise.
Religious integrity is not determined by the door through which you enter, or even the length of your stay. Our momentary religious experiences are meaningful, regardless of their motivations or durations. So whatever brings you to prayer on Yom Kippur, know that your presence has meaning. We’re glad you’re here.
Author’s Note: My deepest appreciation to Rabbi Baruch Dov Braun for first introducing me to Jonah and his religious worldview.