“God is the interesting thing about religion.”

The Episcopal/Anglican world commemorates Eveyln Underhill today, a noted author and proponent of contemplative prayer and the importance of the spiritual life. Her book Mysticism, now more than a century old, is still an important reference on that topic.

Recent graduates of Berkeley Divinity School likely know Underhill better for a letter she wrote to then-archbishop of Canterbury, Cosmo Lang, in 1930. Our dean was fond of quoting one bit: “God is the interesting thing about religion.”

Odd as it may seem, It is very easy, for those involved in the life of the church, to lose sight of this basic fact. In seminary, we can get distracted by the shiniest new theological idea,  debates about theologies of ordination, or whatever. In the governance of the church, we get distracted by the particulars of resolutions and committees. In the day-to-day life of congregations, we get distracted by the pressures of keeping the lights on, the church clean, and the brass polished.

All of these things are important, of course, but they can tend to obscure our focus on what Underhill puts, self-evidently, at the center of religion: God. To my way of thinking, Underhill’s comments give added impetus to my earlier proposal for this summer’s General Convention: begin the thing with a retreat. The complete text of Underhill’s letter is online and I think it has important reminders for the church, particularly in a season of contentious conventions and governance meetings.

The Church wants not more consecrated philanthropists, but a disciplined priesthood of theocentric souls who shall be tools and channels of the Spirit of God: and this she cannot have until Communion with God is recognized as the first duty of the priest. But under modern conditions this is so difficult that unless our fathers in God solemnly require it of us, the necessary efforts and readjustments will not be made…. God is the interesting thing about religion, and people are hungry for God. But only a priest whose life is soaked in prayer, sacrifice, and love can, by his own spirit of adoring worship, help us to apprehend Him. We ask the bishops . . . to declare to the Church and especially its ministers, that the future of organized Christianity hinges not on the triumph of this or that type of churchman’s theology or doctrine, but on the interior spirit of poverty, chastity and obedience of the ordained. However difficult and apparently unrewarding, care for the interior spirit is the first duty of every priest.

Read the whole thing (it’s a page and a half). In an age of managerial rectors, is the answer to church decline more “theocentric” souls? And is that an issue that can be addressed by a Convention resolution?

4 thoughts on ““God is the interesting thing about religion.”

  1. Why is it that mystics do not become priests? Why are those who know they are one with God, see only God, and are head over heels in love with God, not the priests, ministers or pastors? Am I missing something here? This might be why I experience more of God directly in my own meditation/devotions/worship than in churches (except during the singing which is direct heart to “God communication). It seems that another reformation is in order? It seems that the blind cannot lead the blind. Theology is of the head not the heart. It seems that a direct, intimate relationship of oneness would be the precursor to preaching; otherwise it is just intellectual hubris. What do you think? Or maybe that is the problem: thinking rather than directly experiencing the transforming power of Divine Love and the Holy Spirit?

    1. Jesse Zink

      I think some mystics do become priests and even (in my tradition) bishops. I can point to a few I’ve met. And in the letter, Underhill emphasizes that the thinking part of faith is important.

      But I wonder if the larger question might be about how we relate to the world around us. Our world prizes managerial competence and technical expertise. Is it any surprise that the church has come to prize those things as well, perhaps at the expense of a mystical relationship?

    2. chris

      experiencing God in my life happened when praying at home at night .Not in a church service.I had been to services for more than forty years . maybe there are sometimes to many distractions in a church.

      1. I experienced God for the first time sitting home on my couch reading the bible for three days! Now I experience Him everywhere, even in church! But I often wonder if I had stayed in religion if I would have experienced God or just kept “doing” and “believing” what we were taught ABOUT God? hmmm? My most treasured, unspeakable relationship is with our Father and God! His Holy Spirit has changed everything in my life! Thank God!

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