It is human nature to desire a better understanding of oneself; without the magnificent powers of scientific fact, humans were forced to use the next best concepts: introspection, thought, and philosophy. Through the use of the dynamic human mind, human societies were able to determine explanation and reason for our existence, which time and time again evolved into religion. In general, human societies have created religions that celebrate a higher power — a tendency that has continued on into modern society with countless examples such as Judaism, Islam, and Christianity. Of these three, Christianity is the predominant religion of western culture and represents a significant part of society from politics, to the economy, holidays, and cultural traditions. While the basic principles of the religion offer a positive way of life, modern societal standards have the tendency to elicit unethical exploitation of its system of beliefs. William Faulkner provides an insightful narrative in As I Lay Dying, illustrating the plethora of atrocities that result from religious corruption. Due to human nature’s selfish impulses, religion — more specifically, Christianity — is meant to act as a power for good. However, the ideas are taken advantage of for personal gain with little thought to its effect on others. Through each of his characters, Faulkner illustrates a bluntly realistic version of religion that serves to reveal the superficial and selfish means for exploitation that modern religion has become.
Cora Tull is certainly one of the more ironic portrayals of a “devout” Christian in modern literature. While she believes that she follows a lifestyle that exhibits “pure religion”, but she fails to adhere to some of the most fundamental principles of the Christian faith. Cora often finds grand disappointment in the Bundrens’ loyalty to God. Perhaps Cora is most judgemental of the religious values of Addie Bundren, as Cora has stated that “it is not us that can judge our sins or know what is sin in the Lord’s eyes. She has had a hard life, but so does every woman. But you’d think from the way she talked that she knew more about sin and salvation than the Lord God Himself, than them who have strove and labored with the sin in this human world” (167). In Cora’s harsh criticism of Addie’s lack of faith in the lord and salvation, she is failing to recognize one of the ten commandments: “Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself.” In Cora’s elitist view of herself and her pure faith, as well as her failure to show sympathy or understanding for the Bundrens’ situation, she is ironically neglecting the religious values to which she claims to be so loyal. Faulkner’s depiction of this sardonic character illustrates the idea that following “pure religion” elicits rash judgement of less devout individuals and consequently utterly abandoning the values that should be reflected by “pure” religious followers. Cora’s character demonstrates that an individual who is only religious by blind faith, but lacks the intention to adhere to its principles, is a failure and a incompetent representative of its ideas and beliefs.
While the Christian belief system has good intentions, it can be easily manipulated by individuals with selfish and immoral desires. Anse Bundren, while a pathetically useless character who has no motivation and gives nothing to aid his family, believes not that his poor living situation is self-inflicted but that they are caused by God. As he states, “I am chosen of the Lord, for who He loveth, so doeth He chastiseth. But I be durn if He don’t take some curious ways to show it, seems like,” the state of Anse’s life is argued to be specifically decided by God (111). This tactic represents how one can manipulate the system of beliefs that is christianity in order to justify an individual’s inadequacies and failures. Faulkner’s demonstration of how one who refuses to take responsibility for their own actions by claiming the “will of the lord” is ultimately pathetic excuse for a christian or any religious believer is exemplified in Anses denial of his self-created misery. By his blameful logic, Anse also formulates “genuine” reason for selfishly choosing to send Darl to a mental institution in order to avoid a lawsuit, stating “I reckon he ought to be there. God knows, it’s a trial on me. Seems like it ain’t no end to bad luck when once it starts.” (233). Religion has given him a means to refuse guilt thus never learning from his mistakes as he believes they were destined to be made. The ease at which the beliefs behind Christianity can be abused represents modern religion’s attempt to create kind, well-mannered individuals is ultimately ineffective.
Perhaps the most disappointing religious representative in the entire book, is the local minister, Whitfield. Ironically, as a man whose duty is to teach religious beliefs and provide spiritual guidance to the community, he is arguably the most pathetically incompetent character when it comes to following the principles of Christianity. In his attempt to confess his affair with Addie to Anse and his decision not to after learning she had already died, Whitfield is not only displaying a failure to act true to the beliefs he preaches but also a failure to fulfill a direct command from God: “‘Rise,’ He sad; ‘repair to that home in which you have put a living lie, among those people with whom you have outraged My Word; confess your sin aloud. It is for them, for that deceived husband, to forgive you: not I,” (177). Yet soon after this we understanding the full extent of his pathetic nature, as Whitfield decides that, as with Addie’s death he no longer has any reason to worry for the secret getting out, the mere intention of confession is enough in God’s eyes. His distinct failure to fulfill the specific demands of the lord demonstrates how individuals who are meant to embody the epitome of christian belief and hold a sacred duty of teaching those beliefs can be utterly faithless. Additionally, the action to which he fails to confess, is a notable sin unto itself. As a minister who committed an act of adultery Whitfield demonstrates no attachment to the beliefs he preaches and consequently elicits Addie’s rejection of religion. The irony of Whitfield’s pathetic character illustrates how the principles of Christianity hold such little authority and influence that even members who are meant to represent the “pinnacle of piety” have no obligation to commitment.
While the principles of Christianity have in some ways remained stable since their creation thousands of years ago, the influence of such principles, at least on the evidence of Faulkner’s novel, has completely deteriorated. Highly “pure” religious individuals do not care to genuinely follow the most basic beliefs that claim to uphold. Others take advantageous of these religious weaknesses to justify their incompetencies and immoralities. Ultimately, William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying provides a somber demonstration of the failures of modern religion, exemplifying its shortcomings and negative the backlash that results. Modern religion has become hollow and senseless as the only motive to abide by it is for selfish gain and its teachings have devolved into meaningless words with no intimate understanding or devotion.