Tuesday, August 30, 2005

Rivers of Religion

What a time to sit in an ivory tower and watch the world march on, each of us to the beat of our own drum. What a curious place. So many ideas. So few universals these days.

"Why is it you gays hate Christians so much?" asks a born-again of my acquaintance. "How do I count the possible answers," my head responds in a whir. One answer, "Because you’re such assholes" comes to the tip of the tongue, but I decide to take a closer look at the inventory of possible responses. "We don’t hate you," I say, finally, falling into the trap of speaking for the millions as if we had a single voice. "We just want people standing on our foot to get off."

Such a clever answer, methought. So much better than the one with assholes in it. It wasn’t a clever answer. She had no idea what I was talking about.

The news came out today that the pope has decided there will be no more gays in the priesthood. That’s two roll-on-the-floor laughing jags I’ve had in seventy-two hours. I just spent the better part of the day two days ago in a wheezing seizure over Pat Robertson’s comment that we ought to assassinate the elected president of Venezuela. Now it turns out his Papatude thinks he is going to solve what ails Mother Church by cutting the priesthood – already cut in half by priesthood flight since twenty years ago – in half once more. Push ‘em out; pull ‘em out. Wonder where all the priesties went!

I was reading Episcopal Bishop Spong’s latest book, Sins of Scripture, recently where he suggested the number of gay priests in the Catholic church may be as high as 50%. Even allowing for a good chunk of overestimation, this latest move has got to be the best example of shooting yourself in the foot in a long time.

But I mention this gay priest cleansing business not out of a desire to keep the august institution afloat, but to point out that the question "Why do you people hate the Christians" might just be up there with asking Jews in the 20s and 30s and 40s why they hated the Greenwich Country Club. (Hell, the 1990s if you were black, but that’s another story.) It is, actually, all about sorting out who’s standing on whose toes.
Terry Gross was interviewing some Christian marriage counselor the other day. I wasn’t listening closely but my ears perked up when she asked the guy about gay couples. "First of all," said Mr. Christian Person, "Gay marriage is not legal in the United States." Terry Gross is a superb interviewer, so her follow-up question was not, "And just why is that, asshole?" Instead she said something like, "But considering the number of gay couples out there, surely there must be some in need of counseling."

I don’t know how you keep score, but for me that was Lions 1; Christians 0.

His answer? "We have committed ourselves to working with the mainstream."

"Blessed are the mainstream, for they shall get therapy." (Matthew 5:11a)

At least he didn’t use the word ‘normal.’ There is social progress.

The rise in conflict between modern culture and religion has moved center stage in recent years. Books are popping up all over the place on the topic and there are arm chair academics like myself and some real serious social researchers as well in hot pursuit of new theories of what is going on.

It’s not just the Christians against the lions. It’s much broader. Jews in Israel still cannot marry outside their religious boundaries, even though their nation was founded by secular Jews. Muslims who try to make the case that the Koran never says women cannot pray with men are threatened with their lives. Hindus in India and Buddhists in Sri Lanka are going at their enemies with guns and knives. And everybody thinks their stances are signs of religious devotion. Religion always gets the blame, complain the good religionists, when it’s Culture’s problem. Modern Enlightenment Culture gave us the notion of progress, human rights, and all the liberation movements without which we’d still be living under the heel of Religion, say the Culturists. Ah, yes, when and how will we sort this all out?

God Bless America, I say. Canada, too. And Spain and Ireland and all those other funny countries where the Church is being challenged by the Enlightenment notions of freedom from racism, sexism, anti-Semitism, homophobia and popes who give birth to daughters like Lucretia Borgia. It was in America that Reform Judaism was born. Jews who believe non-Jews can be good neighbors, good friends and even good spouses. It is the Canadian bits in Muslim gutsy lady, Irshad Manji, I have to assume, the author of "The Trouble with Islam" that lead her to argue Islamic Civilization needs to grow Enlightenment notions just as Christian Civilization did and urge her fellow Muslims to find their way to recognize gay love is love and love is good, women are more than their wombs and Allah might just be less interested in redressing injustice with suicidal attacks on innocents than with peace, like the s-l-m in Islam and Salaam says.

"Hate Christians so much?" Hell, nobody hates Christians. They hate people who can’t tell where Christ’s message ends and their own begins and peddle so fast to make the beautiful ugly. Pat Robertson reads the Bible but somehow doesn’t see that the President of Venezuela is one of God’s children. Instead he sees him as Bush’s enemy. Jesus, man, talk about chasing after false idols.

One of my grad students is writing an M.A. thesis with me on the topic of Religion and Culture. One of my colleagues said to me, "Good thing you’re here to do this. Nobody else on this campus has any interest in religion."

More’s the pity, I say. Religion is here to stay. There’s a book out this year with the title, The Global Resurgence of Religion and the Transformation of International Relations. Not everybody’s idea of a fun read, but one which is riding the crest of the wave, in my view.

We got rivers of religion and we’re riding the rapids. Got to stay in the boat, ‘cause the water’s toxic. Got to get to the other shore.

August 30, 2005

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