Saturday, August 16, 2014

Religion is not the problem

I’ve been thinking the past couple of days about a discussion on my friend Bill Lindsey’s blog not long ago. Bill Lindsey is a Catholic theologian. He writes a blog which he calls his “Bilgrimage.” He’s married to another Catholic theologian. Both of them have been slapped hard by their church for being gay, losing their jobs over the sexual orientation they were born into, and Bill spends much of his time calling the church hierarchy on what they claim to be Christian virtues and he feels are vices. Like Hans Küng, and the majority of Catholics in the pews, they know their church to be something other than what the hierarchy conceives it to be.

I like the church he describes. Admire the people who engage in the uphill climb to make their church look more like the image of Christ in the Gospels. Left up to me, I’d say, give it up. It’s a lost cause, this church of yours. I gave up my Christian faith in my early 20s and to this day celebrate the freedom that comes from that unshackling. We don’t share religious convictions, Bill and I.

But we do share friendship. And a common moral code. If we wanted to, I’m sure we could build a great believer/non-believer support group analogous to all the many gay/straight alliances popping up everywhere. Because I like his ideas and admire his ability to engage in this sisyphean task of his, I read his column regularly and often find myself wanting to engage with his other readers in the commentaries.

Here’s what popped up that set me off on this preoccupation. One of his readers asked why it is that so many fundamentalist type Christians put their focus on the Old Testament, where the image is of an angry God, instead of on the Gospel, where Jesus’s values of forgiveness and love are on display. The Old Testament God is all about law and order, vengeance and punishment. God is a disciplinarian. God in The New Testament view is more of a caretaker. Are these people really Christians, the commenter wondered. Or are they better described as some kind of “weird New World Hebraic cult?”

I like that question. It reveals the folly of taking the scriptures literally, closing your eyes, picking out a passage, and taking it at face value, without processing it through the mind first. When I was a kid, I was presented with one of those bibles where the words of Christ were printed in red. I still have it. And nowadays I find such irony in the fact that the people most likely to present you with a bible with the words of Christ printed in red seem to be unaware that those words include the Beatitudes. “If a man asks you to walk a mile, walk with him twain... Give him your cloak as well as the coat he asks for... Forgive him... Love him….” Why are these folk still stuck with all that fire and brimstone stuff? All that sin? All that vengeance? Check the beam in your own eye.

The answer is not hard to find. The believers in our midst - the fundamentalists especially - hold beliefs passed on to us by some pretty psychologically disturbed people. You know the jokes about the Baptists - that they avoid sex because if they were caught at it somebody might think they were dancing. Or the definition of Puritans as people who live in fear that somebody somewhere might be having a good time.

Even bigger than the divide between believers and non-believers, I think, are the American Protestant and Catholic literalists who see sin as central and lose sight of charity and humility much of the time. The Protestants focus on the scriptures, the Catholics on rigid church teachings, but the end result is the same. Religion, to the closed people, becomes all about guilt, shame and fear. To open people, religion offers hope, inspiration, possibility.

Most mainstream Christians in America hold that the Jewish and Christian scriptures are limited by their historical context, and it behooves us to read them more as poetry than as rules for living our lives today. Back in my believer days, I too accepted the argument made by these mainstream Christians that the Old Testament was largely irrelevant except as evidence of God working his wonders before the time of Christ and setting the scene for Christ’s work to begin.

It never occurred to me what a terrible disservice we were doing to Jews. It was sort of saying, well that SOB of the Old Testament is your problem, not mine.

It was George Lakoff who put me straight. If you are not familiar with him, he’s a linguist who has done his major work on metaphors, those rhetorical figures of speech that create mental images by means of association. More recently he has extended his work to politics, hoping to persuade Democrats that they need to frame their arguments more persuasively. Challenge the Republicans, who currently have the edge. Just look at how they seized the Affordable Care Act, for example, and made people forget it was largely about eliminating such things as not being able to get medical insurance because of a so-called pre-existing condition. Consider how often when the left and right debate, the left has to fight off claims they are inviting socialism, a notion many Americans are unable to distinguish from communism - which routinely still gets defined here as pure evil. How did we let the Republicans seize the right to frame the argument that way? Dumb.

The Lakoff lecture I’m referring to was held in Berkeley’s First Congregational Church, an important venue for all kinds of lectures and concerts that have nothing to do with religion. This particular night, if I remember right, Lakoff was urging his largely democratic audience to recognize the importance of language when designing political strategies. One woman who had wandered in, evidently thinking since this was a church it must be a church-event, had a question for the speaker. “What suggestions do you have for getting our fellow Christians to pay more attention to the New Testament and stop dwelling on things in the Old Testament?” she asked.

You could hear a pin drop. Most people knew George Lakoff and knew that he was Jewish. How was he going to handle what most Jews would surely perceive as an insult?

Lakoff didn’t skip a beat. “You know, when I was young, and I was going to Yeshiva and studying the Talmud,” he said… All eyes were on the woman to see how long it would take the lights to go on. “I remember a heated discussion with a rabbi about why God would ask Abraham to slay his son, Isaac.”

“Can’t you imagine the conversation that must have gone on between Yahweh and Abraham?” Lakoff asked. “Can’t you just see Yahweh saying, ‘Abe, I gave you a brain and I expect you to use it! Do you seriously think I would promise you the world and then have you slay your first-born son? I was clearly just testing you, you shmuck!”

Several things happened at once in that moment. I’m guessing this brought home to the woman that she was talking to a Jew and disparaging the Old Testament was probably not the coolest thing she might have done. She was also presented with a view of religion that takes the scriptures as guidelines to be interpreted in a larger context, not holy writ to be taken literally. A non-literalist’s view. A thinking person’s view. Someone who began his approach to religion by thanking God for giving him a brain. Free will. Choices to make.

I learned something too. I realized how like that probably well-meaning woman I was. How I too had focused too much on the folly and lack of sophistication of the fundamentalists and missed how many religious folk there were gathering information at the broadest possible level and subjecting language to analysis and interpretation. And I was selling short the possibility that Jews, no less than Christians, could handle this psychopathic deity that slays innocents, punishes children for the sins of their fathers, and pretends to give you free will but tears you to pieces if you make the wrong choices as a creature in the mind of folk from another time and place. Some Jews can, at least. They are able to see a bigger picture and not stumble over secondary issues. To folk who understand metaphor, and who think their way through an ancient text, it's not the raw words on a page that matter, but how one reads things in context. And this is true as much for the Old Testament as for the New.

In the end, although I can see how one might comb the bible for the poetry of love, and leave the other stuff, I still cannot reconcile the notion of a god of love, with a god, even one read metaphorically, who would set you up in a garden, demand that you remain stupid but tempt you with knowledge, and then punish you, your children and your children’s children for all time because you succumbed to the temptation. And then demand a blood sacrifice. And then present himself as the victim to be sacrificed. What a god-awful bloody story. What an astonishing thing that so many people picked this story up and took it in. And what was this sin, anyway? A desire to know things? We are all cursed, the bible tells us, for having the desire to eat of the tree of knowledge. And god will punish not just us but our grandchildren for this weakness that is intellectual curiosity. Until the time of the blood sacrifice.

Not my cup of tea, this.

I am also bothered by the simplistic black and while notions of good and evil, and the idea that there are demons out to get you. That powerful Irish movie, just out, Calvary, is about this kind of thing. A guy comes into the confessional, tells the priest he was abused as a child and intends to get back at the church by killing him, the priest hearing his confession, a week later. The movie then takes you through the priest’s interactions with the villagers during that week building up to the question of whether he’s actually going to die. And as Mick LaSalle, the movie critic at the San Francisco Chronicle, put it, the movie only makes sense if you accept that all the villagers are possessed by demons.

My point is only that religion, with all its unseen forces (whether gods or demons, it doesn’t matter), makes no sense to me. But since I’ve observed a number of people of good will do manage to make sense of it, I accept that it’s probably here to stay. And I can make the important distinction between people who live with these fictions but don’t insist on running the world by them, and people who do. Christians, Muslims, Jews, it hardly matters. It’s the fundamentalists, the absolutists, the ones convinced they hear the voice of God and you don’t. Those are the dangerous beings, not the demons who “roam throughout the world seeing the ruin of souls,” in the words of that prayer to St. Michael Catholics used to say after the mass.

There is a delightful Christian evangelical singer named Vicky Beeching who has recently come out as a Lesbian. I saw her on a video recently debating homosexuality with that sad confused fellow evangelical, Scott Lively. Speaking of monsters. He’s the monster who encouraged the folks in Uganda to pursue their homophobic witchhunt (although he now denies he had anything to do with the death penalty laws there). You want to see the power of religion for evil? Just take a close look at this man who believes, contrary to the the testimony of millions of gay people and others, that sexuality is chosen, not revealed to be part of one’s nervous system.

And if you need help drawing the line between benign and malign religionists, watch the video of these two evangelicals talking to each other.

Slowly, but surely, we’re learning to dismantle the walls that separate us to no good purpose - the walls between religious and non-religious people, specifically. And to reach across the gap to build unions between people of good will.

I once bought into the notion that the Christians had the right idea about God and the Jews the wrong one - all you had to do was set the New Testament up against the Old. Today, I join hands with believers and non-believers alike, concerned only whether they are open, and of good will. I once thought the fact that fundamentalists preached one could rid oneself of homosexuality by “coming to Jesus” meant that believers were on one side, gays and lesbians on the other. Today, I note with respect that gay people are working inside their churches to expose that as a false dichotomy.

And, even as a non-believer, I find that to be a very good good step forward.

photo credit

1 comment:

Robert Consoli said...

This is a great post and I thank you for it. I'm the person who originally raised the question with Bill

I should begin by explaining more fully what I meant by the words 'weird Hebraic cult'. This has nothing to do with Judaism. I'm referring to those new American churches branded with a few superficial trappings of Judaism; churches oriented not towards the Jewish scriptures or culture taken as a whole but towards the epitomized bowdlerization of them which we commonly call the 'Old Testament'. There is at least one large American church (begins with an 'M') which literally believes something very much like an Hebraic origin for itself.
These new conservative churches share nothing with the soul or the culture of Judaism itself. Nor do they wish to; not the least of the ironies raised by this topic is that genuine anti-Semitism, where it survives, is nourished by those exact same churches.

We know that the OT is in the Bible (part of the canon) because its writings were thought to prefigure the coming of Christ. We also know that the OT is far from being coterminous with Jewish scripture taken as a whole. In Judaism these scriptures are part of a great cultural matrix of teaching and learning; they exist in context. But the canon (list) of what we Christians call the 'Old Testament' was formed by Melito of Sardis in the 2C in an attempt to show the falsity of Judaism and how Christianity succeeded it. Based on his canon he wrote a book of extracts which compares the OT to a mold and the teachings of Christ as breaking that mold.

Second, of course, I have to acknowledge that I am not the first to ask this question about why some churches prefer the OT to the NT. I first heard this question during the agonized debates of the Viet Nam period. I raise it again, however, because recent events seem to have made the cognitive dissonance louder than ever.

It doesn't matter to me what Conservative churches worship or how they do it. For all of me they can worship a two-headed monkey. But they are not Christian if they ignore the teachings of Jesus and so my question is 'when do we call them on their bullshit?'