All my life I’ve marveled over the things religious people come up with. Virgin birth. Walking on water. Raising the dead.
Not bloody likely.
These days, when I think of religion, I tend to see it as the primary vehicle for dumbing us down. After all, if you can be convinced that Jesus walked on water, you’re primed to believe that Obama is a Muslim, that the climate crisis is a hoax and the Republican tax plan is good for low-income people.
I was raised in a bunch of different Protestant traditions. And not just any Protestantism, but American Protestantism. You know who I'm talking about: the folks who think of Jesus as their personal friend.
I was baptized in a Baptist church, where it was important they wait until I had supposedly reached the age of reason before I was allowed to call myself a member. It was not enough that I could spout the words, “I’m a believer;” they had to believe I believed it.
I didn’t know what I believed at that tender age. Like most kids, I went through the ceremony because I could tell it’s what the adults thought was a peachy-keen idea, and I’d get lots of approval. But I love the idea that, in this church at least, there was some recognition that the mind counts. You don’t mumble pre-packaged prayers like the Catholics, I was told, don’t simply perform the rituals, like Muslims and Jews. You go into your religion body and mind. No credit for performance; it only counts if you will it to happen. God help you if you’re not sincere. He reads your mind, knows what you think even before you think it, so don’t try to fool him.
It’s enough to scare the living shit out of you, this responsibility.
In no time, I was doing what I thought I was supposed to do. I was thinking and asking questions. Why do you need to pray, if God knows your mind? Obviously one prays aloud in public to impress one’s neighbors, not God. He’s way ahead of you. And be careful what you pray for. If you pray for something concrete, like a bicycle for your birthday, and he gives it to you, that means you've reduced him to your own personal micro-manager. That kind of faith, that kind of theology, I learned a bit later on, is for kids. When you grow up you learn to pray for peace and understanding, not a new Lamborghini.
You also learn that God answers some people’s prayers only some of the time. Mothers pray their sons who go to war will come home safe. And it’s not at all clear that the mothers whose prayers he does answer are better people than the mothers whose prayers he ignores. Why is that? I wonder. A mystery, we’re told. Better not think too much about it.
Really? You’re supposed to use your mind but you’re not supposed to think too much? Supposed to make sense here, but accept the irrational there? All very confusing.
By the time I discovered anthropology, my connection to religion was pretty much done with. If it hadn't been, anthropology would have finished it off. The more I saw of the world, the more I discovered how many ways there are of being transcendental, the less any particular religious narrative had a hold on me. Why limit yourself to just one story?
In recent years I’ve spent many a Friday evening with Jewish friends lighting candles and reciting the ritual prayers in Hebrew. Not for the religion, but because I saw that my friends wanted to train their kids to feel a part of a community of believers. To feel a sense of belonging. What exactly those beliefs were was far less important than the fact of community. I could go along with that. Besides, there’s something to the notion that lighting the candles and “bringing in the light” is good for the soul. I don’t need for there to be a God for that. I became a touchy-feely Californian in the 1960s. I understand that one prays as a form of meditation – to calm the soul. And I love how the Jews figured out thousands of years ago that it was smart to shut down on a regular basis, stop working, be with loved ones, let in the light, and just be.
Turns out the Baptists got it wrong. “Mumbling” prayers, doing things ritually, is not an empty gesture. It’s not even an insincere act, necessarily. It’s good for the soul because it lowers stress on the mind and the body. OK, so that’s instrumentalizing worship, using it for selfish purposes. I don’t care. The nice thing about chucking out the notion of an all-seeing all-powerful deity is that it frees you up to enjoy the idea of being alive. No need to worry about an afterlife. Assume you only go around once. Better get it right the first time because there’s only the first time.
Because I chose to go down that path and call myself a humanist, not a religious person, I’ve naturally wondered how I made that choice. Was it really a choice? Was it not simply a set of experiences which led me to conclude that was the way to go? Other people, for a whole host of reasons, make different choices. It’s all so damned arbitrary.
Wouldn’t it be nice if I could go back in time and spend a few hours over coffee or a couple glasses of wine with Jesus and get him to clear up these things. But that just begs another question. Would you have to learn Galilean Aramaic to talk with him? Or would he speak modern-day American English? So many questions. Since nobody speaks Galilean Aramaic anymore, I could, of course, spend a couple years living among the Aramaic-speaking Assyrians of Northern Iraq and learn their language, but that door closed when I read somewhere that those still speaking the so-called “language of Jesus” were speaking an Aramaic that was not mutually intelligible with Galilean Aramaic. Damn, they make things hard.
Then I learned that he spoke Greek. And probably some Latin. But probably not enough to debate the finer points of theology. Besides, my Latin is limited to “Fiat Lux” and “E Pluribus Unum” and my Greek is even worse. So that’s pretty much out. Whoever came up with the idea that you could just speak English and Jesus would be cool with it?
What would I ask him? I don’t know much about Galilean etiquette. He never married and I’d love to know if he was gay, but asking him that right out of the blue would probably be as rude in Nazareth as it would be in Peoria. I'm curious about whether he masturbates and if so how often and who he fantasizes over when he does, but it wouldn't really benefit me to know the answer to that, so I probably wouldn't ask. But I’d really like to know if he’s one of the tribe.
How does he keep clean? Do they have soap? Do they soak in a tub after a day on the Mediterranean with his disciples hauling in the fish? Or with his dad, sanding down the dining room chairs? Does he like dogs and cats?
These are not trivial questions. I know it’s a popular notion these days, particularly among Evangelicals, to see Jesus as a personal friend, a guy you can talk to about anything – your desire to get laid, your fear of spiders, your love of opera. If you’re going to be his friend, it’s important to find common ground. I doubt I could take him very seriously if he smells bad, and if he were to suggest it’s OK to eat dogs and cats, I’d throw him down the stairs.
What was his relationship with his step-father, Joseph, like, I wonder. Or his step brothers (same mother, different father). Did he really die and come back to life? Does he still have those holes in his side or have they healed shut?
What’s his take on Brexit? Does he think Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer will ever fill Angela Merkel’s shoes? Does he even care?
Does he care that some Americans are upset that some of us say “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas” because we don’t want the non-Christians among us to feel left out? And that some Christians find that a sign that the country is going to the dogs? Does he have a take on this?
Headscarves? Abortion? Circumcision?
Does he care that the Walton family controls 1,508,965,874 shares out of 2,952,478,528 total shares outstanding in their family business and earns more than $25,149 a minute while their workers earn only $9.00 an hour? Does that bother him? Or does he have bigger fish to fry?
Does he agree with me that Martin Luther was a great man in history because he created a modern German language to translate the Bible into? Even though he was an anti-Semite? Is it possible to admire a person for their good features while loathing them for the flaws in their character? If so, does he think the Evangelicals are right when they say it’s OK to separate small children from their parents and label Mexicans rapists and murderers, so long as you keep American white people in charge of the show? Is he a Kantian or a utilitarian?
Does he love America more than other countries?
Does he hate me because I find the idea that he is a God absurd?
Does he think I should censor my questioning and stop asking about any damn thing that pops into my mind but ask him only about things like war and the death penalty?
Does he have a sense of humor?
Does he ever get chapped lips?
The questions just keep on coming.
Ever since when I was baptized they told me I needed to love God with all my heart, yes, but with all my mind, as well.
I’ve concluded that there’s no reason to believe in gods and ghosts and demons, but Jesus is a historical figure about whom much has been said. Much of that is bullshit, of course, and I’d really like to clear things up.
Now that I’m retired, I’m free pretty much anytime, for some Q&A.
If he’s got the time.