RAGE, RIOTS, AND RELIGION

Social scientists are pretty much agreed that what turns anger into rage is a sense of being disrespected, victimized, and powerless. And what turns rage into rioting is vulnerability to manipulation by people who use others’ hopelessness and sense of aloneness for their own ends.

Whether there is a basis in fact for it or not, rage yields fewer positive outcomes than anger does. Anger provides us energy to get things changed for the better, all the way from our dirty diapers in infancy to dirty politicians in our golden years. Rage provides us only an impetus to get even.

And now comes into this thinking, once again, religion. A wholly mean-spirited, incompetently self-serving, shockingly immoral terrorist group, ISIS, has made it into the history books instead of a garbage bin by denigrating a truly admirable religious prophet and unleashing a rage-driven rampage of rioting by people who should know better.

Men and women of genuine faith know that neither the memory of Muhammad nor the worship of the God he served needs refurbishing against the calumnies of people who know neither personage very well. “Defending” both — if any merely human being is adequate to the task at all — is best done in the form of a reminder that the one true God is as high above the destructive behavior of misguided humans as the heavens are above the earth.

That the reminder is being drowned out, however, by the noise of violent mobs tells us something important about what religion is capable of becoming, at Facebook speed. At its worst, religion holds up an image of God whose substance is the projection of the worst that is in the human spirit: jealous fear, festering anger, self-righteous judgmentalism, and an inner emptiness filled by feeding on the essence of things not one’s own.

At its best, religion holds up an image of God whose basis is the grateful acknowledgement of the best that is in the human spirit as a gift from the very One Whom it best resembles. A God truly worthy of human devotion is a God whose love casts out our fears, fulfills our needs, overcomes our loneliness, forgives our wrongdoings, and above all, uplifts us all — together — in hope.

There is a gentleness about a love like this. Its splendor is also riotous.

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IS GOD VENGEFUL?

There has to be a better way of dealing with being wronged than the way of swift and merciless payback. The impulse to retaliate blocks honest assessment of whether a particular feeling of being wronged has any basis in fact. And retaliating mercilessly only escalates the enmity.

One thing that keeps the revenge-motive alive and well in the human heart is, of all things, religion. What I have in mind here is the belief that God is a jealous God who demands from everyone, without having to earn it, unconditional loyalty.

The God of this belief is a God who is as intolerant of being “disrespected” as modern-day gang members are. He exacts the same kinds of tribute for disrespect that they do. Worse still, he often fails to discern rightly who is and is not worthy of his own respect and good will.

There is an Old Testament passage, in 2 Samuel 22, which expresses perfectly this perfectly terrible belief. In delivering David from his enemies, it says, the whole earth shook from God’s anger. Smoke poured from his nostrils and fire from his mouth. Everything on earth was darkened. Lightning, hail, and burning coals pummeled David‘s enemies, all because God “delighted” in David and repayed him for his “righteousnness.”

The larger story of David in the Bible is the story of a man who was about as “righteous” as members of today’s drug cartels. Clearly, something has gone very, very wrong in the theistic religions’ depiction of God as a licensor of vengeance. (22:40)

What I think went wrong was the casting of God’s image in the likeness of the worst rather than the best that is in our own. For people looking for an excuse to act vengefully toward others, there is hardly a better one available than the claim that God does it too, and in spades.

For people earnestly seeking a God worthy of devotion, however, images of a furious God taking vengeance on anyone who displeases him are not only off-putting, but blasphemous as well. A God less praiseworthy than the best among us is no God at all.

The truly worthy  God of these same theistic religions is the God who eventually changed his own mind and heart about vengeance. Only mortals, he came to see, come to each other all the time with threats. (Hosea 11: 9)

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THE SPIRITUALITY OF ANGER

Many spiritually-minded people struggle with the idea that anger is unspiritual. Believing that it is can lead to guilt feelings about having any angry feelings at all.

My own thinking about anger has been influenced most by the rendering of Matthew 5:22 in the old King James Bible: whosoever is angry with his brother without a cause is in danger of the judgment. Only rarely does the KJV offer the better translation available of ancient biblical texts. Here, however, it most definitely does.

Most modern translations of the New Testament leave out of Matthew 5:22 the without a cause exception which the KJV includes. In doing so, they make the verse appear to condemn any expression of anger. One translation, The New English Bible, acknowledges the exception, but only backhandedly by way of a footnote: “Some witnesses insert without good cause.”

Unlike the New English Bible’s translators, those witnesses had it right, especially with the word  “good” inserted as a modifier of the word “cause.” There are indeed good causes for anger, and working hard on never getting angry is not a good thing at all.

Jesus himself could not have condemned unconditionally any and all forms of anger. The very scriptures that say he did also report his becoming angry enough himself to call people fools, whited sepulchers, serpents and vipers (Matthew 23:19,27,33). Toward the end of his ministry he drove commercial activities off the Temple grounds in a veritable fit of righteous rage. Unlike much of ours, however, Jesus’ anger was for cause.

There is in fact a lot of anger expressed throughout the Bible. The God who inspired it comes across in it as very angry very often, as do the prophets who speak for Him. To many, myself included, not all of their anger seems justified.

But a lot of it does. It does because it is about peoples’ failures to live as they say they are going to live. More importantly, it is about peoples’ failures to treat others respectfully and fairly. Most importantly of all, it is about peoples’ failures to offer mercy and love in God’s name to everyone they meet.

Getting angry about moral failings, our own and others’, is spiritual in its very essence. It provides the energy needed for working on the condition not only of our own souls but that of the communities which nurture them.

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“AXIAL AGE” SPIRITUALITY: ITS LEGACY AND ITS PROMISE

Across the grand sweep of history, transformational events can occur as if in an instant. One sequence of such events worth contemplating has been referred to as an axial shift in humanity’s thinking about ultimate reality.

What I have in mind is an astonishing infusion of mental and spiritual energy into human consciousness that may have taken place across no more than a sixty year period. As if part of a concerted effort, sages as different as Zoroaster, Confucius, Lao-Tzu, the Buddha, and the Hebrew Prophets all helped bring the spiritual awakening to expression. Early Greek philosophers were involved also. And none may have known anything about any of the others’ contributions.

Although I keep looking for a credible explanation for this epochal breakthrough in the experience of transcendent realities, I also believe that by its very nature it will defy our best efforts to discover one. Why? Because there is too much about it to fit neatly into any single belief system or conceptual scheme.

This does not mean, however, that it is beyond understanding altogether.

One thing that seems especially clear about it is how strongly it calls into question those religious authorities who themselves demand unquestioning loyalty. All of the sages and philosophers of this remarkable period subjected all kinds of religious beliefs and practices to severe scrutiny and assessment on both logical and moral grounds.

By way of examples, Confucius relegated to the status of superstition revered practices designed to appease the spirits of departed and yet still-meddling ancestors. The Buddha challenged Hindu Brahmins’ claims that only they had the capacity fully to understand the divine-human relationship. Zenophanes deemed belief in Homer’s gods a mainstay of error. And the list goes on.

To me, the legacy of  the Axial Age has been ambiguous almost from its beginning. It offers to each of us the possibility of a spiritual awakening beyond all present imagining. But with it comes the knowledge that experiencing its fullness may require leaving behind much of what we have been told previously about spiritual realities.

Before us are truths that, through the experiences of great spiritual leaders, are available to us, too. But so also are their over-zealous followers, who demand loyalty to their leaders more than to the truth. Jesus once summed this up by asking why people called him, rather than God, good.

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A GLOBAL SPIRITUAL AWAKENING

Many religious believers around the world are absolutely certain that nothing was worth remembering for very long about humankind’s spiritual journey until Abraham, Jesus, or Muhammad came along. My reading of history suggests otherwise.

For decades, I have been contemplating a very brief interval of historical time within which astonishingly powerful spiritual breakthroughs occurred, as if simultaneously, at widely separated points on the planet. Together, they have transformed human existence forever.

The interval I have in mind is the time between 590 and 530 B.C.E. It may have been a little longer; historians have slightly different opinions about the most important birth and death dates of the period. But it cannot have been very much longer.

Here is what holds my attention about these years: during them, the following spiritual leaders attained the height of their powers and influence: Zoroaster in Persia, Lao Tzu and Confucius in China, the Buddha in India, and the Old Testament prophets Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and Second Isaiah in Babylonia.

And there is more: while these revered men were making their own monumental contributions to spirituality across the globe, a new philosophical spirit was emerging in Southern Italy (e.g., from Xenophanes and Pythagoras) and Asia Minor (Anaximander). In interestingly different ways, these philosophers challenged ancient Greek polytheism in light of rationally determined ideas about what is truly worthy of human devotion.

To me, this is a staggering sequence of historical convergences. It has made me wonder repeatedly whether we are looking at more than mere coincidence in their emergence.

Karl Jaspers, one of the last century’s most respected philosophers, had a captivating way of referring to this era in human history. In one of his most enthralling books, The Origin and Goal of History, he called it the  time when the axis of the spiritual world underwent a permanent and transformational shift. Karen Armstrong makes considerable use of Jasper’s notion in many of her own, much respected writings.

Judaism, Christianity, and Islam all present their respective messages within historical contexts. Past events and personages pave the way for the life, teachings, and impact of their own especially revered men of God. Each of their efforts, though, eventually ends up the same way, by pronouncing its own story to be the only story worth honoring. Puzzlingly, though, each also proclaims God to be the Lord of all history and not just of a part of it.

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RAINBOWS AT WORLD’S END

In Mrs. Willis’ second grade Sunday School class, the story of the Flood did not sit well with any of us. It was too scary. But more than that, it seemed to be about something terribly unfair.

As I got older, I stopped being scared by the story, but not being angry about it. Peoples’ offenses are very different. One-punishment-fits-all is unworthy of a truly holy God.

The real problem with the story, though, is that its disaster sequences seriously weaken its climax: “…Never again will I put the earth under a curse because of humankind, however evil their inclination may be from their youth upwards…” (Genesis 8:21) Rainbows are the reminder that God repented of what he had done.

It’s easy to miss this seismic shift in theology.We are still missing it. A case in point: Christians’ gleeful recounting of divinely wrought world destruction predicted in the Book of Revelation. When Satan is released after a thousand year captivity, people will be judged by deeds already inscribed in a book of life, and those whose accounts are deficient will be flung into a lake of fire. (Chapter 20)

Clearly, third generation Christians had a harder time with persecution than their mentors did. From his cross, Jesus asked forgiveness for all his persecutors. But the Johannine community of 30 years later got so peeved with their tormentors that instead of praying for them, they consigned them to an anti-Christ of their own devising.

I love Revelation’s image of a New Jerusalem coming down out of heaven, with God dwelling in it and putting an end to death, mourning, crying and pain. (21:1-6) I can almost see a rainbow spanning the sky as the glorious city descends to meet us here on a glorious new earth.

Then, however, the scene changes again, to all the bad things about to happen to all those who have done so many bad things. (21:8) Just as in the story of the Flood, the divine fury here is undiscriminating. Cowards and liars come off just as badly as murderers do.

It has been an important Christian belief that in the whole of the scriptures God’s Word can be found. But this does not mean that every scriptural passage expresses that Word equally well. For an image of a future with God, I’ll take the rainbow over the lake of fire anytime.

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PREVAILING AGAINST SADNESS

No one these days escapes powerful uprushes of fear. Economic stagnation, terror threats, high unemployment, government ineffectiveness, collapsing social values, and corruption on a global scale will do that to you. But ratcheting down our fears will not help us very much to cope with an even larger problem.

That problem is despair. Theologians call it accedia, a listless sorrow that can end in a state of soul-killing sloth. It is a deep and abiding sadness over losses too numerous to enumerate, too important to discount, and too searing fully to heal.

John Bunyan referred to sadness like this as a “slough of despond.” For Kierkegaard it was a “sickness unto death.” Today, we settle for calling it a sense of hopelessness.

Actually, though, despair is anything but hopeless. It springs from something quite commonplace, what Freud named the ordinary human unhappiness that plagues us before neurotic misery sets in.

Mostly, we make ourselves unhappy by refusing to accept as inevitable the gap between our aspirations and accomplishments, between what we ought to make so, can make so, and actually do make so. Then we cling to the conviction that we are alone in our misery. Finally, we fall into the delusion that, if we can’t cure our unhappiness, we can at least medicate it by alcohol, sex, drugs, social media, money, pills, bucking for promotions, running for office, or all of the above.

Despair is avoidable, even if the sadness that gives rise to it is not. We make ourselves vulnerable to sadness because we let things and people matter to us. The pain that comes from losing them is inevitable, but it is also endurable, if we resist defining the whole of life in terms of it and anesthetizing it.

To borrow a couple of words from William Faulkner, we can do more than merely endure sadness. We can prevail over it. How? By accepting the nurture of others, who know from experience what the pain of loss and sadness is like. By allowing them to teach us how hope soothes sorrow, love transforms self-preoccupation, and empathy gives way to ecstasy, to the standing outside of ourselves in an enveloping of others with care.

Johann Franck’s words make both for good advice and good hymnody:

Deck thyself, my soul, with gladness,

Leave the gloomy haunts of sadness,

Come into the daylight’s splendor…

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CAN ANY SIN FINALLY SEPARATE US FROM GOD?

One thing I find especially encouraging in the Bible is the infrequency of its allusions to unforgivable offenses. In fact, they come down to one kind of action only, “blaspheming the Holy Spirit.” Mark’s Gospel defines this as attributing the effectiveness of Jesus’ exorcisms, and possibly his ministry, to the power of Satan.

The discussion of an unforgivable sin seems to have arisen in the first place because scribes had traveled from Jerusalem to Galilee to accuse Jesus both of being possessed by Satan and of driving out other demons by Satan’s own power. When Jesus asked the scribes, in response, how Satan can drive out Satan, they dropped the whole subject.

Would that everyone else had as well. But at least by the mid-second century, Christians finally began easing off from their own morbid fascination with unforgivable sin. A powerful sign of the permanent shift in this attitude is evident in the Apostles’ Creed of that time, which gives expression to a strong belief “in the forgiveness of sins.”

Forgiveness is not of some sins. Nor is it of all sins except one. Forgiveness is forgiveness of all sins, period.

Although I still meet people who are absolutely convinced that they have done something truly unpardonable, I do not know anyone who has actually committed the sin that Mark referred to and that the Apostles’ Creed does not.

If there is no unforgivable sin, though, there certainly are sinful actions serious enough to put the integrity of a relationship with God and one’s neighbors in jeopardy. My own list of these is becoming shorter and shorter, but the things on it are bothering me more and more, e.g.: denigrating other people according to their beliefs, affiliations, income, gender, ethnicity; celebrating having more while others have less; treating the created order as something there for the taking.

But there is nothing in any offensive or harmful act, even an act like one of these, that is powerful enough to keep separated those who commit it from those who are willing to forgive it. Where sin is, grace also abounds, especially as the forgiven reach out to forgive others.

If there is a loving God at all, as I believe there is, that God will always love us more than we love our sins.

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GETTING BEYOND SINGLE-ISSUE RELIGION

First John says that we must “test the spirits, to see whether they are from God; for there are many false prophets about in the world.”( 4:1) Well said. There is one kind of test, however, that no prophet should ever have to endure, much less any religious believer or seeker. It is the kind that consists of only one question, which must be answered either yes or no. Get the answer right and you’re in the company of the saints; get it wrong and you’re, well…

I used to fumble this kind of test pretty badly, to the amusement and sometimes the derision of their administrators. There was this one: Brother Leroy, you do believe in the virgin birth, don‘t you? And others: Do you believe that abortion is a sin? That the Bible is infallible? That God only saves Christians? And more besides.

Whenever I got asked questions like these, I wanted to ask my own questions back. One was: “Who are you to claim the right to determine the genuineness of someone else’s faith?” And another was: “What makes you think that only one question could possibly determine the integrity of a person’s faith anyway?”  Nowadays, I just go ahead and ask my questions and let mouths drop where they may. More often than not, my doing so stimulates lively discussion about what Christians should believe and why, who says so, and why faith is not reducible to merely believing what someone else says you must believe.

We have long lamented the deformation of political rhetoric into tunnel-vision pleadings for single causes and the dissing of politicians who do not do what we want done about that one cause. Unfortunately, one-issue mentality is rampant in religion, too, on all sides of the theological spectrum, e.g.:

  •             Be loyal to a particular set of doctrines, or else.
  •             Dump doctrines altogether, or choke on your own fundamentalist smoke.
  •             Take only Jesus, or Muhammad, or the Buddha as your guide, or be lost forever.
  •             Make room for other religions, or just stuff it.

As louder and louder political and religious broadsides are hurled across wider and wider divides, the cries of people desperate for food, clothing, shelter, safety, community, and meaning still sound in the distance, but unheard. God’s hurting world no longer has time for one-issue wars within either its governments or its religions

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TRUSTING OUR DOUBTS

Some believers find it hard to accept that reasonable questions can be asked about most things  their churches tell them never to doubt. For these believers and for their churches, to doubt is to sin. And the only atonement for it is to go and doubt no more.

The problem is that we cannot simply will sincere doubts away. They must be countered with evidence better than whatever raised the doubts in the first place. But that means taking the doubts seriously and trusting that doing so can make faith stronger.

For many inquirers today, the struggle is already over with religious traditions inimical to questioning, doubting, and choosing beliefs carefully. They have gone on to put in the place of faith a secular/liberal dogmatism that stifles the sense of mystery just as thoroughly as fundamentalist theologies do. Some are even scientists, who should know better.

In Brian Greene’s latest book, The Hidden Reality, there is a particularly arresting (as in cardiac arrest) example of this ideology. Initially confessing as a “bias” his view that physical systems are completely determined by how their particles are arranged, Greene then went on to declare as fact — a pretty big fact — that mental characteristics (the habitat of both faith and reason) are “nothing but a manifestation of how the particles in one’s body are arranged.”

It’s the “nothing but” here that got my attention. It reminded me of language hurled at me once by a liberation theologian who insisted that every interpretation of a scriptural text is determined by the social context and status of the interpreter. Conditioned? Sure. Determined? Hmm… At least neither Greene nor my theological colleague added  “and let all who think otherwise be accursed.”  But then again, they didn’t have to.

Many Christians today are every bit as certain of their theological liberalism as their antagonists are proud of their conservatism. One thing both groups hold in common is an antipathy to taking seriously any doubts raised from standpoints different from their own.

I’d love to get their reactions to something a former student of mine said to me the afternoon of his graduation from seminary: “When I got here my faith was so weak I couldn’t allow myself to doubt anything my church had taught me. Now, I believe in God so much that I’m willing to doubt everything.”

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