WHEN RELIGION BECOMES UNHEALTHY FOR THE SOUL

For some people, religion isn’t something that can become unhealthy. It’s something that is unhealthy, all the time. Freud’s classic statement on the subject was that religion is a “universal obsessional neurosis.” Many mental health professionals still agree with him.

To me, this perspective is something of a caricature, but one which nevertheless contains important truths. There is in fact a lot that is unhealthy about religious beliefs and practices, as well as with the inner life that they seek to shape.

Religious beliefs are unhealthy — in the sense that they are no longer good for us — when we ask no questions about and brook no criticism of them. The beliefs may be true in themselves, but being close-minded about them is injurious to genuine growth in faith.

More than remaining just unhealthy influences, religious beliefs become downright malignant when they are gathered into a belief-system whose principal tenet is that no other belief-system, religious or otherwise, has any truth in it at all. Those who do this kind of gathering are not only obsessional; they are delusional.

The process is subtle but diabolically effective. It begins with a noble affirmation, such as “The Buddha experienced enlightenment about all things spiritual.” Then, the affirmation becomes “Only the Buddha is the truly Enlightened One.” The Buddha himself would have agreed with the first statement, but not the second.

Religious practices become unhealthy — in the sense that they lead both our feelings and our actions astray — when we engage in them for no reason other than we have been told to do so by religious leaders whose authority we do not question.

They become malignant when they take a form deliberately designed to inflict suffering in the service of the religion itself. Some examples: securing conformity to devotional and moral rules by threats of excommunication and damnation; propagating the religion by forced conversion of conquered people; slaughtering those deemed to be infidels.

The inner life that is produced by unhealthy religious beliefs and practices pales by comparison with a truly authentic spirituality. The signs of its unhealthiness are hard to miss: slavish conformity; defensiveness; anxiety masked by false confidence; guilt; shame; joylessness. It’s hard to be around spiritually unhealthy people for very long and have much regard for the religion that has made them so.

Faith-seekers deserve so much more from religion.

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GIVING UP ON BELIEFS WITHOUT GIVING UP ON FAITH

It is a sad fact that religious leaders do not deal well with people who can’t believe what they are told to believe. There are several reasons for the difficulty.

One reason is that many religious leaders do not understand the core beliefs of their tradition well enough to explain them convincingly to anyone else. And if the full truth be told, some religious leaders do not fully believe them themselves.

Another reason is that even more are reluctant to admit that the core beliefs of their tradition have been debated at great length throughout their history. Instead, they put forward these beliefs as timeless truths held by the faithful at all times and everywhere.

And as if this were not enough, they demand unquestioning acceptance of their institutions’ teachings — every last one of them — and then demean those who give even the appearance of wanting to think for themselves.

A third reason that religious leaders have trouble with conscience-driven faith-seekers is that they too often confuse faith with right belief (“orthodoxy”). Having confidence about the truth of certain beliefs is surely part of what it means to have and to hold a meaningful faith. But faith itself is reducible neither to a belief-system nor to the confidence we may feel about it.

But what, then, is faith? Perhaps most importantly, it is a yearning and an experiencing from the heart more than it is a matter of an assenting with the mind. It is a deep sense of an unseen order whose goodness always regulates its power. It is an abiding trust that those who seek diligently what is of all-surpassing worth will be found by what they are most looking for.

Many who are seeking a credible faith today are having to acknowledge that at its end, there may not be a place for them in the religious institutions they know best. There are simply too many religious teachings out there that they can never believe.

And never should. Should anyone any longer believe, for example, that God loves some people and hates others? That any person’s eternal destiny is dependent upon making the right choice in finite time of a religious leader to follow? That human words about the divine can ever fully represent Divinity itself?

Questions like these are expressions of faith, not of unbelief.

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WHEN THE ROLL IS CALLED UP YONDER, WHO’LL BE THERE?

There are two standard religious answers to this hymn-inspired question. The first is: You’ll be there if you have obeyed God’s commandments. This is the answer of Judaism and Islam.

The second answer is: You’ll be there if you accept the Lordship of Jesus in his dying for your sins. Eventually, Christianity transformed this Pauline affirmation into its own.

My father’s favorite Gospel song was about this final roll-call. It belts out confidently: When the roll is called up yonder, I’ll be there. In one verse, the There is the “other shore” on which the saved of earth shall gather. In another, it is their “home beyond the skies.” Dad loved both pictures.

I, too, want to be “there,” but with a lot more folks than religious traditions tend to make room for. With a whole lot more, in fact: if at all possible, with everybody. With the “everybody” (Adam) of Genesis 1, whom God made in God’s own image.

My spiritual problem is that “When the trumpet of the Lord shall sound, and time shall be no more,” I won’t be ready to make the crossing or the ascent. And I don’t think very many others will be either.

Let me explain. Or better, let the song’s writer, James Black, explain. His third verse implies — without his being fully aware of it — a very different answer to the question of who shall be saved than religions in general do. It revolves around having a faith that labors every waking hour in “wondrous love and care.”

I’m still working on this. And the more I do, the more I want to get better at it — with all my heart, mind, and strength.

To get better at it, though, I’m going to have to BE better, and that’s where my readiness problem comes in. I do think that it is in the very essence of God to ensure that “we shall all be changed.” And that the very essence of the change is toward being loving. So there’s hope.

But the change won’t happen in a twinkling of an eye, as Paul thought it would. Given who we are, the journey to that other shore will have to be much, much longer. The good thing is we will never have to make it all on our own.

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SCIENCE, FAITH, AND THE “GOD OF THE GAPS”

Not long ago, scientists were claiming to be on the verge of unlocking the mysteries of the universe and everything in it, human life included. All of the gaps in our present knowledge were about to be closed, and with them the shrinking space within which faith struggles to expand our horizons and our hopes.

It puzzles me why people of faith continue to stumble over this particular challenge. Some try desperately to shout down scientific announcements with reiterations of dogmas that no thoughtful religious person could possibly take seriously in the first place. An example? How about the dogma that the age of our world is measured in thousands rather than billions of years?

Not every person of faith becomes combative in the face of scientific challenges. Some simply crumple with anxiety that the scientists might be right, and give up asking hard questions at all. My favorite hard question is still: Why is there anything at all rather than nothing?

Others give up both the hard questions and the science, and rest content with the kinds of assurances that only tribal mythologies can offer. If our god is better than your god, who cares whether there is a God better than both of them?

The kind of faith for which I continue to seek is a faith open to explore in wonder the fullness of everything observable, thinkable, and imaginable. At the heart of it will be — I am still working on this — a certain kind of trust.

What I have in mind here is an abiding confidence that when the explorations are on the right track, what will come ever more gloriously into view is all-encompassing and transforming Goodness of Being. And that will make all of the seeking and the questioning worthwhile and worth celebrating.

Happily, this generation of scientists is far less certain that their predecessors were about closing out God by closing up gaps in our knowledge. The gaps that have recently opened up are simply too wide for that. Hundreds of billions of galaxies along with our own, with futures yet to be determined. Dark matter. Dark energy. Parallel universes. Unknown laws.

And perhaps the widest gap of all: between neuronal firing in our brains and the thoughts we have about them. Who, and Whose, are we anyway, that we can be mindful of such things?

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FAITH, THE EBOLA CRISIS, AND THE CASTING OUT OF FEAR

Her language was filthy, her face contorted in rage. Momentarily trapped in an elevator with her, my wife and I concentrated on not provoking her further. He’s infected everybody and he knew just what he was doing! , she screamed.

Leroy Howe

Leroy Howe

The “he” was Thomas Duncan, who had just died of Ebola in the hospital across the street from the doctor’s office to which all three of us were heading. When the elevator door opened, she shoved both my wife and me to the side, stormed toward our doctor’s reception area, and treated everyone seated in it to yet another furious fulmination against terrorists pretending to be Liberians.

When we came through the door, she turned her head back toward me, and then I saw it. Her mouth and her face were spewing outrage and blame. But her eyes were fixed in terror. I don’t think I’ll ever forget looking into them.

No one who knows what the Ebola virus can do can or even should be completely unafraid of it. However, being honest with ourselves about just how scared we are goes a long way toward preventing our fears from taking possession of us. It can cure us of the delusion that casting blame and staying angry is the way to keep terror at bay.

As our city continues to calm down at least a little from what has gripped us for the past three weeks, my own thoughts keep returning to what truly spiritual people have told us for millennia about dealing with fear. Its cure is a deepening compassion for people in need, along with the active reaching out to alleviate it. In a word, the cure for fear is love.

Serving the needs of others leaves little room in the soul for fear. From one perspective, therefore, it’s a very reckless endeavor. But from another, it’s a transforming one. I’m still working hard on opening myself more to both.

Here in Dallas there are all kinds of signs that love has been at work in the midst of our Ebola scare. But there are also signs that love has yet to “take” in the hearts of some, especially landlords too fearful to rent to Mr. Duncan’s now possession-less family members.

Sometimes, it’s easier to nurture fear than love. And therein lies the real Ebola crisis that faces us.

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THREE RELIGIONS’ WORST NIGHTMARE

In the early hours of October 28, 312, historians say, a man had a dream that changed one religion possibly forever. Most do not tell us how really, really bad the dream was.

The dreamer was Constantine, and his dream was reported to have been of a sword formed by the first letters of Christ’s name, underneath which were the words, “By this sign you will conquer.” Facing a battle the next day for the imperial throne, Constantine had the symbol painted on his soldiers’ helmets and shields, and they won the battle.

Things have not been the same for Christianity since. What began as an era of toleration for Christians throughout the Empire devolved into centuries-long, State-governed programs of imposing Constantine’s version of the Christian faith upon people by force.

As James Carroll pointed out in his book, Constantine’s Sword, the cross became to Jews a symbol of Christian persecution and to Muslims a symbol of Christian imperialism. Islam’s response was to advance its cause the way that Constantine advanced Christianity’s. Judaism’s was to yearn more fervently for a land in which Jews would forever be protected from both.

Personally, I doubt that Constantine ever had the dream that Lactantius attributed to him. But I’m certain that if Constantine did in fact dream it, he misinterpreted it badly, and at the world’s expense. Truly revelatory dreams work to unite people, not divide them.

They don’t present the cross of Christ as a battering ram for storming the sanctuaries of other peoples’ worship. They don’t present Jews as spiritually and genetically inferior beings deserving to be wiped off the face of the earth. And they don’t present angels reciting messages of hell on earth for anyone their recipients arbitrarily decide to call infidels.

One of the greatest catastrophes that can befall any religion is to mix up the rendering of taxes to Caesar and the rendering of praise to God. In its best years, the Roman Empire was content to ensure the first and leave the second to powers not of this world. In their worst years, Christianity insisted on controlling both, Islam fell quickly into line, and Judaism identified with its aggressors on both sides.

Happily, all three religions have their good years as well as good dreams along with their bad ones, and it is from the former that we ought not to disaffiliate.

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PERSONAL FAITH AND RELIGIOUS FAITH: THE DIFFERENCE

Once, and only once, my father shared with me what he thought faith is. “It’s believing,” he said, “that there is a Supreme Being.”

I never could draw him out further. Perhaps that was for the best. The little that he left me on the subject forced me to think more about it on my own.

The biggest impression that my father’s all too brief statement made on me was that it had to have come from somewhere besides the church. He had given up on organized religion long before he helped bring me into the world.

Dad’s deeply personal profession of faith, almost like a sigh too deep for words, presented two challenges to my search for a credible faith of my own.

One challenge was having to acknowledge respectfully his negativity toward the church at the very time that the church was becoming important in my own spiritual growth.

The second challenge was having to admit that my church-rejecting father was absolutely certain about the one belief I was the most uncertain about, even with my stepped-up church-going. He was wholly unimpressed with my philosophical and scientific “arguments” against the existence of God.

It would take a while before I could become as unimpressed with them as he was. And as church-goers tend to be.

For many of the latter, though, all that needs to be said is that the church has been teaching people what to believe for two thousand years and that people struggling with doubts about God should simply set them aside and come to Jesus. For me, the doubts had to be resolved first.

I still admire the ease with which my father rested his single faith conviction on common sense and intuition, not on religious traditions and intuitions. His was a very personal, but not a religious faith. In his eyes, “religious” faith was believing what others believed, just because they believed it.

I could not agree with my father, however, that personal faith and religious faith are so different that choosing one faith precludes making room for the other. Even so, there is still a lot of him in me. As it was for him, for me the personal deserves priority over the religious.

And so it did for Buddha, Confucius, Jesus, and Muhammad. Their faith is still more important than the religions which honor it.

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SHRINKS, SHAMANS, AND THE SHEPHERDING OF THE SOUL

I used to think that referring to psychiatrists as shrinks reflected disrespect based on ignorance. And now?

Well, consider for a moment the root word, psyche. It means “soul.” It does not mean what modern psychiatry means by it: “mind.”

The soul is our humanness at its most grounded, like roots reaching deep into the earth, making stable growth possible. But it is also our humanness at its most upward-surging, like branches reaching toward the clouds, making discontent inevitable with conventionality, conviviality, and compliance.

If our atoms are the stuff of stars, our souls are the stuff that aspirations are made on.

This is what most modern psychologies miss, as they reduce the psyche to a cache of mental disorders and a syllabus of disapproved behaviors. Across the centuries, philosophers and spiritual leaders have known better.

They have known that the psyche cannot rest content until it finds its rest — and here the symbols spin in many different directions — in the cessation of the wheel of birth, death, and rebirth; or in being embraced by what is Good, Beautiful, and True; or in union with God in a kingdom which has no end; or in a peace which passes understanding, free from inner turmoil and from apprehensiveness about the future; or in a joy beyond all capacity for utterance …

And they have also known that there is no way to such rest except through the dark forest of fear, lust, anger, sadness, guilt, and shame that will submit readily neither to repression, medication, nor good intentions. We come out of this forest — a kind of madness — either changed creatures or not at all.

But must we make our way through it all on our own? The Buddha did. But Socrates had his daimon, and the Psalmist walked through his own valley of the shadow of death with the assurance of a Divine Presence near.

Perhaps we do or do not seek a companion in the dark forest on the basis of what we already expect to find on the far side, e.g., nothingness; or the communion of saints; or a making ready for yet another life journey; or …

One thing has become very clear to me about soul-shepherding. It is that for it to work, the shepherd must become more like a shaman than a shrink.

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IS BELIEF IN GOD SUPPOSED TO EXPLAIN THINGS?

Recently, the eminent astrophysicist, Stephen Hawking, revealed as if for the first time that believing in God serves no useful purpose. His reason for saying so was that appealing to science is a better way of explaining things than appealing to God is.

As a religious believer, I know I am supposed to quake at pronouncements like this from people who know a lot more facts than I do about the universe. And then defend the faith with every theological resource I can either find or make up. If faith can’t illumine the how and the why of things, Hawking teases, why bother with it at all?

Here are two reasons why.

First, faith is a matter of trusting in spite of explanations more than it is a believing on the basis of them.

It is true that every religion has its tales to tell about the origins and operations of things, and that the best of them offer captivating images of how an unseen ordering is at the heart of the whole process. As explanations, however, most of them require a sacrifice of the intellect that thoughtful people cannot make.

What myths do best is not to tell us the meaning of things, but rather to express our yearning for it. They are not about what is and why, but rather what is worthy of our highest hopes and striving. They do not picture what is out there so much as they express what is deepest within us, affixed to our wishes, moral sense, and sighs too deep for words.

And second, science is a matter of describing how things happen within the universe more than it is an explaining of the universe itself.

It is true that talking about what might going on out there — literally, “cosmology” — is exciting. When the talk turns to explanations, however — to “cosmogony” — things become murkier. The explanations are as many, varied, and insusceptible to proof as myths are.

What cosmology does best is not to tell us where it all came from, but to express our yearning for grounding in it. It is not about what happened back then, but about what and whom we should trust to make things happen next. They do not picture origins so much as destinies, ours more than the cosmos’, and God’s more than both.

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CAN FORGIVENESS MAKE A SPIRITUAL PROBLEM EVEN WORSE?

This past week a reader began her e-mail to me with this question, added a story to go with it, and gave me permission to share both.

I’ll begin with the story: Cindy and Jack (not their real names) grew up in the same neighborhood, went to the same parish school, and were married by the priest who baptized both of them as infants. But their marriage didn’t work, and they divorced three years later.

Now, they are feeling doubly condemned by their church, first for the divorce and second for wanting to re-marry in the church, to new partners. The first condemnation added little to Cindy’s and Jack’s own self-condemnations for marrying long before they were “ready.” But the second, in Cindy’s words, plunged them into a spiritual despair from which they are seeing no way out.

And now, the question. Under the laws of their church, Cindy and Jack’s divorce had already made them unworthy to receive communion, and would also consign their re-marriages to the status of illegitimacy — to “living in sin” Unless…

Unless they were willing to seek an annulment of their first marriage. Annulment would accomplish two purposes: (1) it would declare their first marriage invalid and therefore never-existent as a marriage, and (2) it would express the forgiveness of their church for the sin of ending it.

For Cindy and Jack, the possibility of receiving only this kind forgiveness made their despair even worse. Why? Because it would require them to deny the very existence of a relationship that they knew would hold sacred value for them all the rest of their lives, even though they had found themselves unable fulfill its sacred obligations.

Cindy expressed her anguish this way: Our love was real, our vows were genuine, and our weakness destroyed both. But it’s not as if we never married at all. We did marry, in every sense of the word.

My anguish for this couple is a little different. It includes an intellectual reaction to the idea that bringing to an end by divorce what was never a marriage to start with is somehow a sinful act. This is an idea that on many levels just doesn’t make sense.

But my anguish goes much deeper than this. I anguish over Cindy and Jack’s missing out on God’s love because of church laws that claim precedence over it.

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