CAN TRUE RELIGION EVER BE BASED ON FEAR?

Very young children believe that rules for living originate from an unseen order of things, and that they hover over us threateningly, with no let-up. Violators of them can expect severe punishments which bear little discernable relationship to the nature of the violations themselves.

Later on, children typically look upon rules as either created or negotiated by people like themselves. Punishments for breaking them should be appropriate to the intention of and the harm caused by the particular violation. Kids grow up!

Would that it were so with the religions which seek to serve them. Even today, a great deal of what passes for religion amounts to little more than coercing peoples’ assent by scaring them to death.

The scare tactics take this form: Unless you do/don’t do … then something very, very bad will happen to you. Just what this “something” is becomes a major part of the teachings of every religion. Here are a few images of “It”:

Experiencing poverty, disease, infirmity, failure, and hopelessness in this life;

Being re-born at a lower rung on the social or even biological hierarchy;

Burning in the flames of hell forever;

Dissolving into the Nothingness from which we have come.

One way to look at these notions is as attempts to clarify the “unseen order” of the very young child’s world-view. The best indicator that this is so is their lack of clarity about how general punishments like these are warranted in every case of individual wrongdoing in widely different circumstances.

Consider an illustration from my own religious tradition, the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. The whole populations of these two cities, the story goes, were destroyed by fire because some of the men in Sodom committed homosexual acts. The offenses allegedly committed in Gomorrah are not defined at all.

Homosexuality aside, did the wives and children of these men deserve this fate? Little children might think so. But when grown-ups do, it is appropriate to call their thinking not child-like, but downright childish.

Human development theorists generally agree that doing and not doing things for the sake of avoiding punishment represents only the first step in the process of moral growth. Religious leaders should know, too, that the fear of the Ultimate is not the basis of wisdom. It is only a first step in a developing understanding what wisdom most truly is.

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A FAITH PERSPECTIVE ON CRIME AND PUNISHMENT

To most of the civilized world, the severity of American society’s antagonism toward criminal offenders is astonishing. It suggests an “eye for an eye” moral code which higher order ethical thinking rejected long ago.

And it calls into question our notion that rehabilitation is the primary goal of our criminal justice system. Yes, this notion may be impossibly idealistic in the cases of truly hardened criminals. Against these, society rightly puts its own need for protection first.

But are all convicted criminals deserving of being locked up and the keys thrown away? Or of being looked upon as persons incapable of change? Spiritual leaders throughout history have not thought so.

Many in our society, however, continue to believe so. Ever since the Nixon administration, we have been in a “War on Crime.” And ever since the Reagan administration, an additional “War on Drugs.” In both, we have largely replaced the goal of rehabilitation with the goal of locking up as many wrongdoers as we can — suspected as well as convicted — and for as long as we can.

And so, with only 5% of the world’s population, we now boast of having 25% of the world’s incarcerated criminals. The numbers are largely the result of legislative and judicial acts which in themselves are morally reprehensible.

Consider, for example, the imposition of sentences two to three times longer than in peer countries for the same crimes. Or mandatory sentencing guidelines that have resulted in longer jail sentences for drug possession than for rape and murder. Or letting white offenders sail and everybody else sink.

Making matters even worse is that sometimes, all it takes for law enforcers to ruin peoples’ lives is just to arrest them. Never mind accusations withdrawn and charges dropped. These count for little in a culture which, captivated by images of warfare, is all too ready to turn fellow human beings into enemies and then demonize them.

One of the most important discoveries of a maturing faith is that there is a spiritual center in every human being. And that within that center there is a Power to change for the better which is always available to those who seek it.

From this perspective, the keys on which our society should properly depend are not to prison cells but to transformed lives, in prisons and out of them.

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WHEN IN DOUBT, DOUBT MORE

A common perception about religious believers is that they think they have an edge over people who try to face life’s challenges without faith and on their own. There are at least two realities about faith that this perception ignores.

One is that even the most conscientious believers have questions and doubts about their faith from time to time. The other is that people with faith and people without it share a common yearning for a transforming relationship with an ultimate source of being, power, value, and meaning

And so, neither believers nor non-believers who are struggling with confusion, uncertainty, and doubt need criticism or rejection for asking hard questions about what they have been taught to believe and do. What they do need is encouragement to pursue truth, no matter where the pursuit may lead them.

It is painful to be in the throes of radical questioning and doubting in matters of faith. What makes the pain worse is being exhorted to let go of the questioning and doubting, trust what religious authorities teach about God, the world, and human destiny, and leave it at that.

In centuries past, exhortation was an important instrument for keeping members of religious communities mindful of how different they were from the unsaved. The approach succeeded because the premise on which it rested, the supremacy of the religious community/institution over its individual members, was taken for granted — if not always enthusiastically — by almost everyone.

This premise can no longer be taken for granted by anyone who believes that individual conscience is deserving of respect, even when it turns negative toward the realm of the sacred. The more plausible premise is that we should pay homage to a belief about the sacred only in the light of personal experience and reasoned judgment.

There is one important role that exhortation does play in the nurturing of religious feelings, beliefs, attitudes, and actions. It is to discourage our minds’ becoming malleable to any and every Transcendence-affirming and Transcendence-denying belief tossed to and fro on the winds of an uncritically relativistic and pluralistic culture.

Even in this process, however, reproof-oriented exhortations are not likely to work nearly as well as can (1) good listening, (2) questions offered in an inquiring rather than judgmental spirit, and (3) strong encouragement of honest seeking. Taking faith on faith does not make for mature faith.

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UNBELIEF: THE LOGICAL AND THE EMOTIONAL SIDES

Philosophers like to put the issue this way: it is irrational to believe that (a) God is all-powerful, (b) God is unconditionally good, and (c) Undeserved suffering exists in the world. You can build a credible faith on any two of these propositions, but not on all three.

For religious believers, the unsound proposition is (c). Some understand suffering to be unreal, something like an illusion. Others acknowledge it but question whether any of it is truly undeserved.

Most non-believers claim both (a) and (b) to be the real problems, precisely the beliefs which are so crucial for believers.

Is there any way out of this impasse, logically? I think so. For God to be God, God surely must be unconditionally good. But for God to have a part in the world at all, there has to be a limiting of God’s power. God can’t have all the power there is if other beings are not to have power, too.

And the power of those other beings includes the power to do things that a Supremely Perfect Being might not do or want done.

Well, there you have it, unbelievers. So why are you still arguing about religion?

Because logic doesn’t really get to the heart of genuine unbelief — or of belief either, for that matter. The issue of whether to believe or not believe is much deeper than logic can ever access all by itself.

Let’s set abstract philosophical statements about God to the side for a moment. The God of faith has to be talked about much more personally. For instance, by statements like this: If we believe in God with all our heart, God will give us what we really need in life.

The God of this statement is not just a Powerful and Perfect Being. The God of this statement is a Promise-Making Being. People lose faith in this kind of a God not on the basis of logical considerations, but on the basis of soaring expectations and searing disappointments.

Unbelief comes when our deepest yearnings go unfulfilled, after we have been told that we have every right to expect them to be brought to pass. This is really why, I think, people give up on God.

But the yearnings still remain, most especially for the power to believe that God still will not give up on us.

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IS MAINSTREAM PROTESTANTISM IN IRREVERSIBLE DECLINE?

Basically, the answer to this question is yes. The cluster of Protestant denominations which once professed to constitute the Christian mainstream in this country can no longer do so credibly.

Less than 20% the U.S. population now belongs to them.

More than half of the congregations in these denominations — e.g.: American Baptist, Disciples of Christ, Episcopal, Evangelical Lutheran, Presbyterian USA, Reformed, United Church of Christ, and United Methodist — have fewer than 100 members.

And their average age continues to increase. Where there is any membership growth at all, it falls well short of the growth rate in the surrounding populations.

There are several reasons why all this has happened. Unfortunately, congregational and denominational leaders began reflecting on them too late.

First, mainstream Protestantism has remained for too long predominantly Anglo-American, upper-middle class aspiring, and more preoccupied with supporting a highly educated clergy than a spiritually grounded one;

Second, its theologies have not addressed adequately the yearnings and needs of people seeking a credible faith that is more conservative than liberal, but not fundamentalist;

Third, its commitment to Christian unity on a global scale has rarely risen above the promotion of denominational mergers by institution-minded bureaucrats; and

Fourth, its denominations themselves have become obstacles to, rather than supports for, people coming to faith by way of deep questioning and reflecting, and faith-communities becoming mission-engaged on the basis of their own assessments of human need.

Is it any wonder, then, that thoughtful Protestant Christians are looking for different streams in which to swim? Like the mega-church movements? Cyber-churches? Or that many have simply gotten out of the water altogether?

The real problem with Protestant denominations has always been their confusing the mainstream of spiritual growth — seeking the embrace of what is truly holy — with seeking the prosperity and influence of the denominations themselves.

Perched high atop the shorelines of a now barely trickling mainstream, the headquarters of these organizations are places in which there is a great deal of tinkering going on, along with an occasional major re-structuring. But there is very little envisioning of any meaningful future for the denominations they seek to serve.

For the faith that is presently entombed in them to live, it may be necessary as well as inevitable for them to die. Would that be a bad thing? Surely not for God, and perhaps not for the world either.

 

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THE CURATIVE POWER OF BELIEF

Many mental health professionals are now questioning the effectiveness of anti-depressant medications. Their skepticism is warranted by a good bit of evidence.

The evidence I have in mind concludes that mildly to moderately depressed people do about as well on placebos (pills that look like medications but are not) as they do on the real thing. Only the most severely depressed are being helped much by anti-depressants.

I am hopeful that this discovery will lead medical practitioners to work differently with their less severely depressed patients, in specific, by talking with them more and medicating them less. I am not hopeful that insurance companies will allow them to do it.

One thing I do think the research cries out for, whether by intention or not, is a re-thinking of “placebo effects” and what they imply for understanding the psyche.

Here’s why. As is well known, establishing the effectiveness of any new medication requires creating two kinds of groups among persons suffering a particular disorder. Members of one group are given the medication being tested, and members of the other group are given a placebo. No one in either group is supposed to know which he or she has received.

If all goes well, a definitive explanation can be given for why people “on” the medication do not improve: the medication does not work. But left unanswered is the question of why many people receiving the placebo improve.

One answer to this question is common sense-oriented: People get over depression best by working it out rather than taking medication for it.

How do they “work it out?” By eating well, getting enough exercise, reaching out to caring family members and friends, and allowing enough time for sleep. That’s hard to do when you are depressed, but staying depressed is even harder.

Another answer to the question about placebo effect is unembarrassedly faith-oriented. People who take anything for their depression, and get better, get better because they believe that what they take works. Pill + belief = recovery.

Might the belief be curative in itself? Many people think so. I am not so sure. It looks to me as if our culture has made of taking pills something very much like earlier cultures made of seeing and touching sacred objects, the bones of a saint, for example.

Perhaps we are still in an Age of Belief after all.

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THE DIVINE AND THE HUMAN SOURCES OF RELIGIOUS SCRIPTURES

A common teaching of at least three religious traditions is that their scriptures were written down under direct, divine inspiration.

The important word here is “direct.” Its primary purpose is to minimize the role of the human scribe(s) in the process. “Minimize,” however, does not mean “eliminate.”

There is a lot of confusion about this in each tradition. What each says, in its own language(s), is that God or a ministering angel spoke the original words, then human beings — Moses, the Prophets, Jesus, Muhammad — said them to others, and finally their followers put them into written form.

This is a more subtle understanding than the one many people today latch onto, to wit: God wrote it; I believe it; that settles it.”

In my own tradition, the latching-onto has been greatly facilitated by the King James Bible’s misreading of a New Testament passage, 2 Timothy 3:16 — All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness. A more accurate rendering is Every inspired scripture is profitable for…

Either way, the ensuing misreading is of two sorts. The first consists of taking “scripture” as referring to the Old and New Testaments as a whole. The second consists of ascribing their sources to God and God alone.

The writer of 2 Timothy cannot possibly have meant either. With respect to the first misreading, what he had in mind were primarily the “sacred writings” known to his letter’s recipients from their childhood (3:15): materials that would only later become the Jewish canon.

He surely had Christian materials available to him also, e.g., some early letters of Paul. But at least three of the four Gospels, along with the letters attributed to Peter and John, and the books of Hebrews and Revelation did not exist yet.

As for the second misreading, first century Christians, as did their Jewish predecessors, exhibited a remarkable sensitivity to the fallible human element in the formation of their respective messages. They were far less preoccupied than their successors became with getting into place a single body of writings whose source they could claim to be God alone.

Their point was something like this: There are a lot of humanly crafted scriptures (=writings) out there. And which of them are inspired and which are not is a decision that human beings must make.

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FAITH CRISES: WHEN THE QUESTIONS OUTWEIGH THE COMFORT

Her seven year old son had just died of brain cancer, and his mother was in a state of near collapse. Even so, she was desperate to talk.

She told me that she didn’t know what to pray for anymore, that God had not listened to her for a long time, that she was no longer sure that God would ever listen again, or even that there was any God out there at all.

Later in our conversation that dreadful evening, she told me what her best friend’s first reaction was to her cry that God had abandoned her son. It went like this: Carolyn (not her real name), blaming God can only make matters worse for your soul than they already are. You have to ask God’s forgiveness and pray harder to find his will for you.

I hope it made a difference that I did not react the way Carolyn’s friend did. But it was not easy to resist the impulse to do something — anything — to make her feel better immediately. In fact, it was very, very hard “just” to listen, ask questions, listen to the answers, ask more questions, and then listen even more.

No matter how well intended, in times like these admonitions to be less contentious, to trust God no matter what, and to pray even more usually make a crisis of faith even worse.

Before she and her husband had to move on to deal with all of the other painful things that accompany a death, Carolyn expressed poignantly her awareness of how much more there is to her faith than what she was “fixating on” at the moment. Her parting word was a hope that the best that was in it would be enough to get her through what lay ahead.

In her searing loss, Carolyn had fixated on a God who promises that we have only to ask in order to receive (Matthew 7:7; Luke 11:9), and then fails to deliver on the promise. The God of this promise had momentarily become for her that universally wished for deity whose primary tasks are to take orders and fulfill them promptly or risk his followers’ permanent disaffection.

Eventually, Carolyn rediscovered that God is in fact greater than this. Not every grief-stricken person does. And that is the real tragedy in loss.

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HOW CHRISTIAN SHOULD AMERICA STRIVE TO BE?

Many Americans strongly believe that ours is a Christian nation, now and forever. One implication of this belief is that on matters of social policy, Christians’ views should be accorded a privileged position. Those who disagree are threats to religious freedom.

Evangelical Protestants continue to fume over the exclusion of prayer and Bible indoctrination from the public schools. The Roman Catholic hierarchy looks to the courts to strike down government-mandated birth control coverage in its institutions’ health care plans.

The first group claims that our religious freedom is under attack, and that reaffirming Christian norms as the basis of our laws is the only proper response. The second group acknowledges the religiously pluralistic character of American society. It restricts its polemic to demanding the freedom to express its own religious understanding in its own way.

It has long seemed to me that evangelical Protestants have a point regarding prayer and the Bible in the public schools. Declaring that required prayer violates the non-establishment clause in the First Amendment, the Supreme Court went on to encourage in very strong terms the study of religions in the schools, Christianity included. What has happened is that prayer is “out” everywhere, but serious religious study is “in” almost nowhere.

The current birth control practices of American Catholics have for all practical purposes rendered official church teachings on the subject moot. Nevertheless, their leaders are raising an important issue regarding their freedom to guide Catholic institutions toward conformity with Catholic norms, birth control included.

Infringement upon First Amendment guarantees are justifiable only when there is a demonstrably sufficient “compelling interest” on the part of the federal government to consider doing so. This is a good thing. Catholic leaders have the right to call the government to account over infringing the right of their institutions not to have birth control measures — or abortions — covered by any health insurance providers with whom they may be doing business.

But calling the government to account on any matter of religious freedom is a serious matter. Along with it should come reaffirmation of a crucial responsibility of government: to ensure that the religious beliefs of some will not become the coerced standard for the beliefs and practices of all. Evangelical Protestants and Catholic leaders must come to terms with this First Amendment principle, just as everyone else in our society must.

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EXCOMMUNICATION AND OTHER CRIMES AGAINST THE SOUL

One thing that religions do well is to create bonds between people. They “bind” us together.

Sometimes, though, the bindings become too tight.

When they do, people whose thinking does not conform to the letter of their religious communities’ doctrines can get treated with malignant doses of shaming and shunning, before and after being kicked out for good. Never mind that the communities doing the kicking, according to their own belief-systems, are putting those peoples’ very salvation in jeopardy.

The rationale for such institutional malfeasance is two-fold. First, naïve believers need to be protected from the questioners and doubters among them. Second, the threat of expulsion is a powerful aid to enforcing conformity, because outside the religion that promotes it there can be no redemptive connection with Sacred Reality.

It’s hard for a thinking person to take either of these rationales seriously. With regard to the first: faith cannot grow unless those seeking it are free to think for themselves. And to the second: there is a vast difference between what is truly sacred and the tribal deities of exclusivist sects.

Happily, in most civilized areas of the world at least, expulsion from a religious community is no longer accompanied by stripping people of property and even life itself. The ostracism is enough.

But the threat of ostracism is just as insidious as Inquisitions once were, and just as inimical to life in the Spirit.

By the second generation in every religion’s history, religious leaders typically become churlish toward anything blowing in the wind that they cannot control. New ideas and new visions get dismissed as dangerous gusts of teaching set in motion by “crafty rogues and their deceitful schemes.” (Ephesians 4:14)

The writer of this text could have gone on to insist that true believers must counter these challenges by clinging tightly to a set of unquestionable doctrines and moral rules, while extinguishing the last vestige of curiosity within themselves. But he did not.

What he did instead was to propose a very different way of sharing the truth about God, the world, and human destiny. His proposal was that we speak the truth lovingly, not obsessively.

The love that he had in mind is a love of God’s goodness as much as of God’s truth, of responsibility as much as of rules, and of unity even more than uniformity.

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