Continuing on with what I was saying in my last entry here then, I do believe that God’s purpose for those who believe in him is not to give us certainty and dominance in this world, but to make us virtuous and at peace with ourselves, our ideals, our neighbors and the world around us. The idea that God does not make himself as obvious to us as he could does not necessarily mean that God is shy; it can also be that he simply refuses to hand out endorsements to particular human organizations and he wants to prevent us from taking our abilities too seriously. One of the very few things that honest theologians of all monotheistic faiths tend to agree on is that fully comprehending who God is and what he is like is something that we as humans are not ready for, and probably never will be.
I believe J.R.R. Tolkein was onto something important with the idea of the “Rings of Power.” I take these rings to be symbolic of knowledge. Having a deeper understanding than the next guy of either physical principles or interpersonal dynamics has enabled various individuals and organizations to exercise power over their worlds in profound ways. Sometimes they have intended to use this power only to do good, and they may even succeed at that for a time, but in the end this power always ends up corrupting them. Thus, if the Almighty has a purpose of enabling us to be caring and respectful towards each other, it would only make sense that he would not give anyone the profound power of being able to fully comprehend the divine essence. God isn’t necessarily shy; merely careful about how much he gives to us in terms of our comprehension of who he is, given how he knows the power this knowledge would give us would be likely to affect us. One need only to look at the way religious leaders of major faiths have exercised what power they have had to understand why it would be wise for God not to give them more.
I should add in a further clarification/disclaimer here though: I am not saying that knowledge or wisdom are in themselves something to be afraid of or rejected. Remember, I’m a school teacher by trade, so it would be rather hypocritical of me to reject the value of knowledge and learning! I am merely explaining why, as I see it, an almighty God would choose to remain shrouded in mystery. If there’s a moral issue I have problems with here it’s the way some people inevitably use knowledge as a means of achieving greater self-importance and world domination. But while any form of knowledge can be subject to such abuse, and while many forms of knowledge in the wrong hands can be quite dangerous, I do not believe that knowledge in itself is evil. I’ll return to the power issue in more depth later on.
In any case, I believe that within any religious tradition there are elements of deep spiritual awareness that leads to virtues which are a credit the community of faith in question, and then elements of the corrupting exercise of priestly power. So it is no wonder that all religions have a bit of a mixed reputation. And if I could come up with a system of worship and fellowship that would insure a perpetual purity of faith, that would make me the greatest prophet of all time –– succeeding where all others have failed. I hardly take my wisdom that seriously. In fact the best advice I can offer to anyone seeking for spiritual understanding is not to take yourself too seriously.
Here too I believe the search for certainty and perfection does far more harm than good. You’ve perhaps heard the old joke: Science is like a man in a completely dark alleyway searching for a black cat. Philosophy is like a man in a completely dark alleyway searching for a black cat that doesn’t really exist. Theology is like a man in a completely dark alleyway searching for a black cat that doesn’t exist and yelling out “I found it!” It’s fair to say that many theologians have only themselves to blame for the rise of such humor.
There is a name for those who consider themselves to have found a perfect standard by which to understand and please God, and who reject anything which questions there certainty in this matter as coming from the devil himself. They are called Fundamentalists. The term originally applied to a particularly closed-minded set of North American Christians, but it can now be properly used as a term of derision for those of any faith who make a big deal out of zealously proclaiming how right they are and how wrong everyone else is.
My message to all forms of Fundamentalists is this: Whether or not your particular style of prayers are heard by a perfect God who is really out there is not something I’m willing to judge, but I’m willing to allow you the benefit of the doubt on that one. But even if that is the case, and even if your form of worship is better than any other that has gone before or will come hereafter, it really isn’t perfect, and you only damage your own credibility when you assert that it is. Every message which claims to be from God for humans inevitably has a distinct element of fallible human understanding and human needs included in it. That doesn’t mean that it can’t be incredibly useful to you, or that you won’t have very powerful spiritual experiences through reading these scriptures and following these traditions, but they really are not perfect, because they have humans involved. God has given no group exclusive rights to fellowship with him to the exclusion of all others. And most importantly, any rights or mandates you might claim to “crush the heathen” or “slay the infidels” come not from God, but from your own crude desire for control. God really is not in the business of endorsing people’s attempts to dominate each other.
In all honesty though, I can’t imagine such a message receiving a fair hearing. Those who are truly Fundamentalists –– in the contemporary sense of the term –– will more or less automatically reject anything that calls their certainty regarding their religious system’s perfection into question. Nothing which a “heretic” like me can write will change their foundational belief in this matter. And as a rule of thumb, the less educated they are, the more adamant they will be about their fundamentalism. But as a post script to the above paragraph I have to say that as long as these fundamentalists are merely looking for personal peace of mind and self-assurance through their naïve belief in the perfection of their system –– as long as they are not out hate-mongering or encouraging violence against those who disagree with them –– I fully accept their rights to their beliefs and I will have nothing to say publicly against any of them as individuals. I am not going to be their judge in the after-life, nor will they be mine, so if they can leave it to God to judge, so can I.
All that being said, when it comes to my views with regard to the starting question here –– the direction in which I’d like to see religion in general (and my own Christian faith in particular) develop –– I need to once again stress that I’m not trying to tell others how to live; I’m merely trying to be open about my personal religious beliefs. For me it is a question of what sort of people I wish to have fellowship with, what sort of virtues I would like to see my children and (someday) grandchildren develop with the guidance of their communities of faith, and above all improving my understanding of and submission to what God would desire of me, without allowing any old power-crazed, self-appointed spokesman for God to have his or her way with me.
That disclaimer in place, in addition to laundry lists of virtues and vices –– such as you might find in the end of my last blog entry, or Galatians chapter 5 –– one of my chief criteria for considering spiritual paths, and interacting with those on these paths, is to consider our basic motivations for getting involved in the first place. In this regard I use what I call my theory of the five Cs of happiness: comparison, comfort, control, confidence and connection. Religion motivates people in all of these ways, but the more that motivation focuses on the latter part of the list, the more comfortable I am about it. I’ll unpack that a bit for you, taking these motivational factors one by one.
By comparison I mean the human tendency to evaluate ourselves in terms of whether we are doing better or worse than those around us, and decide whether we are winners or losers or just “normal”. For many reasons I find this to be a childish and unsustainable in terms of providing us with lasting happiness, even though there is no denying the evolutionary competitive pressures it is based on. Without going deeper into my previous writings on the subject, suffice it to say, I thoroughly agree with the Chicago journalist’s advice contained in the “sunscreen song” (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=I5NAPZp2w-o): “Do not read beauty magazines; they will only make you feel ugly.”
Like beauty magazines, many people turn to religion to find ways of trying to identify themselves as “winners.” They want their religion to help show them how righteous they are in comparison to the “sinners” they are surrounded by. They want to be seen as more holy, more orthodox, more respectable than those from outside of their little group. To me there is nothing uglier, and in this regard I am in good company: the group that Jesus had the most biting criticism for was the Pharisees –– the religious group of his time who made the strongest claims that they were the true righteous ones and everyone else should just try to be as spiritually cool as they were (e.g., Luke 18: 9 -14). So inevitable as it is, I try to avoid religious groups who like to boast about what moral winners they are.
By comfort I mean all of the different sorts of positive and pleasurable physical sensations that give our bodies the message that they are strong and healthy and likely to survive and have successful offspring. This stretches the normal use of the word a bit, but I believe this is an important category, and I don’t know of any specific word that covers it better. I use it to include everything from getting medical care and pain killers when we have injuries, to the joys of a tasty and nutritious meal, to the ecstasy of a really powerful orgasm.
Do people turn to religion for such things? Surprisingly often. Sometimes quite innocently, as in taking advantage of church-run soup kitchens or health clinics; other times far more cynically, using churches as places to look for potential con victims or sex partners even. Still others naively treat their religions a form of magical ritual by means of which they can have their prayers answered regarding all sorts of physical desires, from healing to romantic success to better housing to whatever. And while I have nothing against any form of comfort in this broader sense, I’m not entirely comfortable with this being the basis of our religious motivation. Here too Jesus felt the same: as much as he wanted to compassionately reduce people’s suffering, he got really frustrated with those who followed him around just for the free food they could get at his gatherings (John 6:26).
Control as I use it here is another rather broad category, ranging from taking charge of your life and not being the victim of circumstances to the thrill of being able to get people to do whatever you want them to, whenever you want them to. Overall it is about being able to exercise your own volition as freely as possible. In some regards part of this is included in the legitimate purpose of religion, but only to a very limited extent. Faith really should empower the believer, keeping him or her from feeling trapped and enslaved in life’s circumstances. Too often, however, faith is used as a tool for Machiavellian manipulation. When people are in a frame of mind where they are looking for freedom from their psychological limitations and addictive behaviors through submission to something greater than themselves, there are plenty of both con artists and sincere but deranged megalomaniacs who are more then willing to step in and take charge of their lives for them. This is a widespread problem, and very few religious communities are willing to admit just how far it goes in their midst.
Overall my take on the control issue is that control over both oneself and sometimes over others even is healthy and acceptable when it does not become an obsession; when it remains a means of getting other, more important things rather than being an end unto itself. I don’t believe that a lack of control –– personal chaos –– is a condition for spirituality, but I believe that when people get fascinated with a sense of epic awesomeness in winning various sorts of battles –– when they really start getting off on their own strength –– spirituality pretty much goes out the window.
There would seem to be a bit of an overlap between the concepts of control and confidence, but my use of the latter is in reference to the sense that rather than having awesome power for its own sake, I have an important sense of what I’m supposed to be doing with that power, together with an assurance that this cause is somehow a worthy or good one. What counts as a good cause –– one that I can be confident in? In some ways that relates back to the topic of my most popular blog entry for last year: “Conflicting Moral Codes, and What to Do About Them” (April 10, 2011). For purposes of this entry though we can say that one of the main purposes of religion is to provide people with a sense of purpose in life in terms of pleasing God and building his “kingdom,” in whatever way they interpret such things. And as long as they don’t take their certainty about the perfection and completeness of their understanding of God too seriously –– and as long as they carefully consider compassion as one of the key attributes of any god worth worshipping –– I see this sort of religious confidence as an entirely good thing. Not that religious people tend to live up to these ideas of compassion and humility very well, but at least the ideal is there.
But the ultimate purpose of religion, in my idealized vision, is not confidence so much as connection. Faith should enable us to pay forward the mercy and generosity we feel that God has given to us. Faith should enable us to love one another and to have compassion even on those we naturally have nothing to do with. Faith should give us a sense of being inherently connected with the world around us. Faith should enable us to love, and to feel loved.
But there are some human limitations that come into play here. If we make everyone in the world part of ourselves through our love for them, we internalize all of the world’s conflicts, and inevitably that will drive a person crazy. We all need to limit our love. We need to distance ourselves from some to maintain our sanity, perhaps through labeling them as losers, or evil. Perhaps we just need to make sure we have them under our control before we allow them closer to us. Perhaps we just need to remain a bit calloused, spending some time just focused on our own material needs. We can’t help it; we’re only human. But if we can believe in something greater than ourselves we can make strides towards becoming better people at least.
I still have more to say about the rubber-meets-the-road function of religious communities and their various ways of influencing people, but I’ll leave that for next time. And for those who haven’t got this message from me already, Happy New Year.