Monthly Archives: August 2010

Can You Handle the Truth?

Time magazine’s Religion feature this week announces Claremont School of Theology’s decision to go interfaith. In response to declining enrollment, the United Methodist seminary has decided to offer training to Jewish, Christian, and Islamic leaders. Naturally, this will have to be done with the approval and support of training facilities for rabbis and imams, but it will be a way forward for the beleaguered Christian seminary. Seminaries have been in a state of crisis over the past few decades (otherwise it is hard to explain how I might have been hired by one, and a particularly conservative one at that!). And it is not difficult to see why.

Religion is, by nature, conservative. If truth is unchanging, there is no improving upon it. Religions claim to espouse the truth, so stability, orthodoxy – stagnancy – are required. Yet theological seminaries compete with graduate schools for students and faculty. Seminaries crave academic respectability – this is the entire reason for academic accreditation (my old-time colleague Daniel Aleshire of the Association of Theological Schools is quoted in the article). The basic operating premise of institutions of higher education, however, is that we are still learning the truth. We are not there yet. No God reveals the laws of physics in whole cloth (or vellum). Humans must theorize, discover, criticize, and theorize further. Meanwhile, seminaries wave their muted flags and shout, “Over here! We already have the truth!” To be accredited, they have to hire Ph.D.s who have been critically trained. Critical training does not accept simple truth claims. The result: seminaries hire critical faculty while religious authorities insist that the party line be toed. Something has to give.

Offering to bring different religious traditions together is a wonderful idea. Established religions need exposure to each other if the human race is going to survive. Exposure, no doubt, however, will reveal the amorphous nature of truth. The fact is that we are still looking for answers. Everything we have learned about religion points in that direction. What I find particularly telling about this situation is the motivation. Claremont is trying this route for financial reasons. The great god of all higher education, Cash, has finally gotten his talons into religious institutions as well. If there is any unchanging truth out there, it has a dollar sign in front of it.

In gold we trust...

Restoring Horror

Few television families are as true to life as the Simpsons. At least on a metaphorical or symbolic level. Last night as I watched the episode entitled “She of Little Faith,” I was reminded of just how large a role religion plays in this sit-com. While the majority of Springfield’s inhabitants don’t ever question the correctness of the local church, Lisa Simpson remains the avowed skeptic. Conflicted over her own sense of what is right and family expectations, she becomes a Buddhist yet continues to attend church with her family. This image of religious compromise strikes many as precisely what is wrong with organized religion today – it lacks the coercive power it once had.

In a free-market economy religious belief is a commodity to be selected and purchased. Most people are far too busy trying to get ahead to spend much time thinking about religion; it is far simpler to allow the clergy to do that. They come back to us, telling us what to believe, like some congressional report from heaven’s house of representatives. We pay them a salary and their service is to make sure we believe what keeps God happy. Religion, potentially the most powerful motivator in the world, is up for grabs like former Soviet nukes. Anyone is free to declare him or herself a religious leader, qualified or not.

So over the weekend thousands flocked to Washington to hear 2012 presidential hopefuls Beck and Palin tell them how to restore “honor” to our nation. Beck commented that his rally marks the point at which America starts to “turn back to God.” Most Americans at the rally (or those at home) seldom think about the amorphous God to which he refers, for themselves. Americans are consumers. We purchase what we like. If the God that is touted will make things better for me, then I’ll buy it. This is the price we pay for refusing to take religion seriously at an academic level. It is not about to go away. I side with Lisa Simpson as the honest individual who has an examined life. Facing opposite me on the Mall are tens of thousands who would rather be led. I am afraid. I am very afraid.

Faker or Fakir?

An article posted on CNN on Friday, “More teens becoming ‘fake’ Christians,” suggests that many American teenagers aren’t really Christian. Whether that is a bad thing or not I’ll leave up to the reader to determine (Kenda Creasy Dean of Princeton Theological Seminary, cited in the article, has no doubt that it is bad). My concern with the premise and the presentation of Dean’s data is much larger: who has the right to determine what is “authentic” religion? In a world daily faced with the clash of religious views, particularly among passionate believers, most scholars of religion seem to agree that one’s religion is what an adherent claims it to be. There is no way to test the authenticity of a religion empirically. Whose Christianity does Dean mean? That of Jesus? Or of Paul? Or of the Pope? It seems to me that what she suggests is that “true” religion is “passionate” religion.

Religion, however, may extend well beyond belief structures. Religionists recognize many forms of religion that are primarily activity-oriented rather than belief-oriented. Does that mean the adherents of such religions are only half-hearted members of their tradition? Do only passionate believers qualify? Who is it that has the authority to decide what any religion is? If it is seminary instructors, I’d rather face the apocalypse right now. I’ve known far too many of those to trust their judgment on defining authentic religion.

Christianity is perhaps the most fragmented religion in the world, with tens of thousands of different denominations, each declaring itself correct and authentic. What person ever purposefully believes in an incorrect religion? “I know my religion’s wrong, but I think I’ll stick with it…” Who gets to determine which is the real real religion? Passion may not be an adequate measuring stick. The clashes of religious views that leave the highest body counts are between groups equally passionate about their beliefs. In such a world where people need to learn to control their religious passion, it is my hope that mere theological assent might be more than enough in most cases. And only for religions that are belief based.

The only true religion?

Gort to Flood

There seems to be a society-wide fascination with the end of the world as we know it. Or maybe it is the just the perspective I bring to it. The past two decades with their breathless run up to Y2K and grappling to forge some sense out of 9/11 before 2012 rolls over us, have been awash in popular representations of how it might all come to an end. A society begging somebody to apply the brakes. We’ve got many senior citizens still around who’ve never used a computer attempting to coexist with a generation that has never been without one. From Kitty Hawk to the moon in just 66 years. I remember watching the latter on (black-and-white) television. Now I watch students walk into class with devices about whose function I can only ask Mr. Spock to speculate.

So it was that I finally got around to watching The Day the Earth Stood Still last night. The 2008 remake. Having long been a fan of the original, I can understand the insistent draw to bring it up-to-date. Even by the time Star Trek (original series) aired, it was hard to see what had terrified 1950s audiences about Gort or the idea of aliens. Thus I had great expectations when I first saw the trailers for the remake, but the reviews took the edge off my shine and I’ve only now experienced it. Naturally, I was looking for the religious angle.

Like Justin Cronin’s The Passage, the religious metaphor came in the guise of an ark. Klaatu is here to save all species except us, prompting Regina Jackson to state that after the ark is filled, the flood will come. The apocalyptic end of the world – being eaten by bugs (perhaps prescient of New York’s bed-bug infestation) – brings nanotech and the Bible together in an unhappy marriage. As soon as the authorities learn that Klaatu’s sphere is an ark they try to blow it to kingdom come. And yet Helen Benson is here to tell the tale.

We are vulnerable. For all our achievements, we fear the kids down the block that are bigger than us. Whether they be cold, emotionally flat aliens or ragingly wrathful gods, we are constantly watching the skies waiting for the next great flood.

Gnot What It Seems

Mythology has a funny way of dying. It just keeps resurrecting itself. It is the eternal return. One of the shocking truths about religions is that their cohesiveness is exaggerated for effect. The usual desired effect is power or influence over others, as in most human enterprises. Nowhere is this clearer than at the birth of religions. Since each human brain processes information in a unique way, the two people in a room with the religious founder will hear his/her teachings in their own way and neither will be identical with each other or the founder. This phenomenon has been long recognized by religionists. It is customary to speak of “Christianities” or “Judaisms” rather than suggest a fictional singularity.

Manuscript finds and serious study of early Christian texts make a strong case for two major brands of Christianity as early as the first century of the common era: “Orthodox” and “Gnostic.” The former likely arose in opposition to the latter. Gnosticism congealed out of a heady brew of Zoroastrian dualism, Judeo-Christian nascent apocalypticism, and good old “Canaanite” mythology. The teachings of Jesus could readily fit into a worldview that rejected materialism for a pure spiritual plane untainted by physical limitations and pollution. It is only a small step from here to the belief that the physical world is an illusion. Problem is, that would mean the physical resurrection was apparent only, and what does that mean for all future prospects of bliss? Better to bring down the hammer of Orthodoxy than to live with doubt.

Yet Gnosticism lives on. One of the few direct lines of descent can be found among the Mandaeans, an endangered monotheistic sect that has maintained a Gnostic dualism for centuries. Indeed, they trace their origins all the way to Adam. Gnosticism, whether recognized or not, has left its influence on concepts from The Matrix to Philip K. Dick’s novels to Rich Terrile’s theories of God. Certainly there is a draw to believing this world is an illusion and that reality lies elsewhere. Maybe in that real world there is no need for religion since everyone already knows the truth.

sursum codex

Freiheit

This week’s Time magazine has a rhetorical question on the cover: Is America Islamophobic? Not a word need be said. The real issue at stake, the one many Muslims feel the brunt of, is religious freedom. This founding concept of America has been eroding for decades. How many Americans have tried to imagine what it would be like if they were Muslims living in “the land of the free”? For that matter, how many have tried to imagine what it would be like to be Catholic, Protestant, or Unitarian? Certainly, it would seem, Jews know the value of religious freedom. Do we ever really try to feel their experience? It is much more cozy to be part of the religious majority and tell others to step in line.

With great roaring newts and Alaskan beauty queens telling them what to think, Americans are easily stoked to injustice. No, they have no right to worship here, they tell us. The truly frightening part is how easily manipulated the masses are. America a Christian nation? Who can adequately define “Christian”? Those who make such claims tend to be Neo-Cons who assume some fundamental form of Christianity is the default version. The only version. Their goals are not religious, but rather intensely selfish – the antithesis of Christianity. By their fruits you shall know them, a wise man once said. It is easy to forget who.

We live in a nation that since the Reagan years has attempted to privatize industries that had ensured fairer treatment because of government standards, no matter how faulty. Now private companies could run with the basic necessities of civilized existence and grow wealthy on them while those who were poor could be forced to pay more. This was done with the public image of a “Christian nation.” RR, the poster-child of the Religious Right. Laissez faire has come to mean “leggo my Eggo” – let me claim the one true religion and capitalize upon it. One size does fit all as long as the wealthy are left free to grow wealthier. Let’s call it religious freedom, but let’s prevent others from pursuing their religion freely. To me it feels like 1984. And that was decades earlier than 9/11.

Two Roads Diverged

Back in my Gorgias Press days one of my co-laborers (BU) suggested that I might enjoy reading Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. Since then it has come out as a movie, and further apocalyptic events have occurred – the Deepwater Horizon disaster and the election of Chris Christie come to mind – so I finally got around to reading it. It is a harrowing book for any parent to read and I doubt I have the heart to see the movie. Already the book is spawning internet quotes and quips, but I was particularly interested in seeing how this post-apocalyptic novel handled God.

Since the Bible, via Zoroastrian influence, gave us the religious concept of the apocalypse, it is fitting to see how religion fares in its unhallowed progeny. Mostly God is absent. When the man and his son mention God, the language is spare and laced with betrayal. “There is no God and we are his prophets,” the old man declares after the man and his son leave the bunker. A few paragraphs later he states, “Where men cant live gods fare no better.” The value of the apocalyptic metaphor is that it forces us to face life as we find it: raw and uncompromising. In the fictional apocalypse it is permissible to utter aloud implications of life’s callous lessons.

My career has had its share of jagged edges. The lacerations I’ve personally received have been at the machinations of Christians eager for self-justification. Self-congratulatory individuals and collectives that suppose God has specially favored them. “There is no God and we are his prophets.” It is like reading Camus in slow motion. One of the lessons both Nashotah House and Gorgias Press taught me was that it can always get worse. Reading McCarthy’s sad yet true tale of the woe we bring upon ourselves, the lesson for those eager for the apocalypse is that they have only to open their eyes.