City of Lights

As the civilized world struggles to make sense over the senseless attacks of ISIS in Paris, the question of where to turn emerges. An attack has taken place. Innocent people have died. We are in mourning, and we want to analyze what happened to make the world feel a little less insane. As my wife pointed out an article on CNN, I was shocked by the terms in which the attacks were described. Here I read about ISIS extending its global reach. Top leaders, we’re told, planned the attack. And ISIS is “getting into the international terrorism business.” These phrases are common in just about every business meeting I’ve ever attended. This commodification of terror frightens me. The way we’ve chosen to handle terror is by making it into a business. These are human lives that have been lost—futures of the most promising kind. Not only are we the victims of blind terrorist groups, but we are victims of a world that can’t see beyond capitalism.

Terrorism is not a business. It is evil, but in a world where religious value is never invoked outside the few who still find meaning in matters of the soul, the vocabulary has been lost. How do we deal with ISIS? Just like you would any business. A hostile takeover bid? Gather your resources, make some deals, and if retaliation takes innocent lives, well, some bonds and chattels aren’t worth that much anyway. Have we lost the ability to describe the world in anything other than economic terms? Is humanity simply another business?

Paris_SPOT_1017

I do not wish to downplay the horrible events that took place in Paris Friday night. At least 120 are dead for doing only the kinds of things people do on a Friday night. Yet there is a terror that has been creeping through the world that refuses to be named. When it feels threatened it clears out Zuccotti Park. It has taken over our institutions of higher education. It buys political offices and rewards those at the top until the rest of us become commodities. Yes, some goods are lost or damaged during shipping. We need to have a metric to measure that. And when our eyes are streaming with tears we grasp the nearest—the only way we have of describing what has happened. A new business has come to town. When terror becomes a business all hope is already lost.

To Whom It May Concern

Everything we do is an investment in the future. Some times it’s intentional, and other times it’s purely accidental. My wife sent me a CNN story about what might be the oldest message in a bottle ever found. It’s difficult to conceive an idea more romantic than the lonely castaway throwing a message in a bottle into the sea, hoping for rescue. The size of the oceans make any such chance qualitatively smaller than the smallest possible needle in the largest possible haystack. The sheer volume of the oceans is among the most mind-boggling quantities on earth. The chances of finding a single bottle in the blue is practically nil. Still, the message in the bottle is an investment in the future. We hope it will be found, despite the odds.

This particular bottle, although of some scientific value, is the least of the romantic kind. George Parker Bidder III, a third-generation scientist, dropped about a thousand bottles into the sea to study deep ocean currents. This was more than a century ago. Those finding the bottles were instructed to send the message back to Bidder, now long dead, so that he might enter the data in his notes. Bidder died in 1954, and one of his bottles was just recently found in Germany. Here is a case of a man writing to himself beyond the grave. Could he ever have imagined that six decades after his death a sample of his work would be found? For those who’ve labored only to be forgotten in their own lifetimes, this is like finding a genie in a bottle. We want to believe our lives have made a difference. For most of us, we go through our daily chores never really sure that any more than a handful of people care, and most of them only care if it is earning something for the company. Others stand on the shore and throw bottles into the sea.

The Bible has positive words to say about casting your bread upon the waters. Indeed, it will come back to you, we’re told, in a time of need. This is a metaphor, of course. It is all about investing in the future. When it comes to money, this doesn’t often work. Some people are fortunate in their investments, but many are not. Bidder wanted to know about deep water currents. This bottle would have told him something about them, but he isn’t here to receive the news. Instead he is being heralded as someone who deserves to be in the Guinness Book of World Records. Maybe not a scientist’s first choice of memorials, but an investment is an investment. More people will read about world records than will ever find a message in a bottle, no matter how metaphorical.

Casting bread on the water, New York style

Casting bread on the water, New York style

For the Sake of Fighting

Different opinions can be used for discussion or destruction. In the formal context of government, the declaration of war is—or should be—an option of last resort. Increasingly language of belligerence is status quo ante when religion is the topic. “Culture Wars” is a thinly veiled reference to the profound disagreement between social conservatism, associated with Evangelical Christianity, and progressive policies, often affiliated with nones and mainline Christian traditions that don’t wish to be left behind. For years, decades, no one side can declare victory, for example, in the debate over whether America was founded as a Christian nation. Two news stories I saw this past week addressed just that question. Fox News ran a story about a Baptist Church in Shelby, North Carolina, that has decided to fly the Christian flag over the stars and bars until, well, I guess the Second Coming. Protesting the legalization of gay marriage, the congregation wants the message, aided by Fox News, to spread that in at least this corner of the country, God comes first.

The other story, on CNN, asks the question directly: “Was American Founded as a Christian Nation?” With five professors answering the question there’s bound to be differing opinions but all agree that this isn’t a simple yes or no answer. The even larger question, it seems, is how can the founders’ religious orientations help us to avoid cultural wars? Isn’t the fact that we’re still searching historical documentation over two centuries later an answer in itself? Maybe they didn’t tell us directly because it was none of our business. Washington, Franklin, and Jefferson are quoted on both sides of the debate. Their cultural context was Christian, but as all the five scholars agree, the question didn’t become a live one until the nineteenth century. Seems that we got along a century without knowing.

The “Culture Wars” may have been there, of course, but the need for a term only arose in the late 1980’s and early ’90’s. The divide had been simmering since the end of the ’50’s, however. Leave it to Beaver versus Star Trek: the Next Generation. The media has never been shy about telling us what to think. Difference of opinion is as natural as a pre-frontal cortex. Peaceful coexistence, however, doesn’t sell newspaper or commercial airtime or space. We want the thrill of danger, the chance to declare that, unlike the adversary, we are clearly in the right. Maybe if we changed the metaphor the rhetoric might catch up. In the meanwhile, battle comes to mind. Ironically, the Bible is a place that suggests peaceful solutions to many disagreements, but neither side thinks to look there for guidance.

438px-Husité_-_Jenský_kodex

The Last Word

The end of the world, it seems, never goes out of fashion. My wife shared a story on the BBC about CNN (such self-referential media hype may be a sign that society is collapsing already) having a video ready to release for the apocalypse. In a bit of end-of-time sangfroid, it is rumored, CNN’s Ted Turner ordered a last-second video to be made so that loyal CNN viewers would be ushered out with his version of the last word. The media, of course, is a powerful segment of society. Occasionally schools and businesses are shut down due to their meteorological predictions. The media tells us who the experts are, and why we should listen to them. The media provides us with some of the only fact-checked material from far-flung ends of the globe—or even outer space—to which we, the people, would not normally have access. The media, in other words, determines reality.

800px-Apocalypse_vasnetsov

Meanwhile I wonder, as I often do, what gives those who own media corporations the right to determine reality for the rest of us. For example, if the rumor of Turner’s video is true, what would give the rich and powerful the right to determine what flashes before our eyes as the world winks out of existence? The apocalypse, after all, is a religious concept. Although largely developed from biblical scripts, other religions do occasionally have their end-of-the-world myths, just like most religions have beginning-of-the-world myths. If you have billions of dollars, does that mean you have the right to determine end-times viewing? When money determines the truth, the world has already ended.

Nevertheless, the idea lives on. We are constantly reminded that one or another religious sect has declared that the end is nigh. We’ve heard it so often that we’ve ceased to pay attention. In a world where the media has largely dismissed the rest of the Bible (except when blockbuster movies come out featuring a biblical story) why does Revelation still hold such currency? After all, the apocalypse takes its very name from the final book of the Christian Bible, and without Revelation we might be none-the-wiser about the looming end of all things. Revelation was very much a product of its time. Despite the progress of science and technology that gave us the media corporations we blandly recognize today, we still harbor doubts deep down about the longevity of it all. Even those who write the news look to other media giants to get some hints of the truth. Ironically, they don’t seem to want to ask scholars about it. After all, sensationalism is news. At the end of the world, we really don’t care what scholars have to say, as long as we’re entertained.

Commandments by Committee

Something about the holiday season seems to bring out atheistic activism, or at least media interest in atheism. Now that we’re safely in 2015, I suspect things will quiet down a bit until the next major religious holiday comes along. Ironically, since I was a child I’ve heard about how secular Christmas, in particular, has become. Reactions to this have led to “Christmas wars” that give the lie to sleeping in heavenly peace. In any case, back in December CNN ran a story on the atheist ten commandments. This was just before the holidays, but just after the release of Exodus: Gods and Kings, so it was a story sure to capture human interest. The atheist commandments were chosen by a committee, and, of course, have no binding value. Many of them are more precepts than commandments since, it seems, you need a deity to command all of humanity. Nevertheless, the number 7 commandment has a very biblical sound: “Treat others as you would want them to treat you, and can reasonably expect them to want to be treated.”

More interesting than the list, in my way of thinking, is the form of delivery. The ten commandment format is an obviously religious one. Atheists have long tried to make the case that non-belief is not the same as immorality, and there can be little doubt that this is correct. One need not believe in order to be a good person. Yet, the force of the symbolic ten commandments comes from a divine mandate. Committees, as efficient as they may be, don’t have the same kind of authority. You can hear it now—“Why should I listen to you? Who are you to tell me what to do?” With God there is always the threat of eternal damnation or the sending of plagues. Commandments by committee appeal to reason.

The ten commandments—here I mean the traditional ones—haven’t fared especially well among the faithful. Survey after survey shows many people don’t know all ten well enough to cite them. Some, such as the one against coveting, are hard to demonstrate or prove one way or the other. Honoring parents, in some extreme cases, seems sinful in itself. What doesn’t count as a graven image? So my question is, who has the authority in a post-Christian world to give commandments? The religious certainly won’t take advice from atheists, and religious leaders disagree among themselves about what the deity demands. No committee, it seems, can capture the true essence of divine demands. Perhaps it is a matter of boiling the ten down to one (similar to number 7 cited above) and getting our leaders to truly believe this before imposing it on all.

480px-Rembrandt_-_Moses_with_the_Ten_Commandments_-_Google_Art_Project

Duck, Dynasty

The Fundamentalist mouth has no filter. I’m a bit surprised by the furor raised by Phil Robertson’s comments about race and sexuality. Did A&E not realize that it was dealing with a Fundamentalist family on Duck Dynasty? I’m frequently amazed at how Fundamentalism is exoticised by the media as some quaint, back-woodsy phenomenon. Do they not realize that similar views are held by several members of congress and the pre-Obama presidential incumbent? By the numbers, Fundamentalism is a powerful force, but, like our universities, the media can’t be bothered to try to understand religion until a large demographic is suddenly threatened. A&E supports equality across sexual orientations, and, as it should go without saying in the twenty-first century, races. Prejudices, however, run very deep. Perhaps it’s just not so surprising to me, having been raised in a Fundamentalist environment. There was nothing exotic about it. It was, as we understood it, simple survival.

Phil Robertson has been suspended from his own show for comments made off-air. Wealth does not necessarily make one a better person. In fact, the figures trend in the other direction all too often. If instead of just promoting books written by the stars of the anatine series, the studio executives read those books they might have foreseen something like this coming. The Fundamentalist mind, I know from experience, tends to see things as black or white. Despite the camo, gray is a loathed color. Rainbow is even worse. The Fundamentalist psyche is not encouraged to try to see things from the other’s point of view. There is only one perspective: the right one. And when asked a straightforward question, a straightforward, if misguided answer will be given. It’s the price of fame.

The Robertson family, according to CNN, has closed ranks with their founder, claiming he is a godly man. There’s no irony here, folks. Fundamentalism isn’t into irony or subtle possibilities. Religious rights and freedoms are being press-ganged to the aid of those who long to speak free. Not about ducks, or guns, or calls. But about the naturalness of white skin and heterosexual love. And the Bible as the only possible source of the truth. The media often treats Fundamentalism as if it were a game, turned on or off at a whim. In reality it is a comprehensive worldview in which the inmates are commanded to speak the truth. The filters are not on their mouths, but are in their minds. Until we can learn to take them seriously, no duck anywhere will be safe.

Even the Roman Empire didn't last forever...

Even the Roman Empire didn’t last forever…

The Devil’s Dues

Belief, no matter how inscrutable, must be taken seriously. Although we frequently prefer to privilege that which we “know,” belief is one of our main motivators. Strangely, many who reach a certain level of education begin to denigrate belief as if it were an embarrassing indication of improper brain functioning. Belief is, however, all we really have. A case of this was recently shown in an interview with Justice Antonin Scalia. A piece in CNN Opinion by Rebecca Buckwalter-Poza discusses an interview of Justice Scalia by Jennifer Senior where the topic of the devil arose. Buckwalter-Poza, as she makes clear, is no fan of Scalia, but when Senior began to treat the Justice’s belief in the devil with a condescending kind of incredulity Buckwalter-Poza called time-out. We need to take his belief seriously. Could such a powerful man really believe in a mythological figure? Yes. Belief will do that to you. Just the same, Senior’s non-acceptance of the devil is equally a matter of belief.

The devil is a problematic figure. Despite the certainty with which a recent demonology lecture treated the subject, the devil is scarcely present in the Bible. Indeed, he is somewhat a late addition, cobbled together from Zoroastrian beliefs and fragments of ancient mythology. The Hebrew Bible mentions the devil not once. By the time of the Gospels he has become a fixture representing an anti-God figure, clearly derived from the influence of the Magi (not necessarily the three riding on camel-back that first Christmas Eve). The devil was a convenient excuse for evil in a world where an omnipotent deity was believed to be entirely good. The devil is an escape-clause. Evil can exist in such a world and not be God’s fault. The idea stuck.

Today, sophisticated materialists (which is what some forms of science urge us all to be) have dismissed belief in anything not composed of atoms, electrons, quarks, or strings. Or, more recently, dark matter. The rest is all illusion. Sometimes the sophisticated don’t realize that other intelligent, sophisticated individuals don’t share their worldview. Materialism can’t be proven, and every true scientist knows that any theory is the best explanation given what we know at the moment. It is contingent. Science has a fantastic track record for explaining the physical world. Little in my experience has given me cause to doubt its efficacy. Still, I suspect that there is more to this universe than material. I have trouble supposing that some of that non-material universe is a horned, goat-footed, evil man with a tail and my worst interests at heart, but I can see how someone might believe that. Belief works that way. As much as we might want to eject it from the game, it will always be on the first string throughout the season.

IMG_1070

To the Flag

In the great witch hunt that began (or perhaps simply continued) with the Neo-con upsurge in which big business climbed into bed with theological conservatives, the pledge of allegiance became the acid test of true Americans. The Communists were now fading as a threat, and to be patriotic requires a clear and present enemy, so the un-Americans could be found among those who refused to pledge allegiance to a flag. In a recent CNN story, a case is going to court in Massachusetts to remove the words “under God” from the pledge. The dilemma is as simple as it is complex—children who do not believe in God may either recite what they don’t believe, or be ostracized for opting out. (Those of us who make a habit of opting out of things know the feeling well.) The argument goes that children are pledging loyalty to their country, not to a religion. Why should they be forced to say what they don’t believe?

The pledge has an interesting history. The original oath, a celebration of the now much-suspect Columbus Day, was intended as a quick credo of loyalty. No deity of any sort was invoked. Over time, additions started to creep into the pledge (the original version read “I pledge allegiance to my Flag and the Republic for which it stands, one nation indivisible, with liberty and justice for all”). It was not until after the tremendous horrors of World War II, when society was over-reacting to all kinds of threats, real and imaginary, that the words “under God” were added, in 1954. Godless Communists beware! Like the original pledge, this emended pledge celebrated a civil holiday—Flag Day.

IMG_0962

Nationalism could well be considered a form of religion. Customs differ in various parts of the world, and highlighting the differences allows for the conferring of unique advantages among the members. True capitalism cannot work in a culture of complete fair play or equality. Nations must be able to declare ownership and control of resources, including those known to every “human resources” officer in the universe as the most troublesome kind. To be useful to a nation, loyalty must be pledged. And children, who don’t have the experience or psychological development to make an informed choice about the Almighty, must say that they believe in “one nation, under God,” where “one nation indivisible” has itself been divided by God. Don’t get me wrong, I am glad to be an American—I can’t imagine being anything else. But I especially like the part about “liberty and justice for all.”

Going In, Coming Out

Being primates, perhaps it is no surprise that we are fascinated by who is doing whom. We, literally, by nature, find sexual alliances fascinating. Despite the fact that close observation of nature has indicated that homosexuality is indeed natural—it has been observed in many species, and isn’t even limited to mammals—we can’t help but make it a deciding factor in what an individual is. Two unrelated news stories over the past week have focused on homosexuality as the overwhelmingly defining trait of a person. In the first story, the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America (ELCA) has elected its first openly gay bishop. (Gay bishops, even in the pre-Reformation church, have not been exactly an endangered species.) The Rev. Dr. Guy Erwin, however, is so much more than a partnered gay man. He is a highly educated person who had held that most rare of positions—a bona fide academic position in higher education. He is also a member of the Osage Nation. His election as a Native American or as an academic would not be newsworthy. His orientation, well, that’s a whole different story.

Meanwhile, across the planet, the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) is cutting its ties with the Boys Scouts of America because the BSA has decided to make honest men of its boys. BSA has recently voted to allow gay boys to remain in the Scouts, something that the Mormons had no problem accepting. Quite apart from the misguided SBC move, I was saddened to see CNN’s inaccurate headline, “Baptists plan exodus from Boy Scouts.” The story does not indicate that the Baptist brand of Christianity has withdrawn, so to speak, from BSA, but the Southern Baptist Convention. Baptists are much more broad-minded than the SBC brotherhood (I use the phallocentric collective intentionally) would indicate. All Baptists, it seems, are guilty by association.

SBC in the White House

SBC in the White House

People are complex. Putting them into neat categories is unfair to who a person really is. The category “gay” is notorious for subverting all other qualifiers for decent human beings. As the National Socialist Party recognized, the easiest way to build a case against a people is to put them together in a class that “deserves” our fear, mistrust, and hatred. Don’t look at the individual beneath the label. You might be forced to change your mind. Did that individual overcome the difficulties of being a “minority” in his or her own native land? Did that individual work hard to climb through the educational system to attain an advanced degree? Did that individual commit his or her life to another person, no matter what the social stigma? None of that matters, as long as we can talk about his or her “orientation.” It is society itself that requires reorientation.

Evolving Morals

CNN recently interviewed Frans de Waal about his new book, The Bonobo and the Atheist: In Search of Humanism among the Primates. Of course the book immediately went on my “to read” list. I’ve followed de Waal’s non-technical work for years and I have come to trust his judgment. As director of part of Yerkes Primate Research Center, de Waal knows apes better than most of us know our neighbors. He has been exploring the origins of altruism and empathy in the great apes and has come to some amazing conclusions. His past work has shown that much of what we have attributed to special revelation has actually arisen in people through regular evolution. The apes, particularly the bonobos, but also chimpanzees, show startlingly human reactions to moral situations. In the interview, de Waal notes the implications for religion. In his opinion, morality predates religion since the former is seen in other primates while the latter is not.

As much as I trust de Waal’s judgment, the unanswered question remains: what exactly is religion? Animals display rudimentary religious behaviors, but in human-speak religion is often intertwined with belief. In watching a recent episode of Morgan Freeman’s Through the Wormhole—“Is There Life After Death?”—it was clear that while scientists tend to stand on the “no” side of this divide, in the end it comes down to a matter of belief. Not all religions, however, are tied to belief. Some religions assert that what you believe is not important, but rather, what you do. In such religions morality is much more like our primate kin’s version of religion. As Freeman points out, you really can’t know what another person believes. You can ask, but if you believe their response is always an open question. Here is the dilemma of religion as a matter of belief. Even Jesus putatively said, “by their fruits you will know them.” Morality here sounds like religion.

Frans de Waal suggests in his interview that morality differs from religion by being earlier in the evolutionary scale. If, however, religion evolved—which it surely did, as we can continue to observe its evolution today—it may be of a piece with morality. We object to suggesting animals have religion; this suggestion would knock humanity off its pedestal as the only species to which an incredibly human-like god revealed (as it is said) himself. What de Waal has gone beyond proving in his previous books is that much of what qualifies as religion is found among the great apes. De Waal doesn’t put it in those words, but as a lifelong student of religion I have observed the connections first-hand. A scientist may not feel qualified to define religion, just as a religionist is not qualified to correct a scientist. I eagerly await the chance to read The Bonobo and the Atheist, but I already know that I will find much of what de Waal writes to be beyond question, and we may all be much closer to the origins of religion than we realize. Even our great ape kin.

Michelangelo's muse? (Photo by Greg Hume)

Michelangelo’s muse? (Photo by Greg Hume)

Scouting for Boys

I guess losing a bid for a presidential nomination sanctions a guy to speak for God. Of course, that goes for just about any Republican these days. I’m frankly amazed that Moses managed to write the Ten Commandments without them. So Rick aptly-named Santorum has gone after the Boy Scouts. To remove the duplicitous ban on gay scouts, according to Santorum, is to remove God. Obviously Mr. Santorum was paid no attention in Boy Scouts himself. I spent many hours at Scout camp and I can attest that God was already the last thing on most boys’ minds. Maybe our former presidential hopeful ought to look back a little further, for Webelos and Cub Scouts may imply the love that dare not mewl its name. I predict this: if the ban is lifted, as it should be, no one will notice the difference. Santorum will continue beating his dead horse and the rest of America may achieve just a hint of maturity.

“Scouting may not survive this transformation of American society, but for the sake of the average boy in America, I hope the board of the Scouts doesn’t have its fingerprints on the murder weapon,” Santorum declared, according to CNN. I have to wonder what he knows about the average boy in America. Or the average girl. Santorum would have a difficult time finding the word “gay” in his Bible, for it is not there. But apparently God is not God without someone to hate, without the “Right” to show him the way. And God favors straight, white men, as the last presidential election clearly shows.

Any religion that makes someone feel better by repressing others is not worthy of propagation or emulation. Look at any oppressed group. What’s the backing always cited by the oppressor? Is it not narrow religious belief? Anyone can say “God says.” There—I just wrote it. And I could distort the Bible to make God dance to my prejudices as well. The problem is that I recognize how cheap and tawdry such eisegesis is. Of course, hot air expands. The Texas governor that God told to run for president, but then changed his divine, omniscient mind, and who never thought closely about the implications of that—aka Rick Perry—also had to weigh in on the issue. CNN quotes him as stating, “Scouting is about teaching a substantial amount of life lessons… Sexuality is not one of them. It never has been; it doesn’t need to be.” Mr. Perry needs to spend a weekend at camp with his eyes and ears open and his mouth shut. In the best of all possible political worlds, his bosom buddy Rick Santorum will be right there beside him. Maybe it will take a little child to lead them after all. And that actually is biblical.

From WikiCommons, AgnosticPreachersKid--worth a thousand words

From WikiCommons, AgnosticPreachersKid–worth a thousand words

No Song for Old Men

Succoth in Waukesha, Wisconsin. A pillar of the local synagogue had invited me to come to his booth with some of my seminary students to let them celebrate an ancient tradition and talk to a Jewish believer about it. We were all having a good time, and someone mentioned Leonard Cohen’s song “Hallelujah.” One of the seminarians, brash as always, spoke up and admired “Rufus Wainwright’s cover in the movie Shrek.” Although I’d corrected many students before, I let this faux pas ride. Music is very personal to me, and the cover played in the movie Shrek was John Cale’s version, although the soundtrack substituted Rufus Wainwright’s cover of John Cale’s cover. And this student was far too young to have appreciated the Velvet Underground. I was a little surprised, then, when my wife pointed me to a CNN story this week about the thriving popularity of the song. Instead of putting my paltry words out there on CNN for all the world to see, I decided to address them here, to my private audience.

Velvet_Underground_and_Nico

Leonard Cohen has been described as a man who writes songs with a prayerbook in one hand and a picture of a naked lady in the other. He has spent time in monasteries and his lyrics have a very serious edge to them. What the many self-proclaimed experts commenting on CNN seem to have missed is that Cohen’s song is a song for old men looking backward. Yes, it is rife with biblical imagery, but no, it is not a religious song. Not in the sense that it is often used today. John Cale got that. When I hear his early work with Lou Reed or even his first cover of “Hallelujah” that managed to capture something even Cohen hadn’t (no mean feat, that), I can hear the aging Cale casting a glance back to the same place that Cohen saw. We are all aging and we all remember the vitality of those years when possibilities seemed endless. No, it takes decades for a hallelujah to become broken. All the versions by popular artists trying to breathe soul into a tragedy have missed the point. It’s a cold and it’s a broken hallelujah.

I only listen to this song when I’m alone, preferably with John Cale. When Leonard Cohen sent him the lyrics there were 15 pages of them. The CNN report cites the 75 or 80 verses that Cohen wrote. That’s because the song is a life. The biblical images of the song first captured my attention, but I also realized that it was a song about something that’s gone and that’s never coming back. Not for guys my age. Not for guys who can still remember being eighteen and feeling like life hadn’t even begun yet. Now I look back over five decades. I hear “Heroin” seeping from my brother’s room, somehow knowing the dissonant chords would stay with me for the rest of my life, although I have never personally used drugs. There is a longing there, a longing for something that life offers maybe once, for a few short years. Age and inevitability catch up with everyone, and breathy young artists think they’re chic when they cover a song that is meant for old men who remember what glory used to feel like. Only those with experienced ears can really hear Leonard Cohen’s hallelujah.

God’s Country Club

Last week CNN’s religion Belief Blog reported on the five most and least religious colleges in the United States, according to Princeton Review (not affiliated with Princeton University). Having attended one of the five most religious colleges on the list (Grove City College, but whether it is number one or five is difficult to determine), I took an interest in the overarching question: how do you determine if a college is religious? The author of the survey indicated that it was through student interviews concerning whether they perceived other students as religious or not. And that’s where the bone of contention pokes through—who determines what is religious behavior? Are students able to determine who is religious or who acts religious? Does religious mean Christian in this context, or religious in any tradition?

Grove City College, God's Country Club

My years at Grove City left little doubt that the school itself was proudly religious. An evangelical bastion against many forms of critical thought, plenty of indoctrination took place in those hallowed halls. A few religion professors (I was even then over-zealous to learn as much as I could about this field), while personally faithful, asked serious questions that many self-righteous classmates blithely ignored. From glancing through alumni magazines, they seem to be the successful ones. Those who asked the hard questions seriously were ostracized; now they are lost in obscurity. Is this true religion? The Princeton Review is concerned with providing potential students with accurate data about their collegiate choices, but I wonder if the religiosity proffered is anything more than denominational branding.

Three of the four other most religious schools might bear this out: Brigham Young, Thomas Aquinas College, and Wheaton College. Hillsdale College, the final member of the most religious fraternity, is the exception. A liberal arts school, formerly Baptist but currently independent, it fits somewhat uneasily next to the Mormon, Catholic, and Reformed natures of the other four schools. While I can’t speak for the other colleges, at Grove City there was definitely a coercive peer pressure to behave like everybody else—to be religious, i.e., evangelical Christian. With required attendance at chapel and required courses in religion, the ethos was heavily impressed. Were other students truly religious? That depends on the measure that is used. Many have gone on to be entrepreneurs declaring free market economics in the name of the kingdom of heaven. If that is a measure of true religiosity, all hope is lost indeed.

Demo-God

Not having access to the news wires, I am generally scooped by CNN’s Belief Blog. Of course, blogs dealing with religion are a pretty cheap commodity these days, especially since, as I’ve mentioned before, everyone’s a self-proclaimed expert on the subject. So it appears appropriate that God’s approval rating was put to the polls. According to Public Policy Polling, God only enjoys a 52 percent approval rating. Only 9 percent of those surveyed dared give God a negative “disapprove,” but that still leaves a large middle ground where— to borrow a phrase—God is in the dock. The scenario where a democratic society expresses its opinion on leadership, both human and divine, makes me recall the movie The Mission. Fr. Gabriel has to remind Fielding at one point, “We [the church] are not a democracy.” Religion is handed down from on high and those who inherit it have no right to question.

Or do they? When I was growing up in the sixties one of the common social references in the media was the teenager (oh, what rebellion!) yelling at his parents, “I didn’t ask to be born!” In the current universe, however, that is where all religious believers find themselves. With the exception of the few who suppose themselves somehow self-generated, we all realize that we are subject to the whims of the creator. That, of course, does not prevent us from sharing our opinion on the issue. Fr. Gabriel is right: this is not a democracy. The stereotypical 1960s teenager is also right: we did not ask for this. No wonder the approval ratings for the divine have plummeted. It seems that the tenets so readily accepted in more submissive times have eroded. Is God about to retire? Step quietly from center stage?

What’s next for the Big Guy? Will he write his memoirs—wait, he’s already done that; what do you think the Bible is? Perhaps an unemployed creator would be interested in making another universe. The problem is that wherever consciousness exists, ideas will soon follow. Some ideas fit comfortably in the system: do as you’re told because I’m stronger than you, for example. When the expression of power as an inappropriate means of governance evolves, however, the voices of democracy will emerge. Maybe it is safer to schedule an apocalypse after all. Let’s just hope that God doesn’t take a page from the politicians’ handbook, otherwise nothing will ever really change.

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?