Credo

One of my seminary professors, who shall remain nameless, averred in class that Christianity in the first centuries was popular because it was exclusive. Like a country club. If just anybody can get in, why would you want to join? I’ve come to disagree with said professor’s analysis, but I have to admit there are cases where the idea does apply. Country clubs, for example. Organizations that intend to improve society, however, have it in their best interest to have doors as wide open as possible. Otherwise it’s a kind of hypocrisy. If Christianity wanted to make a better world, it soon realized, all takers should be welcome. That paradigm broke down fairly quickly, but at the beginning, I have the sense that all were welcome. So I was pleased to hear that the Boy Scouts have dropped their ban on gay troop leaders. Making a group that sets out to do a good deed a day exclusive heterosexual seems awfully backward. After all, gay leaders are nothing new. Why try to be exclusive?

Of course, the Scouts continue to disallow atheists. This is a fairly common, if medieval, marker of personal integrity. The Elks, last I heard, had few entrance requirements. One of the few stipulations, however, is that you have to believe in God. I don’t know how that plays out for Hindu Elks. Perhaps the more the merrier. Somehow, I doubt it. Exclusive belief entry requirements are a way of weeding out questions before they’re raised. Sheltering those inside from baleful influence among hoi polloi. We are better because we are different. Granted, these organizations go back to a time when theism, of sorts, was virtually a given in American society. Times have changed. Boy Scouts, it seems, are dragged into the future kicking and screaming.

I’ve always been impressed, by contrast, with the Girl Scouts’ openness. No creedal requirements are in place. Atheist girls, Buddhist girls, girls who climb on rocks, any girls are allowed to join. The last three presidents (including Obama) have been Boy Scouts. Two prior presidents have been as well. You might think the organization could meet its pedigree requirements with ease. In my view, they might look to the girls to take a cue on how to make the world a better place. When I was growing up, I knew no atheists. I remember attending a funeral of a family friend who hadn’t been a church goer, and that was pretty traumatic. As an adult I know many atheists and I trust them as much, if not more than, some of the religious I know. Would they be able to lead Boy Scout troops well? I have a suggestion—why not ask the Girl Scouts and find out?

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Worn Out Religion

Truth claims are integral to religions. No one would join a religion not declaring itself to be true. Some months ago, I posted about the store True Religion that had recently opened at our local mall. I’ve always found such branding odd—surely the store wasn’t proselytizing those who had religious commitments to buy its jeans. Or perhaps it was trying to lure in the increasing generation of nones. I have seldom felt any kinds of truth claims applied to my apparel. I buy clothes at reasonable prices and wear them until they are no longer fit to be seen in public. Even then I continue to wear them at home until they simply grow too holey to be of utility. I seldom have clothes left in good enough shape to donate, and I’m only fashion-conscious in terms of a decade or two between stints of buying what’s on the bargain rack. Religions, of course, sometimes do dictate what it is appropriate to wear. Leviticus famously declares that fabrics of mixed fibers are an infraction. Perhaps True Religion carries only single fiber-fabrics? I guess I’ll never know.

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Since our local mall has mostly clothing stores (few whimsical shops appear any more), I seldom go. There is an Apple store, and since our family has used exclusively Apple products since the 1980s, we do have to stop in from time to time. On my most recent trip, I noticed that True Religion, right across the corridor from Apple, had gone. “There’s no more true religion,” my daughter quipped. I couldn’t help but think about the implications of all this. Surely this was not the first religion to die. Disused churches have been converted into businesses for years, and some religions die out entirely rather than just fade away like an old pair of jeans. What is the message, however, when a claim of truth is made, only to be closed down by the exigencies of finance alone? Something disingenuous is going on here.

Religions not only make truth claims. They also convey a sense of promise. If you believe, you receive something in return. But what does it mean to believe? Driving home we passed the Elks Lodge. Once, when my daughter received a certificate of merit from the Elks, we were invited to an award ceremony there. The president of the lodge, doing a bit of proselytizing, mentioned that very little was required to join the Elks. “You do have to believe in God,” she said. How do you measure such a belief? Did she mean to say “you have to say that you believe in God”? The Elks are, after all, not a religion, but a community organization. Although True Religion is gone, the Elks, with their minimal commitment to faith, are still around. My clothes are perhaps a bit too worn to join the Elks, but what else is there to do when there is no more true religion?

Guiding Girls

Girl Guides are the British equivalent to the Girl Scouts. I first learned about them during the three years that I lived in the UK, although, as far as I know, they don’t sell cookies. An article in the Huffington Post last week announced that the Girl Guides have decided to drop God from their pledge, as a move toward inclusiveness. I’ve often pondered the place god holds in various social societies. At my daughter’s Girl Scout bridging ceremony a couple weeks back, I noticed God in the pledge. In New Jersey, where diversity is synonymous with breathing, I wondered how this antiquated oath felt to those who maybe grew up without the concept. Stretching my mind back a few years, when my daughter was in Middle School, she was awarded a good student prize by the Elks. As I sat in the tastefully decorated meeting room, with only a very faint tinge of beer in the air, I wondered if I might ever join a fraternal order. One of the officers stood to welcome us, inviting applications for membership. Democratically, she was a woman in a “fraternal” organization. She reeled off the requirements. As an afterthought she said, “and you have to believe in god.”

How does one measure belief in divinity? It has been my experience that many beliefs fluctuate with time. I can decide to believe, but in many ways, belief decides me. As a mantra to modern society, on the old X-Files series Fox Mulder’s famous poster read, “I Want to Believe.” To join the Girl Scouts, the Boy Scouts, or the Elks, you have to say you believe. Nobody’s going to hook you up to a polygraph machine, but you need to make your public declaration. At least in the last case, beer come later.

Religious diversity is a reality of our lives. From the invention of the steam engine, it became inevitable. Our world was going to grow smaller as we met people who had previously been isolated from us by distance. In 1893 the World Columbian Exposition was held in Chicago. As part of it, the Parliament of the World’s Religions introduced many Americans to the religions of the world for the first time. Hinduism, once an exotic strain quaintly captured in the archaic spelling “Hindoo,” became a sudden fascination. Buddhism was a curiosity. How had it been that the United States seemed only to know about Christianity, Judaism, and Islam (in that order) when other belief systems existed? How could we have missed them? More importantly, what were we going to do now that we knew about them? We couldn’t unknow them, like you can unfriend someone on Facebook. We were going to have to learn to live together. After all, we all have just one planet to share. Social organizations are great places for introducing tolerance. You can be moral without being Judeo-Christian. And if our social organizations want to promote equality of membership, maybe the Girl Guides are truly living up to their name.

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Parsing God

Being married to a Girl Scout leads to many benefits beyond just the cookies. Not that cookies are unimportant, of course. Having been a Boy Scout briefly back in the 1970’s, I recall three-finger salutes, rambunctious meetings, and the occasional camping trip complete with the rabbit coming out of the hole, going around the tree and then something else. I’m sure there was a Boy Scout pledge, but I can’t remember it. Like most group activities, Boy Scout meetings served mainly to remind me of my own inferiority, and so my mind does not often enjoy visiting those places. Having attended a few Girl Scout meetings over the years as my daughter was growing up, I heard the Girl Scout promise a few times, and was a little surprised that the phrase, “To serve my God” has remained unaltered, even with the changing face of the population. When I attended an event hosted by the Elks, the civic organization, the presenter began by explaining the rules for who might join. It too, is limited to theists. The reason for such admission requirements has me pondering if there was a time God was an endangered entity in the United States. If not, why insist on this proviso?

I’ve been reading about religion’s role in society. Something that those who seek primarily the deep, personal and experiential aspect of religion may not realize is that religion is a form of social order. Scientific knowledge about God, if God be incorporeal, non-material, and beyond space and time, is impossible. Religions don’t prove God’s existence, but they serve to reinforce the sanction of the sacred for human society. They have an essential role in that drama. By limiting membership to believers organizations such as the Elks are merely asserting their belief in the working of the system. Of course, from the beginning those who do not believe risk little by claiming they do believe.

But what of the doubter, who may be the truest believer of all? Some Girl Scout literature has a footnote, parsing God: “The word ‘God’ can be interpreted in a number of ways, depending on one’s spiritual beliefs.” Belief is a form of commitment more than a mental certainty. In the Hebrew Bible belief was not as strong a suit as obedience; and thus it had been for the history of organized religion. Starting perhaps as early as Jeremiah, a shift began to take religion more toward a matter of internal commitment. In the face of utter loss, Jeremiah (or one of his fans) suggested that belief was more important that unthinking obedience. Belief is very subtle but vitally powerful. Lives are staked, and sometimes lost, on it. So while you’re enjoying another cookie, try parsing your belief. Me? I’m still trying to figure out when that rabbit goes back in the hole.