Inside, outside, upside-down. The more life moves toward binary code—what isn’t computerized these days?—the more scholars are moving away from simple binaries. Just when I thought I was getting used to this sacred/profane divide, academics are scrapping it for more nuanced paradigms not based on any assumptions of presumed deities and their projected wishes. Nothing as simple as “either/or” could justify all these salaries for stuff you can just look up on the internet, after all. Still, binaries are a very human way of looking at the world. Light and dark doesn’t mean there aren’t all the shades in between. And the very basic difference between inside and outside may be far more helpful than it might appear.
Being inside a religious tradition—really being inside—creates a pattern of thinking that frames all of one’s experience of life. While reading about the Book of Mormon recently this became clear to me. Looking at it from the outside is something those on the inside have great trouble doing. The same is true of various Eastern Orthodox Christian traditions, or Evangelicalism. Those living on the inside of tightly constrained ways of thinking—believing—can’t see what it looks like from the outside. I suspect that not all religions traditions fall into such ways of thinking; there are shades here. “Mainstream” Christianities, for example, tend to blend at the edges and those inside might have an idea of how those on the outside view them. Lutherans know the jokes about their outlooks and can even tell them. Methodists and Presbyterians too. They tend to conform a bit to expectations and tend not to be extremist about things. Being mainstream will do that to you.
It is unusual for a person to change religious traditions. Those who do can see their former tradition from the outside—whether mainstream of not—with a kind of objectivity that frightens true believers. Most religions have some tenets that look a bit unbelievable when viewed from outside. Once seen from that perspective, however, there’s no unseeing it. I grew up Fundamentalist. After some time in the mainstream Methodist tradition I could see Fundamentalism from the outside. When I eventually joined the Episcopal Church I had been viewing it from the outside my entire life up to that point. Looking at faith traditions inside out offers perspectives otherwise not to be had. Nobody wants to believe the wrong religion. Perhaps that’s why it’s so difficult to look at your own from the outside. You have to be willing to accept shades of gray, even if looking at it in a binary way.
One of the dynamics we see in present-day America is the worship of belief itself. This is nothing new since faith is the “substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.” It’s hard to trust in what you can’t see. Trusting in trust may be tautological, but it’s also a natural development for something that evades proof. If it goes too far, however, such religion becomes an idol. Its teachings become secondary to its very existence. Its rules, no matter how contradictory, must all be followed. And those who believe are encouraged not to think too deeply about it since, if they did, this inherent inconsistency would be obvious. The knee-jerk reaction of “the Bible says” is one such defensive measure. I saw this all the time while teaching in seminary.
The other day I heard the melody of “Faith of Our Fathers” playing on the local church bells. Interestingly, this is a Catholic hymn adopted by Protestants. It’s kind of an anthem to this idea of worshipping the faith rather than the deity to which it points. Consider the chorus: “Faith of our fathers, holy faith!/We will be true to thee til death.” Originally a celebration of martyrs—those who found the courage to die in their steadfast belief—the hymn survives into an era when the perils besetting what used to be Christianity are less political and more scientific. We live in a universe compellingly explained by science while politics has appropriated religion and counts on it to keep worshipping faith as an entity, regardless of distorted beliefs. The hymn plays on.
Many public intellectuals are wondering about how evangelical Christianity could so easily divest itself of Jesus’ teachings and accept Trumpism. Some have already begun to suggest that Trumpism is a “cult.” (Religionists would say the proper term is “New Religious Movement,” since we no longer judge religions, no matter what forms of mind control they might prefer.) The problem with experts on religion is that anyone can claim that sobriquet, bona fides or no. Some of us have documented decades of official study of the phenomenon—those who paid attention in seminary and continued to pay for many years for a doctorate in this elusive field—but we’re are easily outshouted by those who take the words of this hymn literally, as they were meant to be taken. Martyrdom comes in many varieties. As I listen to the bells, I consider the implications.
Posted in American Religion, Bibliolatry, Current Events, Posts, Religious Violence, Sects
Tagged Catholic, evangelicalism, faith, Faith of Our Fathers, martyrs, New Religious Movement, Protestant, Trumpism