Thursday, February 07, 2008

The Practicing Progressive

February 7, 2008

It wasn’t my intention to follow up last week’s column on True Believers with another so soon but both certain correspondence and a couple of current events combined to convince me another 600+ words on the subject might not be in vain.

The Christian season of Lent began this past week with Wednesday’s somber and sobering imposition of ashes on the foreheads of the faithful. The service is intended to be a time of humility and self-reflection wherein the supplicants spend time quietly resolving to be both better human beings and make for a better world. This is why it is so curious that the Catholic-in Chief, Pope Benedict XVI, chose this day to release another of his faith-numbing edicts, this one concerning a prayer recited on Good Friday that seeks the conversion of Jews to Catholicism: “Let us now pray for the Jews. May the Lord our God enlighten their hearts so they may acknowledge Jesus Christ, the savior of all men.” Surprisingly, this is supposedly an improvement over a previous prayer employed in the Latin mass which, not incidentally for us Protestants, also begs the Almighty for our own theologically heretical souls along with the Orthodox and any other practicing pagans who somehow missed being burned at the stake.

Although the prayer will only be employed in traditionalist Latin masses, the Pope’s endorsement is a disappointment to religious folk everywhere who seek greater understanding among differing spiritual sojourners. Catholicism and, indeed, all of Christianity seems especially blind to the abuse its theology inflicts on non-believers. Christian hymns and liturgies often utilize language that denigrates disbelievers and, most particularly, Jews. Passages from the Christian New Testament can shock the unfamiliar with their vehement treatment of Judaism. The oft-quoted Gospel of John is especially culpable with its numerous depictions of evil Jewish intent that certainly sowed the seeds of anti-Semitism for the past two millennia. The Gospel of Matthew includes one of the most horrifying passages in scripture, Christian or otherwise, when it describes a Jewish crowd at the time of Jesus’ trial declaring: “His blood be on us and on our children!” (27:25)

The presumptive posture that so many True Believers take in assuming priority for their religious faith often fails to take into consideration the vagaries of their own history. Our belief systems are often intimately tied to our circumstances. Being born in Bangkok rather than Boston probably has more impact on our theology than all the volumes stacked in the Vatican. If our forebears ended up in Minneapolis instead of Myanmar the odds on our being Buddhists go way down. It seems intellectually audacious then to claim with any religious certainty…any religious certainty.

The death last week of Gordon B. Hinckley, 97 year old president of the Mormon Church, offered another opportunity for pondering True Belief. In an interview with Mike Wallace of CBS’ “60 Minutes” several years ago, Hinckley presented himself as a likable leader whose religious convictions were unassailable. The more Wallace probed, the more resolute was Hinckley. Over and over again, the LDS president posited a position that left no room for doubt or even, it seemed to me, a modicum of self-criticism. Such assurance may appear admirable to some but for others it is an arrogance that can have disastrous even diabolical results. One need only remember the discriminatory practices the Mormon Church engaged in against African-Americans up until quite recently, unquestionably assuming they were only following orders from a presumably white, male, upper-middle-class, all-American God.

Similar bigotries continue to be used against women, gays, Jews, and many others by both Mormons and Christians, all justified by an unshakable conviction that this is the will of God.

Many years ago, when I was much smarter than I am today and while employed as a self-assured pastor, I justified a controversial decision I had made by declaring that it was the will of God. After the service, a man I very much admired came up to me and told me he was quitting the church. I was stunned and sputtered out a “Why?” “Because I don’t want to be a part of a church that uses God to stop discussion and deny legitimate dissent.” I lost a member that day but learned a valuable lesson.

Wars are fought, lives are ruined, cultures are destroyed, races are completely or nearly annihilated and intellectual integrity is denied when religious certainty disallows honest doubt and open inquiry. Beware the True Believer.

Sunday, February 03, 2008

The Practicing Progressive

February 3, 2008

I’ve always been something of a cynic. It is a most employable asset, I’ve found, when dealing with the vagaries of the human condition. Certainty, be it found in religious convictions, political rhetoric or simple relationships, is almost certain to cause havoc.

I was reminded of certainty’s dangers this week while touring a Hindu monastery on the beautiful Hawaiian island of Kauai. The monastery is being built to provide a spiritual home to the resident monks of the island who have developed a reputation for community service and committed hospitality. My tour guide was not a monk, however, but a dedicated Hindu believer who was kind enough to show us around the fascinating temple in the jungle.

My fascination took on a slightly harder edge as my guide began to describe with unmitigated conviction her version of the ultimate truths of the universe. With nary a moment’s hesitation for self-reflection, the guide sought to take me well beyond the monastery grounds and into an entirely different reality filled with elaborate and intricately detailed descriptions of life in the great beyond. No reservations for her, only a certainty about the mysteries of the cosmos that seemed to satisfy completely for her even a hint of troubling theological conundrums.

As kind and gracious as my guide was I was more than a little troubled with her utter absence of any equivocation about her beliefs! Such certainty, even when it comes in such a charming manner and place leaves me uneasy. Doubt, be it Hindu or Christian, Baptist or Buddhist is, at least for me, an admirable attribute that provides opportunity for true spiritual growth.

“True believers” have been the cause of untold suffering over the ages. Folk who find in their limited experience and knowledge all the answers to the myriad of life’s mysteries often are tempted to demand such certainty from others. A movie star unblinkingly boasting that his religion is superior to all others or a televangelist demanding most of your money and all of your mind are frighteningly close to the deranged dictator whose call for submission is refused at great peril.

When we hear politicians speak the language of “true belief” we should sit up and take notice. “You are either with us or against us.” is the kind of declaration that precludes doubt among the disciples. It doesn’t take more than a brief look at the headlines to see the ramifications of such self-assured rhetoric. Saber-rattling over Iran, tribal slaughter in Kenya, renewed religious hatred in Serbia, all come from the same true-believing source.

Evidence for the True Believer’s destructive power needn’t be limited to nations or cultures. Probably most of us can think of some friend or family member causing all kinds of havoc by the insistence of similar certainties. I know of many families that have faced painful fracturing caused by the religious or political rigidity of one unmoveable member. The ability to view life from varying perspectives can be a healing bridge not just between families but nations and cultures as well.

Many years ago, two similarly attired young men appeared at my door and pleasantly inquired as to my religious beliefs. Recognizing the need to follow my own advice, I invited them in. As we spoke it became clear to all three of us that no one was about to change the convictions of any other right then so we relaxed and moved our conversation beyond our religious differences. While we spoke, one of the young men picked up the Lutheran hymnal I kept on my desk. In the midst of our now pleasant chatter he exclaimed, “Why you sing ‘A Mighty Fortress’, too!” The fact that this particular hymn was written nearly 500 years before by Martin Luther himself and long before the young men’s religion even came into being was apparently unknown to these bicycling missionaries. Their eyes grew wide with this new revelation and together we laughed over our newly discovered bond. Certainty, religious and otherwise, prevents us from realizing that we are more alike than different.

One of the hallmarks of a healthy culture, at least in my mind, is a willingness, even eagerness, to embrace other avenues for enrichment beyond our own parochial prejudices. Such openness demands a relinquishing of certainty but rewards with the hope of a peaceful future.