Tag Archives: Christianity

Faith Demystified- When Religion Turns Toxic


 

know-you-by-your-loveWhen Religion Turns Toxic

When religion turns toxic it can become one of the most destructive forces on the planet. Whether we are talking about the Crusades, Mayan human sacrifice, the Inquisition, the genocidal conquest of the New World, the KKK, the Salem Witch Hunt, Islamic terrorism, or the actions of the Westboro Baptist Church, we are talking about hatred justified by religious fanaticism.

Of course not all religion is toxic. There are beautiful expressions of faith that can have world changing effects upon both believers and those whose lives they touch. There are religious beliefs and practices that transcend our ordinary existence, and make us one with the divine, the cosmos, the world in which we live, and our fellow travelers on this journey through life.

Think of Jimmy Carter building houses for Habitat for Humanity. Think of the gentle spirituality of the Dali Lama. Think of Albert Schweitzer, or Saint (Mother) Teresa of Kolcata giving their lives to serve the poor. Think of the divine transcendence of taize worship, wherein Christians and even non-Christians of diverse tribes come together to focus on the God of all. Think of the Baha’i faith, with its nine doorways of enlightenment.

What is necessary then is to understand the signs of toxic religion and to prevent it from developing.

Tribalism

Humanity throughout its history, even its prehistory, has been organized into tribes. Tribes can represent bonds of kinship, race, ethnicity, nationality, lifestyle, religious sects, or other demographic groupings that give us our primary identity. As we are social creatures, tribes are essential to our existence. Our culture and language are of tribal origin. Our tribal membership is an overwhelming factor in how we live, act, think, and believe.

Our tribal memberships give us a place in our community, and this is essential to human life. But the downside of tribal membership is that it can separate us from those who are not of our tribe.

If your tribal religion causes you to hate another tribe then it is toxic. If your tribe is the standard by which all other tribes are to be judged then it is toxic. If your tribe proclaims superiority over all other tribes, then it is toxic.

True spirituality rejects superiority and embraces inclusiveness. It embraces curiosity and the desire to learn about the ways of other tribes. It seeks to understand all science, human behavior, and wisdom gleamed from diverse sources. A mountain may be climbed by many different paths, and yet it is the same mountain with the same summit. The path that we chose may be the favorite path of our tribe, well known by our tribe’s long history. We know each step and handhold from those who have climbed the path before us. But to really understand the mountain we need to know the paths others have climbed.

Absolutism

Absolutist religion is highly toxic. When a tribe believes that it possesses the truth, and that all other tribes are misguided infidels, then there is no room for compromise or even dialogue. The absolutist tribe is ready to punish or even exterminate those who follow a different path. Their opponents are demonized as godless, heathens, infidels. Even related tribes which share most of their beliefs with the absolutist tribe believe are still singled out for contempt that may lead to persecution. Intra-religious warfare between Protestant and Catholic Christians, or Sunni or Shia Muslims can be even fiercer than inter-religious rivalries. Sometimes it is hard to tell the Christians from the lions without a program.

Control Needs

Toxic religion seeks to control others. Freedom of religion begins with freedom from the religion of others. The fanatic believes that they alone speak for God, that they alone can interpret their tribe’s sacred scriptures, and that they have the right to rule over others even by force of law. Those who most demand obedience to the sacred scriptures seem not to have even read them!

The fundamentalist always begins by expounding on the authority of the scriptures. And after doing that, then begin to spout off about their own personal beliefs and prejudices. “Yoga pants are a sin!” That one is a comic example, but others are utterly toxic. “God helps those who help themselves!” says no scripture ever. “Life begins at conception.” The ancients had no notion of conception whatsoever. They knew that a man could plant a seed in a fertile woman that would occasionally lead to new life.  But reproductive biology was well beyond their ability to understand.

A serious read of the Christian gospels reveals that Jesus spent a lot of time and energy disputing with the Pharisees and Sadducees, who were part of the religious right of his day. These people were hyper religious, self-righteous, fanatical control freaks that somehow believed that they alone could interpret the scriptures or to speak for God. Jesus preferred the company of Roman tax collectors, prostitutes, and sinners.

Living in Fantasy

If you fail to understand the world through scientific eyes, you will wallow in superstition and expend your energies trying to appease an angry god. We laugh at stories of primitive tribes throwing virgins into volcanoes to prevent eruptions. In truth the volcano is indifferent to human life, and the sacrifice of the virgin is both tragic and wasteful. Volcanism is the result of plate tectonics and not divine displeasure.  Throughout our history, and even our prehistory, tribes have made sacrifices, even human sacrifices, to appease their angry gods. We need rain at the right times and in the right amount. We need fertile fields and abundant crops. Our ancestors needed seasonal animal migrations at their appointed times in order to survive. We feel powerless over the forces of nature that can bring storms or fair weather, abundance or starvation.

We may laugh at such primitive views of religion, but in fact we still practice them today. How many times have you heard that God is punishing us due to abortion or gay marriage? Such theories are the modern equivalent of throwing virgins into volcanoes. My standard reply to such absurdities is that if God did not smite the United States over chattel slavery or genocidal warfare against the Native Americans, we can be assured that God is not losing any sleep over gay marriage.

Others believe that God will protect us from all harm. Global climate change cannot happen because God will protect us! Nuclear war? God will prevent that from happening. Destruction of the ecosystem from the variety of poisons that we use to grow our food? God will feed us manna from heaven.

Those who are locked into an anti-scientific world view deny reality. They refuse to accept facts or logic or even common sense. They are sure that the religious mythology that they have been taught is the only way to view the world. Religious mythology becomes a closed loop system that proves itself true and everything outside its narrow bounds as false. It denies the very real and present dangers that threaten to destroy our civilization.

We can survive and even thrive as a species and a civilization but only if we learn to manage the Earth as trustees. We need to lessen the effects of global climate change, nuclear proliferation, pollution, poverty and hunger. We need to work at a sustainable economic system that provided food, shelter, potable water, energy, education, and health care for all of the Earth’s people.

 

 

 

THE PROGRESSIVE CHURCH DILEMMA


Troubled Church

Progressive churches are in a dilemma, caught between fundamentalism on the one side and secularization on the other side.  While progressives have dismissed any interpretation of the Bible that is based upon fundamentalism, it can be very hard to decipher what that post-fundamentalist message actually is.

THE MESSAGE

Recently I attended a United Methodist Church (UMC) that had an energetic outreach ministry to drug addicts, homeless people, and a host of others who were in various ways the outcasts of society.  I went to worship because I had heard good things if this incredible ministry.  But the “worship” service had little sense of worship.  In her sermon she made only the most offhanded mention of the scriptures that had been read earlier.  The worship seemed more like a 12-Step meeting or perhaps a self-help lecture from a non-credit adult education program at a high school or community college.  There was no sense of Christian teachings or concepts.  But the biggest void was in the utter lack of transcendence.

Recently I was speaking with a United Church of Christ (UCC) pastor, who said with obvious exaggeration to make his point, that in the UCC it was impossible to speak of Jesus anymore because half of the UCC Pastors are Unitarians and the other half are Buddhist.  The UCC has as its motto that “God is still speaking,”  meaning that there are yet fresh insights emerging from the scriptures on such topics as global climate change and lesbian, gay, bi and transgender (LGBT) issues.

The UCC has been unabashedly progressive for many years.  The conservatives have long ago left that denomination leaving a Church where progressive ideas are the mainstay.

My own home denomination, the Presbyterian Church USA (PCUSA) has a rather different problem.  While the bulk of that church is progressive, there remains a stubborn rear-guard of fundamentalists who would rather stay and fight then retreat to their own more conservative grouping.  Sometimes I wish that the fundamentalists would have been tossed out way back in the 1930’s when this conflict first heated up the church.  For the last 80+ years the PCUSA has been locked in a tedious and ruinous battle between conservative and progressive camps.  This battle has kept the church from moving forward and has usually generated more heat than light.

But there has been one positive effect of this ongoing battle. Progressives in the PCUSA are forced to turn to the scriptures and our faith traditions in battling the fundamentalists.  In the PCUSA it is not sufficient to pursue a modernist agenda, such as women’s rights, LGBT, global climate change, etc. without appealing to the scriptures and our faith positions.  Thus, global climate change must be addresses as a defense of God’s creation.  LGBT issues must be addressed as a call for justice, acceptance, mercy, and hospitality towards those who are different from us.

  • Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.
  • What does God require of us but to do justice, love kindness and walk humbly with our God?
  • What God has called clean let no one call unclean.
  • Judge not that you be not judged.

PASSION AND COMMITMENT

For some reason it is hard to hold people with progressive ideas together.  What can the progressive churches do to hold congregations together in a progressive witness as opposed to spinning off into secularism?  The more conservative churches seem to benefit from an unquenchable fervor that seems rare in the progressive churches.  How can we progressives fix that?

One thing that keeps us from passionate participation is that the progressive agenda is quite broad.  Progressives are free thinkers, not group thinkers.  For example, one of my progressive colleagues that I deeply respect has come out strongly against the Keystone Pipeline.  While I would agree with her on 90% of what she believes in, there are still points of disagreement.  I understand her concerns that the pipeline may lead to more global warming.  Also, a large part of Alberta Canada will need to be strip mined to get at the tar sands.

But on the other hand I want to say that America needs to end its dependence on foreign oil. And, we need to stop buying oil from terrorists. If this Canadian oil is not burned in the US it is likely to be burned in China or some other place with environmental regulations that are much weaker than we have in place.

Our alternative energy sources are not yet in place.  Recently we have seen the virtual implosion of the ethanol industry due to droughts and high corn prices.  We have found that ethanol is a very inefficient way of producing energy, and it also depletes a portion of our food supply in a world filled with famine and drought.

I believe that reasonable people can disagree about the best course of action.  But how can we build a congregation or a denomination if we are about everyone doing his or her own thing in his or her own way?

What can we do as a church that will get people genuinely excited?  To some progressives, being the church means opening a food pantry in the community and sending a medical mission to Guatemala.  And surely both are important forms of Christian service.  But the Church must also be more than just another social service agency.

But food pantries and medical missions can also be a way of building relationships of dependency.  They can create a dichotomy of US vs. THEM.  Instead we need to do mission in a way that builds communities out of diversity.  That is a tough issue.  The takeaway from a medical mission to Guatemala should be in the building of transcultural bridges, and not just in giving vaccines to an indigent people.  In short, these efforts need to be transcendent, lifting us out of ourselves and creating new families and communities not bound by culture, nationality, language or economic circumstances.

POST CHRISTIAN ERA

“The American Religious Identification Survey (ARIS) in 2008 determined that only 9% of Americans said religion was the most important think in their life, compared with 45% who said family was paramount in their life, and 17% who said that money and career was paramount”

(Wikipedia Article:  Religion in the United States)

It is not surprising that many today find religion to be irrelevant.  The fundamentalists want to drag us back to the 18th Century (pre-Darwin) and the Romans want to drag us back to the 15th Century (the time of absolute world domination by the Bishop of Rome).  Even fundamentalists need to eventually admit that dinosaurs were real, and that the Garden of Eden was just a story.  Many have yet to learn how to take the Bible seriously without having to take it literally.

Neither Billy Graham nor the Pope nor Rick Santorum will ever persuade people to stop having sex, no matter how hard they might try.  And, they will use contraception.  This applies to married and single, young and old, gay, straight and bisexual.  So we might as well get used to it.  No amount of moralizing will ever overwhelm a most basic human drive which is necessary for the continuance of the human species.

In my own small town of nearly 9,000 people, there are only two churches that could be labeled as progressive.  There is a UCC congregation with an average attendance of about 30.  The pastor there refuses to preach.  He will say that he used to be a Baptist fundamentalist, but that he got over it. But he seems unable to describe the subsequent chapters of his faith journey.

There is also an Episcopal congregation with less than 10 people in worship.  There is also a Southern Baptist Church, a Roman Catholic Church, a Seventh Day Adventist Church, and a conservative Lutheran Church (not ELCA).  There is an unbranded Pentecostal church that seems to be like an Assembly of God congregation.  There is another Pentecostal church and another fundamentalist Baptist church.  There is also a Mormon outlet, but I will not count this as a Christian church.

So, in a town of nearly 9,000 people there are perhaps 40 people worshiping in progressive Christian congregations.  I am guessing that in total of all the other churches combined represent perhaps 500 worshippers.

But then again, this is California.  And here if a person wants an intense spiritual experience, he or she is more likely to select a nude hot-tub encounter weekend over a Christian retreat.

THE FUTURE

If the progressive wing of the Christian Church is to survive it must find its message.  But more than that, a church is not just a message, it is an avenue to the divine.  Worship must connect the human soul to the divine or else it is nothing but a self-help class. If people only want advice they can sleep in on Sunday mornings and listen to Dr. Phil or read Ann Landers.

We cannot rely upon an affinity of interests to keep a church together.  Rather, the impetus must come from our connection to the divine.  If we ever lose that we can no longer be a church.

It must take its roots in the Judeo-Christian scriptures and our faith traditions.  That is where we must find our commonality.  Otherwise we simply break up arguing over the Keystone Pipeline or other worldly matters.  We must find our roots.  We must find our passion.  We must be as diligent about our prayer and Bible study as any fundamentalist.  We must be as passionate about sharing our message as any evangelical.  Our ministries of compassion must connect us viscerally to those whom we seek to serve.  And in all things we must find Jesus in our midst, and know that it is through him that all things are made possible.