"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Religious Bitching–Watching Churches Duke It Out

Ivan Karamazov in Dostoyevsky’s famous work has an encounter with the returned Christ, and in the guise of The Grand Inquisitor attacks him for his deliberate betrayal of mankind.  Why, asks the Inquisitor, did he promise man heaven and salvation when all he wanted was bread? How could he make innocent children suffer the treachery, deceit, and cruelty of adults? By holding out a divine carrot instead of creating a bountiful world, he not only deceived Man but created a venal, corrupt Church which would for centuries bilk millions out of the faithful.

Let’s leave Tolstoy’s nihilistic speculations aside, and assume for a moment that Christ/God had good intentions when he responded to the temptations of the devil in the desert.  “Man does not live by bread alone”, Christ replied to Satan, and God offers something far more promising and worthwhile than simple sustenance. Absolute obeisance to God and his laws will open the Gates of Heaven; and having no false gods on the altar will assure the singularity of purpose and vision necessary to attain the Kingdom of Heaven.

Adam and Eve were expelled from Paradise for being arrogant, wanted to eat of The Tree of Knowledge and challenging God himself for supremacy; and rather than forgiving them for a very human sin, he consigned Adam and Eve and their successors to a life of penury and pain.  God could have avoided all this – he was the one who created human nature and its tendency to arrogance – but he deliberately let Man struggle and die.  Instead of succor and a good life, he gave Man free will; and this ability to choose between good and evil was the key to Heaven.  One was never sure of attaining celestial grace, but good choices were good insurance. The Grand Inquisitor said nonsense.  Man doesn’t care a fig for free will.  He wants only material satisfaction.

Let’s assume for a minute that God/Jesus really did have Man’s best interests at heart. No duplicity, deceit, or flimsy promises; but a true love and concern for his creation.  If so, then the message is simple.  It really isn’t so hard to lead a good life.  The Ten Commandments are there for ready reference, and even without them, it doesn’t take much to understand that charity, compassion, respect, and good will are the elements of a good society and tickets to heaven.   Christians and the faithful of all religions in fact should be able to live respectfully and harmoniously. 

If all this is true, than poor God/Jesus would be very surprised at all the bitching, carping, and fighting over who’s right and who really has his ear.

Not long after Christ died the complaining began.  The conference at Nicaea in the 2nd Century tried to sort out doctrinal issues – is there really such a thing as a Trinity, for example, and what do we do with the Holy Ghost who always comes in a sorry third after God The Father and God the Son? 

It wasn’t surprising that the Church soon after split into Orthodoxy and Roman Catholicism, and that Orthodoxy continued to split by country. 

The Catholic Church had the right idea learned from the Romans – absolute, unquestioned rule assured by legions of enforcers from Damascus to the North Sea.  However it didn’t take long for Henry VIII to become fed up with the Pope’s sticking his nose into the king’s business and enriching himself from his subjects.

Little did Henry know that opening the door to Protestantism would unleash doctrinal gabbling and intra-faith warfare never before seen.  Protestantism split again and again and in the Twentieth Century, fueled by American entrepreneurial spirit and individualism, sects, cults, and wacko offshoots which would be barely recognizable as Christian to Martin Luther sprang up everywhere.

The United States is arguably the most religious place on earth with more churches per acre than anywhere else.  The diversity is bewildering.  There are Anabaptists and Schwazrenau Brethren; Pietists, Plymouth Brethren, Irvingites, Stone-Campbell Restorationists, Southcotties, Millerites, Swedenborgianists, Syncretistics, African-Initiated AME Zions, and a hundred more – not to mention straight Presbyterians and Methodists.

If there weren’t enough mainstream churches to choose from, thousands of storefront churches spring up every week.  Loosely affiliated within an evangelical framework – one that focuses on a personal and direct relationship with Jesus Christ – these small religious enterprises are very American in their eclecticism, and as manipulative as the Church criticized by The Grand Inquisitor.

So inter-faith squabbling is de rigeur.  There is only one God, and Jesus Christ is his son and anointed Savior of Mankind, but you would never know it by the sniping and all-out vitriolic attacks from all sides.

Pope Benedict, for example, was very upset at this profusion of storefront churches which had given up on logic and rationality of Augustine and Aquinas and gone over to the dark side of animism and cultish fetishism.  He, of course, was defending the church with as much vigor as any chief executive would defend his company or country from untoward and fissiparous challenges; but he seemed to overlook the essential fact – one God, one Jesus Christ, and a big tent.

For a Catholic, especially a lapsed one, it is difficult to understand the differences, for example, between Methodists and Presbyterians let alone Irvingites and Southcotties.  There are many useful sources of comparative information including many with interactive features, but for the life of me I still can’t decipher doctrinal differences between faiths on angels, Satan, or the role of Mary let alone the subtle differences in interpretation concerning the Trinity. 

It doesn’t matter, of course.  No one actually chooses to be Lutheran or Baptist, but simply becomes one in a natural elision from father to son.

I had a friend who had become disenchanted with the Catholic Church – too much haranguing about sin, lechery, and concupiscence; too little responsiveness; and far too much sanctimony and self-righteousness.  I knew exactly how he felt having sat through the same whiplashing, demonizing sermons of Father Brophy and looking at the lecherous leer of Father O’Donnell through the confessional grate on hundreds of Saturdays; but I, unlike my friend, cut the tether quickly and cleanly once I left home.

My friend said that he would not be doing justice to faith if he didn’t investigate other Christian religions where perhaps his soul would find a home if not a resting place; but a few months later he told me that he was as in the dark as ever.  He could see no real doctrinal issues among the churches he favored (old, New England-style white-frame-and-steeple varieties). 

There were some liturgical variations, but essentially very minor.  What surprised him was the reaction he got from the pastors he interviewed.  “It was like being recruited by Florida State”, he said.  Not only did the clerics commend his choice for having chosen the right school, but they went out of their way to demean, derogate, and downright spit on competitors.

“No, son, you don’t want to go there”, one pastor told him. “They have erred in their ways and fallen off the Path of the Righteous.  They have fallen into the worst kind of Papist idolatry.  It is far worse than a circus.”

This scenario repeated itself again and again regardless of the denomination. It was football draft time times ten.

Christians of course are not the only ones with doctrinal schisms.  Muslims have been arguing about primacy ever since the first disputes within Mohammed’s family.  Hindus have Shaivites and Vaishnavites, and even within this most tolerant and accepting religion, followers of Shakta, Shiva and Vishnu never seem to agree.  The Jews are no exception and Chasidic, Orthodox, Reform and Conservative followers are often at odds.

Michael Gerson writing in the Washington Post (9.28.14) adds another dimension to religious discord.  American evangelicals are having a go at each other for differing political views which have been derived from their own particular interpretation of the Bible and Protestant tradition.  While most are in lockstep when it comes to the godlessness of the political Left, there is more give on social issues than one would have thought.

Take environmentalism, for example. Some evangelicals have come to believe that it their duty to help preserve what God has created while others have said intervention in the affairs of God are folly and presumptuous.  If God wanted old growth forests to remain in perpetuity, he would have put some brake on human reproduction, thus reducing pressures on the environment. 

Some devout Christians say that gay sex is and always will be perverted buggery, damned by Jesus Christ in the Bible.  Others say that homosexuals have been created by God, so they should have a place at the table along with the rest of us.

The politicization of religion has never been more apparent than in 21st century America.  Even the old Popes who played politics before anything else, had nothing on the highly-charged political evangelism of today.  Whereas only the Popes and their ministers played politics in the old days, leaving faith and good works to their minions and faithful peasantry, today everybody gets into the act.  Religion and politics have become fused. Bitching, infighting, and claims to the truth – and more importantly to money and power – are the rule, not the exception.

Gerson concludes by saying:

There is an alternative: A commitment to civility, rooted in respect for universal human dignity. A passion for the common good, defined by inclusion of the most vulnerable. A belief in institutional religious freedom and pluralism for the benefit of everyone, including non-Christian faiths.

This type of religious engagement will not always prevail, but it would, at least, be distinctly religious.

Yes, and Jesus would be very happy indeed if this were ever to come about; but unfortunately as The Grand Inquisitor revealed, Jesus made the big mistake of creating a mythic and very desirable heaven for which men and women would fight tooth and nail. He should have foreseen that human nature being what it is, no one would be happy with just one religion; and vying for divine favor was as natural as for that of Henry VIII.

My inquiring friend, needless to say, gave up his search for the right religion and joined me in those who check ‘Indifferent’ in the appropriate box in the Religion section of the census.  “Let ‘em duke it out”, he said to me one day. “It’s always fun to watch.”

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