Last night, on Good Friday, I spent too much time responding to a meme posted on Facebook that read “Religion makes fools of us all”.
I was irritated that people feel a need to post atheistic aphorisms on the second most important date in the Christian calendar (after Easter Sunday), and on the Jewish Passover.
I was also frustrated by the terms of debate. What was meant by “religion”? Did it refer here to religious institutions, or to spiritual beliefs and practices, or to faith? If religious institutions, was it directed primarily at Christianity, or a catch-all statement? If Christianity, did it target traditional Roman Catholic Church dogma? Church abuses? If dogma, did it reflect an accurate understanding of the history and doctrines of church institutions?
What I found was people who claimed atheist positions decrying what they perceived as church positions. If I, as a Christian, disputed their interpretations of church positions they told me I was wrong, that my understandings of Christianity are faulty.
I have many faults. Christianity has many faults. The Christian Church has many faults – indeed, Christian churches have many faults. Religious institutions have many faults. Religion generally has many faults. Mea culpa.
But I cannot let stand attacks against religion that are attacks against straw man positions. Dust in the wind we may be, but straws flying loose in hot wind are ridiculous.
What I do NOT believe:
I do not believe in an old white bloke with a long white beard perched On High in a Celestial Firmament.
I do not believe that said old white bloke stretched out a finger and pronounced LIGHT and then created Earth and the universe in seven days.
I do not believe that when I die I will ascend to fluffy clouds and play a harp throughout eternity.
I do not believe that when I die I will descend to a place of fire and brimstone to undergo eternal torment supervised by demons.
I do not believe I will be bodily resurrected on a day of judgement that will see the apocalypse of John’s Revelations.
I do not believe I will meet my dead loved ones – or any others dead and departed – in a conscious after-life.
I do not believe in the laws or prophesies of the Old Testament a.k.a the Hebrew Bible.
I do not believe the literal truth of the Christian gospels.
I do not believe everything the apostle Paul taught. I do not believe Paul always taught in accordance with the teachings of Jesus, whom he never met.
Things I am not sure I believe:
I’m not sure a man named Jesus (or the Aramaic version of) who lived and died as described in the gospels actually existed.
If he existed, I’m not sure the accounts of his last days, trial and execution are historically accurate. Scrub that: I’m pretty sure they’re not.
I’m not sure of the nature of God. Currently I have a concept I embrace, but it’s just that: a concept. Any ‘God’ is beyond human capacity for conceptualisation.
Here’s what I do believe:
Religion is valuable, even essential, and spiritual belief and faith are innate in humans.
Religious belief has brought at least as much good to the world as it has harm.
All ideologies are subject to corruption and abuse. Secular ideologies have within a short recent period caused immense destruction, comparable to the destructions caused across centuries under the banners of religion.
Love is what matters most, is ultimately all that matters.
God is love (my concept, within my limited understanding).
God is the context, the ground of being. God is cause.
In first century Judea, a wandering healer who is remembered as Jesus practiced in Galilee.
His followers believed this man they called Jesus fulfilled the prophesies of Elijah and Isaiah.
This man they called Jesus, who they wrote about after his death, changed history and changed the way human beings view(ed) their responsibilities to one another.
I believe people of religious faith have more in common with each other, in terms of their worldviews, than they might with people who don’t understand and relate to religious faith.
I believe the People of the Book – Jews, Christians, Muslims – are spiritual cousins.
I believe the foundational teachings of the Buddha, Gautama Siddhartha, are compatible with the foundational teachings of the man we know as Jesus.
I believe nothing is lost, everything changes.
I reject any argument that defines a religious faith as a belief in the literal truth of religious texts. That argument attempts to define all religious people as fundamentalist. We are not. Nor are we all members of a church that claims an infallible authority as its earthly head.
Archaic language taints understanding.
To “sin” is a medieval archery term meaning “to miss the mark”, “to fall short”.
To “repent” is to “turn away from”.
“Mercy” is compassion and forgiveness.
“The Church” is the people, the followers of Jesus’s teachings. It is not a building or an institution. The term “church’’ originally meant heralds sent out to spread news.
“Gospel” means “good news”.
“Saints” originally refers to all followers of Jesus’s teachings, not only those formally designated “saints” by the Roman Catholic Church. Hence, “the communion of saints” – the coming together in companionship and mutual affirmation of those who follow Jesus’s teachings.
“The kingdom of heaven” is a state of mind, a state of peace, compassion, integrity.
“For what does your Lord ask of you? To act justly, love kindness, and walk humbly with your God” – Micah 6:8. That’s all there is. (Yes, Micah is a prophet – it’s the laws and prophecies of the Old Testament I reject, not the wisdom teachings.)
Specifically, in relation to the Easter narrative:
As I experience faith, religion provides a spiritual source of strength, support and consolation, which I will term ‘Jesus’, which I can access (pray to or find companionship in) in times of brokenness: those times when I feel frailties, failings, inadequacies (“sins”) threaten to overwhelm me and disable me from choosing kind and just attitudes and taking constructive action. This is not secular, a psychological strategy. This is a spiritual practice. The crucifixion is a metanarrative reminding me there are no depths, no despair, I can sink into where Jesus has not gone before me, where Jesus will not meet me, and from which he has not, metaphorically, risen – and with this spiritual guidance, I can ‘rise’ too.
This is not just me, and not some pathetic, vulnerable “them”. We are all us of broken, in some ways, at some times. There is nothing shameful in being broken. We can heal and grow, though “God”. Our “reborn” self can be a fuller, wiser, kinder self.
I was not born a miserable worm, a piece of smeared shit the Old Man On High looks down upon and scorns. This is not what “Original Sin” (a term I have never heard used in my church) means to me. In so far as there might be “Original Sin”, it is the recognition that we are not born tabula rasa, a blank slate: we are genetically encoded with specific strengths and vulnerabilities. I embody genetically-programmed weaknesses but they do not define me. I am also in a state of grace, always already loved. In the words of the baptismal service, “We love, because God first loved us.”
I can celebrate “God” in the world through loving kindness and service. Loving kindness and service are “God” in action, “God” being in the world. We bring forth “God” in the quality of our interactions with others.
Which brings us to the thorny question of the Trinity, for those who care. The Triune God: Father/Son/Holy Spirit as one being (concept). What if we see the Trinity as a metaphor for inextricable relationship – what Buddhist master Thich Nhat Hanh calls “Interbeing”?
We make sense of our lives through stories. The religious tradition into which we are born is a metanarrative, framing our own stories, helping us understand and shape our stories. Atheists deride religions as “fairy tales”. It’s true religions intersect with the domain of poetics and metaphor. Are poetics and metaphor not “true”? What about the extraordinary art humans have created to express their religious experiences – visual art, music, architecture, writing? Is the only truth the materialist dogma?
It’s undeniable religious institutions, religious dogma and religious fervour have caused immense pain and damage over millennia. On the other side of the ledger, if you ask “What has religion ever done for us?” you can get a Life of Brian-esque liturgy: literacy, schools, hospitals, the evolution of social welfare (e.g. through the Minsters); the principles that drove many of the nineteenth-century Progressives (Abolitionist, prison reformers, asylum reformers, attempts at equitable profit-sharing); a social code nominally based on humans’ innate value, including the value of the most marginal (Jesus made a point of hanging out with the most despised and those usually excluded: madmen, foreigners, women, prostitutes, tax collectors, Roman centurions); the primacy of compassion, love, forgiveness… And that’s just the Christian contribution.
The question I ask of people who post atheist memes is this: “Is it so hard to recognise there are many forms of religious experience and understanding, some of them very sophisticated, some very personal, born of ancient traditions, and they have validity in the lived experiences of their adherents?”