Christians Awake Part II: What Do You Believe?

Part I was about a cult begun by an egomaniac, exploiting people in the name of Jesus. Part II asks what is the difference between a cult and a religion? Is it that religions don’t set out to exploit people?  But what about what they say they believe?

Consider three anecdotes about friends who were raised as Catholics:

1) Today some of us were sitting around and the subject of religion, then communion came up. Someone said, “You know, the Catholics believe that when the priest blesses the wafer, it actually turns into the body of Christ—it’s not a symbol for them, it really is His body.” One of my colleagues who was raised Catholic, and had gone through First Communion at the age of 13 was dumbfounded—she didn’t attend services anymore, but somehow she had missed that central tenet of the Roman Church all these years.  Now she just shook her head in disbelief and a pained look crossed her face.

2) A few years ago I was talking with a Catholic friend and the subject of the Immaculate Conception came up.   “That’s the same thing as the Virgin Birth,” he said—that Mary miraculously conceived even though she was a virgin.” I corrected him, reporting that it’s actually the belief that Mary herself was conceived immaculately, that is, free from the taint of Original Sin. Her mother, St. Anne, conceived the normal way, they say, but God acted on Mary in the womb, removing that sin so she would be a proper vessel (if that’s the phrase) for the baby Jesus. My friend stared at me a moment, somewhat shocked, then heaved a big sigh.

3) A friend who went to a Catholic school in a major city told me recently that the moment he became an atheist was when he was 14 and the bishop came to visit their school.   The boys were all lined up in the chapel to honor his visit, and here he came, down the aisle in his robes, his finery, and on his hat, the mitre—or “that pointy hat” as my friend called it. In that moment he said to himself, “How can we take all this seriously? There is no way that God wants him dressed like that.”

It’s presumptuous for a non-Catholic to make these observations, but the point is simply this: if you say you are part of a group, Catholic, Protestant, or anything, shouldn’t you know what that group’s beliefs are? Otherwise, if you can’t buy into those beliefs, or accept the rituals and the dress, shouldn’t you call yourself something else to avoid confusion?   And if you can’t buy into some of those beliefs, which beliefs are you buying into? The ones that seem more reasonable?

Do you get to do that? Pick and choose?

Most church leaders would say no.

The Humanist would say yes, that’s exactly what you should be doing.

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Christians Awake! Quit the Cult

The death of Tony Alamo in federal prison this week brought to mind all the damage done in the name of Jesus Christ by charlatans disguised as men of God. Here’s a guy who managed to convince hundreds if not thousands of people that he had a direct line to the Lord and if they would only turn over all their money and assets to the Church he created, they would be able to listen in and salvation would be theirs.

Presto! a cult is founded.

He had a TV ministry back in the late 70s and made a fortune selling, of all things, designer rhinestone jackets to pop stars, jackets that are still being sold online for a hefty sum. Shouldn’t that be a tip-off that all is not right in the New Jerusalem when your spiritual leader is selling both salvation and sequins?

Salvation: it’s what so many are looking for–a way out of the morass that their lives have become, or, perhaps they are just spiritual seekers, looking for a creed, a guru, floating around like chemical ions, waiting for that attraction, that pull that will create a bond to make their lives complete in a blinding flash, and I do mean blinding.

Alamo did a lot of sleazy things, but the worst was using salvation as a threat to get women and girls as young as 15 to sleep with him. He was on the run from the FBI for years and when they finally caught up with him, he ended up with a jail term of 175 years. At the sentencing Alamo is reported to have said “I’m glad I’m me and not the deceived people in the world.”

And there you have it. There are the Tony Alamos and there are the deceived.   But there are also the sons and daughters of the Enlightenment, who (we can only hope) will eventually outnumber both groups and combat hubris and ignorance with Humanism.

You don’t need a guru, you need to recognize that the sacred is all around us and does not involve complete surrender to a charismatic leader.   We all feel the need to belong to something—that’s the Sacrament of the Group. We also need people to guide us through life. That’s the Sacrament of Friends and Mentors. But the Tony Alamos of the world represent the dark side of both of those sacraments, when greed, lust, and ego masquerade as Goodness.

It all boils down to this: don’t abandon reason in your search for the Spirit.

New Church’s Motto: It’s Relationships Not Religion

A very moving story appeared in the local paper about a married, Christian couple who started a successful pizzeria years ago. Then she came down with multiple sclerosis.   Their lives became very difficult as she grew worse, but their faith only grew. When she became nearly immobile, they began holding non-denominational church services right there in the restaurant with family members attending. Then word spread and others began to join them.   Currently their congregation is small, but thriving and they’re moving into a larger space.     But what jumped out at you in the article was what her son said about their gatherings. Commenting on the falling membership in churches around the country, he said he hopes to “reinvigorate people’s faith—we’re a relationship, not a religion.”

Relationships.

Isn’t that what it’s all about, when you come right down to it?   And the point is, relationships with other people. This is what brought friends and acquaintances into their services in the restaurant. Her illness required support from others, spiritual support and physical support. That’s something we all need.   It’s what I call the extension of the Sacrament of Death because it’s not just at a deathbed that we need to become caregivers.   We all get sick, and we all need help when we do. Sometimes we get better soon, and sometimes they last a lifetime, but what doesn’t change is our need for courage to get through it, and our need for support when we’re weak and in pain.

Some may argue that as far as relationships go, the primary one is between you and Jesus or God or Allah.  Some may call on the deity or on one of the many saints for help in these crises, and if that works for you, more power to you. But that still doesn’t change the basic need for human-to-human contact and the touch of a hand or a cheering word from someone at your bedside. The Spirit, or if you like, the “Hand of God” works through our fellow human beings and it is through human relationships– compassion, friendship, caregiving and caring–that we can provide and receive some degree of solace in these difficult times.

Some Christians like to remind us that the Bible says “only through Christ” can you be saved, and maintain that these humanistic teachings get us off the track.  More on that later.

 

Christianity and the Man in the High Castle

Of all the things Jesus taught the most difficult is found in Matthew 5:38-41:

38 Ye have heard that it hath been said, An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth:

39 But I say unto you, That ye resist not evil: but whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also.

40 And if any man will sue thee at the law, and take away thy coat, let him have thy cloak also.

41 And whosoever shall compel thee to go a mile, go with him twain.

There is no doubt that we would have a much better world if all of us could adopt these precepts and adhere to them willingly. Imagine all the blood feuds that would end if we gave up on the eye-for-an-eye approach to justice. But wait…. If somebody wants your coat, give him your cloak too? If he wants your car, give it to him and hand over your house as well?    If he makes you work for him one day, work two? Where would that end?  He’d be rich and you’d be a beggar on the street.

The key here is that everybody would have to agree to this novel idea. If one group of people stuck with the “compelling” part of this passage, they would be able to rule the world. Take the Nazis for example.

After having watched the second season of The Man in the High Castle the challenges of a Christian approach are clear. If the Nazis and Japanese military had won the Second World War what a terrible world we would have had!   Both shared an utterly ruthless approach to life. Anyone who stood in their way was destroyed without pity. And what was really striking in the final episode was that the Resistance fighters ended up being just as ruthless, just as pitiless as the Nazis themselves because if a Nazi is going to compel you to walk a mile and you do it, you will soon become his slave. He will happily wipe out an entire city or race of people who stand in his way and as a Christian, you would bow your head and accept his death sentence meekly—after all, it’s the meek who inherit the Earth. The only way to avoid this consequence is to convert every single Nazi to Christianity or fight back and become as ruthless as they are.

But that’s not the last word.   In the final episode of the show it turns out that compassion at a personal level—that all-important human-to-human sacrament– saves the day—sort of.   It’s a world of paradoxes—to say any more would give too much away. Watch it—it makes you think.

Birth Control: Is Pope Francis Leading Us to the Gates of Hell?

News surfaced yesterday that there is a cohort of Catholic Church leaders who are not at all happy about where Pope Francis is taking the Church.   In a video they created called “Plea to the Pope” they are extremely upset by his hints that the times they are a-changin’. They object specifically to the ideas that

-contraception is OK to combat zika

– divorced Catholics who have remarried should be permitted back into the Church

– Church leaders should be more accepting of gays

The video-makers feel like Francis is creating ambiguity if not chaos within the Church by changing decades of traditional teachings. Their language is apocalyptic:

“I love the Holy Father. I pray for him every day, …but we need to work for Christ and his truth. And I need to defend my own family, and [statements he has made are] a threat to the faith of my children.”

Wow.  “Defend”?…”Threat”?  One woman calls the present situation “a horror.”

Others mention that the Catholic Church will cease to exist if it accepts contraception. One participant warns that “the contraceptive mentality destroys families, it destroys countries, and it will destroy our Christian civilization.”

The supplicants begin by assuring us that they love the Holy Father but he’s leading the Church to the gates of hell.   Most interesting of all is that they all pray for him every day, and urge their listeners to do the same. This is surely a backhanded way of saying that they’re pretty certain they know something the Pope doesn’t know (i.e., what God really wants) and if they pray hard enough God will get him to snap out of whatever blind, bum trip he’s on.

But here is the paradox for Catholics: is the Pope infallible or isn’t he? Just to refresh the memory: infallibility means that whatever the Pope says on matters of great moral import can be considered God’s truth. There is a limit: he cannot contradict what is clearly stated in the Bible, but through study, he can guide the Catholic Church on “solemn, official teachings on faith and morals.” So if the Pope decides there is nothing against condoms in the Bible, then these folks have got to either accept it, or start their own church. That’s what the Protestants did, and for the same reasons.  He was the Antichrist then, remember, and though no one has applied that term to Francis, it’s really what they’re hinting at when they say he needs to work for “Christ’s truth.”

The filmmakers are to be admired for their desire for the Good, but surely their reliance on tradition and Bible verses from 2000 plus years ago is misplaced. Isn’t it clear on a pragmatic level, that using no contraception will inevitably result in disaster as overpopulation destroys us? That, and not the Pope, is what is going to lead us to the gates of hell, when starving people driven to desperation try to move en masse to other countries, or start wars to acquire the dwindling food stores and water supplies that remain on this over-burdened, suffering planet.

98% of American Catholic women of child-bearing age have used contraception despite what the Church has taught for decades. Thank God for that.

See also A Lost Parable: The Sin of Contraception.

Beware the Politician Who Talks to God

Urgent message to my fellow New Hampshirites who are puzzling over who to vote for in next week’s primary:

Please don’t vote for Ted Cruz.

I know, I know, he’s got a lot of what you’re looking for in a president: he’s arrogant, he tells bad jokes, he can make his voice do all those weird things when he gives a speech—that quiver, that whisper, that calculated pause that reminds you so much of the televangialist about to pick your pocket.

But whatever appeal he has for you, consider this: the New York Times reported that Cruz believes a president should spend every morning on his knees in prayer, asking for guidance from God.   Now that may sound good, but in reality, it’s hard to know when God is talking to you, and when you’re talking to yourself. The last president who so openly made a point about praying on his knees to God was William McKinley in 1899.   Back then there were many in the United States who were proud of the fact that we, unlike the Europeans, had never wanted an empire.  Yes, it would have been nice to remind them of all the land we took from the Native-Americans and the Mexicans, but at least we were not trying to colonize Asia and Africa. Then along came the Spanish-American War, and the question of the Philippines. We had defeated the Spanish with the help of the Filipino freedom fighters, but then what? The Filipinos wanted independence, but McKinley got a message from God:

I walked the floor of the White House night after night until midnight; and I am not ashamed to tell you, gentlemen, that I went down on my knees and prayed Almighty God for light and guidance more than one night. And one night late it came to me this way—I don’t know how it was, but it came: (1) That we could not give them back to Spain—that would be cowardly and dishonorable; (2) that we could not turn them over to France and Germany—our commercial rivals in the Orient—that would be bad business and discreditable; (3) that we could not leave them to themselves—they were unfit for self-government—and they would soon have anarchy and misrule over there worse than Spain’s was; and (4) that there was nothing left for us to do but to take them all, and to educate the Filipinos, and uplift and civilize and Christianize them, and by God’s grace do the very best we could by them, as our fellow-men for whom Christ also died. And then I went to bed, and went to sleep, and slept soundly…

In other words, God told McKinley to double-cross the Filipino rebels.  For Christ’s sake.  The results were a three-year war–the USA against the rightful leaders of the Philippines–25,000 dead fighters, an unknown number of civilian deaths, brutal massacres, diseases, ….the usual horror stories.

God also forgot to clue McKinley in that the Filipinos were already Christians—7 million out of 7.6 million people.   OK, OK, …so they were all Catholics, so maybe what God meant was that He wanted McKinley to get out there and turn them into good evangelical Protestants, like….hey! like Ted Cruz!

Cruz wants to carpet bomb ISIS–is that what God told him?  Why not just use a nuclear weapon? The sky’s the limit when you clear your mind of the facts in order to chat with the Creator.

So let’s ask for a little less God in our president, a little more reason, and a lot more integrity.

If you liked this, try “God’s Plan” or “How to Ruin the World

The Salem Witches and the 2016 Election

Back in 1692, as every child knows, Salem, Massachusetts was infested with witches who tortured teenaged girls, nearly delivering the town into the hands of Lucifer. It was a close call, but the local clergy were on the job, some big guns were called in from Boston, and with the aid of divine Providence they managed to overcome these minions of Satan. They hustled them into nooses and twenty people ended up dead, among them my ancestor Martha Carrier. But it was worth it. The danger was averted.

Except there was no danger. It was all hysteria.

Paul Boyer and Stephen Nissenbaum’s study of Salem show that it wasn’t a coven of witches that was the problem, it was social conflicts in the town. The accusers’ families were all old-timers who felt threatened by change. The old Puritan values were eroding as newcomers filtered in.   Life was less and less about God and prayer, and more about making a good living in trade.

When people feel threatened, they lash out. When they are surrounded by changes that they can’t control, they look for scapegoats. In Salem, the families who suffered were the ones who were focused more on progress, and less on traditions.  It was the traditionalists’ last stand against a changing world.

That’s where we are today as well.   Things are changing out there.   The faces in the country aren’t as white as they used to be. Marriage doesn’t mean what it once did.   More and more people are abandoning their traditional churches and replacing them with nothing. The world is a scary place. If you’re a good Christian it’s time to circle the wagons, beef up the defenses, and get ready to strike back for the Old America  “with the cross of Jesus going on before” as the old hymn has it.

Who will lead the counter-attack? Someone who isn’t afraid to invoke the name of Jesus Christ, someone who stands up for traditional values, who will savage the upstarts, who will blow the enemy out of the water, and make us great again.   Someone who will bring us forward into the past.

That explains the polls placing two of the most unpleasant individuals ever to grace a podium in the forefront of the Republican race.  One of them calls to mind nothing so much as a snake-oil salesman or a televangelist with his unctuous pandering and references to God.   The other is, as was pointed out in a column I read somewhere, a pro wrestler who threw himself into the political ring with all of the phony theatricality and over-the-top bluster that entails.   And the crowd loves them.

They’re doing what Salem did, playing on the perceived threats to tradition, making people crazy with their hysterical flourishes.

Please, America, give these guys the heave-ho!

 

 

What Do Christians Owe the Migrants?

Angela Merkel, the Chancellor of Germany, has welcomed the migrants fleeing the failed states of the developing world, and now she’s in trouble.   She’s the head of a Christian, conservative party in Germany, and perhaps is motivated by the tenets of that faith to proclaim so expansively that “We can do this!” We can give these poor people a life again! And yet….

Here’s the problem: Christians are told to love their fellow man. However, when the migrants come in enormous waves, what do you do about that? It’s easy enough to love them when they’re in a distant country and you can write a check to a charity that will somehow ameliorate the wretchedness of their lives, but when they show up hungry in your backyard by the dozens, hundreds, thousands, millions!….then loving them becomes a challenge indeed.   And they’re not even Christians! What would Jesus do?

In 1889, some Bostonians got together to found the Society of Christian Socialism, with the purpose of convincing the country that anyone who claims to be a true Christian, must inevitably consider themselves a Socialist. So Merkel’s Christianity and her rival party’s socialism intersect at the border checkpoints.   The union of Christianity and Socialism: now there’s a thought that the current crop of candidates for president might chew on for a while.  Socialism, the bogieman of the right, as the natural political offspring of a Christian theology.    It makes a lot of sense if you read the Sermon on the Mount. We are commanded to help those in need, and that’s what Merkel is doing—sharing out the wealth of Germany to people who have lost everything.

But the devil is in the details.  How much to give? How many to take in? How about keeping enough for my family’s needs, and not just needs, but even luxuries? Why should I work so hard if the government is just going to give away what I have to some strangers?  Back in 1889 the Christian Socialists hastened to assure us that they embraced the individual’s drive to be successful.   Making money is a good thing. But they warned that anyone who placed the desire to get rich over the needs of the community was guilty of Mammonism, the opposite of Brotherhood, and Brotherhood is what Christ was all about.

Christian Socialism didn’t take. Mammon’s grip was too strong, too compelling in the Gilded Age.  But maybe its time has come.  Conditions haven’t changed that much in some ways.   It’s interesting to note how similar our world is to the one described back in 1889. Bernie Sanders, take note! they were up in arms about the 1% just as many are today, and there was just as low an opinion of Congress as there is now. The Society’s manifesto states:

“We hear the Senate called a club of millionaires; the House a collection of statesmen unacquainted with statesmanship, of wire-pullers, and attorneys and retainers of railroads, and trusts, and great corporations….The work of Congress is carried on mainly by committees, unseen by the public eye.   These are too often dark pockets, out of which legislation only issues when it is lined with gold.”

Three cheers for the Christian Socialists!  Maybe their moment has arrived, riding the wave of sympathy for the migrants.   Maybe we’re coming to the point where we recognize that we have to view ourselves as citizens-of-the-world, and not solely of a country.    Or will Mammon win in the end?

If you’re interested in more on this subject try: Migrants and the Roma

Sam Harris and the Perennial Philosophy

The Perennial Philosophy is the idea that the major religions all have something in common: a belief that a mystic human experience can locate the Divine in the individual soul and provide a sense of oneness with the universe to that individual.   Adherents of this philosophy like Emerson believe that we can rally behind this idea as a way of uniting the world, since traditional religions are really only a variation of this theme.

Sam Harris , however, rejects that idea.   In Waking Up he argues that Christians, Muslims, and Jews maintain that the universe is dualistic. Put bluntly, God is out there and He ain’t in you.   None of this humanistic stuff–God is outside somewhere, and there are punishments in store if you do not do what He says as described in His scriptures.   Harris acknowledges that there have been mystics in all the religions who describe transcendent experiences, but more often than not they are persecuted and driven out of the mainstream religion. Waking Up is all about finding this transcendent experience through meditation, so for Harris this dualism is just one more nail in the coffin of institutional religions. Moreover, the idea that we can unite the Abrahamic religions behind this idea of the Perennial Philosophy is a non-starter, he says, because religions are so different in what they demand of their disciples, there is no way they can unite.   To really call yourself a Christian, for example, you have to believe in the virgin birth. To call yourself a Catholic you have to believe that the Pope is infallible. To call yourself a Mormon you have to believe God has a body of flesh and bone. Believing in these kinds of things is central to identifying yourself as being of that religion.

He’s right, as far as what we might call fundamentalist religionists. But I think he’s missing a bigger picture, and that is, that there is a movement afoot to bypass these beliefs and get to the meat of the matter, which is, in fact something akin to the Perennial Philosophy.   The ranks of the Nones (those checking “none of the above” when asked about their religion) are growing by leaps and bounds.   Even within the mainstream there are many who, when pressed, would say they’re not hung up on the hard-to-believe beliefs like the virgin birth or whether Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead or walked on water. They’re simply looking for community, for some support in raising their children according to a moral code, and for some kind of spiritual experience.

I think the main point to keep in mind is, we’re never going to convert the entire world to one religion. Despite the best efforts of good-hearted Christians, you’re never going to get those billions of Muslims into Sunday School any more than they are going to get Christian children into madrassas. Harris is right, we’re not united, but despite that, we can and must come together as human beings living on an increasingly crowded planet. There is another avenue to a common ground and that is the Seven Universal Sacraments based on human experiences.   Anyone of any faith or no faith can warm themselves in the joy a family feels at the birth of a healthy child. That moment of birth is sacred, and for the parents provides that incredible, ineffable human experience that is very much what the Perennial Philosophy is all about.

In Praise of Unitarian-Universalists

It’s time everyone took a closer look at the Unitarian-Universalists, those euphonious UUs, who are more than worthy of our respect and admiration.   Anyone shopping for a new religion should pause and consider the principles they live by.

First of all, the Universalist aspect of it would seem a prerequisite to any deserving approach to a spiritual life. If you don’t accept the idea that different religions could lead to God and salvation (whatever you mean by that), then that would mean God doomed untold millions—billions—of people to hell (whatever you mean by that), people who never had a chance to hear about Jesus, or Mohammed, or whoever you’re betting on. The idea of the Chosen People or the Elect is infuriating. Would the Deity really embrace John Calvin as he entered the hereafter in 1564 but doom a South Sea Islander who died that same year but who never had a chance to hear about Jesus, the Trinity, heaven and hell?

The Unitarian side of the hyphen asks us to reject the idea that God exists as three “persons” (the Trinity) and more specifically, that Jesus IS God incarnated into human form.   This would certainly be a hard pill to swallow for many Americans steeped in the Christology of their home churches. It makes you wonder, would half of our country disdainfully reject a Unitarian who ran for president as they would an atheist (Gallop Poll June 2012)? No Christ—no White House?

But the most important part of the Unitarian belief is that there is some kind of deity out there, a Spirit, with all the ineffable mystery that word contains, a Spirit that is in all of us, that we need to search out in a spiritual quest.   To this end they articulate seven principles, and emphasize six sources of spiritual growth. The sixth, for example, is: “Spiritual teachings of earth-centered traditions which celebrate the sacred circle of life and instruct us to live in harmony with the rhythms of nature.” Those who attend the UU churches include all those who embrace this sacred Spirit of Life: agnostics, atheists, Buddhists, Christians, Muslims—it doesn’t matter, as long as you are open to the quest for the Spirit.

Then there’s this from their website: “personal experience, conscience and reason should be the final authorities in religion.”   This is what the Seven Universal Sacraments are all about. Human experience and reason point us in the direction of these seven aspects of life that are truly sacred.