07 June 2007

Religion and Christianity

This week my resolve to stop blogging about Friends United Meeting until after their board retreat next month was sorely tested. The backlog of things to blog about was increased by Chuck Fager's interesting post of June 1. I'm sublimating my frustration with some non-FUM meditations about the dilemmas of religious leadership and religious affiliation.

Jerry Falwell was not a member of FUM--he never claimed or denied Quaker affiliation, although at least twice he emphatically announced he was not a Mennonite--so I think he's a safe subject. Anyway, the two streams of reaction to his death are a startling reminder of the wide gulfs that can appear even among supposedly religious people. Contrast the comments following these two posts: genuine grief here and intense dislike here. What makes my head burst is that I know and like people from both planets.

So I was already thinking about Falwell's role as a cultural lightning rod for Christians when I came across this adulatory article via assistnews.net. This comment about Falwell particularly struck me: "In person, he was friendly and grandfatherly, even way back then in the 1970's. He never spoke in the fear-mongering rhetoric of the professional copywriters who wrote his direct-mail appeal copy. ... What's more he was no hypocrite." I can't connect these two assertions--friendly and not a hypocrite--with the part in between, the fear-mongering rhetoric of the direct-mail writers. Who approved the copy written by those writers?

I was reminded of a story from FUM's (oops!) history. One liberal board member and one evangelical board member had frequent public conflicts. One day the evangelical said privately to the liberal, "I want you to know that when I attack you in public, you shouldn't take it personally. I really do like you." What kind of double-bind friendship is that? Back-room kindness does not make up for oppositional theatrics in public. (I admit that I have heard only one side of this story--guess which side?)

Chasing down a Nat Hentoff quotation, I came across this instructive item by Rabbi Berel Wein, "A public leader can't divorce his private actions." Maybe God makes exceptions for Baptist preachers and FUM board members. But public responsibility goes beyond an aligned life; once you have the attention of others, and are hooking their hearts with the most powerful rhetoric in the world, the rhetoric of ultimate meaning and ultimate loyalties, what do you do with that power? My next Web stop after Berel Wein was Real Life Preacher asking "Have you noticed the great evil that comes from religious exclusivity?" What was I supposed to say--"No"?

There's such a huge difference between religious affiliation as a social category and religious affinity pictured as a sort of scattergram of heart-level awareness of God.

On the social dimension, the hard lines of religious affiliation feed the power and delusions of leaders who may or may not actually feed the heart, and what they feed us may or may not be adulterated with power agendas. Jerry Falwell preached the Bible, and the Bible has within it the words of life and, what's more fun, the antidotes to its own misuse, at least for those not seduced into utter dependence on the Leader's guidance. Much of the time, Jerry Falwell said right things, despite himself! Even the pages produced by his fear-mongering copywriters probably had Scripture in them that the Holy Spirit could use to free from fear.

Abusive leadership is not confined to Christians. There are Muslim leaders who tell their followers vicious things about Christians and Jews, incite their followers to burn down the homes of Christians, and lobby their governments to execute those who convert to Christianity. Simultaneously they rake over the coals any Christian leader, from the Pope on, who dares criticize Islam for this phenomenon. (Some Christians add to the confusion by abjectly agreeing that anyone in the world can criticize Christianity but we must not criticize anyone!) But all this is in the dimension of religion as social affiliation.

In contrast, on the heart level we see amazing decency and sweetness among adherents of all religions. I have met Muslims to whom I'd utterly entrust my life. I've been told by fundamentalist Christian Quakers that they support environmental responsibility and occasionally even vote for Democrats.

When people operate from their hearts, or at least are honest about their uncertainties, the posturing of their leaders seems a thousand miles away. I'm fascinated by the charts that accompany this Pew Forum article, "¡Here Come 'Los EvangĂ©licos'!" (If it is true that 67% of non-Hispanic white evangelicals in the USA oppose gay marriages, that imples that 33% don't, and surely some of those 33% actually support gay marriages. Whether or not you agree with them, that represents possibly millions of people for whom the Leaders do not speak.)

Where does this leave Christians? As subversive as it might seem from the viewpoint of Leaders invested in the maintenance of religious affiliation, Christianity does not depend on a perceived monopoly of salvation. When Jesus said, "Nobody comes to the Father but by me" (John 14:6), he was not licensing Christian triumphalism or organizational privilege. He was not prescribing, he was stating a fact. Certainly nobody comes to God solely because of the virtue of our organizations, or because of how perfectly they reflect God's goodness. We Christians organizationally are not God's gatekeepers or divine in-box, nor is God's saving work within a new believer intended to enhance any sense of superiority on our part.

In fact, Christianity as a heart phenomenon has only two indispensable elements, and those two do not include organizational conceits. Christianity's soul is Jesus and its genius is grace. No religion can monopolize Jesus, and, equally, no religion can keep him out! But if a religious affiliation denies grace--that is, denies the unconditional love of God, and denies the imperative of mercy--that religion is oppressive, no matter how fashionable it might be to compliment it in this pluralistic world. And that is especially true if that affiliation and its leaders claim the Christian label.

So why be a Christian? This is the question that radio interviewer Mark Makarov posed to the Russian Orthodox martyr Alexander Men' in this famous interview, from which I quoted in a sermon on the day the current Iraq war started. Here's part of Men's response:
. . . It seems to me that nothing proves the uniqueness of Christianity, nothing except one thing alone, namely, Jesus Christ. For I’m convinced that each of the founders of the world religions speaks truth to us.

Let’s remember what they said. Buddha said that he had achieved a state of absolute detachment after prolonged and difficult exercises. Can we believe him? Yes, of course we can. He was a great man and this was his achievement.

The Greek philosophers spoke of the intellectual difficulty of attaining the idea of God and of the spiritual world. This is true.

Or Muhammad, who said that before God he felt himself to be as nothing, that God took him and revealed himself to him and that before God he felt he was nothing more than a gnat. Can we believe him? Of course we can.

But alone among all these teachers is one who speaks in his own person as if for God himself: ‘But I say to you’ (Matt. 5:22 ff.), or as John has it: ‘I and the Father are one’ (John 10:30). Not one of the great teachers of the world’s religions ever said anything like that. That then is the only occasion in history when God revealed himself through a real person in some absolute fullness. This is the event we have in the Gospels.

Jesus, the preacher of morals—this is a historic myth. They would not have crucified him for just that alone. Jesus, the self-proclaimed Messiah? Why then did they not crucify Bar Cochba1 who also called himself messiah? And there were plenty of false messiahs. What was it in Jesus that aroused such love and such hatred? ‘I am the door’, he said, the door to eternity (John 10:9). It seems to me that everything that is valuable in Christianity is valuable only because it is from Christ. What is not from Christ could as well belong to Islam or Buddhism.

Every religion is a path towards God, a conjecture about God, a human approach to God. It is a vector pointing upwards from below. But the coming of Christ is the answer, a vector coming from heaven towards us. On the one hand, an event situated in history, on the other hand, something quite outside history. That’s why Christianity is unique, because Christ is unique. That’s my answer to the question.
And any affiliation, any leader who obscures that vector or misappropriates that uniqueness, however pious their claims, remains trapped in the social dimension. If we grant them power, they'll just trap others.

London-Bush-FertileResistance is fertile: I got this phrase from a sign I saw at a peace march in London in November 2003. It's just too good not to use somehow, so I'm going to apply it to links that relate to faith stuff that connects people together across lines, or hints at the fun we could/should be having more of as believers. It's hard to give this explanation with a straight face, but give me credit for trying!

So my first "resistance is fertile" award goes to Sarah Masen and her music. See her Web site, and the video "All Fall Down." (I considered and rejected several adjectives to put in front of "video"--so you decide!) Some time back I quoted from her husband David Dark's important book, The Gospel According To America: A Meditation On A God-Blessed, Christ-Haunted Idea.

Righteous links: A final note on Falwell, from Martin Marty. ~~~ If this item doesn't get Bob Ramsey blogging again, nothing will. ~~~ In his May 2007 "Heart to Heart," Richard Foster considers Christian mission and Asia. ~~~ First impressions: Todd Rhoades considers research on the snap evaluations of Internet viewers, and the implications for church Web sites. ~~~ Peter Blood returns to the topic of sexuality and possible Quaker norms. These tenderly expressed propositions have a definite (if tentative) bias that many evangelical Friends might not share, but Peter expresses them so winsomely that nobody is excluded from the conversation.

The blues world lost two harp players recently: Carey Bell last month, and, earlier, Portland's own Paul DeLay.

Janiva Magness won a Blues Music Award again this year. Just to prove I can endure a slow song once in a while, here's her version of "You Were Never Mine." With Benny Yee, keyboard; Gary Davenport, bass; Matthew Stubbs, guitar; Chris Rivelli, drums. (thanks to www.woodsongs.com)


Unknown said...

About 3 years ago I dropped into a black hole – four months of absolute terror. I wanted to end my life, but somehow [Holy Spirit], I reached out to a friend who took me to hospital. I had three visits [hospital] in four months – I actually thought I was in hell. I imagine I was going through some sort of metamorphosis [mental, physical & spiritual]. I had been seeing a therapist [1994] on a regular basis, up until this point in time. I actually thought I would be locked away – but the hospital staff was very supportive [I had no control over my process]. I was released from hospital 16th September 1994, but my fear, pain & shame had only subsided a little. I remember this particular morning waking up [home] & my process would start up again [fear, pain, & shame]. No one could help me, not even my therapist [I was terrified]. I asked Jesus Christ to have mercy on me & forgive me my sins. Slowly, all my fear has dissipated & I believe Jesus delivered me from my “psychological prison.” I am a practicing Catholic & the Holy Spirit is my friend & strength; every day since then has been a joy & blessing. I deserve to go to hell for the life I have led, but Jesus through His sacrifice on the cross, delivered me from my inequities. John 3: 8, John 15: 26, are verses I can relate to, organically. He’s a real person who is with me all the time. I have so much joy & peace in my life, today, after a childhood spent in orphanages [England & Australia]. God LOVES me so much. Fear, pain, & shame, are no longer my constant companions. I just wanted to share my experience with you [Luke 8: 16 – 17].

Peace Be With You

Johan Maurer said...

Blessings and many thanks for your experience! My critical issue was trust--from childhood I was told to trust the authorities over me but they proved untrustworthy, and I think I would have been headed for a life of total cynicism had it not been for Jesus, who told me that he was trustworthy. He was right.