Thursday, July 8

"A cult is a religion with no political power." Tom Wolfe - "All religions are true. The important thing is to reach the roof. You can reach it by stone stairs or by wooden stairs or by bamboo steps or by a rope. You can also climb up by a bamboo pole." Ramakrishna

A couple months ago I read a book by the Christian author, Brian McClaren, called A New Kind of Christianity. If you were here around Easter then you already know how I feel about organized religion . If you weren't we'll cover it again below, or you can check out past posts. Let's just say that, uh, I'm, uh, less than supportive and slightly more than critical. But just a bit... 

I stay sort of up to date on stuff because I have a vested interest. You see, both of my parents actually still believe hard. My Mom, who is slipping very steadily into an as-yet quaint stage of Alzheimer’s where she remembers everyone but doesn’t make many new memories, was raised in a very strict evangelical church and taught to feel guilty for everything very thoroughly. My Dad is a more serious Christian. Not a ‘check Christian because I went to Sunday school’ kind of Christian, but a real, post-denominational, quasi-fundamentalist, ‘new’ version Christian. 

Still as mentally spry as ever and a retired teacher, my Dad spends part of his time teaching at his church and has been actively involved in leadership. So as much as I'm glad I escaped the black hole, I'm still invested through them. 

Dad and I end up talking about Christianity a lot because, well, I was once one too, one of those zealous Christians that now, like a former drug addict that volunteers as an advocate for rehab and clean needle programs, likes to keep up on the latest lingo and thoughts. The friendly and mostly civil debate can be both vigorous and stimulating, and when a new perspective comes along that aspires to boil Christianity down to the stuff that the bible character Jesus was trying to promote (say, as opposed to the neo-old testament hellfire and brimstone funda-wingnut crap that passes for modern Christianity), I perk up. McLaren's book represents the possibility of that kind of re-imagining.

I don’t hold Christians' beliefs against them. People have a right to believe in whatever they believe in. As much as I’ve grown to despise organized religion in all its forms those who succumb to it are, in my opinion, victims not monsters, even the pastors and priests, all victims of a manipulative belief system on steroids. Organized religion is a form of meta-generational abuse that has been inflicted on all of us whether we count ourselves as believers or not. The permutations and implications of religion are scattered throughout our culture everywhere like impurities that weaken steel and concrete: Where they are, the foundations are cracking and the girders are sagging. 

Those who do believe, whichever religion of the book they believe in, generally find this perspective insulting. I get that. What they usually don't stop to think about upon a close reading is that I respect honest spirituality when I see it. I'm a Ramakrishna guy, and I don't give a crap which staircase you want to use as long as the sincere intent is to get to the roof. The problem I see with most religions is that they get all caught up in decorating the living room and kitchen instead of helping people get to the fucking roof.

Jesus was, if you read the NT and Apocrypha right, a very progressive, radical guy for his time. He was a peace-nik, an activist, and in many ways a sort of antecedent syndico-anarchist. The Jesus I read about would not have liked the thought of having his social movement turned into the very kind if institution he was rebelling against. If there was a historical Jesus, he was the social leader and socio-theological rebel rather than the ‘guy most likely to posthumously lead a cult’ that the modern church makes him out to be. 

But that’s an opinion, shared by others, also backed by some substantial proofs to support the logic behind the opinion, but still an opinion. I happily own it.

McClaren’s written his book well, in a very easy to read voice (which made getting through it much less of a chore for me). In places it was an actual pleasure. To be fair, I’m no trained theologian, so offering a detailed academic perspective on McClaren’s non-academic book is not something I’d try. That’s my disclaimer. But he is trying to view things from a different perspective and I’ll give credit where credit is due. His perspective sees Christianity clearly for at least most of the obvious evils that it has perpetrated and perpetuated over the last 1800 years or so. I say 1800 years because pre-Constantine, Christianity was not a catch-all phrase. Before Constantine leveraged that ‘new’ new belief system as a way to try to hold the Roman Empire together, Christianity was essentially a bunch of fairly organic and separate sects, considered by many a cult, by others just a social movement. After Constantine though... then it became an institution.

McLaren tries to re-imagine the Christian faith as a narrative that extends forward as a promise from Genesis instead of a history seen through the philosophical duality of the Greco-Roman tradition. He suggests that the narrative and themes change from this perspective, and he thinks that the change of perspective also changes the ‘nature’ of the god we’ve been exposed to, one that is loving and kind and redeeming in spite of the massive carnage evident in the Old Testament storyline and in the blood on the hands of all ‘people of the book’ in the AD part of the time line. I buy it to a degree, but only to a degree. I think that his line of thought still makes some egregious mistakes about whether religious institutions can be redeemed in any way, or whether there’s an actual, ‘new’ anything in Christianity (as opposed to a new veneer glued on over some very old mythologies that repeat and repeat down through the ages and cultures).

More than anything, I appreciate that he’s trying. He seems very earnest and sincere, just as I though Obama was in The Audacity of Hope (that is a back-handed compliment in case you had any doubt). But fill one hand with intention and the other with horse shit… Well, you know how that goes. I appreciate what he’s done on one level because, from my perspective, I think he makes thinking for one’s self more permissible within an institution that worships group-think to the same astounding degree as, say, the other two ‘religions of the book’. I believe that kind of permission will allow more people to make it to a place where organized religion is no longer necessary.

You see, I have no quarrel with faith (whether I think it’s accurate or not). It’s the religion, the institution, that’s the problem. If somebody wants to believe in Jesus as god, or Allah, or Jevovah, or Gaia, or animal spirits, or Santa Claus, or the Easter Bunny, or nothing, or Joe Pesci for crying out loud… I don’t care! Now, if you want to make that belief a rigid system and use it to control other people or impose your beliefs on them, to exclude others from your 'in' crowd - well, now we have a problem. I believe that, regardless of the faith, system, or whatever you want to call it, it’s the institution that is faulty. That institution makes a directed practice out of fostering that 'our way or the hell way' dichotomy. It pits people against other people intentionally when the truth is that we're all in this together. 

Whether that institution is a church, a government, a judiciary, academia, science… whatever; When any idea, even a good one, is allowed to become an institution that is exclusive of other institutions or ideas or people, then that institution unfailingly becomes more interested in self-preservation than maintaining integrity to the values that were its genesis. I’ve said that very thing before and I’ll say it again because it’s true.

So I read McLaren’s book in the pursuit of understanding what’s happening or what might happen for folks like my Dad who still believe hard. I consider McClaren's position and argument a half measure (at best), but it’s a half-measure in the right direction. For that reason, and for his sincerity, I applaud him. If people read it and develop a faith that is less controlled and more free; if it leads people into a dialog that questions the status quo (and it seems to be doing that), then that’s a good thing.

If people read, ask, find a new perspective and, from there see their way to real freedom… well that would be even better.