Thursday, May 7, 2009

You've got to have some sympathy for God.....

Poor God is getting buffeted about badly these days. To be more accurate, the most widespread stereotype about the God of western religion (Christianity, Judaism, Islam) is taking it in the neck a lot. A grand Idea, developed over centuries by the leading lights of Western philosophy—Plato, Aristotle, Augustine, Anselm, Aquinas, Maimonides, Kierkegaard, Schliermacher, Tillich....I could go on—is treated with the scorn and contempt suffered by Zeus in some of the Roman comedy, who appears as a bit of a buffoon.

But poor God has become a Poor God indeed. Tarred and feathered over being the biggest cause of prejuice and hatred (murder, genocide, sexual dysfunction...I could go on) in human history, He who was once the fount of all goodness is now for many the source of noxious fumes. You'd almost think he had become the Devil in many people's eyes, like Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins, the leading "Brights" of the new vanguard of evangelistic atheists.

In a way, you can't blame them, what with hateful preachers saying "God hates Gay," fanatical suicide bombers claiming (through a distorted, non-classical form of Islam) to kill in the name of the God of Abraham, and 8 years of a right-wing "Christian" American presidential administration pushing "abstinence only" programs for teens that cause more pregnancies than any other advice for teen behavior.

"Good" Religion Under-reported

The news media, of course, can't be bothered to report that religious institutions are responsible for most of the charity provided to the poor, the sick, and other people in need. The history books, mostly, don't tell young people that American Christians (and later on Jews) launched the women's suffrage movement, the abolition of slavery, supported labor union organization, virtually created and was a major force in the progressive politics of the first half of the 20th century. They don't report that religious institutions are the base of most of the volunteer work in America. Nor can Hollywood or TV find much room for positive images of clergy, who are usually Bible-toting, narrow-minded moralizers, or worse.

Having seized the headlines, fundamentalist, right-wing Christianity has come to define the brand name in the eyes of millions, especially a growing section of the next generation. Few people realize what a specifically "modern," trimmed-down, and (from the standpoint of the mainstream of classical Christianity through the ages) distorted version of a grand way of wisdom.

Counter-trends in Religion

There are counter-trends of course. Interfaith cooperation between Christians, Jews and, increasingly, Muslims is growing remarkably and rapidly. Millions of "progressive" Christians and Jews support progressive social change, and fight against racial prejudice, gay oppression, America's historic "too bad for you: work harder" stance about the poor, and many other causes liberal atheists, agnostics, and humanists support.

And progressive theologians, as they did in every age, incorporating new knowledge into ancient religious impression of a Divine ground and Source of the life of the universe. Their "God" is not your grandmother's God, and a good thing too. While respecting the wisdom of the ancestors, they see a Divine energy at the heart of evolution, growth and change in moral awareness, sexual joy, physical health, and love of the stranger and those who are different from us.

Meanwhile, trends in anthropology, studies is social evolution, brain research, cross-cultural study of mystical experience in every religion, and demonstrating that while theological explanations of God change, the actual experiences of "cosmic mind," overwhelming Love surging through creation, a compassionate awareness lurking at the depths of the human psyche, unexpected and seemingly miraculous guidance and healing, and the subtle but unmistakable feeling of being in a "Knowing Presence" persist in every age. They are erecting a new picture of religious pathways as a powerful, and mostly beneficial, bond in human societies, and major source of moral inspiration.

What's the Future of our "Secular Paradise"?

Meanwhile, the 20th century utopian fantasies of building a secular paradise on earth through capitalist progress, Fascist or Communist dictatorship, socialist and humanist progress, while they contain bright hopes for human flourishing (based, often, on ideas drawn from the Hebrew prophets) keep coming a bit of a cropper, even though they sometimes (Fascism excepted) do some good along with more evil than modern people want admit.

Some of the evil is clear: it was not Christianity that killed tens of millions in Stalin's atheist regime or Hitler's neo-pagan hell; it was not Buddhism that produced the killing fields of Cambodia. Some less highlighted, even taken for granted: the slaughter of the native populations by "enlighted, progressive" European colonialism (the missionaries often tried to save the natives); the "ethnic cleansing" that built secular Turkey and other nations; and the (inadvertent, unintended) death of millions of infants and adults in modern medicine around the world, especially in areas overpopulated and underfed because of increased hygience and lowered infant mortality rates. Not all evil is planned and intended--and every movement causes some.

Religious groups sometimes commit evil because any human institution—medicine, government, even the family—are capable of evil. Secular humanism can cause much good. It has not had time enough in human history to demonstrate it is capable of more good than the religions at their best.

Don't get me wrong: I have relatives and good friends who are humanists and/or atheists. I have nothing but admiration for their moral courage and deep human values. Nor do I despise all fundamentalists or religious conservatives. Again, I know dozens of loving fundamentalist Christians who are the lights of the world. But the question is what represents Christianity best, and what is the most socially, morally, and spiritually beneficial view of life and the universe for humanity going forward in this difficult century.

The Aims of Religion Re-assessed

"At least religion is trying for something more than local satisfactions," writes the British cultural critic Terry Eagleton in his new book "Reason, Faith and Revolution" (Yale University Press, 2009). Religions “subject is nothing less than the nature and destiny of humanity itself, in relation to what it takes to be its transcendent source of life.” And it is only that great subject, and the aspirations it generates, that can lead, Eagleton insists, to “a radical transformation of what we say and do.”

Not a traditional believer himself he feels that in the wisdom of the religious "radicals might discover there some valuable insights into human emancipation, in an era where the political left stands in dire need of good ideas....(T)he Jewish and Christian scriptures have much to say about some vital questions—death, suffering, love, self-dispossession, and the like—on which the left has for the most part maintained an embarrassed silence. It is time for this politically crippling shyness to come to an end." (See "God Talk" by Stanley Fish in the NY Times, May 3, 2009)

And it is time for educated, progressive Jews and Christians, especially those who represent a generous reading of the classical theological and moral tradition, to speak out boldly and vigorously to address the burning issues of our day, and to take the bull of reactionary religion by the horns and try to wrestle it to the ground. The world deserves better than what they offer, and what we have too often not offered while the foundations of culture eroded beneath us while we were coasting on the progressive hegemony of the last century.


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. Bob, Thank you for these important observations.
    I hope that there are many more to come on this blog. I met you twenty or more years ago and have had my eye on Interweave, but Summit is a bit out of my range for regular travel. Now I have a way to tune into your insight.
    (My previous comment was off point and poorly written, so I removed it.)