Are you a religious man, professor? – Part II
In rereading the first part of my reflections on the question my student posed me on Good Friday, am I am a religious man, I am struck by how nearly creedal my first comments were. This is a bit ironic from a former seminarian who asked his systematic theology professor the first day of classes “Why would anyone want to put theology into a system and what kind of theology would lend itself to a system in the first place?”
What I have attempted to do here - and throughout much of my life - is to put my thoughts into some kind of order, identifying overarching principles and values while at the same time scrupulously avoiding dogmatic assertions. My reasoning is that while discussions of ideas about the divine require some kind of order to permit any fruitful exchange of ideas, little can ultimately be known about G-d (assuming arguendo such exists). Moreover, the limits of human understanding demand no small amount of humility in even thinking about this subject, much less talking about it.
Indeed, my very use of the incomplete word G-d, which I have shamelessly stolen from rabbinical Judaic practice, reflects my own attempts to constantly remind myself that my own constructs of the divine – like everyone else’s - are incomplete, the finger pointing toward something ultimately beyond description and comprehension. I am more than aware of the tendency to confuse the finger for that to which it points. It’s precisely the point when Berger’s veil of mystification causes us to forget that our constructed understandings, whatever else we might say about them, remain the work of human hands that we lapse into idolatry.
At the same time, I realize that human beings need constructs to express ideas and experiences to communicate with each other. Without words and the concepts they reflect, our spiritual lives would remain internalized within each of us and any reflection on the same would amount to little more than solipsism. Robert Bellah’s Habits of the Heart of the 1980s provides the narrative of a woman whose religion commanded a membership of exactly one. Its name: Sheilaism. You can guess the woman’s name.
Ironically, it’s the concern for self-focus that brings me to my second major concern about institutional religion – its tendencies for projection. While this concept began its career as a measure of the psychopathology of Freudian thought, the Jungian understanding of the shadow content of the unconscious and the very human tendency to locate this shadow in the other has been one of the most helpful understandings I have ever learned. I am constantly aware that what exorcises me about the other may well be my own shadow I am identifying in them. And the routine social practice of dehumanizing and demonizing the identified scapegoat provides an inexhaustible supply of material for consideration and discussion for my life as an academic.
To return briefly to my previous post, I need to emphasize that I understand existentially why people create constructions of G-d and formulae of salvation in order to provide themselves some relief from the terror of potential self-annihilation at the time of death. None of us wants to think about the time when we might be no more. And thus we create numerous schemata of salvation or liberation which posit a life after death, its causes and conditions and the means by which such an after- life is attained. And we call those creations “religions.”
The study of religious belief systems proves interesting both in the creativity in logic and the cultural experience brought to bear in their construction as well as in the similarities and differences in those various systems. Among the commonalities in religions we find issues of right relation and ultimate justice unresolved in the current life, we find the desire to escape suffering – either from a return to samsara or the fires of purgatorial or hellish existences – and no small amount of resulting guidelines for the current life which readily lend themselves to forms of behavioral control.
Of course, the study of comparative religions does not require a support for or a defense of the various schemata proposed. The student is free to find any or none of the systems particularly compelling. Study of religions takes place at a distance. One is not required to pass judgment on the ultimate truth – or even the appeal - of the ideas studied, only to become familiar with them. As I say to my students, you don’t have to believe anything as a result of this class, but you must demonstrate your familiarity with the ideas studied.
All of that changes when one moves from education to indoctrination. Where suspension of belief in considering the ideas of a religious system is key to successful study of world religions, the willingness to buy into a given constructed understanding up front is the starting place for devotional and doctrinal approaches to religion. And this, from my viewpoint, is where the trouble begins.
In the Gospel of Luke, which is by far my personal favorite of the four canonical gospels, the writer begins his account of the “good news” of Jesus called the Christ with this statement:
1:1 Since many have undertaken to set down an orderly account of the events that have been fulfilled among us, 2 just as they were handed on to us by those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and servants of the word, 3 I too decided, after investigating everything carefully from the very first,* to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, 4 so that you may know the truth concerning the things about which you have been instructed.
What becomes clear to the discerning eye almost immediately is the following:
1. This is not written by an eyewitness. The writer asserts that s/he (since the writer never identifies him/herself) writes after “investigating everything carefully” and hearing the surviving accounts of “eyewitnesses and servants of the word.” In law, such evidence would be of dubious value – hearsay. But in scripture which began its life as oral tradition, this is a relic of the transmission process of virtually all scripture.
2. This is not a history. There is a goal in the telling of this account – “so that you may know the truth…”, i.e., so that you will eventually hold the same understanding of “the events” that the writer holds.
3. There are a number of possible constructions of this story to choose from: “Since many have undertaken to set down an orderly account…” But there is also a clearly desired outcome of considering them: “the truth.”
4. There is a target for this account: Theophilos, the god lover, a shorthand way of saying that if one is truly a lover of G-d, they will buy into this writer’s understanding.
The writer of Luke evidences precisely my concern with dogmatic and devotional approaches to religion. At a very basic level, he reveals that his understanding is one of many possible understandings. Perhaps more importantly, he reveals that given that there are so many possible ways to understand what he’s about to lay out, his is but one of a number of possible interpretive constructions – phenomena – of “the events” which he is portraying. But he cannot stop himself from taking the next seemingly inevitable step – the assertion that his is the “right” (read “only”) construction and thus “the truth” (emphasis on “the”) one must ultimately accept as definitive.
When one combines the existential anxieties of potential self-annihilation through death, the resulting desire for an afterlife and the human need for constructions to discuss such ideas, it is not terribly surprising that a number of systems providing a means to attain a favorable afterlife have been constructed by human beings throughout history. As Peter Berger explains in his Sacred Canopy, human beings externalize their understandings, expressing them in words, symbols, rites, et al; they objectivate those understandings, coming to see them as objectively true, having a life of their own; and finally internalize those understandings, experiencing them as encountering them from outside of themselves, having an existence which is seen as natural, common sense and self-evident.
The key step in this three step process involves an only partly conscious process of active forgetting. Berger called it the veil of mystification by which human expositors lose sight of the fact that the ideas they see as having an objective existence of their own are ultimately the work of their own hands, or in this case, their own minds. Of course, even a cursory study of the history of ideas reveals that all traditions, if traced back far enough, have a point in their life histories where they are innovations. When people claim the mantle of tradition as dispositive of any question of validity or authority, they ultimately reveal a desire to avoid critical consciousness of that history and a critical consideration of the merits of the idea they would defend.
Even so, the realization that religious ideas about the afterlife are ultimately the products of human construction can never be completely dispelled by their adherents and purveyors. Much like the material of the shadow lurks in the psychic sewer of the unconscious, the knowledge of the fact that at a very basic level we have essentially made up our own stories of an afterlife to reassure ourselves that such might actually exist and thus relieve our existential anxieties always lurks in the darkness of the less than fully conscious mind. And so we must constantly seek to reassure ourselves of “the truth,” professing that truth in groups where we can look to each other for constant affirmation of our construction and producing that “truth” in theological creeds, confessions, tracts, catechisms, institutes, and church teachings.
When that does not fully achieve the object of repressing the memories of our constructive process, we seek affirmation through outsiders through proselytizing, a process that is ultimately much more designed to relieve the cognitive dissonance of believers than to offer “the truth” to the other. Indeed, the resolution of cognitive dissonance requires us to attribute much more beneficence to our motivations than they ultimately merit. And so we hear evangelizers speaking of offering a gift to their targets, of sharing a beautiful truth with those whom we presume to need what we have.
But uncritical, dogmatic approaches to faith are by definition brittle. The imperative of avoiding conscious recognition of the constructive history of the ideas frequently purveyed as absolute, ultimate, unchanging, eternal, et al, creates an ongoing liability for the holder and the purveyor of these proffered truths. And thus those who would dare to pull up the cover of consciousness to reveal that history will frequently be seen as enemies of the truth if not the very enemies of G-d him/herself. The accusation of heretic, its original Greek root haireisthai meaning "to choose," points toward the choice of the messenger who is shot, the prophet who is stoned, of insisting upon being conscious of the reality of these ideas, their inception and the motivation behind them, a reality that many true believers will sadly find too risky to even consider.
In Richard Rubenstein’s Approaches to Auschwitz he describes a young Martin Luther eager to tell the Jews of Germany of the great new truth of Protestantism, certain that now shed of its Roman Catholic baggage, Jews will readily see the light of the Christian faith and embrace it. His references to the Jews are generous, brotherly. But a mere decade later, when the Jews are still lighting their candles on Friday evening, when the Jews have not converted in mass, Luther begins to see them as what Rubenstein calls “the disconfirming other.” Not only have they not converted, thus disproving Luther’s optimism, they continue to practice a contrary faith system in the face of the new revealed truth of Protestantism, thus drawing Luther’s version of the truth into question. Not surprisingly, Luther assesses this situation as intolerable and proclaims the need for the annihilation of this disconfirming other, a decision that says much more about the insecurities of Luther than anything about the Jews.
In his vitriolic “On the Jews and their Lies,” Luther asserts:
They are real liars and bloodhounds who have not only continually perverted and falsified all of Scripture with their mendacious glosses from the beginning until the present day…. The sun has never shone on a more bloodthirsty and vengeful people than they are who imagine that they are God's people who have been commissioned and commanded to murder and to slay the Gentiles. In fact, the most important thing that they expect of their Messiah is that he will murder and kill the entire world with their sword.
What shall we Christians do with this rejected and condemned people, the Jews? Since they live among us, we dare not tolerate their conduct, now that we are aware of their lying and reviling and blaspheming. If we do, we become sharers in their lies, cursing and blasphemy. Thus we cannot extinguish the unquenchable fire of divine wrath, of which the prophets speak, nor can we convert the Jews. With prayer and the fear of God we must practice a sharp mercy to see whether we might save at least a few from the glowing flames. We dare not avenge ourselves. Vengeance a thousand times worse than we could wish them already has them by the throat. I shall give you my sincere advice:
First, to set fire to their synagogues or schools and to bury and cover with dirt whatever will not burn, so that no man will ever again see a stone or cinder of them. This is to be done in honor of our Lord and of Christendom, so that God might see that we are Christians, and do not condone or knowingly tolerate such public lying, cursing, and blaspheming of his Son and of his Christians….
Three centuries later, brown shirted German descendants of Luther would take these words to heart on a terrible night known today as Krystallnacht.
The belief that one has the only truth, the readiness to invoke G-d to support that truth and the willingness to cast those who do not share the truth into outer darkness, starting in this world and continuing into the next, says a great deal about the fragility and brittleness of constructed religious understandings. The perceived need to cause others to share those understandings – we have what you need – bespeaks the second besetting sin of institutional religion – the inevitable tendency toward projection. But it also bespeaks a related sin which virtually every religious tradition condemns – a lack of humility.
Clearly it is not easy to embrace humility if one is a true believer driven by existential security anxieties. Humility means the ability to say one does not have all the answers. Humility means the willingness to admit that the answers one has found are at best partial on a good day. Humility means eschewing the all-too-common tendency among religious people to purport to know and speak for the mind of a G-d so far beyond human comprehension that such assertions reveal themselves as absurd and arrogant almost from the beginning.
There are many aspects of the Christian tradition of which I am an ordained priest that I find appealing if not compelling. I am a catholic in my love of liturgy and my appreciation for the analogical imagination of catholic spirituality which can see the divine everywhere if one is willing to look for it. I am an Anglican in my love of beautiful music and wordscrafting, incarnational theology and fine architecture and iconographic décor. I find the way of Jesus, Francis, Oscar Romero, Julian of Norwich and the many other saints of the faith, most of whom never made it to the official calendar, to be formative for my own faith. And as a mystic, I experience the divine in a wide multitude of places and faces. The created world simply screams of the divine in my experience of it.
But I also readily see the divine outside my tradition in the symbols, practices and beliefs of other world religions. My spiritual life is informed by the examples of non-Christian saints from Gandhi to Rumi to the wisdom of indigenous traditions. And I readily own the shadow of my tradition from Luther and the Holocaust to the crippling social diseases of slavery, sexism and homophobia and too many misanthropic wars which the Christian tradition has legitimized historically.
My tradition is one path of many to the divine. As the Hindus say, many paths, one destination. Humility requires recognizing the partial nature of the truth about the divine my path provides as well as the destructiveness that results when that partial nature is not recognized and religion becomes imperialistic. Given that reality, my grasp of my tradition is firm but tentative. I don’t think the day will ever come when I would convert to another tradition. But there will also never come a day when I forget the constructed nature of my own faith tradition and assert it to be the only way. Holding my own faith tentatively and in humility, I am able to consider other faith traditions on their own terms, if imperfectly. And hopefully, it will prevent me from projecting my own beliefs onto others as the only possible way to see things.
Admittedly, a critically conscious, tentatively held and other engaging religion is probably way too frightening for those who seek existential security in religion. And so long as that is true, institutional religion will be the realm of the true believer. And to the degree that is true, there is little place for a man like me in such religions. So the answer to my student’s question is that while I am a deeply spiritual human being, I am probably not a religious man. And at a very basic level, perhaps that’s OK.
The Rev. Harry Scott Coverston, J.D., Ph.D.
Member, Florida Bar (inactive status)
Priest, Episcopal Church (Dio. of El Camino Real, CA)
Instructor: Humanities, Religion, Philosophy of Law
University of Central Florida, Orlando
If the unexamined life is not worth living, surely an unexamined belief system, be it religious or political, is not worth holding.
Most things of value do not lend themselves to production in sound bytes.