Sunday, August 7, 2011

Am I religious? Should anyone care?


Wherever you go, I will go; And wherever you lodge, I will lodge; Your people shall be my people, and your God, shall be my God. (The Book of Ruth, 1:16)

My husband and I recently bought our first house together. Now, more than ever, we are each other’s family. I not only lodge where he lodges, I pay a mortgage where he pays a mortgage. Our decorating decisions have taken on increased significance in this, our third actual residence together, because having bought the house, there are intimations of permanence where there were once intimations of transience. No longer is there a landlord in our midst whose ultimate ownership of the property might attenuate our ownership of the particulars, down to the size and color of the pillows on the couches. I suppose it is some kind of acknowledgement that we are a mixed-faith couple that the crucifix he bought in Croatia for his late mother and the menorah on our kitchen window sill has each found its place in our home. His people have become my people—a fact never more in evidence than it was last weekend when we flew to Wisconsin to attend the wedding of his youngest cousin, and my 10-year-old son reunited instantly after a year's absence with Jack, his 10-year-old second cousin on my husband’s side. But is my husband’s God, my God, too? One of the reasons I identify with Judaism instead of Christianity is because it leaves room for skepticism about the existence of an afterlife, and it does not consider such skepticism to be the very definition of “lacking in faith.” My sense is that my husband is not a skeptic on this subject, and retains much more identification with the Christian faith in which we both were reared. Whatever disparity there is between us, however, it is not one that causes us consternation.

On the other hand, I hear from my sister that a source of consternation to my 92-year-old Roman Catholic mother is that she might die and go to purgatory. It’s not that she can’t accept that the Almighty might think she has some faults in need of purging—her own righteousness is not a necessary part of her religious views—but instead the prospect that she will need the prayers of the living to help her get to heaven. She fears she’s not inculcated enough of this view in any of the living she’ll leave behind for us to spend the requisite time praying, after her death, for her admission into paradise.

Of this I am fairly confident: The God image that comes to my husband’s mind when he looks on whatever religious symbol he encounters in our home or out in the world is more similar to my image of God than it is to that of my mother, with whom he nominally shares a Christian faith. And this is true even though I identify with the Reconstructionist movement in Judaism most because it holds that God is not supernatural, and puts forth the fairly radical idea that religious traditions as we know them represent not God’s attempt to communicate His nature to man, but instead man’s attempt to articulate the nature of God for ourselves, and therefore that all religious precepts about God are more or less anthropomorphic, and only tenuously Divine. How can I say that my husband’s image of God is more like mine than it is like my mother’s? In the terms of normal discourse on the subject, his view is more like hers: God is supernatural, personal, and intends His own revelation. Furthermore, He created us as individuals for personal immortality. None of this do I share. But it is exactly this normal religious discourse—which would lump my husband with my mother as believers, in contrast to me, in the company of mere humanists—that I would have change.

It has long seemed exceedingly curious to me that so many teachers and leaders who claim for themselves the title of “religious” relentlessly draw a line of distinction between the faithful and the non-believing, when what seems to me much more compelling is the distinction between those who see God principally as strict, jealous, vengeful, and unforgiving and those who believe that any God worth the name must certainly be at least as loving and forgiving as we are at our best. Whether the latter group believes such a God is real or is a fiction, they seem to me to behave more in concert with each other than they do with those who believe in the other, darker God.

Sitting at that family wedding last weekend and listening once again to the familiar Pauline text from 1 Corinthians on the nature of love (Love is patient, love is kind; It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud; It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs; Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth; It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres) I reflected again on its inspired and wise description of mature and sustaining love. In this letter, Paul attributes anthropomorphic characteristics to God, for sure, and yet seems to think of God as being like us in our best moments, and to see us as created in His image, if only we could refine ourselves into our best selves, not our worst selves.

If my mother’s anxieties prove to be well-founded, it would mean on the other hand that God is a stickler for a game that is played according to arcane rules: She can be admitted to paradise only if enough entreaties come from the living for God to allow it; Mere good will, mere loving intentions would not move Him. It seems to be an image of an omnipotent but capricious Ruler, a “gotcha” God, not at all in keeping with the mature loving attitudes Paul exhorts us to emulate in 1 Corinthians.

It is not to trivialize my mother’s concerns about possible eternal deprivation that I point out that she could take a view of God that made Him even more imperious and peremptory: The news every week is full of reports of religious persons who believe piety demands that the righteous undertake immediate and harsh punishment—in this life, not leaving it to the hereafter—for offenses to Godly ways, from adultery all the way down to the lesser offense (as most of the planet’s population would see it) of dating a boy outside one’s own sect. But even the horrific reality of honor killings committed in the name of the Deity does little to sway the normal discourse about who gets to wear the mantle of faith and piety. What would it take for the dominant contrast drawn in discussions of faith to switch from belief and non-belief to the contrasting outcomes between equating Divinity with vengeance and equating Divinity with love?

What is the supposed importance of confessing belief in God? Could any God at least as loving and mature as the best among us really care? Why would He need it? And if the way we live our lives and treat our fellow man and make our moral decisions were otherwise identical to our belief-confessing neighbor, why would any but a self-preoccupied and most unloving God be hung up on us believing in His existence? Many of the doctrinaire would have us believe that it is faith that makes us moral, and secular existence that makes for amorality or immorality, but evidence is generally to the contrary—there are bad deeds issuing from the believing and non-believing in equal proportion. When the pope decries the secular West, why does the normal media discourse grant him the presumption that he represents piety more than our more liberal, tolerant Christian leaders? It seems to me that we abandon some depth of meaningful discourse when we implicitly accept that a punitive and intolerant view of human sexuality is more “religious” or represents a position of faith more than more tolerant ones. The Catholic hierarchy can say the pope speaks for 1.3 billion believers, and therefore represents the perspective of Catholic faith, except that on the morality of contraception, he clearly doesn’t speak for Catholic believers, since the vast majority disagree with him. The same goes for our habitual equation of Islam with Islamic “fundamentalists.” The very word gives them some presumptive right that is not logically theirs.

What does it matter if false distinctions are commonplace and other, more apt distinctions are lost? I think there is important value to be found in drawing the distinction between a mature spirituality and its immature opposite, for a lot of reasons. One is the evil perpetrated in the world in the name of certainty about a jealous, angry, vengeful, punishing and unforgiving God. Would that we could agree to name and to criticize these evils without having to accede to being the straw man the “true believers” would have us be, namely, an impious lot, who have no regard for Divinity or for morality. The flip side would be the ability to advance peace and human cooperation by positively preaching tolerance and the importance of entertaining sufficient doubt that we can defer damnation and punishment to the Deity, instead of taking them into our own hands. We could advocate addressing conflict in terms of competing interests and an explicit secular and religious consensus about the dignity and rights of the human person, and explicitly advocate that there is sufficient doubt about Divine imperatives for us to leave them out of our plan of action. Philosophers disagree about whether it makes rational sense to believe the human person is sacred if one does not posit the existence of God (see, but rational or not, what is empirically true is that atheists are just as likely to value human rights as are believers.

I personally find it hard to imagine that if there is a God, He is less forgiving and loving of my fellow man than I am. That He is less appreciative or capable of comprehending mutuality than the best of us humans. By mutuality, I refer to an idea technically described in psychoanalytic theory, but I think one fairly easily understood by anyone capable of the trait, which is regard for another with empathy and mutual trust, although we fully know they are themselves and are neither a part of us nor in fact just like us—only enough like us for us to know they should be treated as we would like to be treated.

Would most of those who, unlike me, believe that God is personal and that there is individual immortality after death, actually cast their lot with the man who seeks the “honor killing” of his own teenage daughter for dating a boy from another faith, rather than with me? Am I really the one closer to their idea of an enemy of the kingdom of God? If I am not, then let’s begin to change our discourse about faith so we can discuss the distinctions we actually believe are most important, instead of the often-specious demarcation between who is religious and who is secular. Am I a religious humanist or a secular humanist? It is a distinction truly in the eye of the beholder. If a God who is not supernatural is no God at all to you, then you’d say I am secular. It’s an issue of semantics to me, because I believe in my God, who isn’t a God who cares. To you it may be more than semantic. But if you care, have you asked yourself exactly why that is? And is it possible that we could start a discourse that unites us, you and me, against the influence on our world of the darker view of God, the God of our basest anthropomorphic projections, the God who is gratified by suffering and appeased by destruction? I am optimistic and hopeful that we can. We just need to find the words, and more than occasionally the gall to speak them.