Wednesday, June 11, 2008

The Truth Thing: Religion, Politics, and Owning God's Word

Sometimes I have to go on a fast from religion. To save my soul.

More precisely, sometimes I have to get away from religionists in order to preserve my sanity and safeguard my ability to love. Which is what religion is supposed to be all about, isn’t it—practical compassion? And so isn’t it tragic in the extreme that encounters with religious people often result in the loss of our ability to love?

It’s not religion per se that’s the problem. And it’s not religious people who are the problem, in and of themselves. It’s many people who claim to be the purest and most faithful representatives of their religious tradition—the loyal defenders of its poor embattled honor—who chafe my heart and soul. God help me, but I just don’t see in many of these honor-upholding religionists the depth (and humanity) of authentic spirituality and religious observance.

They’re everywhere these days, such religionists. Back on 13 May I blogged about how they suddenly show up on the conversation café of the U.S. Catholic weekly National Catholic Reporter right before major elections. There, they appear in clusters, using the rating system to vote each others’ postings up, joining together to pick at tiny grains of “error” or “confusions” or “misstatements” in the postings of progressive café participants. These religionists clearly see themselves as on a mission to unmask error and impart the Truth.

They are linguistic police, intent on torturing language to make it yield what language cannot and will never yield: absolute truth. Dialogue is impossible with such watchdogs of orthodoxy, since they already have the truth. Since the process of dialogue is premised on the notion that no one owns truth, that we are all involved in a collective search for a truth that transcends each of us, dialogue is oxymoronic when anyone enters the conversation circle claiming to own the truth.

When it is clear to me that religionists are playing linguistic games to try to corner those engaged in authentic dialogical pursuit of the truth, I sometimes just bow out of the conversation. There’s no point wasting energy trying to play such games with people who are either insincere about their real motives or oblivious to those motives, when the pursuit of transformative truth is so critically important to our political process, our culture, and our churches right now.

I wonder about the psychology of these self-proclaimed owners of the Truth, of divine truth? I wonder what motivates an Iris Robinson, for instance, to attack gay human beings while claiming that her one and only motive is to defend the Word of God?

Robinson has been in the news lately for remarks she has made—as a Northern Irish MP and wife of the First Minister Peter Robinson—defending her belief that gays can be “cured” of their “affliction” through psychotherapy. When her statements were challenged, she did a Sally Kern and dug her heels in deeper, stating repeatedly (in a BBC interview I have just watched on the internet) that she is just repeating the Word of God, defending the Word of God, transmitting the Word of God to those of us who don’t have it.

To be specific: the Word of God she is now transmitting is that, like murderers, gay people can be redeemed by the blood of Jesus. If the poor things want to. If they only acknowledge that they are in the same category as murderers, and admit their need to be washed by the blood of Jesus and freed of their heinous sin.

What strikes me about the Iris Robinsons of the world (and my right-wing political activist co-religionists at the NCR café) is their astonishing assurance that God speaks to them. Directly. Their breathtaking certainty that they have God’s word. And that they can impart it to the rest of us. That they have a divine mission to inform us of the error of our ways and lead us to the Truth (their truth), so that we may be redeemed, as they are redeemed.

Frankly, though these folks use the phrase Word of God so glibly, it’s hard for me to fit God into the equation here. And though they talk so freely about the Truth, it’s hard for me to find much truth—in the transformative sense that religious truth is all about—in their cut-and-dried utterances about what God wants for others.

Never mind that the Word of God (as in the Judaeo-Christian scriptures: and I’m sure this is what Iris Robinson means in using that phrase) nowhere talks about gay people needing to be redeemed by the blood of Jesus. Iris Robinson’s word is “homosexuals.” The bible never uses the word “homosexual.” Nor does it ever speak of homosexuals needing to be redeemed by the blood of Jesus.

It couldn’t do so, since the word (and the psychological concept of innate same-sex attraction to which it refers) wasn’t even coined until the very end of the 19th century. When a translation of the Jewish and Christian scriptures talks about “homosexuals,” you can be sure that a Jewish or Greek term with a hazy meaning has been identified with a modern psychological term that could not have been in the mind of the biblical writers, since the term and the concept to which that term refers were not anywhere in the mental universe of those writing the scriptures. When you encounter the word "homosexual" in any translation of the Jewish or Christian scriptures, you can be sure that you're dealing with the retrojection of a modern idea (and, often, of modern prejudices) into an ancient text.

You’d think that knowing we’re dealing with ancient texts written in languages few of us can read would produce just a smidgeon of humility in those who profess so confidently to have “the” Word of God for the rest of us, wouldn’t you? You’d think that before any Christian would use the Word of God as a weapon to bash those who don’t love “appropriately” or “according to God’s design”—phrases that also drop from the lips of the truth police these days, when they talk about gay people—he or she would at least feel obliged to do a bit of study about these matters.

If Christianity is all about not doing harm and not inflicting pain, especially on people who are already hurting, you’d think that those who profess to walk in the way of Jesus would want to be damned sure of the rightness of their claims to own the Truth, before they use the Truth as a weapon to bludgeon others. Wouldn’t you?

It’s this horrendous reduction of religious truth to a weapon, a thing, to instrumental status, that makes me want to flee from religionists these days. The reductionism is particularly apparent in the perfervid rhetorical climate of an election cycle, particularly in this nation with the soul of a church, where religious and political truth claims so often intersect.

I find my co-religionists of the religious and political right on the NCR café—and many religionists representing other fundamentalist belief systems, with whom they have made common political cause these days—woefully ill-informed about what we mean, when we speak of religious truth. The truth to which religious traditions point is never an object. It cannot and must not be objectified, because claiming to own the Truth is implicitly claiming to own God.

And God cannot be owned. It is God who owns us, in the deepest and most authentic sense of religiosity in the world religious traditions. It is God’s truth that reaches into our lives and grabs and transforms us—not the other way around. Divine truth remains always outside human grasp, because it is intended to move us profoundly, to compel us on a faith journey centered on practical compassion, not to become an object we can use reductionistically to protect ourselves from conversion and conversation.

Religious truth as “the” truth, as the weapon we use to bludgeon others into submission, is simply not religious truth. It is political ideology masquerading as the Truth. It is a form of idolatry.

Unfortunately, in a nation in which religion wields such cultural and political power, but in which many of us (including many of the most religiously fervent of us) have an extremely limited knowledge of religious history, religious ideas, and philosophical understandings of religious truth claims, we are likely to continue to see religious truth reduced to political fodder by those who claim, with Iris Robinson, that they are merely defending the Word of God. That is, we are likely to see this tragic abandonment of authentic religious truth, culturally and politically transformative truth that is discovered only in a shared dialogic journey, insofar as those of us interested in truth in our political process don’t press religionists to think rationally about the truth claims they are pushing on the rest of us, as a way to control our lives.

And insofar as we don’t press them and the rest of our culture to talk about those truth claims in respectful, open dialogue in which their truth claims are submitted to the light of day and to sweet reason . . . .

And, above all, insofar as we allow religious adherents who claim to own the Truth to keep engaging in behavior that is so obviously anything but an authentic witness to transformative religious truth . . . .

No comments: