Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Alan McCornick on Why Religion Is the Problem: "Imagine a World Where Cherry-Picking Does Not Take Place and You Have the Kind of World Which ISIS Is Trying to Create"

An early Christmas gift: Alan McCornick's smart, wonderfully dense (think an outstanding slice of dark, rich fruitcake), fetchingly written essay about religion as the problem at his Hepzibah site yesterday. Precisely because Alan's essay is dense and so well-written, it's hard for me to select a passage to try to tempt you to read it in its entirety. Here's one that does leap out at me, since it so well summarizes the primary point Alan is making in the essay — that religion is the problem when adherents of a particular religion (and the culture at large) permit any given religion to rest easy with the reduction of its complex message to something like the obligation to kill one's perceived enemies: Alan writes, 

The reason we have nothing to fear from a billion Muslims or a billion Christians, is that most religious people cherry-pick. They know how to distill the essence of love or peace or justice from the raw material known as scripture.  And, in doing so, they are influenced by the secular communities they live in and increasingly governed by modern humanistic values such as gender equality and non-violence. Those of us who live in historically Christian countries still wish each other a Merry Christmas, even if we don’t believe in a Big Daddy who walked on water, and joke the Wise Men should have brought diapers, not myrrh, to the folks in the manger with the new-born. We are "culturally Christian," just as the folk of Jewish heritage living in Israel and the diaspora who have discarded religion remain "culturally Jewish." John F. Kennedy was able to declare that in any conflict between his church’s catechism and his country's Constitution he would follow the latter with no difficulty. Americans understood that they could trust him to follow through on that promise, because most of us have hollowed out our religious traditions and given priority to modern cultural values over religious ones.  
Imagine a world where cherry-picking does not take place and you have the kind of world which ISIS is trying to create. Religion is acceptable in modern life only when it has been spayed or neutered. We choose compassion and generosity and peace and harmony not because they are religious virtues but because they are virtues shared by religious and non-religious alike. We don't have official prayer in schools, because such endorsement of one particular religion over another would be divisive. We keep religion from getting out of control.

Though Alan's essay speaks very well for itself, I'd like to offer a few "translations" of it now. I hope that in doing this, I won't be bastardizing it or misrepresenting its point — and I hope that Alan will let me know if I have done that. Here's my "translation" of Alan's primary point as someone seeing this set of problems from the other side of the fence, as someone who remains a committed Christian, while, as Alan tells us in the essay, he was raised in the Christian church but found that faith left him and transitioned to atheism as an adult:

What I hear Alan talking about here is the unavoidable, necessary interplay of religious belief and practice, and secular culture — everywhere, at all times. No religion exists or ever has existed in a hermetically sealed vault set apart from the culture in which it lives, moves, has its being.

Fundamentalist movements like to imagine that their particular flavor of religion does operate in just that way. It's pure. It's the non-cafeteria version of Religion X, in which we eat up just what's served to us by the divinely appointed cafeteria servers, every item on the plate. We don't pick; we don't choose. We take our religion straight, just as it came to us from the hands of the Ultimate Cafeteria Server in the Sky.

No cherry-picking here: if cherries are on the menu, then cherries we'll eat. By God.

This is an entirely fatuous way of thinking about religion and its place within the broader culture, when, as Alan reminds us, 

Religion is a broad portmanteau word. It covers doctrine, ethical codes, clerical brotherhoods or sisterhoods, rituals, Mozart requiems and stained glass windows, the Crusades, the Reformation, the connection between the Civil Rights Movement and the Hebrew people’s exodus from Egypt, and much more.  

People who think they take their religion neat and pure, no adulterations, clearly don't know much at all about their religion, because no one can take such a complex, adulterated, multiply accreted thing like religion that way. No one can affirm everything a particular religion has believed or practiced over the course of history. Faithful, good Mormons today no longer hold that polygamy is the divine plan for the world, just as faithful, good Catholics no longer console parents who have lost an unbaptized baby that, thank God, the poor wee soul won't be in hell but in limbo. Any religion that has existed over a long period of time has developed in multiple directions, and it contains groups that move the religion in this direction or that direction — typically, in contradictory directions.

This process happens, in part, because culture itself is constantly shaping and reshaping religious movements, as Alan rightly reminds us. There is no pure stance apart from culture, for religious bodies. Those stained glass windows are fashioned into buildings that sit on a particular plot of ground in a particular place. They and the buildings in which they're set were fashioned by human hands, by the hands of human beings living in particular times and particular places, who, if they're religious believers, are living lives that are an amalgam of religious faith and practice, and cultural outlooks and behaviors.

The constant ongoing interaction of religion and culture is a good thing. It has resulted, in many Western Christian traditions, in a sharpening of the ethical outlook of these traditions that has caused Christians in the developed nations to question deeply held and longstanding prejduices against women and LGBT people, for instance. In the 19th century, it resulted in the definitive turning of the Christian churches away from the support and practice of slavery, a practice that had received Christian support for almost two millennia before this turn took place.

Christianity has benefited from its interaction with cultural movements that challenge and correct it — from cultural movement that point the way to what religious believers might call the reign of God proclaimed by Jesus, while secular movements might use a language quite different from that to describe the same end point to which they'd hope to see a culture move. All of this is what, in the Catholic context, Vatican II meant when it encouraged Christians to discern the signs of the times and to remind themselves that the Spirit, who blows where She will, moves within secular movements for peace and justice just as She moves within communities of faith.

What I'd add to this — and here's where I may take a different direction than Alan does — is that, as this process of constant ongoing interaction between religion and culture occurs, it's also important that groups of believers within a particular religion engage in a sifting process in which they seek to determine whether this or that development is adequate to the foundational documents and beliefs of their religious group. Is this new development an authentic expression of what we claim always to have believed? Or is it an aberration of our foundational set of beliefs?

For that matter, what counts most of all in those foundations: is it the fact, to take an example from within one particular world religion, that both the Jewish and Christian scriptures take the practice of slavery for granted and even bless this practice? Is it the fact that Christians for almost two millennia lived very cozily with the practice of slavery — and why shouldn't they have done so, after all, when the scriptures themselves do just that?

Or is there some other strand within the scriptures, and above all within the life and teaching of Jesus, that challenges such coziness with this long-taken-for-granted cultural practice? Have we, quite simply, missed the point for nearly two millennia, when we have assumed that Christianity and the practice of slavery are reconcilable with each other?

This is a dialogue that takes place within religious bodies, and has to take place there, though it may originate with the surrounding culture and may make its way inside the church from impulses that arise from secular culture. It's a necessary dialogue process which insures that churches (or other religious bodies) do not merely dance to the tune of culture, do not collapse their foundational beliefs to culture as the culture in which a religious movement is set shifts.

What appears to be cherry-picking can, I suppose I'm insisting here, actually be the reorienting of a religious tradition to more adequate expressions of that particular tradition, a reorienting that, I will freely grant, often happens because cultural changes raise searching new questions for a religious tradition. Cherry-picking it certainly is, since no one can simultaneously hold together every affirmation of any given religious tradition, including, in the religions of the book, every statement made in the foundational holy texts of those religions. But it's cherry-picking that's designed (to mix metaphors) to sift the good from the bad, the useful from the useless.

And so I suppose I'm also appealing here for a recognition on the part of religious adherents of how much people of no belief or people hostile to religious belief have to teach religious groups — above all, about what's really important within the belief systems of those groups. But I'm also appealing for a recognition on the part of agnostics, atheists, or those hostile to religious belief of how important it is for them not to attack but to support those working inside the various religions of the world to  correct those religions, to assure that they are more adequate to the fundamental message of their foundational documents or beliefs — a message that is, Karen Armstrong insists (and I think she's right about this) centered on practical compassion.

A case in point right from today's news: on this day of the winter solstice, Reuters reports

One Catholic parish in Germany tore out its pews to make space for refugees. Franciscan monks near Rome took a family into their hilltop convent. 
But in northern Italy, a rural priest faced hostility when he asked his flock to shelter Muslims. 
Four months after Pope Francis appealed to the parishes and religious communities of Europe to each take in one family of refugees, the response is decidedly mixed.  . . . 
A number of Catholic prelates, particularly in Eastern Europe, were less than eager and warned of the long-term effects that migrants, most of them Muslim, could have on local culture.

One religion — Roman Catholicism. But two very distinctly different reactions to the appeal of the top pastoral leader of that religious body to deal compassionately with the refugees now flooding into Europe from the east. Of these two reactions, it might be argued, one is more adequate to what is foundational in Roman Catholicism — to the life and teaching of Jesus. 

The other is not. And I'd also argue that, even if it's the business of those within this particular religion to deal with the dialogue between the two camps represented here, people outside this religious body should also be concerned about the outcome of that dialogue, because this is a religious body with tremendous influence at a global level.

And not just Catholics will have to live with the outcome of that dialogue — or with the dialogue within the came religious community about the place of women and LGBT people in the world . . . .

The photo is one I've shared before, but thought to share again: Steve took it in Assisi one evening right before the winter solstice in December 2013.

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