When she reads he headline, I will undoubtedly hear of it. She told me yesterday that I hadn't posted much about religion recently, and she is right. I have been feeling remiss about it myself. The problem is that too often my posts about religion cause me more problems than they are worth - I get stuck saying the same thing over and over, rather than moving the conversation forward, which is my intent. So, what follows are some general guidelines on how I plan on addressing issues of faith from now one. Of course, feel free to ignore them at your leisure; I, however, will try to stick with them as much as possible.
I could cut and paste the first paragraph from yesterday's post here, substituting "religion" for "music". Religion is a human phenomenon, a vast, sprawling phenomenon that covers every human social group of which we have record, in every time and place. Because of the varieties of religious expression, one finds it maddeningly difficult to define just what a religion is; I studied sociology under a scholar who wrote the first definitive work on Alcoholics Anonymous as a religion. What are the points of contact between, say, Chinese ancestor-worship and Zen Buddhism and Coptic Christianity? What possible link is there between the religious expression of the ancient Maya and contemporary snake-handlers? From just this, it should be clear that, like obscenity, religion is impossible to define, but one knows it when one sees it.
I say this, again (and again and again and again) because too often the word "religion" is substituted for the word "Christianity" by both critics and supporters alike as if they were interchangeable, a horrid ethno- and cultural-centrism I find both mindless and confusing. When I read Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris, the two "bad boys" of the vocal atheist movement, deride "religion", then cite mostly Christian and Muslim horrors (or alleged horrors), I wonder what in the world they are toalking about. Certainly, since Harris exempts Buddhism, reincarnation, ESP, transmigration of the soul, and astral projection from criticism, one wonders about his hostility to religion in general, and about his credibility in particular. All of this together makes it difficult to discuss issues of faith because no one seems clear on what, exactly, the issue is.
For me, "religion" covers a vast array of beliefs and practices. I will undoubtedly enrage and insult not a few people by insisting that atheism is as much a religious phenomena (especially in its current, "evangelical" form) as, say Judaism or Lutheranism. My larger point is that attempting to divorce the concept of "religion" from its very specific realities - by treating religion as if it existed independent of those who practice and profess it, in other words - is to discuss an unreal abstraction. Religion is a human phenomenon, and cannot be separated from the very real people who sing the songs, say the prayers, light the candles, sacrifice the chickens, etc.
Second point: I will not discuss the "rational" or "reasonable" merits or demerits of religious faith versus other expressions of human life because, quite simply, such debates are meaningless. They assume too much about "rationality", they are ignorant of the history of religions and their role in propagating all sorts of rationalities in all sorts of settings, and too often we take "rationalism" and "reasonableness" to be something real, as well, i.e., divorced from human beings who think. Rationality is whatever people want it to be, and Christians are as rational as non-Christians are as rational as Buddhists are as rational as shamanists. To be rational is to think. Period. Unless one wants to argue that religion and thought are contradictory (and some have made that argument; it is simply ignorant, and I won't engage with ignorant people any more, trying to convince them of their ignorance) we will not move the issues forward if we try to figure out who is and is not rational or reasonable.
Third point: Christianity's hands - in all its guises and in all its vareigated histories and confessions - are extremely bloody. So are the hands of Muslims, of Hindus, of Buddhists. Indeed, except for Jains and Quakers, it is difficult for me to think of a religious group that has not been washed in the blood of opponents, dissidents, and false prophets. Why would I want to argue otherwise, since it is true? As long as we are admitting this truth, we might as well go whole hog, totus porcus, and point out that non-theistic beliefs - political ideololgies, social ideologies, and the like - are just as bloody, just as amenable to the delights of hurting and killing "the other" as are religion. It is simply historically and factually inaccurate to argue otherwise. In other words, I will not discuss the issue of Christian atrocities any more because, quite simply, human history is full of wars and pogroms and destruction wrought for any number of reasons, relgious among the rest. No human history is free of it (except, as I mentioned, Jains and Quakers; maybe, too, Ba'hai) so we will, again, get bogged down in irrelevancies if we try to outdo one another in the whole "who committed worse atrocities" game.
Third point: Secular liberals need to resign themselves to the fact that there are people of faith among them, people who share their political, social, and cultural values, but who also profess deep, profound, and abiding trust in some higher power (to use an AA term of art). Just because I am a Christian does not make me equal to Jerry Falwell. I will not check my faith at the door of progressive/liberal politics just because some people don't like it, are uncomfortable with it, or want to discuss something else. My politics and my faith are inseparable precisely because I am inseparable within myself. There are a whole host of reasons why ifind consonance between my faith and my politics - not the least of them being a commitment to the welfar and integrity and life of individual human beings wherever they may be and however that may be manifest. I am not interested in converting anyone to Christianity; I am, however, committed because of my Christianity to act to protect and and defend those who are weak, outside, lost, hurting, or under some threat. I do it because of my faith. Deal with it.
Finally, I will not belittle the faith of those Christians with whom I disagree politically. Some of them are United Methodists like myself. Others of other denominations, faith traditions, creedal traditions, etc., may believe slightly differently from me, but because I refuse to admit that any one faith tradition contians within it the whole truth of Christian faith, I will not denounce or otherwise call into question the faith of thosw who believe differently from me. Fundamentalism serves a vital spiritual need, and serves a check on the non-fundies who sometimes get all caught up in forgetting some very basic tenets in a continual search for relevance. I don't agree with fundamentalists, but I am thankful for them and the perspective they bring, and their militant refusal to compromise on issues that, quite possibly, should not be compromised. I am just one person occupying a very small portion of one faith tradition, and I have no monopoly on truth, and I will not presume it. I will call error when I see it, and reserve the right to disagree with pretty much anyone; I will not call anyone, however, a false Christian, or deride their claims to faith or faithfulness.
These are my rules. I hope I can stick to them. I hope you can, too.