A writer from Iceland questioned this phrase from a New York Times book review: “the negatives that have made Christianity a byword for tyranny, cruelty and licensed hatred.” She wrote, “The simple exercise of substituting any other institution with a history of ‘negatives’ for ‘Christianity’ in this phrase might have quickly showed up the hurtful error of dismissing the religion of Dorothy Day, St. Augustine, Lutheran World Relief, or the Amish, for example, as a byword for cruelty.” She then offered examples of institutions and categories of people that might similarly be impugned unfairly.
Does our culture automatically assume malignant conspiracies when it comes to religion? And what about progressive Christians?
Recently I began watching a documentary-style film that began with an overlong collage of violent images with no explanatory narrative. Growing impatient, I fast-forwarded to the eventual narration, and was met with a male voice speaking declarative “certainties” oracle-fashion about the destructive conspiracy of religion to control us and take over our innocent and inherently divine planet. I escaped the sermon, turned off less by its criticism of religion than its presumptuous certainty!
It reminded me of a book I read that had many insights, but whose perspective viewed religion as a sinister plot. I began circling loaded words the author chose, highly judgmental words that might sell books but limit understanding. On two pages alone, I found religion associated with these words and phrases with no “ifs ands and buts”: weapon, conformity, self-serving, defensive, false piety, God-manipulation. Oddly, the writer’s eventual conclusions are those of any enlightened religion.
Perhaps what I witnessed in the film and the book was actually anger over a restrictive religion in which the narrators were reared. I too was taught biblical literalism and religious fundamentalism, but I no longer view either as a malicious conspiracy, just a misunderstanding of what sacred texts and religion are about. In truth, I wonder if I would still be writing about the Bible and Christianity had I not been given the zeal of that upbringing!
I do not think of religion as a conspiracy. It was an attempt by people as good as you and me to comprehend the incomprehensible, and to discern and affirm our place in the universe.
Do people use religion to their own ends? Of course, just like they use the computer and government and science to get what they want.
Is religion co-opted and manipulated by “the powers that be”? You bet. Over and over, in human history, you can find evidence of that. You can see patriarchy in the male-dominated church, for example, evidenced as recently as the Anglican Church’s vote that narrowly rejected female bishops.
Can religion make itself a god? Yes, and that’s when we must be iconoclastic—when we must demythologize and deconstruct.
As Christianity began to blend with imperial culture and political power, the Christian monastic movement began. According to Thomas Merton, it saw civilization as a shipwreck that needed to be abandoned, with the hope that those who safely escaped to the shore might reach out to others trapped in the wreckage.
Those we consider founders of world religions—among them, Moses, the Brahmins, the Buddha, Jesus, Mohammed—all had to contend with the powers that be, religious, cultural, political, and define their spiritual views in those contexts.
You and I have a similar role, in our own small way. We must step back, step away, gain a contemplative perspective, employ a “hermeneutics of suspicion” of both contemporary culture and religious tradition, questioning both our unique personal perspectives as well as our commonly shared views.
Religion is to spirituality what a question is to the answer. One may lead to the other, but the answer may require the reframing of the question.
Copyright © 2012 by Chris R. Glaser. All rights reserved. Permission granted for non-profit use with attribution of author and blogsite. Suggested uses: personal reflection, contemporary readings in worship, conversation starters in classes. This ministry is entirely funded by your donations.