Happy New Year, everyone. This month I've decided to talk about religion, partly in rebuttal to Andy's December column and partly because it's something that's been on my mind lately.
Thank you, Uncle Screwtape
Back in the forties C. S. Lewis published a collection of letters called The Screwtape Letters. They were a commentary on Satan and Christianity put forth before English readers of the time, and no doubt influenced a lot of people's beliefs. I had the opportunity to read them recently, along with Lewis' other works, Mere Christianity and God in the Dock. [Note: the word "dock" here is used in the British form, meaning something like "witness stand" and by the title Lewis meant that the book is a sort of cross-examination of Christian ideas.] Lewis does a remarkable job of putting Christian theology, ethics, and morals into perspective for thinking people. It's my opinion that anyone who's a Christian should read one or all of these books, not only because they can give you a better understanding of Christian thought but because, especially in the case of God in the Dock, they put everyday issues in perspective.
Christianity in the Dock
These books gave me an idea of what Christianity really should be, mostly an ideal picture of what the early church wanted their views to be. Unfortunately, in the nearly two thousand years since the founding of Catholicism, Christianity itself has changed. The beliefs have been rewritten throughout the centuries to support popes and kings, not to mention the fact that most of the Bible has undoubtedly been altered to support or uphold the translators' ways of thinking. Christianity is an old religion, with traditions and dogmas adapted and assimilated from several different cultures. Constantine changed the Christian Sabbath day from Saturday to Sunday so it would coincide with the holy days of other Roman cults. He also moved Christmas from January 6 to December 25 so it would be the same day as the Roman Saturnalia celebrations. The Catholic church founded many of our other holidays such as Easter and All Saint's Day.
A lot of the messages in the Old Testament still hold fast, but many of the laws and customs have been thrown out. I have no doubt that the story of Abraham's test of faith by nearly sacrificing his son Isaac can still be valid, many people today could do a similar thing for their faith. But the codes in Leviticus have all but been ignored (save the famous stabs at homosexuality) and many of the rules meant to keep women subservient aren't applied. The Christian God isn't very close to the scornful and disapproving God that brought about such Old Testament events as The Fall and The Deluge. My point here is that such an old book is filled with wisdom, but you must also keep it in perspective.
The New Testament, written hundreds of years after the Old Testament, has an overall message of love, excluding of course the Apostle Paul's anti-Semitic ramblings and things he's said about other lower class gentiles. Although Paul surely believed in Jesus' call to love all, he seemed to become overzealous and spiteful in his instructions to the peoples he visited. Jesus said for us all to love one another, and I think many Christian attitudes today go against that. Jesus' friends were the of the lower classes in his society: prostitutes, fisherman, among others. In the Roman dominated Jerusalem the Jews probably weren't the most privileged class. What's my point? Jesus said that the greatest commandment was love. He didn't include any exceptions.
"Here I stand, I can do no other..."
When Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses to door of the Wittenberg church on All Hallows Eve in 1517 he called to consciousness ideas that, once they spread, were unstoppable. Luther believed that "the just shall live by faith alone" and that everyone had the ability to search for and define their own personal spirituality and faith. It is in this tradition that I have sought the truth, that I have searched for my religion, that I have discovered my beliefs. So, Andy, for you I'm not giving Christianity lip service, I'm contributing my only theses for discussion.
As I've mentioned in previous columns, I am constantly adding things to my faith. Ideas are in a way like scars, once we've gotten them they may fade but we always carry them with us. I have studied many religions and in fact have added different aspects of them to my personal spirituality. Officially I am a Unitarian-Universalist, or what my friends call "potpourri"; I don't have any written or specific dogma I follow. I believe in what makes sense to me, what I feel in my mind and in my heart to be true.
First of all, let's address something that has Andy feeling down about himself. Sin. It seems that so many people are worried that things they've done will offend their God. Sin is, in a way, a very Old Testament concept: be fearful of your God, for what he gives he can take away if you piss him off. Sin makes for an awful lot of guilt in people. Catholicism has us recount our sins to priests and do penance, other denominations have you scream and yell for forgiveness, while some people on TV would have you believe that forgiveness can be found using your Visa card. I for one believe in the Neo-Pagan creed that says "an harm it none, do what thou wilt."
I reject the concept of sin as a moralistic device. Everything we do has consequences, and to put divine offense, fear, and guilt into some actions is simply a way for churches to control people. To say that we are all by nature sinners seems to start us out behind before we've even had the chance to get ahead. If we are indeed given all things by God, then what makes our (God-given) human nature so evil? My deity says to me that everything is connected: every action you do or do not take, word you do or do not say, everything you do or do not do affects everyone and everything else.
Christian theology asserts that God made the world for mankind to use, to exploit for his own uses. According to them, God descended from the heavens, made mankind, and said "Here, play around a bit and see what you can do!" We're a much weaker species than that. How should it make someone feel to know that even though we're supposed to be the grandest and most powerful thing on earth we can all be killed by tiny things that we can't even see, or even the cells of our own bodies? God says to me that, as the dominant sentient life form on the planet, we've got to take care of the biosphere if we want to be able to live in it for much longer. I've a feeling that, instead of being kicked out of Eden by God, we're destroying it ourselves.
The focus of Screwtape and numerous other works in the universe of Christian thought is Satan. Many people in the Right believe that we, as the "sexually deviant" -- homosexuals, bisexuals, and transgendered people, are all possessed by this mystical force of evil. Here's another place were I'll probably upset Andy. I don't believe that there is this evil force present in our lives forcing us to do evil things. That just seems to me like an excuse not to take responsibility for one's actions. I believe, along with the Zoroastrians, that we each have the power within us to do good or evil, and we all choose one or the other. I don't think it's right to blame your actions on some mystical, evil force.
Just who do you think you are?
I'm sure there are some people out there who think that I'm totally wrong, that I'm crazy just to go around picking things up that I believe in. But that's what Universalism is all about, really: discovering the beliefs of other people and adding them to your personal spirituality. How do I justify my beliefs? The same way Martin Luther justified what he was doing, and the same way Andy justifies his religion: FAITH.