Saturday, January 07, 2006

Which way do we go now?

Joe Conason is calling us to respond, and Street Prophets is debating what to do, and even television shows are asking who we are, and everywhere people are giving glory to God for the light of reason and for the joy of life, and would we be dumb?

I think not.

Joe Conason calls (once more) for a concerted voice from those for whom Pat Robertson and Tom DeLay do NOT speak: i.e., the vast majority of Christians in America. Street Prophets has opened a valuable debate on how we should respond both to the issues of religion raised by Jack Abramoff, and of religion in general. But the refutation of the critique of anti-Christian (or merely religion) diatribes is perhaps best stated by Madeline Bunting at the end of her critique of Richard Dawkin's "The Root of All Evil?" (a sort of British version of "The God Who Wasn't There," apparently):

Dawkins seems to want to magic religion away. It's a silly delusion comparable to one of another great atheist humanist thinker, JS Mill. He wanted to magic away another inescapable part of human experience - sex; using not dissimilar arguments to Dawkins's, he pointed out the violence and suffering caused by sexual desire, and dreamt of a day when all human beings would no longer be infantilised by the need for sexual gratification, and an alternative way would be found to reproduce the human species. As true of Mill as it is of Dawkins: dream on.
But that's starting at the end; let's start at the beginning. The problem here is engaging the power struggle of the world. The world seems bent on a solitary truth: he who has the power makes the rules. And the greatest power always wins, so find and side with the greatest power, and then wield it in support of you.

Er, your position, of course.

Conason simply wants a "cleansing of the Temple," a refutation as ferocious and loud as the attacks on civil society and separation of church and state that has been fostered by the politicians he identifies. Be careful what you wish for. One reason mainline denominations and such orgnizations as the National Council of Churches lost so much authority among congregations is precisely because they became associated with the pursuit of power, and not the pursuit of spirituality.

One effective weapon of most "Evangelists" is that "salvation" is primarily a spiritual issue. Wrapped in that velvet and gold, the brick within it that seeks to smash all opposition and recreate the world in their preferred image, is a bit harder to see. But simply replacing the brick, or lobbing one from the "other side," is hardly the right answer.

Ms. Bunting is much closer to the right course:

By all means, let's have a serious debate about religious belief, one of the most complex and fascinating phenomena on the planet, but the suspicion is that it's not what this chorus wants. Behind unsubstantiated assertions, sweeping generalisations and random anecdotal evidence, there's the unmistakable whiff of panic; they fear religion is on the march again.

There's an aggrieved frustration that they've been short-changed by history; we were supposed to be all atheist rationalists by now. Secularisation was supposed to be an inextricable part of progress. Even more grating, what secularisation there has been is accompanied by the growth of weird irrationalities from crystals to ley lines. As GK Chesterton pointed out, the problem when people don't believe in God is not that they believe nothing, it is that they believe anything.
Which brings us back to the "evangelists," the fundamentalists and others (is Robertson really an evangelist, or just a businessman, looking to keep his empire funded?), who seem to fear much the same thing (two conditions that often appear alike, as the poet said). But who at least offer something to believe in, as opposed to , well, maybe, this:

We must identify, examine, and discuss the parts of our community we try to hide that may not be so welcoming.
• We must exercise those weaker muscles through prayer, study, dialogue, and community so that our inclusion is real, spiritual, and Holy.
A part of this will be fleshed out through the Open and Affirming process. Through our personal prayers, through our communal study, through our intimate connections with our small groups. But the process itself is the easy part. It is ethereal and theological. It is discussion and prayer and listening.
It isn't the goal that bother me; and really this doesn't bother me very much. But how different is this from a statement from the Human Resources Department of any organization? Only two words, "theological" and "Holy," indicate this language comes from a church, not from just any institution in modern America. "We," according to this, are going to do everything. At least the "Gospel of Wealth" give God credit for making its adherents rich!

So which way do we go with this? So long as we pursue power, either in politics or just in a local congregation, we pursue our own interests and are limited to our own abilities. If we set out to define "religion," (a worthy pursuit, of course; definitions are very important), why are we doing so, and what is the good we seek? If we rise up to challenge and refute the "religious spokesmen" of the media (and they are almost always men? Whyis that?), we run the risk Nietzsche warned against: “The man who fights too long against dragons becomes a dragon himself”. So long as we consider only what we can do, or (in a limited Christian context, admittedly), what God wants us to be doing, we are left considering only our own needs, and pursuing our own ends.

We have to reorient to the other, away from same. We have to meditate on the paradox of the power of powerlessness. Madeleine Bunting is right to critique Ronald Dworkin, but notice she doesn't seek to silence him, only to engagein dialogue with him. Perhaps we simply need to learnt to be less absolute; and that would be a true living our of our religion (or merely our ethics, if we are so inclined.

The words I began with were a corruption for my own uses of the words of a woman who taught Alexander Carmichael the Gaelic prayer that follows. She said her mother told them that all of nature was singing the glofy of God, all the living creatures on earth and land and sea, and would her daughters be dumb? Consider one aspect of the prayer: it places God first, and gives glory to God for all that is, and will be, in the day to come. Nowhere does it focus on what "we" will do, but gives thanks to God for what will be done.

There is a lesson in that.

Bless to me, O God,
My soul and my body;
Bless to me, O God,
My belief and my condition;

Bless to me, O God,
My heart and my speech,
And bless to me, O God,
The handling of my hand;

Strength and busyness of morning,
Habit and temper of modesty,
Force and wisdom of thought,
And Thine own path, O God of virtues,
Till I go to sleep this night;

Thine own path, O God of virtues,
Till I go to sleep this night.

(with thanks to Prior Aelred for the Bunting column)

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