Death and Resurrection

In the past year, Republican Christianity gained both its victory and its demise. It gained power across the government. And with that power, it did the following: It instituted bans against Muslims; it made inroads against gay rights; it started its attempt to gut women’s health. It turned away the stranger; it took medicine from the sick; it rebuffed those ravaged by natural disasters; it increased the debt of the poor; it opened more ways to degrade the earth; it ignored the cries of criminals’ victims; it threatened to destabilize the world by giving primacy to its own sacred site; and it sacrificed its children and children’s children for the sake of current wealth. You can see how the death creeps in. If there was ever anything Christian in Republicanism, their support of Trump has killed it. And those Christian Republicans who do retain a shred of conscience find they can ease it only by saying that the truth tellers of the world—the media, and the intelligence teams, and the scientists, and the victims themselves—are all lying. Christian Republicanism is dead. 

Now I, for one, do mourn it, because however disagreeable its prejudices were to me, it at least tried, at one time, to take a stand against deceit, and sex crimes, and even some injury to the earth. All that’s gone now. Insofar as they support this administration, the most vocal—the most pious—Christians in this country have lost all credibility to anyone except to themselves. Whatever Christianity they think they stand for now serves to drive others from Christianity itself. Their allegiance to Trump has been their unmasking and their undoing. And their City on a Hill has become the unease of the world.

So now the question is where Christianity—I mean, true Christianity—might speak in their absence. If it doesn’t find a way to do that–and to speak so that it can be heard–then it will least wane, if not die too. For the most part, liberal Christians have been too timid. For the past half century, too many of us have contented ourselves with being the so-very-invisible church. But seeing that Christianity is about rejection, remnants, and resurrection, I think, even now, it could find its voice again. I hope it does. I pray. And if it does, I suspect that it will speak first from those the powerful have abandoned, and second from those who have endeavored to suffer alongside them. And from the compassion of these who have seen suffering, who knows? Christianity may return to its true self.

(Originally posted December 6, 2017)

Hell

A few days ago, I got a pretty strong inkling that a person who’s known me since birth likely believes I am going to hell. That concept didn’t enter the conversation in so many words, but it’s safe to say that there were some sandals and some dust sprinkling. As far as I’m aware, this is a new achievement I’ve reached. And I’ve won it, I suppose, through my mouthy evangelism on social media and elsewhere. I use that word advisedly, because in certain respects, evangelism is what I see most of my serious writing to be—including my 900 (sigh, now it’s 1000)-page novel*. It’s okay—the damnation. Many of you have come under the same attack, and you are some of the finest people I know. In other words—and all jokes aside—if you’re going to hell, then I want to go with you.

Now it’s true that, these days, condemnation of all sorts occurs on both sides of the political spectrum. It is, I think, what our enemies have stoked and exploited. In fact, I believe, now more than ever, that the most difficult and patriotic thing that any of us can do is offer civility to one another, whenever possible**. On Facebook, I have unfollowed some liberals for their hateful incivility. Some other liberals have unfollowed me. I shed conservative followers faster than Trump loses Republicans. But here’s the thing: By and large, the difference between liberal and conservative condemnation is that liberals rarely put their enemies in hell. 

It’s mostly because we don’t believe so much in hell. Damnation is a vindictive concept; it builds a religion on fear instead of love—and as an idea, I don’t find it so biblically sound. I can think of no one in either history or imagination who deserves eternal torture. And that includes Dumbass Trump. But if you believe in hell and all of its menace, then something frequently happens to your concept of your enemy: At best, you pity them. You seek to correct them, because you love them and because you fear for their souls. At second best, you fear them. You cease your association with them, because they might threaten your soul. And at worst, you damn them. Because, boy they’re gonna get it, and that makes you sort of glad.

In this whole post, I’m speaking in broad strokes–and I could probably face some correction on nuance. But the bottom line is that when hell enters the picture, you frequently degrade your fellow man. Something happens when you believe that another person at least risks the Universe’s doing worse than throwing them away. Something happens when you believe Absolute Justice will torture them while they scream—and while likely their mothers scream—for so many centuries. When you suspect people are damned, they become less worthy; in fact, they become less than worthless. And that makes it so easy to neglect them on the grounds that they’re already lost. Oh, sure, you can point to the Penitent Thief and say you make room for deathbed conversions. You can try to love your enemy, but you’ve aligned her with the Eternal Enemy. And I’m sorry, but you’re just not that compassionate. History shows that you aren’t. Tell me there isn’t a soupcon of she-had-it-coming, when you don’t make room for safe abortions. Tell me that there isn’t part of you that thinks a Muslim refugee is better off dying in Syria than spreading his faith over here. Tell me you’ wouldn’t rather back a president you know to be a maniac if he can make inroads toward ending Marriage Equality. 

In general, the Christian conservative both fears and wields the threat of damnation. In fact, they wield it to keep one another in line. It is why the facts themselves don’t always stick to them. Nothing is more important than the safety of the soul. Nothing is more real. And that, actually, is the Christian conservative’s greatest downfall: By their own rules, they would rather abandon me to my condemnation than risk their own salvation to help me–or you, or the boy starving in Aleppo. At best, they’ll give us their thoughts and prayers, but little else. That isn’t faith. In fact, it’s the opposite. And it’s parsimony to boot. But you know what? None of it is damnable. That’s the thing. Grace won’t send these guys to hell either. And that’s because paradise will never be so tawdry. And it will never be that easy.

*Evangelism, in this sense, means an attempt to point to all-inclusive love, redemption, compassion, and eventual justice; the need for biblical and historical accuracy; and the absolute sin of both using divinity to oppress anybody else, and not using divinity to oppose that oppression.

**No, it isn’t always possible. But if we are civil in the meantime, we might reduce the number of occasions when all we have left to do is fight.

(Originally posted November 16, 2017)

Condemnation

I am so tired of having to say this. I am both a Christian and a pretty good reader. I can tell you, with chapter and verse, that the Bible’s so-called anti-gay scriptures come from only the most parsimonious interpretations of laws that are actually injunctions against idolatry and inhospitality. The Bible is a dangerous document in how it judges the reader. Your interpretation of scripture will disclose who you really are. And if you use the Bible as an excuse to harm your neighbor, then it will readily condemn you.

(Originally posted August 30, 2017)

Veritas

Last week, I suggested that one reason why some religious conservatives follow Trump in spite of his contradictions is that many religious conservatives have been conditioned to view reason and worldly knowledge as something far subordinate, if not anathema to, godly faith. We see through a glass darkly—and therefore, no matter how well it telescopes or magnifies, we must not let it challenge God’s Teachings. Harvard’s VERITAS, said one commentator, does not reflect absolute truth but merely the worldly sort. To certain religious groups, reason is what the tempter offered us in the garden, and therefore its fruits can poison. In fact its fruits can damn. So considering all this, it is no real wonder that when people in these groups obey faith without reason, they may also do the same in politics. In other words, some conservative churches have conditioned their congregations to embrace authoritarians.

A part of the solution, I think, is to convince the faithful that reason—and skeptical critique—actually enhance one’s sense of the numinous. And I believe there’s no better way to make this case than by getting the faithful to accept science. This can be a tough sell, because to them, science is the home of evolutionary theory, and climate alarm, and vaccines, and abortions, and the whole damn(able) Enlightenment. But it also brings us the idea that we proceed through error (because, one might say, we see through a glass darkly). It bolsters the idea of democracy and checks and balances (because one person’s error shouldn’t be allowed to rule the rest). And it proceeds from the faith that whatever we learn about the universe, the universe can take it. In fact, as with any revelation, the real question is how much we can handle.

Isaac Newton once said that in his computations he was “thinking God’s thoughts after him.” Astrophysicists climb so high into their equations that they come down, wide-eyed, from a kind of Sinai. Time folds; dimensions multiply; according to NASA, dark matter and dark energy make up over 95 percent of the universe. I don’t have time to make a full case for how science feeds wonder, awe, and love. But I will say that ideas like the simultaneous vulnerability and omnipotence of God becomes far easier to accept, when you encounter things like the fact that light is both particle and wave.

Reason points to reality. And another word for reality is God. Reason may emulsify one’s simple concept of reality (or God, or any single political issue), but it’s in the thicket of things that we find revelation. After all, who ever said that wrestling with reality didn’t involve uncomfortable work? “Surely the Lord is in this place,” said Jacob in the wilderness, “and I knew it not.” Or to borrow another scripture, science shows us the back parts of God. And when science teaches a person to rely on fact and reason as further means of discerning what is good, it will surely show that following any sort of autocracy is far from holy.

(Originally posted August 8, 2017)

Faith is a Private Conversation

A study at Vanderbilt just confirmed what I think others have reported—which is that if a person goes to a house of worship once a week, she tends to live longer than someone who doesn’t. This pattern persists across religious traditions. My father can vouch for this; when we lived in Indiana, he helped take care of the local nuns—and most of them were old as dirt.

We can draw at least two things from the Vanderbilt study: 1) It is literally good for the soul to talk with the universe. 2) The universal benefits of churchgoing show that divinity’s acceptance goes way beyond what some of us dogmatic types would like to believe. We have to get over the idea that, as x religious group, we are Creation’s only children. It is selfish, high-handed, and maybe outright hostile to disapprove of how most anybody else* goes about their dialogue with their maker. Certain people will point to scripture as a means of refuting my point, and I can get into chapter and verse if need be—but the shorthand is that they’re interpreting those scriptures in the most meager sense possible. And furthermore, it is a sense that puts divinity at apparent odds with the graciousness of reality.

Look: my sister talks with my mother about different things than I do, but we both love our mother to bits. Unless something strange happens, the details of how Mom and Ali get on with their parent-childing is none of my business. In fact, the confidentiality of some of their conversations is probably part of their closeness. I speak to my parent, and I get a reply. My sibling says something different to our parent, and she gets a different reply. And you know what this reveals? 1) That my sister and I are both equally individual and equally significant. 2) That everybody in the conversation is paying very close attention.

*I put an asterisk here, because I think the one exception to my stance is human sacrifice. When Canaanites burned their children for Baal, that was an abomination. When Romans burned blind people to Ceres, that was an abomination. When inquisitors burned witches, that was an abomination. When terrorists drive trucks into Londoners, that’s an abomination. And when religious conservatives drive “sexual deviants” to either suicide or botched abortions, that’s an abominable sacrifice too.

(Originally posted June 4, 2017)

Quiverfull

From NBC:

“AUSTIN, Texas — Parents seeking to adopt children in Texas could soon be rejected by *state-funded* or private agencies with religious objections to them being Jewish, Muslim, gay, single, or interfaith couples, under a proposal in the Republican-controlled Legislature. [Emphasis mine.] Five other states have passed similar laws protecting faith-based adoption organizations that refuse to place children with gay parents or other households on religious grounds — but Texas’ rule would extend to state-funded agencies. Only South Dakota’s is similarly sweeping.”

Does this need comment? I read it to James, and he said, “That is NOT gonna pass Constitutional muster.” The thing is that South Dakota seems already to have achieved such a measure. And I can tell you firsthand that the Dakotas go along just fine, as Constitutional cesspits. 

But let’s say that the courts do their job, and get in the way of this sort of state-funded adoption ban. That would be excellent—just as Trump’s impeachment would be excellent. But as with the Trump-less Trumpites, the movement would only persist. And the adoption agenda would follow this arithmetic: Removing (at least cheap) birth control and stopping all abortions + restricting adoptions to “Christian” families = an increasing supply of “Christian” soldiers. There’s a name for this sort of philosophy. It’s called the Quiverfull movement. 

In its purest form, the Quiverfull doctrine focuses mostly on parents who are Christian already, where the women are supposed to “relinquish control of the womb to God,” and have as many babies as possible. (Apparently this surrender is very liberating to the mother. Of course it is.) That focus aside, however, I can see how the Quiverfull doctrine can slide easily into the “you have ‘em, we’ll raise ‘em” strategy. As the name suggests, the Quiverfull philosophy hinges on the idea of warfare. In some early instances, Amish or Orthodox Jewish versions of the movement have embraced the fact that small-group longevity depends on growing a population. But when we unpack this stance in relation to the nation’s already-conservative midsection, we can come up with something like this: 

As with any extremist doctrine these days, the idea of warfare has metastasized from the goal of survival to one of conquest. I’ve come across a few books on the Quiverfull movement. Some of them have titles such as Family UNplanning; A Mom Just Like You; and (my favorite) The Way Home: Beyond Feminism, Back to Reality. Of the ten titles I’ve seen, however, three of them went like this: Arrows in His Hand; The Family: God’s Weapon for Victory; and Birthing God’s Mighty Warriors. Rachel Scott is the author of that last one, and Fox News covered her on a 2007 spot that was called “When Birthing Children is a Religious Experience.” In this segment, Scott mentioned an encounter with a “warrior angel” who espoused the Quiverfull philosophy. Bottom line is the Quiverfull movement has entered at least the Fox-viewing mainstream, and it has the aroma of what may anti-Islam folks would call a jihad.

Now back in the day, a Roman patriarch had the option to disown his infant. The family laid the baby on the ground. If the father picked it up, the infant was saved. If the father stepped over the child, the baby was left to die of exposure. The mother had no legal say about any of this. Early Christians grew their numbers, in part, because they rescued the abandoned children. I would bet my favorite French press that the Quiverfull movement makes mention of this fact. But let’s be very clear: The Dakota-Texas laws are not a rescue. They are an imprisonment. By forcing more children into adoption agencies and then minimizing those who may become their parents, the laws will add more children to a system where already 428,000 kids languish in American foster care. No quiver can hold that many—especially not when women freed of womb-angst are having lots of babies of their own. 

And I’d like to mention one final thing: Conquering armies have captured children and raised them before. In fact, the ancient Romans were very good at this. But after a while, something started to happen. The abducted children grew up. And they became not only aware of their origin but also of their numbers. They realized that if they wanted to, they could organize a revolt. And that, dearies, is one of the reasons why the conquering empire fell.

(Originally posted May 13, 2017)

Manipulation

Train a generation to follow bad theology without question, and it’s no wonder that they’ll follow bad journalism with the same fervor. Teach them to treat reason as a road to a lower truth than their own, and you’ll own them insofar as you own their truth. It’s an ancient kind of evil to dominate people this way. And as for them, it’s an ancient kind of selfishness to fear for one’s soul so much that one won’t risk learning enough about reality to best discern how to help a neighbor.

(Originally posted May 5, 2017)