The Beanstalk

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by David N. Townsend

Elsewhen

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January 31, 1999
11:00 PM

 

Sermon

(Hey, that was some exciting Super Bowl, huh?  I thought the half time show was the highlight.  Basically, Elway had one lucky miracle 80-yard TD pass, and then got lucky about three or four other times when the Falcons turned the ball over.  Not that I thought Atlanta was any better.  Well, I hope Progressive Insurance got its money's worth in new customers.  And all the beer companies sold plenty of extra brew.)

Anyway, let's change the subject and talk about something non-controversial:  Religion.  

Here are some interesting items from last Sunday's New York Times:

Let's see what kind of a web we can weave among these flashes of insight into the state of Religion at the end of the Millennium.

"Religious Rioting" is certainly about as blatant an oxymoron as you're likely to find in the venerable Times.  Is there really any connection at all between "religious" sentiments and rioting and murder?  Simply because two groups of people are culturally and historically affiliated with two different Religions -- in this case Muslims and Hindus -- and in their ignorance and poverty and xenophobia they wind up killing each other, do we really need to call this a "religious" conflict?  Are the bombings perpetrated by Catholics and Protestants in Ireland "religious" acts?

Historically, the answer isn't so simple.  Since before the time of Christ, the association of groups of people with a particular body of theological beliefs and practices has been the second strongest basis (after language) upon which boundaries and antagonisms have been established.  If a "religion" (sorry to keep using the quotation marks) is defined as such a set of beliefs, which themselves are defined by self-appointed (and often forcefully supported) sectarian leaders, then a pronouncement by such leaders that the other group is evil and must be destroyed indeed constitutes a religious (italics this time, for variety) edict.  The 16th-17th century clashes between Protestants and Catholics in Europe (of which the contemporary Irish variety are only faint echoes) were profoundly rooted in doctrinal, theological differences, which penetrated down to the rioters, persecuters, and common chuchgoers, who were exhorted to believe that the opposing sects were not only "wrong" in God's sight, but were in fact preparing the way for the Devil's ascension.

This observation moves us on to the second Times headline.  The article presents the views on President Clinton that predominate in the rural western section of South Carolina.  Here, fundamentalist Christianity rules, and the average citizens are not only appalled by the President's behavior, but despondent at his persistent popularity.  Many are convinced that this triumph and acceptance of Sin portends Armageddon for the United States -- and that nice, round 2000 date sure adds to the sense of destiny.  (See the January 1 Beanstalk.)

These people are the spiritual and probably biological heirs of the Puritans who sailed from England in the 1600s, ultimately to found this country a century later, on the basis of a principle that has been misleadingly characterized in the history books as "religious freedom".  (Those are legitimate quotation marks, aren't they?)  The Puritans weren't looking for religious freedom, they were looking for religious purity.  (So what else can I use for emphasis, huh?  Bold?  CAPS?  Give me a break!)  They wanted to, and did, ban alcohol and extravagent clothing and dancing on Sundays, not to mention Catholic (and Anglican) ceremony and ornamentation.  

As for adultery, the Puritans had a slightly more severe solution than Impeachment: death by hanging.  It was even on the books for awhile in Cromwell's England, although I don't know for sure about the colonies.  Certainly some of the witches hanged in Salem were more guilty of horniness than sorcery.  (Outrageous, antiquated ignorance, you think?  They still hang adulterers in Jordan and other Islamic countries.  Against their religion, you know.)

So the God-fearing people of Western South Carolina see Mr. Clinton through the same religious prism: an evil-doer who has violated one of the Commandments.  That's their religion: rules about how to live, act, think, and harsh punishment for rule breakers.

The really interesting item in this article is actually the fact that this particular region is enjoying a booming economy, with minimal 2.8% unemployment.  So much for the idea that only poverty and deprivation nurture religious zealotry.  And this leads us to the third article in today's reading.  (Don't worry, this will circle around to some kind of neat connecting point before I'm done.  Also, I promise no more trivial parentheticals from here on.  Maybe.)

The Pope is upset because many rich people are turned off to religion (Catholicism).  They put all their energies into making money, and don't have the time or inclination to go to church, to practice the various rituals, and perhaps to find a deeper purpose within themselves, and a bond of kinship with those around them who may not be as fortunate.  This is an interesting and rather novel perspective for a pontiff.  Sure, for centuries having wealthy devotees was a crucial resource for sustaining the power and majesty of the Church.  But in recent times, it seems that the focus of Catholic preaching has been on the impoverished masses, in need of reassurance that their suffering will be alleviated in the next world.  And this, of course, was Jesus's main message and audience, as well.

Why switch tactics?  And what about those people down in SC, who are doing quite nicely, and are very religious, it seems?  Why does the Catholic Church, or any religion need to start worrying about the wealthy?

Okay, I'll tell you why.  Because the role of religion in our world has already changed radically, and is going to continue to change.  In our society, in the industrialized world, wealth doesn't just mean freedom from the earthly burdens that religion might otherwise have to relieve, it also means access to more options in life, particularly Education and Information. Indeed, Science itself is a product of wealth as much as anything, as richer nations can afford to pay people to do research for its own sake, even to fly to the moon or develop particle accelerators.  Not to mention nuclear weapons.  

What do we rich people do with our knowledge?  We gaze skeptically at the traditional mystical tenets of organized religion.  We learn that the earth is billions of years old, and the human race is only in its infancy.  We travel the globe and discover that different peoples hold widely differing beliefs, and we learn through study of history the origins and evolution of religions and myths and superstitions, and we see little distinction among them.  We buy the New York Times and read its agnostic coverage of religious developments, and perceive that these are not Absolute Truths vying for supremacy, but clubs, teams, fraternities, which do their best to recruit new members, to hold onto their present adherents, and to rally the gang against the other clubs around town.

Maybe the Pope understands all of this, and maybe he even harbors misgivings himself.  After all, he's got to be pretty smart to get elected Pope in the first place.  But as a spiritual man, maybe he also perceives what many of us rich people have lately begun to suspect, at the same time as we haughtily scoff at traditional religions: that, with the diminution of these age-old rituals and convictions, we are left with a bit of a void, deep within that human part of us that is no different from the cavemen who looked up at the sky and wondered.  We need something, and a whole lot of us have been out there finding it in countless new places:  New Age, Dianetics, Tony Robbins, Alien abductions, the Celestine Prophecy, and a procession of Doomsday cults.  Yes, these movements attract the comparatively ignorant and dysfunctional among us, but these are people who nevertheless have already found that the freedom and knowledge of their world tends to rule out traditional Gods as an option for filling their void.

Then there are the fundamentalists, carrying on the 400 year old tradition of intolerance in the name of Christ, despite all the prosperity and science and multiculturalism around them.  You see, if I were the Pope, I'd find these people a lot more scary than atheistic millionaires. Because they're the ones who really turn off the rest of us to mainstream religions, especially Christianity.  Every time I hear the proselytizing of soldiers of the "Christian Right", I feel increasingly alienated from my own Christian (and Puritan) roots, because these people represent the polar opposite of everything that, to my way of thinking, should be considered "religious" (one last time) here at the dawn of the 21st century.  Worse, they have no excuse for their bigotry and ignorance; they choose to be that way.

In a nutshell, if religion has a meaning today, in a global, scientific, and information-saturated society, it is as a reminder and a teacher of our humble humanity, of our connection to our past and to our fellow human beings, and of how to seek inner peace and love amidst outer chaos.  Of course, most of the Words contained in the great writings of Christ and Muhammad and Buddha and all the rest preach pretty much these same ideas anyway, and all the religious wars and persecutions, right up to the present day, simply constitute wholesale repudiation of these basic precepts, often by Popes and Ayatollahs themselves.  But just because they've been zealously perverted or ignored doesn't make the ultimate meaning of these universal verities any less important.  And it doesn't really matter who says the words, who plays the role of teacher, as long as they're sincere and caring, and perhaps have just a little bit more of a clue than most of us.

The problem is, I suppose, that the job doesn't pay very well, unless you publish a book, or star on your own cable channel, or recruit fanatical followers to worship at your feet, and then you're back to exploiting ignorance, inciting intolerance, and shunning real spiritual values.

What we need is preachers who are humble yet charismatic, inspired yet pragmatic, compassionate yet discreet, to teach us religious enlightenment in their spare time.  And then get the heck out of our face.

 


DT


  1999 David N. Townsend


Recent ramblings:         

Be thoughtful, or the kid gets it (1/18/99) Lying (1/11/99) Back again, and looking backward and forward (1/1/99)
Do I really need to hear about Dead Babies at six o'clock in the morning? Wow, is it Sunday again already?  What did I say, a column every week?  Well, what I meant by "every" was. . .   Okay, okay OKAY!  Man, you go silent for a few little months . . .

(Click Elsewhen for the complete list)


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DNT


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