“Think Different – Accept Uncertainty” Part V: The Traditional Religious Definition of Human Life
In this series we have looked at the changing understanding of God throughout human history. We have tried to separate the God experience of transcendence, wonder and awe from the God explanation that has ranged from animism to fertility cults and mother worship to a God understood after the analogy of a tribal chief and currently to a kind of monotheistic oneness that has become all but universal, yet is still conceived in widely different ways across the great religious systems of the world. Despite all the claims made by religious people that they possess certainty in their formulation of who God is, the fact remains that no human mind and no human religion can finally capture in words or creeds the fullness of the mystery of God, primarily because all concepts of God are the products of the finite human mind. This means that the regular religious attempts to do so or to claim that this has actually been accomplished are little more than expressions of human idolatry. In spite of the regular refrain of ecclesiastical propaganda, there is and cannot be any such thing as “one true religion” or “one true church.” So, how can we think “different” about religion and how can we accept “uncertainty” in religion if we do not face this truth? The fact is we cannot. Imperialistic religion is always employed in the quest for power and it will always seek to impose itself upon the world. Why? Because it is the nature of human beings to build a mighty fortress behind which they can hide their rampant insecurity. If anyone is allowed to question official truth then its power to provide security disappears. That is why “religious talk” so often devolves into irrationality.
When God is defined as a supernatural power, who is both ready and willing to come to our aid, then without realizing it we have also defined human life in a negative way. To be human is now to be inadequate. We are creatures who must seek the favor of a theistic God. To illustrate this reality look at the image of God and the resulting definition of human life that dominates especially Western religious systems. In the language of our religious systems we portray ourselves either as children relating to a heavenly father or as convicted felons standing before a “hanging judge.” We are supplicants eager to please the authoritarian deity. That is why so often in our liturgical language we find ourselves saying: “Have mercy, have mercy!” Can anyone not understand how distorting that stance can be to our humanity? Is it possible for us to escape this self-definition without abandoning the traditional and popular concept of the external, supernatural God who is our parent and our judge? I do not think so. That is why a religious reformation is required for the survival of Christianity that will enable us to “think different” and to “accept uncertainty.” If we are to find a way to escape the negativity that traditional religion pours upon the dignity of human life, we will inevitably have to move away from the idea of God as a supernatural, external being. The deeper question is: “Can we move away from the theistic definition of God without moving away from God? I believe we can, but traditional religious leaders will not make that distinction and because they will not they will almost inevitably distort totally what I am trying to say. Allow me to try to unravel this torrent of theological words.
Traditionally, those of us who are the recipients of and practitioners in the Judeo-Christian faith system that marks the Western World have in our definition of God attributed to God all of the things of which we human beings are lacking. God is infinite, we are finite. God is immortal, we are mortal. God is perfect, we are imperfect. God is all powerful, omnipotent, we are limited in power. God is everywhere, omnipresent; we are bound to one place at a time. God is all knowing, omniscient, we are limited in knowledge. God is timeless, we are bound by time. These ideas seem so obvious, but the sum of these definitions of God produces a picture of human life that is lacking in both talent and in ultimate worth. God is the heavenly extension of all of the things about which we feel inadequate. So, against this common definition of God, we human beings have been taught to judge ourselves to be inadequate creatures. This insufficiency of human life forms one of the major motifs of Christian worship. In our liturgies we human beings judge ourselves constantly as those lacking in worth. We sing of God’s “amazing grace,” but we soon learn that what makes God’s grace so amazing is that it saves “a wretch like me.” We sing to God the flattering words “How great thou art,” only to learn that God’s greatness lies in the divine ability to stoop to save a sinner like me. We refer to God in our hymns as the potter and to ourselves as the passive clay begging God to “mold me and make me.” We tell God in worship that “there is no health in us,” that “we can do nothing good” without divine help, that we are not even worthy to “gather up the crumbs” from the divine table. We portray this external deity as an inescapable judge from whose all-seeing gaze we can never hide. The plea for mercy that emanates from the lips of worshipers might be appropriate for a child standing before an abusive parent or for a convicted criminal standing before a sentencing judges, but is it ever appropriate for a human being standing before a God whose name is Love?
This definition of human life is also the primary background theme in the way we Christians traditionally tell the Christ story. Jesus comes, we say, as the savior of the sinner, the redeemer of the fallen and the rescuer of the lost. We are portrayed as helpless victims begging for the intervening God to come to our aid. We are pictured as standing in the lostness of our own weakness and guilt, waiting for the punishment we deserve. When raised to our awareness it is a strange portrait of human life, but it is so pervasive that we have been dulled to its debilitating presence and are thus surprised when it is lifted into our conscious minds.
How does this God then come to our aid? We say God sent Jesus to save us from our sins. How did Jesus affect this salvation? “He died for our sins,” we reply. That is, the unforgiving Father had to punish someone and since we were not able to bear the divine wrath, God punished Jesus in our place. Is that a healthy way to view God, Jesus or ourselves? One can, however, hardly go to a Christian church without hearing this aspect of the salvation story being proclaimed. Protestants have made a mantra out of the phrase, “He died for my sins,” repeating it unquestioningly week after week. Roman Catholics refer to their primary act of worship as the reenactment of the crucifixion. They call it “the sacrifice of the Mass,” because it makes timeless the moment when Jesus suffered and died for my sins. All Christians have made a fetish out of the cleansing blood of Jesus. Protestants want to bathe in it so that their “sins might be washed away.” Evangelical hymn books are filled with such titles as: “Washed in the Blood,” “Saved by the Blood” and “There’s a Fountain filled with Blood!” One Lenten hymn in my Episcopal hymnal exhorts God to “bleed on me.” Catholics on the other hand speak of being cleansed inwardly by “drinking the blood of Jesus” in the Eucharist. When these aspects of this “blood ritual” are raised to our consciousness, we experience a sense of repulsion. Yet we Christians wallow in this mentality Sunday after Sunday, year after year. Lots of people appear to drop out of the church because they find worship vaguely uncomfortable. Perhaps one of the reasons is that this theology of human depravity and degradation unconsciously pushes us down into the depression of feeling worthless.
When we analyze this theological understanding we find that it misrepresents God, distorts Jesus and destroys our human dignity. It is wrong in every detail! First, it turns God into an unforgiving monster who must have a victim for the wrath of the offended deity. This is a concept of God apart from love, forgiveness and compassion. Unable to extract the payment due from us sinners, God kills the son to accomplish divine justice. This makes god the ultimate child abuser. What a dreadful deity this is.
Second, this theology turns Jesus into a chronic victim. His love is seen as a willingness to accept divine abuse on our behalf. Perhaps that is why we have kept him hanging on his cross in the symbol of the crucifix. This allows us to crucify him daily through our ongoing sinfulness.
Third, this theology dumps enormous amounts of guilt, unbearable guilt, onto us when we are worshipers. That is why we are taught to beat our breasts and to plead for mercy. We are, this theology proclaims, responsible for the death of Jesus. Our sins resulted in his crucifixion. We are all “Christ killers.” Guilt has become the coin of the realm in church life. It is “the gift that keeps on giving!” Has the imposition of guilt ever produced life and wholeness in anyone? Is guilt not rather one of the most distorting emotions with which human beings have to deal? Have you ever known anyone to be made whole by being told what a wretched and miserable sinner he or she is? How does this square with the promise attributed to Jesus by the Fourth Gospel that his purpose was to bring abundant life to all?
The final thing that is wrong with this theology is that it is simply not true. It is based on bad anthropology and a bad understanding of what it means to be human. One cannot build good theology on bad anthropology. When this series continues, I will begin the process of dismantling this debilitating theology by looking at our human origins through a different lens. We are not “fallen” creatures who were born in sin. “Original sin” is a concept that has to go. With it goes the portrait of Jesus as the rescuer of the fallen and the image of God as the external and displeased deity. It will be good riddance! To go here, however, will require that we “think different” and “accept uncertainty.” Not to go there is to face the death of the Christian faith. So stay tuned.
~John Shelby Spong