Editorial: Religion, Communities of Faith, and Policy

 

You have to live, interact with people or culture on this small rocky planet around this small star, to make a difference. That I know. One major philosophy says that angelic entities record an akashic log of the effect of my good and bad—my karma. When I’m gone, I go back and get to know the entire cosmos as part of a group mind. Then I’m reborn, as myself, to pick up where I left off, and live with the consequences of what I did this time around. And the computations will be complete and consider issues, however ever subtle, like, “was I my brother’s keeper?”

 

That is one philosophy that makes sense to me, akin to Rosicrucianism. It is not as different as you think from traditional Christianity or any other religion (Islam) that assigns an afterlife based in some what on what happened during this lifetime.

 

Except, that is, for one thing, in Christianity: Grace.  The basis of most Christian teaching is that any person, no matter humble, is offered eternal life in Heaven based on the sacrifice of Jesus Christ to atone (balance in terms of karma) for his own sins. The only requirement is the sincere experience of Faith at some point. Some people call this being born again. Presumably this means that Christianity is not always about being free to be who you “are” or want to be, it is about becoming what God wants you to be, whether you would have wanted to be that out of your own resources or not.

 

Now, something about this doesn’t sit right with me at first. I think people should be held accountable for their bad deeds and failures, not just excused for them and “forgiven.”  Of course, however, the underlying question is what does Faith really require? Works?  Well, if you have the Faith you would do the Works.  But moreover you would repent to the extent that you “give up” all former sense of self, all childish self-promotional adolescent fantasies, start over with a new Day One, and take orders.  It sounds like you join an army.  This is pretty much the point of the “Rich Young Ruler” story.

 

This gets into the difference between mainline and Evangelical denominations or religions. (I’ll not deal with the differences among fundamentalist, pentacostalism, evangelism, puritanism, and similar breakdowns in non-Christian faiths).  I’ve always had a hard time believing that you an take the words of a sacred text on their own weight, without contextual interpretation, so debates over “inerrancy” mean little to me. Nevertheless, there is a wide gap in the way Christians see the Bible.  Some people see it as springboard for ruminations within their own consciences. Others see it as a direct recipe as to how to live, without the necessity to ask questions.

 

Teenagers who go to church generally do better in school than those who do not (and this comment includes the test results of home-schooling, often quite good)—but the benefits of spiritual instruction incur to both approaches to faith (on of analysis and individual tailoring, against one of literal obedience).

 

At this point, I also want to add another wrinkle: Christian Grace has to do with pardon for sins (by Christ’s substitutive sacrifice to erase the karma from them), not with insurance against personal competitive failure. That needs to be protected against partly by strong communities and families, which might become weaker when some members “cherry pick” their way out and leave the system. Now the “faith v. works” dichotomy sounds like a mathematical discontinuity, or at least an example of a statement’s not implying its converse. If you have faith you will do the work, but doing the work does not imply faith. Is faith partly a matter of emotion? Maybe. It sounds like it. Various faiths have differing interpretations of this, but they all have to come to terms with the fact that on this planet, God (or whatever Supreme Being(s)) does not seem to treat everyone the same. Some people seem to have a more privileged station in life than others. Christianity implores people to give up self-serving motives to uplift others without condition, yet sometimes it seems to want to use differential hardship as a reason for faith. Some forms of Islam maintain that Allah intends some people to be superior to others as the natural order of things, perhaps even in the hereafter.

 

Most faiths set up communities to socialize their believers into meeting common goals. Evangelicals (or more radical faiths like Mormonism) are sometimes most energetic in setting up these communities, even to the point of (with Mormonism) requiring missionary service of young men. One major function of these communities is the “brother’s keeper” function—setting up welfare mechanisms and giving less successful members a place to belong.  Some religious traditions (like the Vatican) argue that reserving sex only for marriage and when open the childbirth indirectly supports and uplifts the needy by guaranteeing them a valued place in the world and by protecting them from sexual contempt. Evangelicals, Pentecostals, fundamentalists or similar groups (even in Muslim or non-Christian faiths) often want to find very literal scriptural justifications for their beliefs (the “inerrancy” doctrine), denying the importance of independent thought with a certain brazen arrogance (“if you don’t believe as I do you are d….ed”)  when they really could come up with interesting, coherent moral arguments to support their beliefs.

 

This is one of the most remarkable observations about Faith: it presumes that bad things will happen to good people (they do), whatever one’s pride in personal responsibility. So one needs a public forum to pray for the simplest needs, to turn everything over to The Lord. This was a big spectacle at many southern churches, even MCC, in the 1980s.  So the sense of community is very important to such people.

 

That is why communities of faith often put so much pressure on members to conform to its beliefs and accept its teaching without too many questions. Challenging authority is not welcome. One has to earn the right to speak publicly about issues. The ability to think independently about issues is compromised, but at least people may be better taken care of, and the social welfare of the community continues.  One clear message in the New Testament particularly is the obligation to give the needs of the poor top priority, regardless of notions of merit or “personal responsibility,” and conservative faith communities are pretty good at carrying this out among their own ranks.

 

Communities of faith generally emphasize solidarity and the common good as an important part of individual and family well-being. So faith communities see personal involvement in service to others as a moral mandate. Indeed, the teachings of Christ in the Gospels and subsequent writings in the Epistles in the New Testament place a strong moral emphasis on unquestioning service to the real needs of others, and sometimes seem to support a communal existence. In fact, close knit religious communities (like the Seventh Day Adventists) are sometimes known for long life spans associate with very strong socialization as well as personal health habits. (The Mormons, likewise, are known for their elaborate intra-church welfare and missionary service requirements of young men.)  Liberal religions (especially some Christian Protestant sub-denominations) tend to view “the poor” as those impoverished by disadvantaged birth circumstances such as poverty and race of parents. Conservatives are likely to point out that “poverty” often results from a mixture of circumstances and personal conduct or performance. Not every panhandler is “poor” but one is not supposed to be judgmental.  Sensible conservatives may view the moral requirement for service as a mixture of loyalty to family with service outside the family. Indeed, many conservative churches are particularly enthusiastic in large scale relief efforts for the poor or displaces, as was shown in the 2005 hurricanes (especially Katrina). The moral position of those who have unusual combinations of talents and disinclinations comes into particular scrutiny by communities of faith, as persons who are “different” or “special” are potentially capable of being helpful or harmful outside of their numbers due to the basic asymmetry of unusual gifts and disabilities; such persons (myself included) may have placed unusual energy on themselves and not be able to provide for others.  The “Parable of the Talents” (in Matthew 25) as well as the story of the Rich Young Ruler both becoming extremely provocative as illustrations of the moral quandaries faced by some people. 

 

That brings us to the issue of homosexuality and the Bible. This is not the place to rehearse the clobber passages that are discussed in so many books. Many of them would need to be understood in context, and sometimes commentators try to claim that they would not apply to people who are “biologically homosexual,” lest homosexuals were given an extra burden to carry.  There is the interesting story of David and Jonathan, where the Scripture seems to recognize that homosexual eroticism occurs naturally.  One cannot escape the impression, however, that taken semi-literally the Bible seems to condemn certain homosexual acts.

 

Conservative religious communities are very hard (to say the least) on their homosexuals, and the obvious reason seems to be that homosexuals represent a threat to their teachings. More important, though, is that the freedom to experience homosexuality is seen as corrosive to the normal motivations of adults to (heterosexually) court, marry, and raise the next generation. Faith communities are often, in some sense, psychologically socialistic and discourage excess individualism. The early Christians in Roman times, for example, held all property in common. The welfare of the group was the most important political objective.

 

Homosexuality, among men at least, comes across as having a narcissistic component, where one eroticizes his own abasement, a concept that, if extended, would logically seem to condemn a lot of people to permanence subservience in any society with no future possibility of redemption from family or faith. The Second Commandment, especially, seems like a specific prohibition (idol worship) against this process. (I can recall an after-school religion class in the Third Grade—permitted in the public schools in the 1950s, where I wrote to the teacher in a journal, “I have idols!”)  So homosexuality may well be perceived as corrosive to the idea of social supports in some conservative religious groups.  (For example, if homosexuals don’t have their own children, they will complicate caring for the elderly.  If homosexuals celebrate their sexual culture publicly, then others would feel that they are trying to demean the ordinary family commitments of others, and intentionally demeaning someone with lesser talents would be seen as sin.) Liberal groups have tackled this problem by taking some of the issue of dealing with the less well-off off the backs of individual psychological commitment and placing it as a responsibility of publicly policy—the government. Liberals also correctly point out that conservative faith communities, while taking care of their own first (and using the unquestionable self-righteousness as a tool), may contribute to growing social stratification or maintaining divides between races or economic classes in society as a whole. Whatever one thinks of “inerrancy” it is clear that the New Testament projects a communal outlook in which every person has accountability to others, including those in need, before he pursues his own purposes. The world (in New Testament morality) is not to be just a meritocracy, so sexual behavior that mocks the ability to commit oneself to others (usually in marriage) or that keeps one away from such a commitment out of “upward affiliation” might be morally suspect in such a view, even though modern technological culture seems to encourage a more objectivist paradigm where everyone is accountable for himself and makes his own moral choices.

 

Many conservative Christians believe that the Bible admonishes men to get married as a sign of growing up, but actually early Christians (Paul himself) wondered if this was wise if the End was near.  Furthermore, the Bible clearly shows that sometimes polygamy was practiced in Old Testament society; marriage was indeed about making babies, and socializing the Jewish people so that it could survive; it was much less about love between one man and one woman as we now perceive it. The importance of procreation can relate to attitudes about the likelihood of any coming Rapture.  The Roman Catholic Church, of course, is particularly hypocritical with vitriolic antigay statements from Rome in conjunction with, paradoxically, what amounts to a military-style ban against heterosexuals for the priesthood.

 

Most interesting of all, many older churches in large cities are experiencing demographic problems, as older congregations become befuddled by gentrification (and “gayification”) of neighborhoods around them.   Such congregations are likely to see this as a problem of faith if they cannot reexamine their teachings intellectually to present them to a different community. They may feel a religious duty to convert others to their point of view.

 

For some people, in fact, separation of church and state repudiates part of faith. Others see the formal prohibition of partisan endorsements from tax-exempt churches as a sham. For others, using government grants to faith-based charities is a way to socialize society back into communities that will impose stricter rules of socialization than can ordinary law, which usually deals with the individual adult as the constituent unit.

 

But the most challenging concept of all of this comes back to salvation. For to prove faith, it would seem that one could be compelled to change his own priorities, as determined by his own identity, and actively support goals assigned to him by other (aka by God!), just to stay alive as long as possible.  And that would apply to me.

 

I recently asked a female pastor in a liberal denomination how she would reconcile the cultural emphasis on individualism with the communal motives that seem demanded or subsumed in the New Testament, especially some of the incidents in the life of Jesus and his parables (such as Rich Young Ruler or Parable of the Talents). Her answer was that, while motivations are communal, calling and purpose is individualized. Everyone is called to do what is his or hers to do. Does this mean “changing” or being “born again”? Some denominations, even the Catholic church, have set up utopian ideologies to save everyone by making special demands on certain people to serve the interests of others when they would be inclined to serve their own and even when equality and personal freedom as we know it are lost. She indicated that the calling does occur within the context of “natural laws” set up to serve the common good. For example, the Gospel is clear (as in the divorce chapter) that not everyone is expected to marry and procreate children, but apparently everyone is expected to support the marriages of others, which in an individually competitive society are easily disrupted and disincentivized.  Religious and spiritual culture seems more concerned with taking care of and saving everyone than in giving creative expressive opportunities for some, and those opportunities are supposed to be God-given (or in Warren’s words, “purpose driven” although that can be overloaded) and related to the needs of others. The Gospel seems to accept some inequality on man’s terms as a price of stability and community, and is somewhat inimical to personal autonomy. Living according to a spiritual calling is more demanding morally than what the law or conventional society requires. A personal calling from God is supposed to open the culture for a funneled kind of freedom and individualism serving communal purposes, which is apparently not possible in an atheistic socialistic or communist society. It’s all beautiful and utopian, and not always fair.   

 

 

News item: Alan Cooperman and Peter Whoriskey, The Washington Post, Nov, 15m 2006, “3 Christian Groups Move to Condemn Gay Sex,” at this link. The Roman Catholic church issued guidelines encouraging silence (“don’t ask don’t tell”) from gay parishioners, a move that seems to protect the communal sensibilities and faith or “normal” heterosexuals from challenge to their socialization. The Baptist State Convention of North Carolina moved to expel any member church that condones homosexuality and can investigate a church for being too “gay friendly” (the first time a known church body has used anti-homosexuality as a litmus test for membership), and the Presbyterian Church will put a Pittsburgh minister on trial for performing a lesbian marriage. These actions seem motivated by a desire to “protect” family-oriented people from cultural competition from the outside world.

 

 

 

 

©Copyright 2004 by Bill Boushka. All rights reserved, subject to fair use

1986 essay (Dallas, Texas)

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