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Secular Sainthood Is a Bad Idea

Martin Luther King, Jr. Day has come and gone. The “I have a dream” speech was played and replayed as if it were on an MP3 player’s endless loop setting. The more adventurous media aired some of his other, more ecumenical orations in opposition to the Vietnam war or the evils of unleashed capitalism. To the best of my knowledge, no miracles were attributed to Dr. King, but his birthday was celebrated in a fashion very much like that of a Christian saint.

I suspect this kind of memorial would displease him greatly. If he was half the man we make him out to be he would be appalled that the result of his life’s work has come to focus so much on him instead of on what he stood and died for. No doubt he had his weaknesses, possibly even one for public adulation, but he cared too much about the goals he had for his nation to want any serious distraction from them in the way of personality cult or hagiography.

But personality, real and imagined, rather than what they said and did, is what we prefer to focus on in our great social and religious figures. How much of Christianity is devoted to worship of the man – or god-man – Jesus rather than to his words? The itinerant rabbi who may or may not have believed he was the Messiah but preached a precious, perennial message of hope and love with deep Jewish roots going back to the prophet Isaiah was turned into a Greek deity through whom and only through whom we must seek to save ourselves from eternal hellfire. Protestants believe they can achieve this by a deep act of faith accepting a still-living Jesus as their personal savior. Roman Catholics believe they can only do so by obeying the precepts and availing themselves of the sacraments of what they consider the one true church.

There seems to be no cognitive dissonance for either Protestants or Catholics to have a deep and abiding faith in this Jesus and then go and behave in ways that would surely have appalled him. Catholic soldiers can receive what they believe to be the flesh of God into their bodies and then slaughter men, women and children not just with impunity but with divine approbation. Protestants, themselves no slouches when it comes to slaughter, can tease out of the gospels assurance that their material prosperity is promised, indeed guaranteed, by those same gospels.

It’s as if we would rather have the vessel than the contents, rather the man or superman constructed out of our own personal desires and imaginations than deal with the truths he espoused and the imperatives that flow from them. Jesus knew enough about human nature to predict we would react this way when he said that few in any generation would hear his message. Dr. King was perhaps more hopeful, or at least he spoke and acted as if he was, insisting we could find justice in this life if we wanted to. But the message was not the man in either King’s or in Jesus’s case. The message is neither enhanced nor diminished by the virtues or foibles of the messenger, though it’s only human nature to see it as being so. And the message is certainly not identical with the man or woman him/herself, especially when a cult of the person results in distraction from the content of the message.

It does not take a divinity or even a saint to speak truth – if Einstein had been a total reprobate, a moral slug, instead of the compassionate man he was, would his Theory of Relativity be less valid? – but it does take an open mind and an open heart to hear that truth and something more as well to act on it.

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If I was looking for a real Christian…

…I could do worse than turn to someone who calls themselves a Jewish atheist. Some of them seem to find an easy affinity with the best teachings of Jesus.

Why not? Jesus, the itinerant rabbi, didn’t preach anything that wasn’t preached by the best of his predecessors in ancient Judea. Jesus was as Jewish as Yom Kippur. These Jewish atheists (their own self-designation) are simply acting in the tradition of Isaiah and the other prophets who railed against injustice and hatred and hollow ritual.

But it’s Jesus as often as Isaiah that today’s prophets quote to express how they feel. The most recent example of this I found in a column by Matthew Norman in the British Independent.

I quote:

“In his last Easter message, the PM reminded us that this is a Christian country. ‘Across Britain, Christians don’t just talk about ‘loving thy neighbour’,” he said. ‘They live it out.’

“As an atheist Jew with no theological training, I may be on weak ground picking a fight with this dedicated churchgoer about what the guy he worships on Sundays meant by

Matthew Norman

Matthew Norman

‘loving they neighbour as thyself’. Perhaps Jesus was speaking literally about the person in the next house. The one with the latest model Lexus in the driveway.

“And yet, having attended the church attached to my school four times a week for several years, I have the nagging sense that ‘thy neighbour’ actually meant ‘everyone else’; a vague feeling that when, in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus said ‘Blessed are the merciful’, the mercy in mind stretches to victims of monstrous civil wars who endure unimaginable horror to give their children a chance at having less gruesome lives.”

Noam Chomsky is also fond of quoting the gospels, citing their “preferential treatment for the poor” and praising Pope John XXIII. (He also doesn’t hesitate to name a more recent pontiff as co-conspirator in the murder of Liberation Theology priests and even a bishop.) I don’t think this affinity for the gospels is because Chomsky was secretly baptized as a newborn by his Irish nursemaid, any more than I believe Matthew Norman’s humaneness is the result of his subjection to four days a week of Christian propaganda during his

Noam Chomsky

Noam Chomsky

formative years. Otherwise the Fundamentalist Christian wet dream of converting “the Jews” would have been accomplished simply by bombarding Jewish neighborhoods with Christian tracts.

What I think is going on is a response that is natural to human beings when they find themselves in a position of freedom from religious cant, whether Christian, Jewish or other, and have a warmly beating heart in their breasts. To be sure, such freedom does not affect everyone this way. There are plenty of atheists who are out-and-out monsters. I just happen to keep coming across the Matthew Normans and Noam Chomskys. Long may they flourish!

Religion 2.0

Another essay, a kind of companion piece to “Faith,” the one most recently published in Eclectica.org.  And, like that essay, this is not about “religion” religion but an attempt to broaden the perspective to include something bigger than that word typically conveys:

There is always a story, and a hero. A Jesus, a Buddha, a Moses or Muhammad. A Joseph Smith, a Persephone. The stories are miraculous, tragic, silly. It’s what comes later that is interesting—the cantatas, the NGOs, the Haj.

But first there is a story: the man-god Redeemer, the Chosen People, the last and greatest Prophet, the Lost Tribe, the Big Bang.

Even atheists have Nature, all-powerful, destructive as a hurricane, gentle as a mother robin. Evolution is the plodding agent of Her will. Evolution holds the master plan that used to be the prerogative of Zeus and Jehovah, executing it through Natural Selection in an infinitely complex way over unimaginably long stretches of time. There’s a whimsical, perverse aspect to Evolution, a God with the most serious intentions who chooses merely to start the ball rolling and then sits back for billions of years to see how things pan out…. (Read more)