Friday, March 16, 2007

Misusing God

So I've still be poking around looking at what other thinkers have to say about my questions of morality and social justice (in relationship to Christianity). I found some thought-provoking passages by a theologian named Kenneth Cauthen. I didn't agree with everything he had on his site (for example, I don't think he gives the Bible enough credit for helping some people radically changes their attitudes towards their fellow human beings), but I do think he has a great point about the tragedy that occurs when many Christians use the Bible merely to confirm their own interests. It's part of our sinful nature to try to use God to our own advantage, but we need to be aware that we're doing it because it's a very dangerous practice. Here are some of his thoughts that struck me the most:

A key conviction of mine for a long time has been that the crucial dimension of religion is ethics. I do not mean at all that religion can be reduced to ethics. Religion has many dimensions. The two that have interested me most are that it provides a framework of meaning and a guide to morality. Religion includes a conception of and a relationship to whatever is regarded as Ultimate. Faith means, as H. Richard Niebuhr taught, trust in and loyalty to God. It includes gratitude for the gift of life and its opportunities, its joys, and its potential for enjoyment. Religion, then, provides an ultimate grounding for the meaning of life, and it has implications for morality. According to Jesus the two great commandments are love of God and love of neighbor. Both are essential, and they are dependent on each other. Without love of neighbor, love of God is incomplete and defective. Without love of God, love of neighbor lacks ultimate grounding. I do not imply that atheists cannot act morally in any sense. They may often have higher ideals and live more virtuously than many believers. I only imply that their analysis of the total context of the ethical life is incomplete. In practical terms, how we relate to other human beings, value them, treat them, and include their good in the good that we seek for ourselves is the gist of the matter for me. Religion that does not lead to equal regard for others is fundamentally deficient, no matter how much meaning and satisfaction it may provide for believers themselves. Jesus said, "you will know them by their fruits." When the ethical fruits of religion are wanting, it is usually because the community of those with whom we identify, suffer with, and for whom we are willing to sacrifice is too small, excluding those outside it who may be neglected or opposed, even hated. Growth in love of neighbor occurs when the circle of those whose good is included in the good we seek is expanded. Religion that is inward and vertical may provide purpose, inspiration, joy security, hope, comfort, and happiness for believers as individuals and groups, but if it does not express itself in service of the neighbor inside and outside the religious community itself, it is woefully inadequate and close to being false. The best of the Bible agrees with me on this point.

However, it is a bit more complicated than that. One may love God with all ones heart and diligently seek to love the neighbor, but the understanding of what it means to count the good of others equal to our own may be sadly flawed. Our understanding of justice and love is mediated through our historical, social, and cultural location and is thus limited by that environment. Ethical insight cannot be purified and perfected by religious devotion alone in some ahistorical, transcendent fashion except perhaps in rare (I'd argue it's more prevalent than he thinks, though perhaps not in the type of Church he attends which is a hardline Southern Baptist one) and remarkable circumstances. The Baptist Christians I grew up with saw no contradiction between love of neighbor and racial segregation and responded with anger to anyone who suggested the incompatibility. I experienced this when I suggested such an incongruity in a sermon. Yet I would not doubt the reality, the depth, and the sincerity of the religious faith of the best of them. Earnest study of the Bible in most cases merely confirms existing convictions, although transforming breakthroughs do sometimes occur. Moreover, equally dedicated Christians have diverse and contrary notions of what service of the neighbor requires of us, particular with regard to complicated questions of social justice. My point is that depth of religious commitment is no guarantee of moral insight. Intense devotion to God connected to tragically defective moral insight and practice is a fact of the human condition that we have to live with (again, we shouldn't have to live with it, instead we should fight to change it, as Jesus commanded us to!). The problem is that when we have blind spots, we are not aware of them, even when we honestly want to know what is right, just, and best. The only resolution of this tragic condition is found in Psalm 103:8-14 and in the Christian doctrine of salvation by grace though faith and not by righteous behavior.

My experience has been - with some notable exceptions - that the higher the authority attributed to the Bible, the more perverse the ethical views associated with it. That is overstated, but it reflects my pain and disappointment over many years in hearing people quote the Bible in favor of moral views that I find abhorrent. With all the high and noble morality taught in the Bible urging love for neighbor, compassion for the poor, and demanding justice for all, it is a mystery to me why so many who claim to be obedient to the Word focus on the parts of Scripture that are used and misused to oppress women, children, and racial and sexual minorities. Seldom do I hear in sermons the radical demands for the reordering of society that will bring the powerful down and exalt the poor and helpless. That would be far more biblical in the deepest sense than crusades against homosexuals, the suppression of the ambitions for women for a full and equal place in church and society, and resistance to the just aspirations of people of color.

That's just some of what he had to say about these topics. And I think he hits on some good points that are often ignored by the Church. But the picture he paints needn't be so grim. After all, Jesus claimed that he would break us free from the bondage of our sinful nature, and that if we ask he will strengthen us to live righteous, loving lives. All we have to do is ask for help! If we'd stop being so prideful and admit that we can't live right on our own. So yet again, something more for us to think about.

And in case you were curious, this is the passage in psalms that he refers to:

The LORD is compassionate and gracious,
slow to anger, abounding in love.
He will not always accuse,

nor will he harbor his anger forever;
he does not treat us as our sins deserve

or repay us according to our iniquities.
For as high as the heavens are above the earth,

so great is his love for those who fear him;
as far as the east is from the west,

so far has he removed our transgressions from us.
As a father has compassion on his children,

so the LORD has compassion on those who fear him;
for he knows how we are formed,

he remembers that we are dust.

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