Monday, September 23, 2013

Religion Sucks!

As everybody knows, religion is a very bad, bad thing. It is the worse form of tradition, which is also bad.

All tradition is an impediment to individual expression. It hinders science. It causes religious people to do stupid things. It makes people wear uncomfortable clothes. It promotes elitism. It causes cancer.

Religion sucks! Tradition sucks! 

But you knew that already.

Movies, songs and sermons repeat the mantra incessantly. You might say the only respectable tradition left is the universal hatred of tradition, especially religious tradition.

Secular people claim that Christians are addicted to tradition. Actually though, Christians usually hate religion as much as anyone else.  

Now, there are some really good reasons to be suspicious of tradition, especially religious tradition. Jesus said we should be careful not to substitute tradition for truth. Thomas Khun warned that even scientists sometimes resist scientific advances because they become so loyal to accustomed ways of looking at things. So yes, yes, yes – we should feel free to question tradition, including religious tradition.

But there is another side to this. What separates human beings from animals is our ability to transmit to children the structures of thought and behavior we received from our parents. Civilization is the result. So is the Christian Church. All communities of every kind, rely on tradition to link individual members one to another across time and space. That's what forms and sustains communities -- all communities. 

Toilet training, for example, is a tradition that has, so far, escaped popular contemporary ridicule as yet another thoughtless habit lacking scientific, reasonable, biblical, or politically correct reason to sustain. The protocols for biological human excretion are fairly detailed. Although continually adapted to one’s personal and societal requirements, the basic rubrics for the ritual remain basically unchanged since ancient times. Softy wipes were undoubtedly an improvement over maple leaves and corn shucks but that adaptation did not significantly alter the ancient routine. And, it may be argued, this tradition has helped individuals maintain healthy connections to their community. 

The daily practice of dental hygiene too, although recently electrified for some of us, has also remained basically unchanged for the last hundred years or so. Although it has been said that halitosis is better than no breath at all, those who claimed that never lived in jungle villages.

And I could go on.

Human beings have been able to transmit vast amounts of knowledge from generation to generation in ways that has gradually built up civilization. The central apparatus for accomplishing this feat has been those ritualized processes through which we offer and receive countless mental and behavioral structures to make community life possible. That's what tradition is. 

We employ the mechanisms of tradition in every discipline. When we don’t, we experience tragic loss.

In 1920, Srinivasa Ramanujan died. He was perhaps the most brilliant mathematician who ever lived. Unfortunately, he made no significant contribution to mathematics.


Because he was poor. He lived most of his life outside the sort of social environment in which his gifts might have been recognized. Had he been born to a different class, he could have learned about ancient and modern math. He succeeded nonetheless  in rediscovering, on his own, many theories and disciplines that had taken the rest of civilization centuries to develop. So his intellectual gifts were impressive. They were also, through no fault of his own, unfruitful.

Ramanjan reminds me of a lot of contemporary Christians. They are devout, sincere and intelligent. However, they feel obligated to recreate the beliefs and practices of their faith at a time they desperately need the old creeds, canon and catechism. Because they have no access to these historical structures of thought, they lack important resources for the work of defending their faith -- even to themselves. 

I have thought about this as I have read Reza Aslan’s book Zealot. Several Christian friends had been reading it and feeling threatened by things it said, so I wanted to read it too.

I have discovered that Zealot is a well written description of Jesus and the New Testament. However, it offers a radically different perspective than traditional Christian views of Christ, the Bible and the Church. 

I won’t take Aslan’s book to task here. That is not the purpose of this blog. Besides, others have done a good job doing that.

What I want to say about Aslan's work is that reactions to his book exposes the weak, undefended underbelly of contemporary Evangelicalism. 

While we have been ridiculing our own traditions, undermining our historic structures of theology and piety, rushing to embrace every advance in the project of turning Christianity into a rock concert led by entertainers and governed by business executives; we raised two generations to assume that theology and biblical knowledge are utterly irrelevant to the development of authentic faith. 

As a result, Aslan’s book sounds true, solid and factual in comparison to either the vacuous self-help platitudes flowing from our nice preachers or the nationalistic tirades erupting from our mean ones. Aslan is just one more voice attacking tradition, piety, and orthodoxy. So he makes more sense to many of our young believers than their pastors.

But here’s the issue. None of us would know Jack squat about Jesus Christ were it not for one slightly overlooked thing: religious tradition.

Yes, that nasty, unmentionable feature of civilization and spiritual life has been the thing most responsible for transmitting knowledge about Jesus from his first followers to us. Furthermore, the traditional religious infrastructure we have been mocking, rejecting, attacking and lampooning were the very conduits through which knowledge about Jesus finally arrived at our enlightened, authentic, nontraditional, iconoclastic, restored New Testament congregations that now loudly profess to believe in ‘relationships but not religion.’ 

So, I am saying that nasty word out loud: religion. And yes, I do include things like the celebration of Christmas and Easter and all other yearly events that delighted centuries of children and created opportunities for them to learn the content and practice of Christian faith. Religion is structure. It may indeed hinder one's person spiritual growth. Nonetheless, it is also an indispensable part of forming that faith. Becoming an adult occasionally requires one to carefully move beyond tradition but he must do it with the full knowledge of what he is doing and why. It is never a flippant thing to decide one has become wiser than the accumulated wisdom of his forebears. 

Furthermore, I must say, the Bible is a part of our religious tradition. It too is a religious, cultural product. It was formed over many centuries as good people collected ancient documents, and then copied and endorsed them as a collection, long after the apostles were dead. The Bible’s contents were not published as a single book for many, many centuries after that. Then came centuries of translation, printing, and distribution. It took a long time and a lot of work to develop our Bible.

So how can a preacher keep a straight face as he waves his Bible denouncing tradition? Does he not realize that he could not even read that Bible had it not been translated by scholars whom he does not respect? How can he use a Bible to denounce the very traditions that delivered that Bible to him? And why should we respect him and his views when he disrespects the views of everyone who came before him? That is the madness of this continual attack on tradition and orthodoxy.

And yet, year after year, often in the name of relevance, we keep dismantling every significant part of our Christian heritage.

Hymns have become boring not only because of their antiquated musical format but also because we didn’t teach people the meaning of their lyrics.

Communion became irrelevant because we were passing around little plastic shot glasses covered with globs of processed reconstituted foodstuff.

How can hymns remain relevant if we believe nothing significant really happened in the world until we entered it? 

How can communion remain significant when we spend so much time ridiculing tradition?

Does it really matter that Jesus asked us to observe communion if we just don’t see the reason for it?

Nonetheless, we believe our grandchildren will somehow grow up to be Christians.

So I do want to talk about Aslan’s book, I really do. It deserves a response. But I hardly know how to respond. I fear we have already accepted the idea that contemporary thought should not derive from anything in the past. We have already said that we do not owe the past any explanation. So I think we have been well prepared, by our own preachers, for this book.

I think many of us already agree with Aslan, at least in principle; that one’s view of Jesus is not beholding to anything we have learned about Him from those who knew his disciples or from those who knew those who knew his disciples and those who knew them. We understand more than all those who have claimed to follow Christ throughout history, bless their hearts! We have already decided that history doesn't have much to say to us and that religion and tradition suck. 

But do religion and tradition really suck?

In the end, I think the hatred of tradition is what sucks. The arrogant, temporal provincialism of our times gradually sucks the meaning out of everything until finally nothing is left but the brilliance of our own contemporary opinions, formed godlike, out of nothing, and sustained through the sheer power of our own self-creating and self-sustaining word.

2 comments: said...

Thanks for these thoughts, Dan. Always a challenge and pleasure reading your posts and hearing your talks. Grateful that you're doing what you're doing.

Ed Hird+ said...

Thanks for your thoughts, Dan. James 1:29 teaches that there is both genuine and counterfeit religion. Counterfeit religion is about talking the talk while not walking the walk. Genuine religion is about caring for widows and orphans, while not being polluted by the world.