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Monthly Archives: August 2019

The Problem With God

A friend in the Wisdom Circle I attend asked an important question recently: “How is it that the Religious Right can stand behind Donald Trump and what he’s doing to our country?”

For an answer, let’s further ask what the Religious Right is all about. Also known as the political arm of Evangelical Christianity, the Religious Right is an ultra-conservative faction which has historically – even though its “history” is in fact quite shallow – resisted secular modernity by harking back to a fictional “New Testament Church” when the Christian religion was morally, doctrinally, and spiritually pure.

Since that time, Evangelicals claim, the institutional Church has struggled to keep itself from compromising with “the world,” which is morally, doctrinally, and spiritually impure – damned, in fact.

As Western culture grew increasingly pluralistic, the only effective way of preserving its soul was to shrink the horizon of true Christian identity, defined by just a small set of dogmatic “fundamentals.” Over time, this horizon was identified increasingly with the middle class, and even more with middle-aged true believers, particularly middle-aged white men.

Ultra-conservatism, or fundamentalism of any kind, is thus a defensive reaction to changes around us that make us feel threatened and insecure. At its base is fear. Internally, however, this deeper anxiety is converted into resentment and channeled outwardly as anger, aggression, and violence.

A critical mechanism in this conversion of anxiety into aggression is the Religious Right’s construct of god.

The god of fundamentalism is authoritarian, uncompromising, offended by our sin, and vindictive in his prescription of “redemptive violence” (René Girard, Walter Wink, William Herzog II) and vicarious death as necessary for salvation. We can find him throughout the biblical writings, in both Old and New Testaments. This god has his “chosen people,” a “faithful remnant” and “righteous few” who obediently use every means to preserve their purity against the onslaughts of religious idolatry, cultural diversity, social change, scientific progress and secular globalization.

In other words, the Religious Right didn’t just make this god up. He was ready-made in the background of Judeo-Christian mythology.

It needs to be said, however, that other constructs of god can be found in the Bible as well. A minority report, comparatively speaking, conceived of god as supremely benevolent, universally compassionate, and unconditionally forgiving. This is the god sponsored by some of the Old Testament prophets (e.g., Amos, Micah, Isaiah, Hosea, and Jeremiah) and proclaimed by Jesus to be the one heavenly father of all nations, of the just and unjust alike.

Jesus, particularly, was intent on breaking down the walls of separation, and he denounced the Religious Right of his day (known as Pharisees) as deadly vipers and whitewashed tombs.

If we should set these two gods of the Bible side-by-side, we would have to draw one of two conclusions. Either there are (at least) two biblical gods, or else the god of the Bible is bi-polar, in the way he swings wildly between grace and aggression, forgiveness and vengeance, radical inclusion and everlasting excommunication.

The truth of the matter is probably that both conclusions are correct: there are as many constructs of god in the Bible as there are authors and communities represented in its writings. And any god that humans construct will inevitably reflect their strange tendency as a species toward wide irrational mood swings and compulsive behavior.

So, was the authoritarian angry god of the Religious Right just made up one day thousands of years ago by some insecure, embittered, and self-righteous middle-aged white guy? Or was that guy taken in by an ideology that seemed to speak directly to his worst fears, promising salvation through a renunciation of the world, a “holy war” against god’s enemies, and a final rescue to a paradise beyond the confusing grayscale of this life?

That’s a chicken-and-egg puzzle we probably can’t solve.

This entire meditation so far is really a post-theistic exercise in mythological meta-analysis. It has pushed beyond the stalemate of theism and atheism, getting past the question of god’s literal (or factual) existence in the interest of exploring his literary (and metaphorical) meaning. Even a humble theist will admit that the deepest mystery of being, which we objectify and personify under the guise of one god or another, eludes our mind’s grasp and most certainly transcends the boxes of any orthodoxy.

Coming back to my friend’s question, today’s Religious Right is standing behind Donald Trump simply because he is so much like the authoritarian god who stands behind them. His rhetoric of discrimination, his politics of inequality, and his brazenly immoral behavior are untouchable because he is their champion and only hope for an America that is safe again, pure again, and great again.

Their absolute devotion actually blinds them to his blatant violations of basic human rights and spiritual values. An aggressive, abusive, self-righteous, and glory-seeking megalomaniac is god’s man for the job.

By removing the immigrants who have infested our country, closing down every outlet of liberal democracy, and putting all enemies under our feet, we will finally fulfill our national destiny as god’s supreme City on a Hill.

When anxiety is so deep and pervasive, shrinking our horizon of membership so as to exclude everyone who is different and disagrees with us is one way – but it’s not a way through. To quote saint Yoda: “Fear is the path to the dark side. Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering.” Both for ourselves and for everyone around us.

The god standing behind the Religious Right and the president they stand behind are one and the same. They are dangerous, but their power is siphoned out of our collective imagination. We can imagine better gods, better leaders, and a nation much better than what we are today.

 
 

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Breaking the Frame

Let’s play a game, called “Breaking the Frame.”

The Frame refers to what defines right behavior and good character for a specific group of people. For each of us, The Frame began to take shape when we were very young and the family was our original group. As we got older and more involved in the world around us, The Frame expanded to include many more group members – most of whom we don’t know by name and will never meet in person.

Our American nation is an obvious example: we all live together inside The Frame of what in America is defined as right behavior and good character.

You should be saying to yourself, “What definition? There is no consensus in the U.S. regarding what makes an action ‘right’ or what makes a person ‘good’.” And of course, you are correct.

In most traditional societies exemplary behavior and character are represented in their deities, heroes, saints, and governmental leaders. For millenniums, not in every society but in the most stable and peaceable ones, a certain lineage of virtue was acknowledged as bestowed by the gods, advanced by heroes, incarnated in saints, and finally manifested in the present day by those in national leadership whose principal charge was to convey divine beatitude to the people.

Well, not so much in America.

Our current president is not godly in any sense – unless god is a glory-seeking, vengeful, and self-righteous megalomaniac (which I think isn’t far off the mark for a lot of evangelical Christians) – and he’s far from being saintly or heroic. If there ever was a lineage of virtue in the United States, Donald Trump and his deputies have completely brought it to ruin.

So the fact that the United States of America doesn’t really have a Frame inside of which we all hold a common understanding of ‘right action’ and a ‘good person’ makes our game a bit more challenging, though not impossible.

Instead of looking around ourselves for extant models of virtue, we’ll need to imagine them for now.

Because The Frame contains a group’s shared understanding of what makes an action “right” and a person “good,” I am using it as a metaphor for morality. I’m arguing that every group, however small or large, monochromatic or multicolored, needs a morality to have any hope of securing a stable and humane fellowship among its members.

To help our game move forward, I will ask you to drop down from the national level of your identity as an American (or whatever nationality you are), to the group membership you currently hold where insiders abide by and aspire to a shared morality together. Your agreement over what makes an action ‘right’ and a person ‘good’ serves to manage your mutual engagements in the interest of genuine community.

You and your fellows are separate individuals with unique identities, and the purpose of morality (The Frame) is to correlate self and world by a common set of values so that what (or who) you identify “as” relates you meaningfully to what (or whom) you identify “with.”

In other words, in identifying yourself “as” an American, you are also identifying yourself “with” other Americans. If you identify yourself “as” white, brown, or black, you are thereby identifying yourself “with” others of the same color. If you identify yourself “as” a Christian, you are ipso facto identifying yourself with other Christians – not with Jews or Buddhists or secular humanists.

It should be clear that identifying yourself “as” something places you inside a corresponding horizon of membership which includes others like you. What may not be as obvious is how this same horizon excludes – or at least ignores, screens out, or neglects – whatever (or whomever) you don’t identify with. If you identify yourself “as” an American white evangelical Christian, then you are also separating yourself from other nationalities, other races, other religions, and even from other sects of your own religion.

These “others” do not belong to your world, and they do not share your Frame. It might even be difficult, if not impossible, for you to acknowledge them as truly good persons who are doing the right things, since good character and right behavior are defined by your morality, in the service of your group.

History provides too many examples of what tends to happen when life conditions become stressful and the insecurity of insiders escalates: psychologically their horizon of membership shrinks until it includes only those with whom they feel safe. All others – even once fellow insiders – are now excluded, condemned, or even attacked.

Conceivably your horizon of membership can be so small as to include only yourself. No one else can be trusted, and you are the only righteous person left on the planet.

This scenario sheds light on what has happened to our American Frame, and why our nation is currently so divided against itself. In better times, perhaps, a diverse group of individuals were inspired to identify themselves as more than what made them different from others. Together they sought freedom, opportunity, and a genuine community that could include different races, both genders, every class, all ages, and any background, under the rule of constitutional law and human rights.

True enough, progress has been slow on more than one of these fronts, with frequent setbacks along the way. Just now, in fact, as The Frame collapses around us, our insecurities are driving us further apart.

In such times as these, “Breaking the Frame” sounds like the exact opposite of what you should be doing. But what I mean by this has nothing to do with discarding your notions of right action and a good person. It is not about destroying The Frame but rather expanding your horizon of membership in order to include more – more others, more differences,  more possibilities, and more reality.

What we call “ethics” can be distinguished from morality in the sense we’ve been using it here, in how ethics moves our inquiry beyond merely personal interests and into transpersonal horizons.

Before you can break The Frame and engage with a larger reality, however, something needs to happen within yourself. If you are going to consciously and ethically participate in transpersonal horizons, you have to stop identifying yourself “as” a person. This doesn’t mean that you forsake your present identity, abandon your roles in society, and renounce who you are.

All you need to do is stop defining yourself by what makes you separate and unique.

This is what mystical-contemplative traditions have been encouraging for thousands of years: drop out of your self-conscious personal identity (ego) and into your deeper nature as a living, sentient being. Let go of your labels, personal ambitions, and persistent concerns. Let thoughts float above you; allow feelings to come and go.

Just give attention to your breath. Sink into your body and rest quietly in the cradle of rhythms keeping you alive in this moment.

After descending to deeper centers of your grounding mystery and coming back again to the surface, you will find that identifying yourself as a living sentient being has enabled you to identify with other living sentient beings. Not only with other Americans, but people from other nations as well. Not just with your race, but all races of humankind. And not with humans alone, but with all species and with every living thing.

The whole web of life has become your horizon of membership.

Inside this expanded horizon of identity, your understanding of right action and what it means to be a good person is radically transformed. The fellowship to which you now consciously belong transcends personal ambitions and even exclusively human concerns.

Earth is your home, life is your community, and the global wellbeing of our planet is the principle inspiring and critiquing all that you do.

Don’t expect those who have pulled inside smaller frames of identity to support your newfound vision. They won’t agree with you because they can’t understand. Your values and intentions make no sense to them.

Just remember that they too live inside your larger horizon, and they need your compassion and kindness as much as the rest – maybe even more.

 

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