It baffles me when people who are deeply concerned about peace and peacemaking define themselves as “spiritual but not religious.” In pursuit of personal and/ or global peace, they shun organized religion in favor of indigenous spirituality. Celtic music, eastern spiritual disciplines like yoga and meditation, and the Native American relationship with nature all seem so attractive and obviously non-violent. I actually have nothing against any of those expressions of spirituality – allow me to offer as proof the trip my husband and I will be taking in July. We will be touring Northern Ireland to enjoy the “storytelling, music, art and peace” of Celtic culture “ancient and new. Great food, inspiring art, and beautiful journeys on foot will form the heart of this soulfully unique and transforming experience.” Sounds great, doesn’t it?
Normally this sort of description would not entice me. It sounds vaguely new age-y, all too “spiritual but not religious”. So why am I going? Because one of the tour leaders is my friend and brilliant cultural critic, the founder of the Wild Goose Festival, Gareth Higgins. Gareth understands that alternative forms of religiosity and spirituality are a necessary part of the revival of Christianity that is going on today, but he also understands that without “religion”, the pursuit of peace is at a serious disadvantage.
I am aware that such a claim runs counter to the primary reason many people give for being spiritual but not religious. They blame religion for violence and war, and there is no denying that many people have killed in the name of their beliefs. Somehow those who abandon organized religion believe that the cure for violence is to purge themselves of religious texts and doctrines that have any reference to violence in them. Why read the Old Testament or believe in a God who requires the death of an innocent victim to be reconciled to us? How could that possibly lead to a more peaceful world?
Gareth Higgins is also a movie critic, and author of Cinematic States: Stories We Tell, the American Dreamlife, and How to Understand Everything. One thing he has taught me is that there is a world of difference between movies with violence in them and movies about violence. By that he means that some movies use violence in an unthinking way, to be provocative and scandalous. But there are movies about violence that challenge our thinking and challenge myths we hold dear. Those movies undo our ability to distance ourselves from complicity in violence. But they can only challenge what we think and believe about violence if they have violence in them! Movies about violence that were perfectly cleansed of violence, would be as impossible as teaching about cooking without reference to food.
This is why there is so much violence in Judeo-Christian scriptures and theologies. Ours is a religion about violence, our violence. Religion can be defined as the practices and beliefs employed by humans to contain our violence. If you are a spiritual but not religious seeker after peace, please do not deceive yourself into thinking that if you ignore the problem of violence it will go away. It will only go away if you learn all you can about it, if you read those bloody, ancient texts and learn to spot in them the great human sin of justifying our violence by blaming God for it. Because these texts are both diagnosis and warning, our shame is all the greater for interpreting the Cross as evidence of God’s violence.
Gareth and I both work with mimetic theory which is an anthropological theory of human violence. What it has taught us is that you don’t need fancy theologies to explain Jesus death because the violence at the Cross can be explained entirely in human terms. The Cross represents what humans have always done: habitually scapegoated innocent victims in order to keep and maintain the peace in our communities. That is violent atonement: it’s what we do. Reading those violent Scriptures through the lens of this anthropological understanding allows us to see the truth about ourselves and why God’s intervention in human affairs was so very necessary to our survival as a species. Without God’s patient suffering of our violence, even unto death, we would never have been able to see what we were involved in. In fact, Jesus acknowledges that even as we crucify him, he must intercede for us begging his father to forgive us for “we know not what we do.”
If you desire peace, but reject the knowledge about human violence that religion offers, I’m afraid that your project will fail. Which is not to say that religion’s truth about human violence offers us any guarantees of success. Jesus himself vacillated between hope and despair on this point. That is what the apocalyptic texts in the Gospels are all about. Visions of wars and plagues are not about God coming to destroy the earth at the end of days, but about us destroying ourselves. Because I know that Gareth knows this, I am looking forward to engaging with Celtic spirituality in the hands of a peacemaker whose eyes are wide open. The world is full of beautiful expressions of God’s presence and human creativity. Coupled with religious truth they can be invaluable tools for remaking ourselves and our world into a more peaceful place.
Suzanne Ross blogs at the Raven Foundation , where she uses mimetic theory to provide social commentary on religion, politics, and pop culture. Follow Suzanne on Twitter @SuzanneRossRF. Join Suzanne for weekly live chats at Teaching Nonviolent Atonement here on Patheos.