Listening to the BBC Radio 4 program In Our Time, hosted by the always wonderful Melvyn Bragg about Foxe’s Book of Martyrs (1563) one story hit home—hard! One of the show’s contributors told the story of Perotine Massey, a Guernsey woman burned for heresy by the Roman Catholics. She gave birth while in the flames. The baby was tossed back into the fire after it burst from her burning stomach and landed — alive — at the feet of a soldier guarding the pire.
This awful event was described in the quaint “Old English” title given to a contemporary engraving depicting the burning as: “A lamentable spectacle of three women, with a child infant brasting out of the Mothers Wombe, being first taken out of the fire, and cast in agayne, and so all burned together in the Isle of Guernsey, 1556 July 18.”
Such an account might confirm the superiority of Protestant Christianity to the brutality of Roman Catholicism– except that Protestants did the same sort of things to Catholics, not to mention to Native Americans.
There is a “reason” for such viciousness: theology practiced as if it is an exact science. Call this the Roman Church/Protestant idea of spirituality as “correct” belief. That’s a liability. The equivalent would be to say that you’re only married if you can pass an exam on the correct details of your spouse’s life history, beliefs, likes and dislikes, blood-type and food preferences.
A theological approach to religious faith attempts to reduce something intuitive to an exact “science.” Tick the “wrong” box and you fail the exam.
From liberal to fundamentalist to charismatic, the Protestant denominations are still as united in their commitment to salvation-through-correct-ideas as are the Roman Catholics. The root of the Protestant commitment to salvation through correct belief lies in the retributive and juridical “rationalistic” history of the Roman Catholic Church from which all Protestant denominations evolved. Western Christianity has relied heavily on signing up to “correct” doctrines in order to be saved. Catholics and Protestants may disagree on what is correct but they agree that correct doctrine is needed for salvation.
Believing “wrong” was for much of church history called heresy and punishable by excommunication or death. Religious “certainties” were so fragile they had to be protected by violence by all sides. That should have eliminated this theological correctness retributive and juridical rationalistic approach long ago. It didn’t because religion was never about God but about a way to dominate people and keep rulers in power. It still is.
Anything that leads to murder should raise doubts about its legitimacy when put in service of so-called spiritual truth. That killing was done “for God” and yet didn’t lead to a complete re-think about the theological “approach” to a relationship with God is simply insane. Yet this madness persists today. Every time a sermon is preached where someone says “the Bible says God says” the lie continues to be spread. The answer to all such claims is a loud “Says who?”
The problem is that the book around which these “correct” doctrines are spun is not a book at all. In that sense it “says” so many things that it says nothing. So the book is a great mine to dig anything out of needed to support one’s personal tyranny over others but it is nothing more than that.
For any book to “say” something it has to fulfill 2 tests: First it has to be a work of non-fiction whose truth claims can be corroborated from outside of itself. Second, it has to be by one author or at least by authors who know each other and collaborate to bring their message to readers.
What it can’t be and at the same time be said to have a single coherent message worth killing people over, is a collection of myths, essays, letters, stories, recorded oral history, misinformation and fables that were gradually collected and added to over thousands of years without the authors being aware that their bits and pieces of writing would someday be seen as “chapters” in one “book.” And since little to nothing in the book can be corroborated from outside testable sources, its truth claims (real or imagined) are worthless if taken as “fact”-based let alone in a juridical sense and then used to judge others.
When I run into the idolatry of Bible worshipping I’m reminded of something I observe with the folks raised in the age of texting and cell phones. I see them expect “answers” from the little black box they hold. They seem to trust it rather than the reality around them. They seem to be losing a tactile sense of how the world works because their connection to it is mediated through their phones, tablets and computers. For instance I know a young woman who tends to check the weather by looking at her phone instead of up at the actual sky. And that reminds me of the people I know who argue about what the Bible “says,” for instance “about” gay people, rather than trusting what they know to be true about the gay people they actually know.
At least the weather report on the phone someone is checking (rather than just looking up at the real sky) was put together by well intended sane meteorologists who were actually trying to tell their audience what was happening. But those who look to the Bible for instruction in a way that overrides the reality they actually experience are like people trying to find out what is happening with the weather who watch a cooking show to get a weather report!
Since what is being said on the cooking show has nothing to do with the weather the person looking for information has to come up with an elaborate “explanation” of just how it is that a show about — say — making fried chicken actually is about thunderstorms and what to wear to a family picnic.
When absurdity is being rationalized and explained things get a bit crazy, say like this: “We’re having fried chicken at the picnic, they are talking about fried chicken on the show and so they must know all about our picnic and so when they say to use corn flower to bread the chicken because it doesn’t burn as badly at regular wheat flower that must mean that there will be no sun today but clouds so we need to bring umbrellas so we won’t burn and that just proves that real believers will only be saved because corn flower saves chicken from burning so from now on real believers will never eat white bread again or go out without rain gear. White bread is sinful and a sign of true faith is wearing a raincoat at all times! Amen?”
Here’s a theologian at work “explaining” his equivalent of mistaking a cooking show for a weather report, and no less nuts: “Solomon also teaches us that not only was the destruction of the ungodly foreknown, but the ungodly themselves have been created for the specific purpose of perishing (Prov. 16:4).” (Calvin’s New Testament Commentaries: Romans and Thessalonians, pp.207-208)
Nothing much has changed since Calvin’s day. Franciscan University (Steubenville, Ohio) classifies gay people with murderers and rapists. This is a course description on their website: “SWK 314, DEVIANT BEHAVIOR focuses on the sociological theories of deviant behavior… The behaviors that are primarily examined are murder, rape, robbery, prostitution, homosexuality, mental illness, and drug use (3 credit hours)”
The fact that theologians waste their lives is too bad but the problem is they’ve taken the rest of us with them into a labyrinth of absurdity where one can imagine a “god” creating the “ungodly themselves… [for] the specific purpose of perishing.” I mean can you imagine seriously looking to – say – the life work of John Calvin for “answers” as to how to be saved when he said the system was rigged? And can you imagine going to a university where “murder, rape, robbery, prostitution, homosexuality, mental illness” are lumped together? Would taking this course be useful for learning how to relate to your gay daughter? And can you imagine how thinking of a gay friend as having been created for the specific purpose of perishing will help you love her as a human being?
The self-evident ridiculousness of “Bible-based” theology – a ridiculousness evident to all but those who buy into it as the needed passport to salvation and/or to those who earn a living through it — is due to the fact that most theology is as farfetched as trying to come up with a way to understand fried chicken recipes as actually being about the “meteorology” of salvation. This isn’t because theologians are bad people. It is because they are trying to “interpret” a book that isn’t a book. They are looking for a coherent single message in a book that the authors never knew they were writing. They are trying to explain the inexplicable and find coded “messages” where there are none. In that sense theology is the domain of the ultimate conspiracy theorists.
So perhaps it’s no coincidence that atheism emerged in the context of the Western Christian expression of both Roman Catholic and Protestant “intellectual” and “rational” religions that carried on doctrinal disputes over their “facts” to such a degree that those theological issues became the root cause of endless wars, persecutions and killings. Beside the idea of correct doctrine leading to actual war Western Christianity paid another price in that it built a house of cards wherein if you remove one card the entire edifice collapses. Since religion was reduced to belief in the right ideas religion became more about the “recipes” in the “cookbook” than about cooking itself.
The problem is that this approach to faith (and cooking) flies in the face of all the rest of human experience which is a matter of trial and error, mixed motivations, sincerity seesawing with bad motives and healthy doubts about everything we encounter. Life is lived on an experiential plain that has less to do with coming up with the right formulations than with passing on wisdom gained by our experience. In other words “correct” ideas don’t take into account changed minds.
In reality church for most folks is about community, family and continuity rather than about believing the ideas spouted from the pulpit. For most people the truth is that sitting though sermons is the passport to the coffee hour when the real business of church is conducted in conversations with family and old friends.
Most things we do have a human community reasons for doing them rather than an ideological or theological “reason.” I go to church because of my grandchildren. I enjoy taking them to the liturgy. But I’m fortunate because the liturgy I take them to the Greek Orthodox service that revolves around doing of liturgical practice rather than talking about belief systems. What you believe isn’t the point. Showing up is. We light candles, take communion, make the sign of the cross, and kiss icons. The comfort I derive from these inane rituals is much the same as the comfort I get from gardening.
The plants I like best in my garden are those plants that have survived many winters like the old rosebush climbing up against the porch. They can be counted on. They are not new and improved and I don’t enjoy them by reading about them or talking about them but just by coexisting with them. The doing of rituals – like old plants in old gardens — also binds us into familiar pathways where others have gone before.
Like caring for an old tree the pleasure is in the stewardship of continuity. And the “point” isn’t knowing about roses, it’s the pinprick form the thorns, the smell of the flower, the wife who you have taken the flowers to from the same rose tree each year, the grandchild next to you helping you water the rose while you’re telling her that you did the same thing with her father “when he was little.”
Faith is about finding contexts where we feel comfortable and where we don’t have to constantly question ourselves on our motives or how we feel about the “facts” or if we “believe” this or that. Instead we just are. This just being in the moment, this “stillness of the heart” is a completely different experience than sitting through sermons and taking notes or turning to biblical passages and weighing up in one’s mind whether you “believe” (whatever that means) in what’s being said.
Certainty based on “facts” is a delusion since no information is complete and there’s nothing we “know” that later we might not change our minds about. But experience is something that grows and can be added to organically. Learning by hands-on experience is not an either-or proposition. It is a matter of looking up at the sky to see what is happening in reality instead of down at an electronic device. And connecting with the experience of grace is better than looking at a book and reading about it.
A “fact based” religious life – in other words the idea that theology is a road to knowing the “right way” to love God — is like a fact-based marriage where each person has to be “right” about everything. It’s devoid of hope on those days when you don’t agree. And spirituality like a marriage only works when the prime directive of love overrides who is right or wrong.