It’s tempting to rationalize my bad behavior as “caused” by wrong ideas. But blaming wrong beliefs for our true biological natures is as crazy as thinking that right ideas will save us. So when atheists blame religion for war, they are being as silly as Christians who blame atheism for the Gulag. And thinking you can make some “god” forgive you by believing “the” correct doctrine about him is absurd. Any god that petty isn’t worth serving–not to mention hard to credit with the creation of the universe. How could the creator be even meaner and dumber than his creatures?
And even if belief in a petty Janus-faced “biblical god” – modeled on pagan gods that were as capricious as they were vengeful – is the correct path to salvation, then this “right belief” will always fall short. Like everything else, it will be sabotaged by our flawed understanding and our lack of perfect sincerity.
As for our labels saving us – Christian, Jew, agnostic etc. – we could all change places and swap labels and we’d still be what we are: potential members of a lynch mob. If our primate tribe happens to be chasing naked and bleeding Jews through Polish streets for deportation to the camps, we join in. If our tribe decides to chase the former chasers of Jews around the globe and prosecute them for war crimes, we join in and feel as good about righting the wrongs of the past as they did about their ethnic cleansing. But a few decades later our newly “benevolent” and “ethical” tribe—given the right mix of fear and circumstances—will aid and abet murder, torture and the stealing of land from the Palestinian people. And those new victims will, in turn, murder their enemies and each other and/or take sides in the global civil war pitting Shia against Sunni.
Who are the good guys? There are none. Just ask our suffering and inexorably warming planet about human “goodness” or even basic intelligence. Just ask those closest to you about your goodness. Admitting this truth is what we avoid. Better to rant and rave about “evil secularists,” or “evil right wing evangelicals” than look within.
This is why the New Atheists’ books are bestsellers. They “explain” to atheists why it’s all someone else’s fault. It’s why religious books also become bestsellers, because they explain to believers why they are superior. The God Delusion and The Purpose-Driven Life share the same delusional message: The world can be fixed by belief in correct ideas.
Both religious how-to books and atheist how-to books lead the readers to the same preening conclusion: “Thank God I am so much more enlightened than other people!” So let’s be honest: Enforcing “correct ideas” is just another manifestation of biting and scratching, primate behavior dressed up to look like something it’s not.
Speaking of enforcing correctness, a friend of mine who taught at Westminster Theological Seminary told me what he feared most were his ultra-conservative students who eagerly ratted out professors who “deviated” from Reformed Calvinist orthodoxy. And major Southern Baptist seminaries have recently endured ideological purges of people deemed to have insufficient loyalty to the so-called inerrancy of the Bible, “purges” worthy of the Red Guards. The Vatican too has been on a crusade to curb the voice of “dissident” Catholics most recently of American nuns. Fear of honest questions is all (small “o”) orthodoxy is. And if I’ve received one email from a pastor that starts with the line, “I wish I could publically say what you’re saying in your book Crazy For God but it would cost me my job,” I’ve received a hundred.
So forget changing for the better via correct ideas. The truth is simple and a bit chilling: If our biology changes, we’ll change. If it doesn’t, we won’t.
Changing our biology is not as farfetched as it sounds. At a microcellular level, the complex network of nerve cells that make up the brain actually changes in response to certain experiences. The brain is malleable. If it wasn’t, no one could ever learn to play the piano. The issue isn’t correct belief about pianos but whom we choose to imitate (a good piano teacher) and what we do repeatedly (practice) until we begin to carve out new pathways within our malleable brains.
That’s why I’ll be in church next Sunday with my grandchildren. (We happen to go to a Greek Orthodox Church as my wife and I have for the last 23 years.) Church happens to be one of the places where my grandchildren can be lovingly swooped up. “Swooping up” covers everything from being waved to by choir members, picked up and/or patted by a multitude of “little old ladies,” offered snacks during the service when we wander to the church hall where coffee hour is being set up and start munching early, and of course going to our eccentric Sunday school where a friendly chaos reigns that – thankfully — precludes most teaching.
This loving “swooping up” also changes brains by producing a sense of tribal belonging, in this case to a non-lynch-mob mostly benevolent tribe. It isn’t about correct belief, let alone if the Bible is “true” (whatever that means) but about the brain-changing effect of community and the humbling mystery of unconditional love experienced in the “ordinary.”
This isn’t a theological concept to which you must assent. It’s as practical and measurable as doing dishes for 10 hours after the annual food festival fund raising event.
That’s where a “stranger” I’d seen around church but didn’t know became a friend as we worked together in 90-degree heat over a slop-filled sink. By the end of the evening, I’d told her more about myself and she’d told me more about herself than I would have thought possible, such as how embarrassed I was as a child victim of polio by having to wear an iron leg brace and how chagrinned she was at having had 3 divorces. Somehow the context of working together for something bigger than either of us – sustaining our community – provided a free pass to sharing our inner selves. We did dishes and exchanged stories.
I’m not really as nice as my fellow dishwasher probably thinks I am, but since I’m a pretty good listener she never knew that I started out our time together not very interested in our conversation and inwardly cursing myself for volunteering for the cleanup crew. But I acted the part and she bought the act. Then somewhere along the way, I stopped acting and became the part.
That’s been a pattern for me: act right then get into the habit of actually being what you’re pretending to be. As a result of these “acting lessons” I’m a much better grandfather than I was a father. I am not patient by nature, but acting as if I am has made me more patient than I once was.
Play-acting (call this blessed hypocrisy method acting) is my only road to virtue, because at first nothing comes “naturally” but the primate biting and scratching. Feeling sincere isn’t the point. Acting the part is, until I become what I’m imitating. The how-to of improving a free throw shot, playing the piano, scrubbing the filthy pots and pans at midnight or learning parenting is all one and the same: find someone to show you how and copy them again and again and again.
Monkey-see-monkey-do can be the road to either damnation or salvation. It all depends on whom we imitate. I’ve found that when I imitate Jesus’ life and teaching – forgive my enemies or at least forgive my wife after a fight – I can gradually change my brain, just as long as I keep repeating the action.
Instead of revenge, Jesus begged God to forgive his murderers. Now that is something new on this little planet.
So what? The biblical account of Jesus is all very nice, but how does “imitating Jesus” translate to me? I wasn’t there and I don’t even know if the gospel accounts happened. And “inspirational” Bible verses about Jesus are often dead to me, because they are just too familiar and polluted. I’ve heard them read (and “explained”) by people who told lies about things I could check out – say the money they stole from their ministry, the people they slept with and hurt, the pompous asses they became – and who used “faith” as just another method by which to bully and dominate others.
So how to “meet” a teacher I trust outside of trying to force myself to believe a farfetched text about things that no one can agree on and that’s been pushed on me by people as imperfect as me? Sometimes we can find an intermediary. And she’s not always the Virgin Mary. I’m talking about my wife and daughter…
(To be continued. Look for PART 3 of The Blessed Hypocrisy “Method Acting” of Salvation coming to this space soon.)