Last week a group of Catholic priests and bishops met in Baltimore to discuss how to deal with the growing demand for exorcisms. It got coverage and comments from everyone from CNN to Al Mohler. I wrote about it on my blog – one person left a lengthy comment that basically said “exorcisms are dangerous.” To which I replied “yes, but sometimes they’re helpful.”
Also last week, the UK newspaper the Daily Mail ran a piece on modern Pagans titled: “Pagans are on the march – but are they harmless eccentrics or a dangerous cult?” The piece quoted Ronald Hutton who had some useful facts, but they also quoted others who claim that acknowledging alternative faiths will somehow “marginalise Christians.” Musician and Druid Damh the Bard wrote an excellent rebuttal on his blog where he basically says he’s not going to water down his beliefs and practices just to fit in with the mainstream culture.
I grew up in a small Baptist church and while they taught much that I disagreed with, there were also some things I simply couldn’t understand. One of those things was Revelation 3:15-16, which has God saying to a particular church “I know thy works, that thou art neither cold nor hot: I would thou wert cold or hot. So then because thou art lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I will spue thee out of my mouth.” That struck me as harsh – why isn’t “good enough” good enough?
Many years later, I understand. It’s because religion that is lukewarm, unobtrusive and safe doesn’t change lives and it doesn’t change the world. It doesn’t challenge us to examine our beliefs and make sure they’re worthy of our values. It doesn’t challenge us to examine our actions and make sure they’re in alignment with those values. It doesn’t challenge us to get off the couch, out of the pew or circle, out of our comfort zones and learn or experience something new.
Safe religion doesn’t make a difference.
Effective religion is dangerous – it involves risk. Adopt distinctive dress and a disciplined practice and you open yourself to ridicule. Sit in meditation and you may be confronted by parts of your life you don’t like to look at. Take that “love thy neighbor” thing seriously and you may find yourself face to face with someone who doesn’t look like you or sound like you or believe like you. Take that “the Earth is our Mother” thing seriously and you may find life a little less convenient. Challenge the power structure to be more just and you may find yourself in the company of Nelson Mandela, Aung San Suu Kyi, or Martin Luther King, Jr. Open yourself to the Great Mystery and you may find your priorities changing in ways you never thought possible.
Yes, there are risks in practicing dangerous religion. But there are also rewards, like finding peace with yourself, the fulfillment of serving others, living in harmony with the Earth, changing countries and making life better for millions, and connecting with a Reality that transcends time and space.
I can hear some of my skeptical friends arguing that great harm has been done through religious zeal. They are right, so there are two caveats.
First, practice dangerous religion, not stupid religion. Worshiping Nature is one thing, handling poisonous snakes is another. Going on quests is one thing, sitting in a sealed sweat lodge with a New Age huckster is another.
And second, you only have the right to take risks for yourself. If you’re convinced “meat is murder” then do your best to convince others to become vegetarians, but resist the urge to defend farm animals with violence – and stay out of my back yard when I’m barbequing! Missionary work can be honorable, crusades and jihad cannot.
Safe religion may be warm and comfortable, but only dangerous religion can transform souls.