I have always been fascinated not only with religion, but with the games people play with religion. Having been brought up within Protestant fundamentalism I knew some very devout, sincere and holy Christians within that world. They really taught me how to live by faith. They regarded faith as a huge risk, and the greatest adventure that anyone could embark on.
As I moved through Anglicanism to Catholicism, I continued to meet such courageous Christians–individuals who heard the call of Christ to ‘leave their nets and follow him’. They were all spiritual pioneers–members of a pilgrim people who were willing to set out and follow Christ, and to be open to greater and greater truths. They were willing to ‘affirm not deny’. While searching for Truth, they were willing to do so from the starting point that they did not yet have all the Truth and there was far more to learn, and there were many other people of many different opinions from whom they could learn. They were able to be open minded, searching and questing because they did not believe they had it all nailed down yet.
Don’t get me wrong. These great folks were not relativists. They didn’t follow the greeting card sentiment that ‘It is better to seek than to find’ or ‘the journey is more important than the destination.’ No, they believed in Truth and sincerely believed it was possible to know and follow the One who is the Way, the Truth and the Life. They were just humble enough and sane enough and well balanced enough and healthy enough to believe that they didn’t have all the Truth sewn up neatly, and probably wouldn’t in this life.
Along this journey I have met another sort of religious person. I’ve met them in the preaching halls and colleges of Protestant fundamentalists, I’ve met them in the halls of Oxford University Anglicanism. I’ve met them amongst Protestants, Catholics, Evangelicals and Charismatics.
These are the sort of religious folks who do exactly the opposite with their religion. Religion is supposed to launch us on the most exciting and open ended quest for Truth. These folks use religion to close down that quest. They use religion to build a little fortress within which they barricade themselves with fellow believers. Whatever their creed, they work out all the doctrines and dogmas down to a ‘t’. They work out all the ethics and morality down to every detail. They get every rubric ‘right’. They get every form of worship ‘right’. In fact they get everything ‘right.’
Not satisfied with being right themselves, they then try to impose their ‘right’ solution on everyone else. They become aggressive and belligerent. When their way isn’t accepted they soon develop a martyr complex, “We few, we faithful few!”they cry. “Thus it has always been by those who are ‘right’. The way is narrow. We shall be persecuted you know! We must expect to be rejected!” Before long, everyone outside their little fortress is not only wrong, but out to get them. This develops into a martyr’s complex of self pity mixed with aggression towards all those ‘evil outsiders.’
What interests me about this is how this sick kind of mentality actually spirals downward and feeds on itself. So a passion for wanting to be ‘right’ becomes an obsession to prove everyone else wrong. When the mania becomes extreme this self righteous person doesn’t want to convert others to his position because he cares for their soul, or even because he cares for the Truth anymore. All those motives were lost long ago. Instead he wants to convert people to his cause in order to support his own mania, because if there is anyone outside they are still a threat. This kind of religious person is not satisfied that others should treat him with respect and tolerance and open mindedness. He wants their total conversion to his cause. They must not only allow him to do what he wants to do, and hold the views he wants to hold. For him to be satisfied they must join the cause and become as extreme and suspicious and aggressive and intolerant as he is.
It is easy to spot when this type of religious mania takes hold in an individual or a group. One of the very first things to go is a sense of humor. These folks stop laughing. Especially they stop laughing at themselves. They have all the seriousness of Satan himself. Secondly, they stop being charitable. “Truth is more important than sentimentality!” is their view. The third, and most telling symptom of this sickness is that the person does not recognize it in themselves. “But I am right! I just have to convince more people of that! What me self righteous? I’m not self righteous. I’m just sticking up for God’s truth…”
The terrible thing is that all of us who are religious are prone to fall into this trap. As soon as we start arguing passionately for our cause we are approaching the slippery slope into the miry pit. What is the antidote? First of all, a good long hard look in the mirror. Have we been arguing about some religious point with people to the exclusion of any other concerns in our life? Are we become obsessive about being right? Do we have to prove other people wrong and do we keep at it like some demented terrier with a slipper?
Most of all, when all the argument is done can we laugh at ourselves and put it all into perspective or do we sulk, think up ‘what we should have said’ and pick at the argument like some infected wound?
Now here’s what really tickles me about all this: If I say, “Well, I’m not self righteous, at least you haven’t got me on that one…” then you’re self righteous, or if you’re reading this and saying to yourself, “He’s picking on me! He’s aiming this at me! Just wait. I’ll prove him wrong!” they you’re self righteous too.
The final laugh is that by pointing this out to my readers I’m also in danger of thinking myself right and therefore I’m self righteous too…
So the best thing we can all do is say, “Lord, have mercy on me a sinner.”