There’s a point in the play, before everything comes apart in disaster, in which the Oedipus chorus wonders, what are we doing? There never was a more genuine religious question.
The chorus of Greek tragedy isn’t a remnant of a more ancient, ritual body. We’ve put to bed the old theories that insisted without evidence that Greek tragedy evolved, by some Darwinian mechanism, from a religious ritual that had to do with goats or something else. But this distinctly civic body, the Greek chorus, nevertheless had religious matters, always, on its mind.
One of these matters appears in Oedipus after a long and highly suggestive recitation of the dangers of acting like an ass.
If a man can just lumber around, heedless of ethical imperatives and of divinity, the chorus wonders, if he can just do whatever he wants, and blaspheme everything, and put his filthy fingers on anything, what’s next?
Surely, reasons the chorus, tentatively, that guy’s in trouble. Nothing’s going to be able to shield his soul from the gods’ spears.
But then, on the threshold of classic(al) schadenfreude, the chorus turns introspective, as it confronts the ever-realized fact that the gods’ spears most often don’t fall from the heavens to strike down the wicked:
If we have to stand for such b.s.,
Why the hell are we singing in this choir?*
That’s still a crucial question for religious folks. If a person can just wander around treating religion as a joke, and there’s no consequence, and there’s nothing we can do about it, why in the world do we religious people keep religioning? After all, if god doesn’t smite the heretic, it may be evidence that there is no god, and all this song and dance is for nothing.
So, to prove god’s existence, we do the smiting ourselves.
God’s not stepping in here, we realize, as the lightning bolt does not, repeatedly, materialize to destroy our enemies. We’d better lay down some electricity for him.
Down with the heretics, down with the unbelievers, and down with the apostates, we cry from our granite faith-embattlements and from our shimmering virtue-steeds as we ride out to battle for god and glory. Down with downing—we’ll reveal god in the carnage.
I confess that, sometimes, I wonder why I religion. More than ever when confronted by yet another instance in which someone has made a joke of a type of religion I love.
Oh, I’m tempted to saddle up the steed to go riding out, blades a-blazing, singing some martial hymn, to hack and chop and stab at someone who seems to have set at naught everything that strikes me as lovely in religioning. The temptation to strike in god’s silence is very strong.
Perhaps my inclination towards brutality says something of my faith in god. Perhaps if I really believed in god’s presence, I wouldn’t be so eager to wreak havoc for him/her/it. Perhaps the responsibility I feel to punish the unbeliever would dissipate before the coming of a genuine faith in a divinity that can manage without my intervention.
Perhaps, if I were a true believer, I wouldn’t want to excommunicate someone who seems to have dumped, mightily, on a religion I consider mine.
I like religioning. I’m inspired and moved and elevated by the religioning I do. I’d like to find a way to keep singing in this choir, though it often doesn’t make any more sense to me than it did to the Greek chorus.
But I’m still religious enough to suspect that my vindictiveness undermines my spiritual aspirations. So, I’m going to resist, this time, that unhappy urge to swing widely and wildly.
I’m going to say, this time around, that I don’t think we should excommunicate someone for dragging a religion through the mire. There must be room here, after all, in a religion that’s dear to me, for someone like John Dehlin’s LDS stake president. Whatever this stake president’s blasphemy and blundering—whatever this stake president’s tone and whatever the ways in which this stake president has raised doubts and concerns in public—my inclination to push him out of a religion would imply that I don’t much find the divine power of the universe in it.
I don’t know him, this LDS stake president, personally. He’s probably a good guy. Probably a better guy than I, by most criteria. Like Oedipus, he’ll probably come to see that he’s responsible for a great wrong, even while certain that he’s doing the right thing. In the meantime, I can probably put up with his lumbering.
Else how the hell do I keep singing in this choir?
* Yeah, it’s my translation. And it’s close enough.