Genuine religion and a genuine engagement of such, in theory, should be transformative – prayer, liturgy, study, meditation, self-reflection, repentance, and engaging myth and meaning in a communal context should yank us out of our selfishness and mitigate against the ego-reinforcing, community destroying tendencies of many aspects of our contemporary culture.
I’m always fascinated, therefore, by people who seem to have been warped or made into worse human beings by their religion. We all likely know people who are judgmental, controlling, jerks and whose religion seems to be playing a role.
We all know the type – the parents who toss the pregnant teen out on the street because she violated chastity, the follower of the prosperity gospel who scorn the poor, the members of the modesty police who castigate those who dare to bear their ankles or don a swimsuit. The list is endless of people acting badly – or worse – in the name of God and religion.
Recently, I came across two instances of folks totally losing perspective in religious matters. One example is Catholic, the other Jewish.
In the Catholic example, the person in question felt it nearly a matter of life and death that one receive communion only on the tongue. To receive communion any other way was an act of sacrilege and disrespect that was helping to destroy the church. This person went as far as to say that receiving the Eucharist in the hand was helping fuel the breakdown of our culture, traditional morals, and other such evils.
In the Jewish example, I encountered a woman who argued that it is was of the utmost importance to light the left Shabbat candle before the right, and failing to do so was a grave violation of Jewish law and therefore pissed off God.
Both instances leave me fairly convinced that I need more wine and that these folks need to get a life. And hey, they would likely benefit from more wine, too!
Yet what makes the tongue any more dignified than the hand? In either case, isn’t the intention more important? I’d think it better for one to lovingly receive in the hand rather than self-righteously receive on the tongue. One can raise the issue of Vatican and Diocesan regulations, but there is still room for diversity in practice.
The same analysis holds for the woman and her Shabbat candle lighting. Shabbat is an extremely holy moment for Jews. Lighting the candles with reverence is important and a good thing. Yet one can get carried away and lose sight of the overall meaning of the event.
I don’t worship a God who cares what direction you start with or whether you take communion with your hand or tongue. And I’m inclined to think that any God who did care is a projection of one’s perfectionism and neurosis and not a genuine deity – at the very least, it’s not a god worthy of our worship.
Both instances are examples of a loss of perspective. Religion, in these cases, has fed the legalism and neurotic tendencies of the individuals mentioned.
Religion can be engaged and allowed to transform us, taking us beyond our selfishness and shaping us into more loving, giving persons.
Yet sadly, the same religion can be engaged, and turn a person into a controlling neurotic who finds sin under every rock and a turns every opportunity into a chance to criticize others.
How and why this can be the case certainly involves the uniqueness of each human personality and heart. It also raises questions of focus and emphasis of the individual and their specific community.
Yet it also remains something of a mystery – how we can watch two people engage the same religion and yet produce such different results.