Monday, March 7, 2016

Lenten Thoughts

Drawing of the Crucifixion by Michelangelo

--In my experience, statements about what I believe or not are mostly ignored.  People will think about me what they want no matter what I do or say to the contrary.  But I think it's necessary to put these thoughts out there and in written form just for the record if nothing else.

--I've never believed in the angry god of the fundamentalists; all fundamentalists, Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, etc.  I've never believed in that frightful legalistic punitive deity of first causes that sits enthroned upon the terminus between the Faithful Remnant and the doomed heathen and apostate masses.  William Blake called that god "Old Mr. Nobodaddy," and a Southern writer once described such a deity as "a mean old grand daddy home from a three day drunk."  I've always thought that such a god was people's anxieties and anger projected onto the cosmos.

--I've never believed in a despotic god who pulls the strings like a great cosmic puppeteer and makes everything happen that does happen.  God may not play dice with the universe, but he doesn't micromanage it either.  As shocked and angry as I felt in the wake of the September 11th attacks, God was not an object of that anger.  I don't believe in blaming God for manmade catastrophes, and I certainly don't think those attacks were God's will (certain mullahs and homophobic evangelical demagogues to the contrary).  I didn't blame God for my father's death from lung cancer despite a lifetime of not smoking.  These things happen because we are mortal, and again they are certainly not God's will.

--I've never really hated God, though I've sometimes wondered if He's there.  There have been a lot of times when I really hated religion.   I expect that there will be more of those times.  I've always despised piety, especially the public kind.  The conspicuous Scripture reader on the subway carries less the fragrance of humility than the stink of pride as as far as I am concerned; "I thank God that I am not like these others here on this train."  I've said in the past, and I'd say it again; I'd rather be known as the worst crack whore in the East Village than have a reputation for piety.  I suppose now the very expensive East Village does less crack and more pricey designer drugs.

--I hate the burdens, the tests, the ordeals, the legal codes, the purity codes, the dogmatism, the spiritual athletics, the moral heroics that come with religion.  As if ordinary mortals don't labor under enough weight and go through enough trials in this life, some people feel bound to make salvation all the more remote and unattainable.  There are too many of the pious eager to lay burdens on other people that they are not themselves willing or able to bear.  I hate the idea that I have to turn off my brain and surrender my independence to belong to any religious community.  "Reason is the devil's whore!" said Luther, but without it the old German pastor would never have found his way out from under the crushing weight of the Roman magisterium.  God gave us brains and our wits to find our way through this unknown land of the living and (He hopes) to the Celestial City.  He gave us our wills to chose Him freely, and to freely walk with Him as a friend, and a lover, not as a hostage or a slave.

--People should not be penalized for being themselves (themselves by nature or by choice).  People are as God made them, fashioned in all their variety in His image.  People are accountable for what they do, not for what they are.

--I've never understood the puritanical obsession with policing everyone's sex lives.  I regard such obsession with great suspicion.  Either the puritan is himself obsessed with sex; or worse, uses that obsession to distract attention from other far worse crimes against neighbors like greed, predation, and the lust for power; the drive to dominate people and to bend them to our will.

--Jean Jacques Rousseau believed that human beings were fundamentally good by nature.  It was civilization and culture that corrupted them.  John Calvin believed that people were incorrigibly evil, little beasts eager to sell out their souls and at a cheap price.  I believe in neither.  People are fundamentally selfish, something that we share with all other life on earth from bacteria to blue whales.  That selfishness is neither good nor evil.   It is selfish.

--I certainly do not believe that anything and everything goes, that there is no such thing as sin or evil; far from it.  Mercy has no meaning without Justice, and Justice is little more than retribution without Mercy.  I suppose where I differ from convention these days is that I think of these matters less in terms of a childish desire to keep and obey the rules and please the parents than in terms of the Golden Rule and the Great Commandments:  "Do to others as you would have them do to you" and "Love your neighbor as yourself."  If we harm other people; steal from them, lie to them, swindle them out of their savings and livelihoods, maliciously plot against them, manipulate them, betray them, slander them, rape them, seduce their spouses, assault them, kill them, or even gossip against them, then we should feel bad about it.  Our first rule should always be to do no harm, even if we can't do good.

--A lot of people these days obsess over sexuality and sexual improprieties.  Some even claim that these sins more than any other bring on calamities like storms and earthquakes.  As far as I'm concerned, what people do to pleasure themselves and each other is the least consequential of actions.  There is no part of our bodies less subject to rational control than our gonads and hormones.  Where those desires matter is when they motivate harm; when pleasuring ourselves means hurting others.
Greed and ambition drive far worse and more consequential sins.  The drives for profit and power do far more harm and more truly degrade the Creation than any one night stand ever did or ever will.  Even more than the drive for power and profit, the desire to be vindicated, to be right and recognized as being right drives the worst of all evil as far as I'm concerned.  The arrogance of the fanatic, the willful blindness to human suffering, makes the violence and depravity of the ideologue and the fundamentalist so much more monstrous and pitiless than that of any band of thieves.  That is the temptation to push God off His throne and to sit in judgment over our fellow mortals.

--I've never really believed in hell, at least not as some vast underground eternal torture chamber.  And, I never believed in any god that would create such a place.  If there is hell, then it is a place that we create for ourselves, and that locks from the inside.  We go there willingly and stay so long as our selfishness, fear, malice, and pride cause us to prefer estrangement from God, from our brothers and sisters, and from creation.  We stay there so long as we prefer to "rule in hell than to serve in heaven" (to cite Milton).  We can leave hell anytime.  The decision is ours.

--In no way to I consider myself a good Christian.  I am only a loyal one.  I am very lax in both observance and in charity.  I am a very agnostic believer, believing not because I'm convinced (especially all the supernatural stuff), but because I want to.  My profession of artist comes with a huge liability of self absorption and selfishness.  I am no exception to the character weaknesses of my trade.  I'm not particularly generous, let alone self-sacrificial.  I try to be kind and compassionate, but it never is good enough, not even in my own eyes.  I can be as proud and narrow sometimes as the very people I fight with.

--Penal Substitution Atonement teaches us to look backwards to the inherited sin of our common ancestor Adam (whether or not we understand this story symbolically or literally).  I think it is more profitable to look forward to the model of what we are supposed to become in the person of Christ, forward to what the perfect community is supposed to be in the Kingdom of Heaven.  I can see most clearly how very far I am from measuring up to that model of perfect love and humanity.  I can also see more clearly the role I play in keeping the world far from that image of the most Beloved Community, and what I must do otherwise.

--Finally, I've always understood the image of the Crucifix to be a warning and a promise.  It is a warning that we are not spared the contingencies and misfortunes of mortality.  We will not be spared death.  God is not a rescuer.  There He is on the cross in the person of His Son dying unjustly in shame and humiliation.  God did not rescue Him.  He did not come down off the Cross.  Still less can we avoid our own death.  There will be no resurrection without dying first.  We and the world we inhabit, will die and disintegrate and be forgotten.
But if we suffer and die, God suffers and dies with us.  At the end of that suffering and extinction is a new life; not in some static state of transcendence, not as resuscitated corpses, and not in some vague metaphor; but alive again in a new life complete with our full selves renewed just like Christ Himself in His Resurrection.  That new life awaits not just us but all we love and our whole world since nothing goes forgotten in the sight of God.
I think it was Karl Barth who said that in the Cross we are justified before God, and God is justified before us.

Crucifixion by Rogier Van Der Weyden


JCF said...

The conspicuous Scripture reader on the subway carries less the fragrance of humility than the stink of pride as as far as I am concerned; "I thank God that I am not like these others here on this train."

Ahem, having attended seminary in NYC (UTS), that could just be some in-debted-to-high-heaven schmuck cramming their OT101 assignment! ;-/

In a (too-quick) perusal of your Apologia here, Doug, I think I agree mostly w/ what you've written. But I probably love some good (theatrical!) piety more than you do. I love the show. I'd join in a Roman Corpus Christi procession myself---if it weren't for the "surrounded by child rapists" part (that is, as much as I love piety, I hate HYPOCRISY even more. Knowing that I, myself, am a hypocrite too. Did I mention I, I live paradox?)

wdg_pgh said...

The one thing I would add to your "I certainly do not believe that anything and everything goes" paragraph is that loving your neighbor as yourself implies loving yourself, which in turn implies doing no harm to yourself (not just doing no harm to others).

Bill Ghrist