‘None’ of That: Imagine a Religion With Only One Rule

Night is purer than day; it is better for thinking and loving and dreaming. At night everything is more intense, more true. The echo of words that have been spoken during the day takes on a new and deeper meaning. The tragedy of man is that he doesn’t know how to distinguish between day and night. He says things at night that should only be said by day.”
Elie Wiesel, Dawn

Religious leaders like to use the metaphor of light in the darkness. But too often it is carried like a torch. There is comfort in its small pool of light. Once the eyes adapt to it, though,  vision is limited and the gray areas of the night, even the stars in the sky become invisible.

More and more people are finding the night isn’t so dark. Casting the torch aside they are finding their way without religion.

According to the Pew Research Center, one in five American adults — nearly 20 percent of the US population — now describe themselves as religiously unaffiliated, the highest percentage ever in Pew’s polling. While Americans are losing their religion they are not losing their faith in a higher power.

Two-thirds (68 percent) of these Americans, commonly called “Nones,”say they believe in God or a universal spirit.  More than half (58 percent) say they often feel a deep connection with nature and the earth, and more than a third (37 percent) describe themselves as “spiritual” but not “religious.”

A majority (67 percent) says churches and other religious institutions are too involved with politics. A similar number believes religious institutions are too concerned with money and power (70 percent) and focus too much on rules (67 percent).

The United States Catholic Bishops and their Evangelical brethren have breathed the fire of religious zealotry into political issues such as abortion, same-sex marriage, stem cell research and universal health care. However, a new generation is more inclined to live and let live. Not only are religious leaders, who often struggle to keep their own side of the street clean,  losing political battles, they are also losing a generation that is asking what’s the fuss and where’s the compassion?

I was raised Catholic so I’m going to pick on the “One True Church” for a few examples. Not the obvious ones, like bishops and popes, who despite providing cover to sexual abuse are pulling a misdirection by investigating women religious, who they claim are not “Catholic” enough because they choose to help the poor rather than join the cultural (sexual) wars over contraception, abortion and homosexuality.

My examples are a bit less dramatic. Jesus was very clear and simple in his call for love and compassion and a preference for the poor. I don’t recall that he put a stipulation on that. Jesus gathered sinners to him. In a patriarchal time, he loved Mary Magdalene as an apostle among apostles. He invited Matthew the dreaded tax collector to join his band. He promised the criminal hanging next to him on the cross a place in the Kingdom. He forgave Peter for forsaking him. He even asked God to let the people who crucified him off the hook!

So, how does the “One True Church” emulate him? By refusing sinners the bread and wine that it believes to be the real presence of the body and blood of Jesus Christ. If you divorce and remarry without an annulment you can’t receive communion? If you’ve had an abortion you can’t receive communion and are in fact excommunicated? If you are a politician who voted for pro-choice legislation, some clergy will refuse you communion. If you are…aghast…Protestant, no communion for you.  If you are a Catholic in the Archdiocese of Detroit who worked on behalf of same-sex marriage, the bishop recently said don’t bother getting in the communion line. Accepting for the sake of argument the view that such people are grave sinners, wouldn’t they benefit the most from the gift of Christ‘s presence in the Eucharist? Communion, a word that in itself means to bring together, is used to divide. The Catholic Church claims that communion is the real presence of Christ.  So refusing communion to a sinner is like saying that when the Pharisees brought the adulteress to Jesus and asked if she should be stoned according to the law, instead of replying “Let he who has no sin cast the first stone, ” Jesus simply turned his back and walked away.

As noted, one of the sources of religion fatigue is religion’s overemphasis on rules. There’s so much to think about:

Is salvation achieved by faith and good works (as the Catholics claim), or by faith alone (so say the Protestants)? Must one accept Jesus Christ as a personal savior? What does it really mean that Jesus died for your sins? Can anyone really explain why an all-powerful God couldn’t forgive humanity without sacrificing his son to a horrible death? Is it essential to one’s faith that the mother of Jesus be a Virgin? Are we expected to literally believe in a talking snake, a flooded world and a boat filled with two of every creature? What about evolution? Did God, as my son’s religion teacher explained, really place fossils in the ground to test our faith? Is it really a sin to eat meat on Fridays, or should good Catholic “abstain” in style at Red Lobster during Lent? Do you prefer Mel Gibson‘s torture porn Jesus or Andrew Lloyd Webber’s hippie Christ? Should Christians be baptized when they’re infants that don’t know what the hell is going on, or when they are teenagers who  know everything? If Papal Infallibility is such a good idea why can’t the average Catholic explain it coherently? Does God really hate fags? Are you allowed to scrape altar bread off the roof of your mouth with your finger? Is everything predestined? If so, why do you look both ways when you cross the street?  If Muslim fundamentalist terrorists are rewarded with virgins in paradise what do Christian anti-abortion terrorists get? Is there an afterlife, or could it be that heaven and hell are right, here, right now, depending on how you treat people? God, Allah, Yahweh, Jehovah, the Krishna: are any words sufficient to describe the “other” that atheists say doesn’t even exist? And of course, the big one: Is Gandhi really burning in hell?

Do the answers to any of these questions make us kinder, more decent people, or do they simply distract from the simple, albeit difficult work of possessing good and generous hearts?

Imagine a religion with one rule.

When I first entered a 12-step program, it had one rule for membership: “A desire to stop drinking.” I later learned that originally the rule was “An honest desire..” or “A sincere desire…” but those versions were deemed too controlling, because few who came to the program honestly wanted to give up drinking. They were ADDICTS. Few honestly wanted to stop but they were on a losing streak. It took a certain amount of desperation and courage to step in there and say, I want what these other people have.

One of the tenets of the program is to seek progress not perfection.

A friend once said to me,  “We’re lucky, all we have to be concerned with is staying sober and helping the person sitting next to us stay sober.”

Imagine a religion with the same approach. Instead of a desire to stop drinking, “A desire to imitate Christ” or  “A desire to seek God’s will.”  “A desire to make daily progress toward holiness.” No need to be sure this is the only way, or to find fault in others. Belief in certain doctrines would be fine and good, but those who come to your door unsure of themselves would be fine too. Seeking something beyond their own will would be a good start.  Progress not perfection. Imagine a religion in which your only concern is to strive for holiness and to  help the person next to you do the same.

One of my favorite stories from the gospels is when Jesus gave sight to the blind beggar on the Sabbath, breaking the law of Moses by doing so. The gathered Pharisees waited with glee, ready to pounce when Jesus didn’t offer the appropriate response. These men had walked by the blind man each day, comforted by their superiority, judging that sin had caused his blindness. Sort of an ancient “Get a fucking job!”

Today’s “Nones” should love this story. Jesus bent down and spit in the dust and made mud. He rubbed the mud in the blind man’s eyes and the man could see. Jesus said, go and sin no more. I figure if Christians can interpret the Bible to say gays are destroying marriage, I can interpret this scripture how I want. Jesus was basically saying rules aren’t worth spit if you’re going to put them over people. And if you can’t see that, its like you have mud in your eyes. The only person who could see Jesus clearly that day was the one who didn’t know the rules and didn’t much care. All he knew was that he was blind and now he could see.

I remember a song from childhood: “They will know we are Christians by our Love.” Nowhere was there anything  about “They will know we are Christians if we stand up for traditional marriage.” “They will know we are Christians if we fire teachers for breaking church law.” “They will know we are Christians if we excommunicate women who have abortions, or if we exclude people who have divorces, or if we vote the way our leaders tell us, or if we believe the Baptists got it all wrong.”

Mother Teresa said,  “When you judge, you have no time to love.”

More and more people believe church is not a peaceful place. However belief in a higher power is not decreasing. While orthodox Christians wage “wars” on the so-called Culture of Death and the destruction of family, they build walls and declare that there is only one way to believe.

Meanwhile, religion’s mantle of “Pro-Life” is really more “Pro-Birth.” Fiery language such as “Culture of Death” and “New Holocaust” don’t seem to apply to reckless wars,  countless children living in poverty, the nearly 10,000 babies in each state awaiting adoption, the poor and homeless living in squalor, proper education for low-income children, food for undernourished children. In his book Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Nicholas Kristof reports that the number of girls killed in the past 50 years, precisely because they were girls, is more than all the men killed in all the wars of the 20th century. Read that sentence again. One decade of this “gendercide” has killed more girls than the people killed in all the genocides of 20th Century. These are all profoundly “pro-life” issue that have been drowned out by religion’s obsession with “sexual sins.”

When Jesus’s follower begged him to lead an army against the government, he refused, yet a minority of Christians back anti-war causes. Jesus also said “render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s” when it came to taxation, and declared that it is “easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven.” Where are the champions of these Christian teachings?

Too often our public piety is based more on winning a disagreement than on the quiet, humble work that often brings us into direct contact with people we find distasteful. For Catholic Church leaders it has deteriorated into a more base motivation — protecting a priesthood set apart. Imagine how today’s Christians would wail if a leader, a pastor even, proposed the extremely radical teaching of Jesus that a good shepherd should save one lost sheep at the expense of the entire flock. Not very fiscally conservative.

G.K. Chesterton, the noted author and devout Catholic, said, “The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult; and left untried.”

Growing up Christian, I was taught clearly what I was against. It was never quite as clear what I was  for.

Well, I guess that’s not exactly true. About 90 percent of pro-life Christians, whose savior was executed, are in favor of capital punishment.  Lenny Bruce said, “If Jesus had been killed twenty years ago, Catholic school children would be wearing little electric chairs around their necks instead of crosses.” Pro-life Christians are in favor of harsher prison sentences rather than more treatment for addiction and mental illness. Pro-life Christians traditionally vote for cuts to programs that would improve education and social programs to help the poor and prevent teen crises. They overwhelming support more funding for an already bloated military that has abandoned the “just war” doctrine long ago.  Conservative Christians, whose ancestors all came from somewhere else, are more likely to oppose immigration. Conservative Christians and Catholic leaders claim they are protecting marriage in their crusades against gay rights (it is an actual policy of the Catholic clergy not to even say the word “gay marriage” publicly), but are strangely silent on no-fault divorce laws and the root causes of an epidemic of divorce among heterosexual couples. Why, for example, can’t the Catholic Church simply treat gay marriage like it treats divorce? The Catholic Church is opposed to divorce but considers civil divorce outside of Church authority. Why not do the same with gay marriage? Could it be because divorce is a straight right?

All religions invariably return to their own claim to the “truth.” I once heard Catholic seminarians ask a Baptist minister who had invited them to his church, “How does it feel to know that you don’t have the ‘truth?” These rude and ignorant boys are priests today.

What a silly, dangerous word “truth” can be. Why this compulsion by religious people to claim it as exclusively their own. Christians claim that the other so-called Great Religions have a share of the truth, but then add with smug condescension that in the end all are redeemed through Christ.

The real truth is that we are small and afraid and that we hunger for something bigger than ourselves to make it through the day. No words or theologies or doctrines have ever been sufficient to describe that “something bigger.”

Why can’t “your God” be enough without disenfranchising all others? What does it matter what other people and walks of life, even such heathens as atheists, Wiccans, and feminists, are doing, as long as — with apologies to Oscar Wilde — they don’t do it in the street and scare the horses. Why the burning desire to convert. If what you’re doing is good it will bear fruit and draw others. Recovering addicts call it “attraction rather than promotion.”

“Why can’t we simply borrow what is useful to us from Buddhism, Hinduism, Taoism, especially Zen, as we borrow from Christianity, science, American Indian traditions and world literature in general, including philosophy, and let the rest go hang?” wrote author Edward Abbey, a broken-hearted lover of wilderness. “Borrow what we need but rely principally upon our own senses, common sense and daily living experience.”

The sad irony is that the Christian, Jewish and Muslim faiths, the source of centuries of explosive war and genocide, all came from one windblown tent in the desert. All three major religions worship the same God — the God of Abraham.
You see, Sarah, Abe’s wife was getting old, and she desperately wanted a child, an heir. God said Ok, but be patient. Those Old Testament people were infuriatingly impatient for people who could actually hear God’s voice, so she nagged her husband into breeding with the slave women Hagar, who gave birth to Ishmael. Then God kept his promise and Sarah eventually had Isaac. Sarah got jealous. No slave woman’s son could be the first-born and heir, so she cast Hagar and Ishmael out into the wilderness. Ishmael’s descendants became the Muslims. Isaac’s became the Hebrews and eventually the Christians. Often lost in the story is that Isaac and Ishmael eventually came back together to bury their father. Generations of descendants would ignore this peaceful reunion and go on to write hateful things about one another in their respective holy books. Centuries of slaughter would ensue. I think if the two half brothers were around today they would say, STOP IT! And then go back to tending their flocks.

There you have it. Some folks in a tent. An impatient woman. TRADITIONAL MARRIAGE! Two brothers, a funeral. Bygones to bygones. Then the clergy and the prophets got involved.

It’s time for religion to find new prophets. On the other hand, maybe the new prophets don’t want to be found.

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Sadness deep and personal

Lloyd Jeffress, 72, had almost complete blockage in the arteries to his heart. He had the beginnings of prostate cancer. He limped badly from childhood polio.

This old crippled man, who normally could have been bumped over by an elderly monk’s cane, cut a swath of grief, blood and terror through a place known for peace, prayer and reflection.

Today’s failure of the Senate to pass even the most rudimentary expansion of gun background checks hit a deeply personal nerve.

Ten years later it is still difficult to gather that the man who killed my friends, Brother Damian Larsen and Father Philip Schuster, would have been completely harmless without the Chinese knockoff of an AK-47 assault rifle that he bought legally. When I walked through the halls of Conception Abbey‘s monastery after the shooting it seemed bullets had sprayed everywhere.

Jeffress’s blood was clean of the pscyhopharmaceutical cocktail prescribed him — in other words he was off his meds. I would like to think that today’s failed background legislation would have either stopped or been the first step toward stopping people like Jeffress from getting the kind of weapons that turned him from a tottering old man into burst of carnage on an easy summer morning.

I come from family and friends who hunt, all of whom easily pass any background check you throw at them. I don’t understand the resistance to this legislation, other than misinformation, stubbornness and blind mistrust of government.

I once asked a gun owner, “Is it even possible that the government is going to get your guns?” He said, “Hell no!” There you have it. The idea of the government undertaking something as massive as taking everyone’s guns is preposterous.

Then there is the fatalistic response that such legislation won’t stop all such crimes so it is failed legislation. With that logic, Harry Truman never would have signed the first Civil Rights legislation. Yes, Harry Truman. You have to take small steps far before big changes. Drunk driving laws are not even close to getting all the drunks off the road,  but I know at least one that’s not out there any more.  Me.

If extending background checks to the Internet and gun shows could save my grandchild from the next Adam Lanza, or the next Lloyd Jeffress why not try?  We have far greater things in this world to fear.

I have seen soul crushing regret in a friend, who believed that if she went left instead of right she would have saved a doomed friend.

Each of the monks killed at Conception Abbey were shot  twice. It was months before I stopped waking each morning imaging the fear they must have felt between the first shot and the second.

I have stood in the sudden, violent silence after hearing that my friends were shot to death.

This is a sad day.

Oh, the giddy anticipation of daydreams coming true

For my wife on our anniversary.

I would be with you.
In my innocence, before life became difficult, I daydreamed about you. Your eyes danced like light on water. Your golden hair touched my face. Your skin was of sun and sweat and mountain air. Your legs dangled, bumping against mine, as we sat on a wall laughing. You giggled with me when I tickled you in the back yard as fireflies 1235066_10200478278179342_836543230_nwhispered to one another in the secret dark. In fantasies that I never told a soul, you smiled only for me, and your smile was summertime and warm kitchen smells in the winter and breezes on the water. You would hold my hand and make funny things happen to the patter of my heart. I would never get the nerve to kiss you, but the thought of that elusive kiss would torment me.
I wished that I knew back then that dreams come true.
I would be with you.
Girls troubled me. Their hairspray, their makeup their smiles were never for me. My shoulders tanned in the sun, eyes shot red from swimming pool days, bugs bounced against baseball park lights on muggy nights. Desire for nameless you was swampy inside me. Summer was when you haunted me.
You faded in my thoughts. How could someone so real be real? Set aside childish things.
Silver buses and a moment of laughter. Mythical California, sun-kissed skin and that laugh. A laugh that meant it. A laugh filled with joy and pain. A laugh filled with life.
We passed one another on the way to someone else. I stare at the photo, my arm around your waist, your hand in mine, stirrings unacknowledged. One bus ride, a few moments in the dark. What might have been? Young passion unleashed.
I had forgotten you, my summertime fantasy. I didn’t recognize you.
I remember envy in an airport. I wanted you. Then you were gone.
A quarter of a century. Water under broken bridges. Healing scars, so many mistakes.
Then an earthquake: forbidden lust, forbidden love, divine desire.
A crash of perfection, beautiful ruin.
My heart still hammers in my chest.
The absence of you is heavy with miles and missed years.
Looking at you fixes everything.
Still daydreaming.  Your eyes dance for me in blue light of a darkened bedroom. Your hair kisses my face as we make love. Your skin burns me like the sun and steals my breath like the altitude at timberline. Your legs tangle with mine in the sheets and wrap around me when desire tries to carry me away. My long ago fantasy did not know your heart. You soothe me with kindness, your generous love makes me unworthy. You smile at me. I pray it will always be for me.
I ache. The longing of absence when we are apart. The pain of physical want when we touch.  Passion without restraint. The agonizing curiosity to know you, to make up for lost time.
Life is harder now. Choices hold consequence. History holds regrets. Love means suffering. Irrational fears, clouds of compulsion, obsessions. Small price for my girl.
I am in love. I love. I am loved. Love is not a choice. Love is having no choice.
If only I had known through all the dark times, if only I had known so long ago. Perhaps the joy, the giddy anticipation, would have been too much to bear. Perhaps amorous impatience would have driven me mad.
Oh, if only I had known.
I would be with you.