The Decline and Fall of Christianity in Denver (I)

I love my son, I love (in a different way) the Christian faith, and I appreciate the efforts of the minister at an upscale, buzzing non-denominational church in Denver to draw one closer to the other. But from what I witnessed during a recent visit, I have to wonder if that’s happening.

The media-manufactured national crisis in Charlottesville was on everyone’s mind, or at least on this particular minister’s mind; so he jettisoned most of his notes on Saturday night (he said) and decided to let the Lord guide his words on Sunday morning. Now, I confess to being somewhat skeptical of the “give it to God” approach when dissecting moral or spiritual issues before a large audience. God gave us a rational intelligence, and He has also embedded in our mature nature an understanding of the distinction between self and other. A lot of times, when you really want to burst out with something, you don’t do so because you know a) that you haven’t thought it through on its own merits, and b) that you may be indulging a self-centered sentiment without adequately weighing how it’s likely to strike others. Belting out an opinion after announcing that you’ve given God the rein of your tongue usually doesn’t end well, in my experience.

And the violence that erupted at the KKK demonstration in Charlottesville actually begs for careful analysis. I myself, as a Southerner, am highly annoyed that the KKK presumed to come anywhere near General Lee’s statue. Lee freed his own slaves before the war began and was not in favor of secession—but felt honor-bound to fight on behalf of his country when it was invaded. By the way, Virginia was that country: it was an independent state which had surrendered some small part of its sovereignty to a central government, mostly for reasons of defense and over such commercial necessities as a common currency. A majority of Southerners who resisted the Union invasion also held this view. The slaveholders among them were a not-insignificant minority—but only a very small minority of these possessed more than five slaves.

That’s a history lesson for another day—and my intent is certainly not to defend the institution of slavery (although I might add that Lincoln’s parents had owned slaves in Pennsylvania, and that his Emancipation Proclamation in fact declined to free slaves held in Northern states). My point here is just this: the situation was represented in the broadcast media as a simple case of American racism rearing its ugly head over the issue of demolishing Confederate statues wherever they might be found. Extremely suspicious circumstances about this particular incident soon emerged, as well: e.g., the presence of a strong Obama supporter as an agent provocateur among the KKK ranks and an inaction bordering on incitement displayed by the Charlottesville police. Evidently, people in high places knew that the whole thing could be exploited for political gain. I wonder what gave them that idea?

Well, sure enough, our amiable man of God allowed the Holy Spirit to spring right off his tongue without attempting to secure any further facts about the case. I sat through a tirade about the evils of racism that, frankly, I found both demeaning and self-aggrandizing for all of us present. It was if we were being lectured on the wickedness of swerving out of your lane to run over a little child. White racists may compose about .002% of American society (unless you’re an academic who has ingenious ways of measuring these things, such as whether or not you’ve had an affair with a person of color). Naturally, everybody present in our church condemned and deplored racism: hence the self-aggrandizement. We could congratulate ourselves and each other because we were not among the wicked.

But not so fast. Our preacher foresaw this response and chastened it. We white folks—and he emphasized that the congregation was overwhelmingly white, as if pointing out that we hadn’t cleaned our plates after dinner—couldn’t just murmur, “Well, I sure don’t condone racism.” No; the fact that others of our race did condone it sufficed to implicate us. We must therefore make a point of seeking out the dark-skinned in our midst today and making them especially welcome. (“Oh, I didn’t notice that you were dark in the dim lights… I mean… hey, can I give you a hug? Well, or maybe a handshake and a big hound-dog howdy… I mean, because you’re… you know. And I really, really love you because you’re that way. I mean, more than I would if you weren’t. I mean….” Awkward, awkward, awkward, awkward!)

A young Hispanic couple that had squeezed into the row ahead of ours exchanged wry smiles in the dusky twilight. I had been trying to keep my eyes off the woman, because (speaking of “squeezed”) she was damn good-looking and wasn’t exactly dressed in loose sack cloth. Did the obvious fact that the surrounding Caucasian girls weren’t giving her any competition mean that, no, I really wasn’t a racist? Or did it just mean that I was a sexist pig?

But seriously, Reverend… you’re wrong. You’re just plain, flat, dead wrong. I am not responsible for the sins of Nordic people, or blond people, or even dark Celtic people like myself. I am responsible for nobody’s acts but my own. There is such a moral reality as communal responsibility, which involves multiple individuals allowing a dominant opinion to deafen them to their duty; hence even this is truly a lapse of individual responsibility. There is no such spiritual reality as communal sin, however. And as for congratulating strangers after the service for having dark skin… I’ll pass. It may just be that they attended your church thinking they might find a place at last where “content of character”, in Dr. King’s words, mattered infinitely more than tincture of epidermis. The way to welcome people into God’s house is to draw their souls into the transcending peace of the All Good—not to target them for special handshakes because they are black, or disabled, or dressed in sarongs.

The former welcome is that of a spiritual bridge-builder: the latter is that of a social engineer determined to create a secular utopia.

Christianity in Denver: Musical Marijuana

Had to travel to Denver again last week. I have tried to like the place: most people love it. For me… no, I’m just not going to make it up to the Peak of Affection. I can’t even make it out of the Abysm of Antipathy.

Since I’ll likely be writing about this subject from various directions for a week or two before I can get it all out of my system, let me start with the progressive church in the heart of Lakewood that I attended last Sunday. My son was kind enough to invite his mother and me, so I did a fairly good job of bottling up my bile after the service. After all, I really wanted to see just what he was taking in every weekend.

The entry phase felt like a sporting event. Personnel in bright vests direct you to a certain portion of a huge parking lot. Then you make your way to a sprawling structure with virtually nothing in the form of exterior windows, art work, or signage. It resembles, rather, the economy-model gymnasium of a ritzy private school that, for all its wealthy patrons, has begun to bleed a little into the red after the class buildings are finished. And for all I know, that’s the actual story behind this unique sanctuary: a cast-off gymnasium. Even on the inside, it looks for all the world like a facility for basketball, volleyball, and the rest with a great wrap-around corridor where tickets and refreshments are sold.

No hoops in the inner sanctum, however. At this point, in fact, we might as well have been in some sort of bizarre (to me) night club. While I’m not a clubber, the near pitch-darkness in which thousands of fold-out seats were arranged around a central stage where performers moaned a cry-in-your-beer species of praise and love to Jesus as guitars twanged and drums thumped had to be drawn straight from Friday night on the strip. I stood with everyone else (of the two or three thousand, I would estimate) as three of these numbers were belted out interminably. A finger was stuck in my left ear most of the time to reduce the pain of 140-decibel sound waves. A casual onlooker might have thought that I was holding up my finger to give my life to the Lord, or something of the sort.

I’m already so long in this entry that I can tell I’m going to have to retain my comments about the main event (a.k.a. the sermon) for next time. So let me just say this about deafening, pulsating noise in a religious sanctuary. It is a physiological fact that a steady stream of stentorian sound waves plunges the mind into a kind of drunken stupor. Loud, throbbing music can be a drug. The tom-toms of certain rituals in tribal, pre-literate societies are a means of “elevating” participants into a higher state. Contemporary rabble-rousers can also gin up huge crowds into irrational behavior by packing them into tight spaces and then allowing cranked-up amplifiers to project their rhythmic shouts.

Whether intended or not, this same effect must inevitably work upon the minds of masses crammed into a dark room where a rock band keeps orgasmically repeating variations of a verbal formula containing, “Jesus”, “love”, and “beautiful”. I wouldn’t begin to argue that no thrill, no poignant or passionate emotional surge, is drawn from many of the congregants by this method. No; the very thing that worries me is the thrill’s reality.

The Christian faith in churches like this has become a drug. One shows up on Sundays to get one’s “fix”. The rational mind gives ground, real-life concerns evaporate, the boundaries separating self from other vanish, and a psychedelic fantasy fuses the mass in a communion of emotional orgy.

Sorry… but this does NOT have the look of my God and my faith. And I’m not entirely sure that the effect is unintended, for the “message” that finally followed appeared to count upon a sort of indiscriminate group-think… but of that, more later.

Inexplicable Realities vs. Sensationalized Claptrap: TV Takes the Wrong Side Again

I was watching something on TV the other night (okay, okay: it was Ancient Aliens) that reviewed a really astonishing kind of psychic phenomenon… and then proceeded to handle it in a wholly whimsical, even childish manner. I believe the first time I was ever exposed to the idea that people can remember scenes and events from a life prior to their own was in Blackwood’s Magazine (praised be its memory), the oldest literary monthly of them all. I learned style and taste by combing through those pages, and I rue to this day the inevitable demise of “Maga” (which came, I think, in 1976).

Anyway, as I recall the story, it involved the case of an Australian who remembered a Scots castle down to the last detail. This young person was visiting the British Isles for the first time, and was staggered to find the very structures he had dreamed about, though in a somewhat dilapidated form. The author, who chanced to encounter this unique tourist, was enough of a local historian to realize that the recalled differences were indeed accurate images from earlier centuries. By the way, the piece was presented as entirely non-fictional.

The phenomenon was called a “racial memory” in that presentation, and the suggestion was made that memories may somehow be passed down through our DNA (since the Australian visitor was actually a descendant of the castle’s one-time inhabitants). The incidents highlighted on the TV show, in contrast, did not seem to involve cases of shared genetic material (or they may have, and the producers chose to suppress that “minor detail” in order to spin a more spectacular theory). Let it stand, for the sake of argument, that you or I might somehow be born with clear memories of the Battle of Waterloo even though we had no progenitors there. That’s a really fascinating condition that we cannot presently explain… but what in the world does it have to do with reincarnation?

The reincarnation of A in B would require B to recall every detail of A’s life, not just a castle or a battlefield; or if most memories have been washed away in the River Lethe, then why did any at all remain? Why, in fact, does a small handful of images covering a very brief period typically haunt the “receiver”?

And if this is the universal fate of all souls—to hop from a dying body into one just getting born—then what happens in generations that have more bodies than their predecessors did? Or fewer? Do some bodies not have any soul at all—or do some souls shuttle between a dozen bodies and earn overtime? Do excess souls chat quietly in a cosmic waiting room, hoping that abortion doesn’t catch on?

If you have a metaphysical belief in the reality of the soul, then each individual must have a single, unique soul. This is a moral necessity, if you also believe that the ultimate end of human life is to serve the cause of goodness. The murdering tyrant must answer for his atrocities in another dimension that won’t let him off scot-free, as likely happened in this world. The tyrant’s martyred victim who died protecting innocent children must also have his snapped thread caught up in the weave of a greater reality. If belief in an immortal soul is not subordinated to a conviction in the triumph of goodness, then it’s mere, pathetic paganism that ascribes understanding to cows and makes the life-extending favors of demons worth cultivating. Such debased belief is worse than none at all.

I often talk and write about Boy That Cried Wolf Syndrome. If you air out an idea in a context which ends up trivializing or infantilizing it, then no sensible person will ever hear the idea mentioned again without laughing it off. There’s a heck of a lot we don’t understand about ultimate reality; but thanks to the way popular culture keeps sensationalizing the troublesome corners that don’t fit under contemporary science’s umbrella, thoughtful people are not going to take a serious look at those corners for a very long time.

The Unending Christian Dispute Over Islam

Over the past few days, I’ve had several sustained exchanges with friends and acquaintances about Islam. The most ardent and influential of these correspondents insisted that my effort to distinguish between Islam and Islamism is a waste of time. He made the following points:

1) Islam itself is the problem. Its objective is not to disseminate a religious vision, but to enforce a body of law upon the rest of the world.

2) Its scriptures are replete not with descriptions of historical violence, but with “how to” varieties of “instructional violence”.

3) Its exhortation to follow Mohammed’s example (even before Koranic teaching, so my friend argues), drives such behaviors as the merciless execution of enemies and the marrying of child-brides.

4) ISIS, Al Qaeda, et al. are merely following Islam to the letter; civil, peaceful, amiable Muslims (of which my friend concedes there are many) are in fact far less true to their faith than the terrorist is.

5) Islam continues to spread unrest of the most sanguinary sort around the world, and has done so without respite throughout its history: e.g., Boko Haram’s predations in Nigeria, which doesn’t “take their oil or support Israel or any of that crap.”

I can’t maintain that I have ever found reading the Koran particularly uplifting—or, I should say, that the uplifting parts seem to me sufficient motive to brush away the disturbing parts. And I will quickly add that parts of the Old Testament have always deeply troubled me, from Abraham’s near-sacrifice of his son to the programs of genocide in the books of Samuel. But I rarely hear those sections of the Bible recommended in Christian culture as paradigms for how we should conduct ourselves in daily life or how our nation should construct a foreign policy. Another friend made the oft-repeated point to me that this resistance to ignoring certain bellicose sections of the Koran—or this acquiescence to the decisions of leaders not to ignore them—is a major stumbling block to those of us who would reach across the barriers of traditional practice.

I mentioned Zuhdi Jasser to my most vocal contact. He revealed that he had actually worked with Jasser and found him completely sincere… but that the good doctor’s humane secularism was doomed to failure in the broader Islamic world.

Honesty compels me to say that I can’t disagree with most of the points made in these exchanges. I suppose one of my reservations would qualify as pragmatic. It’s this: I don’t know where moderate Muslims like Jasser and Qanta Ahmed are to turn if we say, “You’re lovely people… but your diabolical faith must either devour you or transform you. Your one chance is to cross entirely over to our side.” Isn’t that an ideal strategy for pushing all of the moderates over to the other side?

I have one more objection, which is not at all pragmatic but has a much stronger grip upon me. As a Christian, I am fully persuaded that God is not morally inscrutable to us, but rather that He speaks very comprehensibly of basic right and wrong to every ear that listens. Nevertheless, I cannot tell a Muslim, “Your god is too distant, too arbitrary and morally unmoored from humanity”—not when it is we who practice wholesale abortion and insist that mainstream culture admit one deviant sexual practice after another. I am ashamed of Christendom, on the whole. Perhaps so many Muslims are convinced that Christianity is not the answer because they see how self-styled Christian populations behave on TV, at the movies, through the medium of pop music, and even in legislative decisions.

Marrying a child-bride is pretty awful. Slipping off on weekend junkets from Frisco or Seattle to Thailand so you can wallow through fields of child-prostitutes… well, I think I’m okay with beheading in those instances.

Real Faith and Fake Faith

I lately ran across an Arthur C. Clarke short story titled “The Star”. I suppose if you can accept space travel to the far reaches of the universe as plausible, you can also accept that a Jesuit priest would participate in the mission—though the latter seems the more challenging proposition. Clarke had to put the narration in the priest’s mouth, no doubt, in order to make his indictment of religion flow from someone who once numbered among the most faithful. Our narrator has just discovered the pitiful remnants of a once thriving culture, parallel to Earth’s highest human civilizations in its art, social order, and sophistication. Its leaders had apparently deposited the essential works and creations of a long history—or some commemorative record of them—on a Pluto-like planet shortly before their solar system’s central star vaporized all traces of life. Now the Jesuit, no longer a believer, cannot imagine how any god worthy of the name would allow an entire higher life form to vanish into nothingness, and to no end whatever.

I’ve heard objections to faith like this all my life. What disturbs me most is that a person might harbor them who really is a priest or minister—for I can’t in good conscience accuse Clarke of manufacturing this character just to deliver his atheistic message more powerfully. There are truly “believers” of this caliber who refuse to accept that God would ever allow the U.S. to be irradiated by a hail of nuclear missiles—or even (let’s keep it all natural) that God would ever allow the Yellowstone caldera to revive and become a super-volcano, its next eruption exterminating much of central North America’s population. The same people are deeply challenged when someone they love happens to die of natural causes, leaving them no one to blame but God himself… whom, in “punishment”, they may declare not to exist.

We might as well have no faith at all if we believe that having it is somehow an assurance against material tragedy or disaster. An entire planet’s being wiped out in a supernova is really no different from an individual’s being suddenly snuffed out in his sleep by a stroke. Even though his life’s “great work”—a novel written, a bridge built, a new water-filtration system invented—is not wiped out along with him in the latter case, everything we do will eventually vanish from these present dimensions. The purpose is all in the trying: somehow or other, in my opinion, that’s the measure of our souls. We’re all on a desert island, if you will, where we will never be found. We can turn wild and rape and kill… or we can build houses and carve instruments and domesticate birds, though no trace of our activity will remain within a century.

Not on the island, at any rate: but if you have faith, then you view the island merely as a small portal to an infinitely vaster reality. It is through that entry, and not on this side of it, that things will make ultimate sense. And if you do not have faith… then see if you can swing the heaviest club and get everyone to kneel to you. Your bones will be bleached just as white as theirs in a few short years.

The really pitiful ones, I repeat, are those who think they have faith, yet make it completely dependent upon a ship’s arriving at the island tomorrow… or the next day.

The Dehumanizing Religion of “Progress”

Can a political ideology be a religion? I suggested in my post entry that people who are willing to countenance the murder of their political adversaries in pursuit of a glorious cause are in fact not engaged in politics at all: they are members of a religious cult. But how can a belief system be styled “religious” if acknowledges no deliberate agency in cosmic affairs other than the human? If it recognizes no spiritual reality but only the material version, if it accepts no afterlife other than the bequest of technical learning that allows one’s grandchildren to live longer and better… then where is the religion?

Let me try to state this “faith” as fair-mindedly as I can. Jules Romains, a French novelist whose most successful works were penned almost a century ago and about whom I’ve written quite a lot, authored a manifesto early in his career for a movement he called “unanism”. I can bring its general terms to mind without too much effort–and it’s about as eloquent an expression of the progressivist vision as I have ever seen.

The unanimist (or exponent of “one spirit uniting us all”) sees the human race as fulfilling a kind of destiny into which it has stumbled, but which is now its grand and inescapable calling. We might have continued living in trees and caves… but we didn’t; and once we evolved the ability to manipulate our environment and to organize our societies, we became permanently endowed with the power to perfect ourselves. Diseases could be conquered; violent weather events could be mitigated; hunger could be minimized through agricultural innovation and social discipline; crime could be bred out of us slowly through education; even the inevitable degeneration of our planetary home as the solar system entropically wears out could be averted if only we might reverse certain forces, travel to a new solar system, or create one ex nihilo out of our genius.

In a sense, we would live forever; and individuals might quite literally live for thousands of years with the help of nano-technology and cybernetics. Yet that failing, our species–our human collective–would bear our vision and our values undyingly into the future. And in that certainty within each of us that our efforts had laid one more brick onto the great ascending wall, we would partake of a kind of eternity, even though our personal consciousness would have been terminated somewhere along the way.

If this is not a religion rivaling others on earth today–if it is not, indeed, the dominant religion of the Western political and economic elite and of our educational institutions–then I can’t think why it should not be so. Its faithful may protest, “But the system you have outlined has nothing of the irrational about it! Religion clings to belief in invisible spirits flitting about behind the scenes: this is all science and reason!” No, actually: it’s not. The most basic assumption that we have some high duty or other to continue evolving has no empirical basis whatever. Where would this duty come from? If it was always in our genetic material, then some mysterious Creator must have put it there; but if we just happened to beat dolphins and crows out in the battle to survive, then our “mission” would be to continue surviving and thriving at the expense of anything in our way. We might build spaceships in the future–but we would do so to keep from getting fried when the Sun explodes–not “to boldly go where no man has gone before” (splitting infinitives and dropping sexist referents along the way).

Finally, the whole “grand’ enterprise would end up an exercise in futility–an instance of what the deconstructionists liked to call “postponement”. No matter how many solar systems we might create or colonize, all suns all throughout the cosmos must eventually burn out; or if the universe’s matter collapses upon itself and re-ignites, then we and everything belonging to us or stemming from us must all likewise be melted down utterly. So where is the omega in this quest for perfection if not in a fantasy to which no materialist has a right?

Yet the votaries of progress are willing to kill people who get in their way right here, right now–or at least to crack jokes about such murders and shrug. “Small loss… no big deal.” About the only thing that can make people forget their common humanity to this degree and morph into the glassy-eyed nightmare-robots of a sci-fi flick is cultic fanaticism. Naturally, the fanatic resents his faith being labeled a faith, a belief system, because… because it’s true, damn you!

 

Postscript: Questions About Catholicism

I don’t need to say that I have had many Catholic friends, and I won’t say that I’ve had more (of the few good friends I’ve ever known) than a random sampling of the American public could possibly account for. I also understand that, while my Catholic friends share many of my own reservations about “the Church”, they don’t necessarily like to hear me review them item by item. That’s human nature. As a Texan by birth and a Southerner by lineage, I’m painfully aware of the foibles and limitations of both groups… but I can get a little irked when I have to listen to an outsider mock a drawl or reduce the Civil War’s causes to racism.

Just let me add this, then, to my previous comments. A professor of physics at Tulane named Frank Tipler wrote a book titled The Physics of Christianity that I lately read… well, kind of read. The degree of physics in the early going seemed rather ostentatious to me and was way over my head; but the point where I actually couldn’t make myself continue (for pride kept me trudging through the formulas that I pretended to half-understand) was somewhere later, where suggestions about the Christian faith—these from a devout man who’s obviously more intelligent than I’ll ever dream of being—began to depress me deeply.

Professor Tipler, you can’t seriously believe that God’s plan for the salvation of the soul is being accomplished by digital technology—that our minds and personalities will be overwritten to chips that can be transferred to an indefinite series of corporeal residences—no, you don’t truly believe that such is the eternity promised in the Gospels, do you? Is that really… it? No higher revelation of the ends of goodness? No reunion with spirits from centuries ago whose creations have awakened us? No admission to such beauty and order as even the Milky Way can only imply in the dullest manner?

I had heard before that parthenogenesis can naturally occur and, apparently, does in an almost infinitesimal number of cases. If the Holy Spirit’s fertilizing a human egg turns out to be a metaphor for a freakish but entirely explicable reproductive anomaly, then… then there’s really no role for the supernatural to play, is there?

And indeed, Professor Tipler, you argue repeatedly that miracles are merely rare occurrences rather than physically impossible ones. But the universe’s very birth from nothing is a physical impossibility, from the standpoint of human reason (I didn’t understand your case to the contrary). If our faith cannot assert that ultimate reality contains events and powers inconceivable to our temporal intelligence, then for what do we need faith?

To me personally, this one is especially obnoxious: that Jesus retained his purity because, thanks to biological parthenogenesis, he was born as sterile as a mule. Do you not grasp, Professor—you whose mind encloses so many mathematical truths that leave me at the starting gate—that a eunuch can incur no moral credit for having mastered sexual impulses? If a sage or spiritual guru never feels anger because he has undergone a lobotomy or never knows fear because he has destroyed his sight and hearing, then he’s no teacher at all and has mastered nothing.

In a Catholic context, I’ve noticed that certain behaviors tend to receive more attention than the state of mind in which they are performed. Frank Tipler, a very devout Catholic, represents some of my greatest apprehensions on this score. He has explained (at least to his own satisfaction) a universe whose physical laws permit the fulfillment of every biblical promise in terms we can understand (or might understand if we were gifted physicists). In his zeal to defend God’s realm, the Professor seems to me to have exiled God from that realm and redefined its parameters to suit the human hand and footstep.

Just as excusing the utopian crusade to create permanent peace all over the earth could well lead to a dystopian, Orwellian hell, so the project of envisioning the life of the soul through computer chips and the abstemious discipline of moral guide through hormonal privation is… well, horribly depressing. It’s cultic. It makes me want to weep for so much intelligence so abused.