Friends of Padre Steve’s World,
The great Philosopher Alfred North Whitehead once wrote, “Religion carries two sorts of people in two entirely opposite directions: the mild and gentle people it carries towards mercy and justice; the persecuting people it carries into fiendish sadistic cruelty…”
As I watch the reaction of many people who call themselves Christians in the wake of Donald Trump’s election I find much truth in Whitehead’s words. I feel that what has posed as Christianity in the United States has been revealed as a sham; a way for religious leaders to enrich themselves and gain power even if it means forsaking the Gospel to do so.
Those who follow my writings know how much I struggle with faith and doubt on a daily basis. I believe, but as the man told Jesus when he asked Jesus to heal his child “I believe, help my unbelief.” I no longer believe in the “absolute truths” that I once believed. Of course to some this makes me a heretic or worse. That being said, I have faith in a God I cannot see. I have faith in a God who clothes himself in human weakness and allows himself to be killed based on the trumped up charges of corrupt and fearful religious leaders. Thus I have a problem with Christians or members of other religions try to use the police power of state to enforce their beliefs on others, something that is about to become reality in our country.
I believe, but my doubts are all too real. Frankly I cringe when I hear religious people speaking with absolute certitude about things that they ultimately cannot prove, and that includes the concept of justice, which cannot always be measured in absolutes. Captain Jean Luc Picard (Patrick Stewart) noted in the Star Trek the Next Generation episode Justice:
“I don’t know how to communicate this, or even if it is possible. But the question of justice has concerned me greatly of late. And I say to any creature who may be listening, there can be no justice so long as laws are absolute. Even life itself is an exercise in exceptions.”
I have found and learned to accept that life as we know it “is an exercise in exceptions.” We all make them, and the Bible and the history of the church is full of them. So I have a hard time with people who claim an absolute certitude in beliefs that wish to impose on others. Whitehead wrote: “There are no whole truths; all truths are half-truths. It is trying to treat them as whole truths that plays the devil.” Unfortunately many true believers fail to understand that fact and whenever they gain political power use it to enforce their half-truths as if they were absolute truth. This behavior is demonstrated throughout history by people who profess every religious creed in the world.
Proving Whitehead’s words, many true believers frequently wrap themselves in the certitude of their faith assuming that they are the custodians of all truth, not recognizing that they are ignorant of their very ignorance. The true believers espouse doctrines that are unprovable and then build complex doctrinal systems to prove them, systems that then which must be defended, sometimes to the death; and may whatever God you believe in protect you should you cross them.
Eric Hoffer wrote: “A doctrine insulates the devout not only against the realities around them but also against their own selves. The fanatical believer is not conscious of his envy, malice, pettiness and dishonesty. There is a wall of words between his consciousness and his real self.”
Henri Nouwen wrote, “Theological formation is the gradual and often painful discovery of God’s incomprehensibility. You can be competent in many things, but you cannot be competent in God.”
No one can be competent in God, and that those who claim to be are either hopelessly deluded, or worse, are evil men masquerading as good. Those that speak of absolutes and want to use the Bible or any other religious text as some sort of rule book that they alone can interpret need to ask themselves this question, “When has justice ever been as simple as a rulebook?”
Sadly too many people, Christians, Moslems, Jews, Hindus, and others apply their own misconceptions and prejudices to their scriptures and use them as a weapon of temporal and divine judgement on all who they oppose. However, as history, life and even our scriptures testify, that none of us can absolutely claim to know the absolutes of God. As Captain Picard noted “life itself is an exercise in exceptions.”
It takes true wisdom to know when and how to make these exceptions, wisdom based on reason, grace and mercy. Justice, is to apply the law in fairness and equity, knowing that even our best attempts can be misguided. If instead of reason we appeal to emotion, hatred, prejudice or vengeance and clothe them in the language of righteousness, what we call justice can be more evil than any evil it is supposed to correct, no matter what our motivation. Whitehead noted something that people of faith should remember and practice: “Religion will not regain its old power until it can face change in the same spirit as does science. Its principles may be eternal, but the expression of those principles requires continual development.”
The temporal power of the Christians who have thrown away the Gospel to use the election of Donald Trump to to further their temporal agenda of gaining earthly power completely miss the essence of faith, and the concept of justice. They have shown themselves to be little different from the theocrats that they condemn in the Islamic world, but then the mirror can be a difficult thing to look at.
But we see it all too often, religious people and others misusing faith or ideology to condemn those they do not understand or with whom they disagree. When such people gain power they tend to expand that power into the realm of theocratic absolutism and despotism. As Captain Jean Luc Picard noted in the Start Trek Next Generation episode The Drumhead:
“We think we’ve come so far. Torture of heretics, burning of witches it’s all ancient history. Then – before you can blink an eye – suddenly it threatens to start all over again.”
That day is already here and it will become much worse before it gets better, especially since there will be little to restrain them unless the man that they sold their souls to support in order to increase their power turns on them; and that is always a possibility with Donald Trump.