Harvey: How Christians Contextualize Disaster

hurricane-harvey-rescue-boats-ap-jt-170827_16x9_992Christianity is a disaster. And that fact is never more apparent than when disaster strikes. If you want to see Christians dance, just ask them about the actions, or inactions of god in the face of a devastating storm. It all comes off the rails, and reveals itself as the crazy train it is.

But first…

For what it is worth, my thoughts and best wishes go out to the victims of hurricane Harvey. They were indeed victims, both the ones who survived and the ones who didn’t. They were all innocent of crimes worthy of death and devastation by storm. This serves up justice to no one.

My thoughts and best wishes are only meaningful in letting you know that I consider myself a part of the human family. And when you suffer in such an extreme way, I also feel your pain. We all need to do more than hold the victims in our thoughts.

They need food, dry clothes, safe shelter, and a fresh start. So I want you to know that I do not mistake my thoughts and best wishes for actually providing something useful.

And now, back to the regularly scheduled polemic:

Thoughts and Prayers

I don’t remember if it was 911 or some other event that brought this issue to the forefront of my mind. I just remember the parade of important people who couldn’t wait to get in front of a camera and talk about how all those suffering from the tragedy were in the thoughts and prayers for whomever it was seeking attention at the time.

It was utterly nauseating.

First, the event was a world-changing event. Of corse it was in their thoughts. It was in all our thoughts. There was no way for that not the be the case. Adding prayers seemed gratuitous. Considering that most Americans self-identified as churchgoing, religious Christians, there was not a church in the country not featuring the tragedy in all of their prayers.

To say that a thing is in one’s thoughts and prayers seemed like just another way of saying, “I’m religious. I’m a part of the club. Look at me!” It is ultimately a self-serving thing to say. Consider all that is not messaged in that pronouncement:

It does not suggest that much needed emergency food, shelter, clothing, and other personal items will be on offer. It does not suggest that a large infusion of cash is on the way. It does not mean that you are about to get invited to stay with some well-to-do believer in a part of the country unaffected by the disaster. This is what you being kept in their prayers s doesn’t mean.

So it has zero benefit for the victim, while making the person saying feel pious. When you say that, you are announcing that you are doing something useful, without actually doing anything useful.

It also smacks of a certain arrogance. The whole world of religious people, not just Christians, are praying over the same people. But somehow, the fact that you will be praying for them will somehow make the difference.

Thank goodness you are on the case. I’m cold, wet, and all my belongings are ruined. But I have finally been rescued now that the good lord has sent me a prayer warrior such as yourself to get this handled. Thoughts and prayers should never be used as a substitute for something useful. All too often, they are used in just that way.

The Wind and the Waves Will Obey Thy Will

Does anyone remember that scene in the gospels where the storm was overtaking the ship. And the disciples were afraid for their lives. Jesus was sleeping peacefully because after all, it was just a deadly storm at sea.

To show his mastery over the elements, he calms the storm. It is a heartwarming story until you take a second look at what it seems to be saying. There are no storms that god cannot handle. If we surveyed the boasts of god in the Old Testament, he also causes the storms.

Stay with me, it gets a little hard to keep up with.

Hurricanes are the exact and perfect repudiation of that story, and every other bible story that suggests that god cares about storms, or is able to do anything about them. Before Harvey was as much as a tropical storm, god saw it coming, and had already noted the death tole that would follow.

No doubt, humans were able to track this storm long before it hit land. Prayers were already wafting beyond the storm clouds and into the ether. God was processing the prayers for deliverance before the rain began to fall.

God had already decided that he wanted that storm to hit. And he already decided who would live and who would die. This is not one unanswered prayer. It is hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions.

So which is it? Did god cause the hurricane or not? If he allowed it, who or what caused it? Nature, you say? I thought Jesus could stop natural storms. He did for his disciples. Were there no worthy disciples in Huston? Did the devil cause the storm? Is this the work of leviathan? I thought god was supposed to be mightier.

Exactly who’s will was the wind and the waves obeying?

The Affectionate, Fervent Prayers of the Righteous

If this subheading was a Jeopardy question, the answer would be, “What is, availeth much?” That Daily Double under the category, “Useless sayings and broken promises of the Bible” would have made you a rich person.

We have already considered the fact that the prayers of the righteous did no apparent good. But I think the situation is worse. What is it that the person praying is hoping to get now that the damage is done? Moreover, who exactly are they praying to at this point?

Remember, the god of the Old Testament boasts that he is the one who brings the storm. Why would you pray to that guy to stop it? The god of the New Testament is a bit more useless and empathizes with your suffering. But he has already proven himself incapable of stopping the storm.

He could not or would not stop the deaths of the innocent, the destruction of lives and livelihoods of survivors, or the financial devastation that is to come to that region. Why the heck would you want to pray to the one who did this to you, or who saw fit to allow it, or who tried his best but couldn’t help? How exactly do you spin that story?

If one person survives, you sing the praises of a god who oversaw the killing of the rest? Really? That’s your good news? If the others are now in a better place, then why let one survive and not get to that better place? Spin on…

And what is it that we are praying for. The people who saw the storm coming prayed that it would be dissipated. It wasn’t. The people who saw that it would not be dissipated prayed that it wouldn’t be deadly. It was. The people who saw that it would be deadly prayed that it wouldn’t be costly or destructive to property. It was.

Now, people are praying that the survivors be comforted. There are no more prayers for the dead. So how are those prayers for comfort going? How about the prayers that their lives be rebuilt? That is going at the pace of what one should expect if there was no god, and only other humans provide comfort and the tools to rebuild.

So tell me again. What are we praying for? How does any prayer you offer in the face of this storm, and every other storm, not make you feel stupid, and maybe a little sick in the pit of your stomach?

It is in times like these when it is obvious that there is no god in control of anything. And we create our god story dynamically based on the situation, and what cognitive dissonance will allow. Perhaps there was a time when there was a god whose will was obeyed by the wind and the waves. But it should be clear to us now that the god of the storm is dead. And if he is not, he should be.

David Johnson

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Beyond Sacraments (Final Thoughts)

I have three final thoughts about sacraments.  As I stated in the first post on the subject, all churches have some type of sacramental system.  They most likely call it by another name.  Also, many of the sacraments are combined, so there may not be exactly seven in your tradition, but they are all represented in one form or another.

My first thought is that the sacraments are the church’s control mechanism for its members.  Sacraments are how the church decides who’s in and who’s out.  If you do not perform the appropriate sacraments in the appropriate ways, then you are most definitely out.  Your eternal destiny is based on your faithful performance of the sacraments.

The sacramental relationship is not just between you and god, but you and god’s representative, which is itself, a part of the sacramental system.  That gives a select few humans an awful lot of power and control over your life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness.  I can only guess at the amount of Zoloft prescribed and consumed due to the religious anxiety caused by sacramental underperformance.

Second, the sacramental system plays on fear, not freedom.  The only thing needed for religion to survive is for enough people to be afraid of the possible consequences without it.  Even people who do not believe in the fundamental underpinnings of the sacraments, still participate in them on occasion.

Countless non-religious couple still opt for a church wedding.  People who do not accept the Eden story as literal history still seek reconciliation from a fall that never happened.  People who do not believe in the literal events of the Passover, and are appalled by the narrative, nonetheless, partake in the Eucharist.  Many who have no formal relationship with a church still request last rites by a priest in a hospital.  All of these actions are motivated by fear.

I can’t count the times that I have been told by a religious person that it was better for them to be wrong about religion when they died, than for an atheist to be wrong when he died.  This turns religion into a “what if” policy.  “I don’t really buy into any of it, but what if some of it is right?  Maybe I should keep up to date with the sacraments, just in case.”  I don’t do “just in case” religion.

Finally, the sacraments are ineffective.  Baptism does not confer any discernible gift of the Holy Spirit, nor any blessed assurance of eternal life in a heavenly abode.  Confession does not ease your conscience of the guilt of sin.  You are always confessing because you are always a sinner.  No amount of Christ’s blood, whether drank or wallowed in, can change that simple fact.

Marriages held in cathedrals, officiated, by a bishop, and witnessed by millions of believers last no longer than Vegas weddings officiated by an Elvis impersonator, and witnessed by a drunk.  The innocence of little boys and girls are no safer in a room full of priests and nuns as it is at a secular camp full of atheists.

No amount of oil and holy water applied to the forehead by the most devout of clergy will cure the mildest of cancer.  It won’t even ease the symptoms of the common cold.  Oh, I’m sure the sacraments have the limited power to temporarily salve a guilty conscience, or provide a false sense of security from the evils of the world, which seem to invade at will, anyway.  But, if all I needed was a soothing of my troubled mind, Paxil will do as much as all the sacraments combined.

I will conclude by offering a few alternatives to the sacraments.  We do not need blood rituals such as baptism and Eucharist.  Quite enough blood has been shed and celebrated in the name of religion.  Instead of dying to ourselves and practicing the rituals of death, we should live a more abundant life and revel in every moment of it.  Human life is a very good thing.  Let’s find more excuses to break the bread of life together, rather than partake in the corpus of the dead.

Let us set aside priests and elders in favor of respected friends whom we can coach, and help coach us through life.  We need no blessings or offerings made on our behalf by a holy man.  There are no holy men.  Instead, we need to look deep within ourselves and our role-models and discover what changes we might make in order to become better humans.  I neither need or want an overseer.  I do need a community of equals who look out for one another and who have each other’s back.  Holy ordination is not required.

In stead of reconciliation and penance, let’s just learn to say, “oops!”  Mistakes are a part of the human experience.  We should not even try to avoid them.  Rather, we should learn from them.  We have to stop feeling guilt and shame for the sin of being human.  We did not fall to this state of being; we rose to it, and we are not done rising.  Here’s a thought, spare your feelings of guilt and shame when you actually do something of which you are guilty and ashamed.  When we stop trying to live up to someone else’s idea of perfection, we will find there is very little to be ashamed of.

Finally, let us stop judging one another’s fitness to be in our august company by how well or often someone adheres to our sacraments.  I have been baptized.  But if I could, I would declare myself unbaptized just to avoid being acceptable to someone else based on a sacramental rite of passage. I would no more participate in a blood ritual to Jesus any more than I would to Gandhi.

I boldly unconfess my sins.  I am not a lowly sinner, but a divine human in all my flawed glory.  In short, I renounce all of my misguided allegiance to the sacraments I have kept over the course of my life.  In doing so, I have found more to live for.

I have found it easier to love without reservation, those who were once unlovable.  I recognize no religious authority figures, yet I have found more men and women I genuinely respect and honor.  Their advice is priceless to me.  I have no sin, but I am more deeply hurt by my thoughtless actions that cause harm to others, and I am more likely to try and make amends.

I am a better husband now that I have stopped trying to be the head of the house.  I’m a better brother now that I have stopped judging their failures.  I’m a better son now that I can listen to my parents without fear or retribution.  I no longer care about obeying them; I only care about making them as proud of me as I am of them.

In this brave new world without religious sacraments, I find that my life is far more sacramental and meaningful minus the piety, which never really fit all that well.  May you find the same for yourself.

David Johnson

Beyond Holy Orders

I am combining the last two sacraments because I have little to say about either of them.  I feel they are the weakest of the sacraments, and expose sacramental theology for what it is: a purely human endeavor that is devoid of any efficacy for good in the world or the church.

First, there is ordination, which might also be called Holy Orders.  The key part of this sacrament is the employment of god’s holy representatives to do his sacramental work.  In this, I would have to say that god’s track-record for hiring is as bad as the Post Office.    There is no magic formula for finding the right person for the job.  After all the applications, interviews, background checks, and drug tests, companies, both great and small, still end up with people who are more suited for prison than gainful employment.  One would expect god to be able to do a little better.

He doesn’t.

Without recounting the horrors of priestly child abuse, the Catholic church has done more to prove the impotence of god than any atheist.  It is as if god couldn’t see it coming.  There is something hopelessly wrong with the sacrament of ordination.  But lest Protestants start getting smug, it is no better on our side of the fence.  Our elders and deacons are just as prone to theft as the leaders of Enron.  Our preachers are just as likely to wake up next to someone else’s wife as their own.  Our children are no safer with our youth ministers than are little boys with Catholic priests.

How many preachers has your church been through?  How many were lost to scandal or incompetence, or both.  It is all the proof you need that the omniscient god of the universe is no better at hiring than anyone else.  And that’s pretty bad.

As for extreme unction, or last rites.  I have even less to say.  The graveyards are full of devout believers who received the faithful, fervent prayers of righteous men and women who, nonetheless, had no power to change the outcome of the inevitable conclusion of all flesh.  It seems the last rights are just a way of helping the dying get over their fear of the oncoming death to which the are about to succumb.  Again, there is neither magic or efficacy in this sacrament to change the outcome or stem the tide of grieving for the survivors.  The last rites is the story we tell ourselves to convince ourselves and our loved ones that we are really not going to die, but go on living forever in another, better universe than the one that just unceremoniously spat us out.

Stay tuned for my final words on sacraments in my next post.

David Johnson

Beyond Confirmation & Marriage

As you can tell by the title, I am combining two sacraments into one post.  I am not suggesting that marriage is a bad idea.  This is not where I will air out some of my more insane views on marriage.  This only deals with marriage as a religious sacrament.

I have chosen to combine the two because they share so much in common:  Both are done in the context of community.  Both should be reserved for consenting, mature adults.  And both are defined and blessed by the church.

There really is no such thing as a private confirmation.  I suppose it can be done, but the whole point is to make a big show for the community that you have made a commitment decision to that community.  It would be rather odd to leave the community out of that event.  In the Protestant world, confirmation is generally tied to baptism.  Again, this can be done privately, but is usually reserved for a special, public event.

In the same way, marriage is very much a community event.  I know that many couples decide to run off and elope privately.  Family and friends of these couples feel deeply slighted by this action.  Even more than confirmation, marriage is about ceremony, and making a commitment with, and before the community.  As I am something of a communitarian, this is probably a good thing.

The controversy begins with the next similarity.  Few would argue that marriage is a commitment that should be undertaken only by consenting, mature adults, even though, too often, it is not.  Unfortunately, far fewer people see the necessity for religious confirmation to be undertaken only by mature, consenting adults.  I was baptized at the age of seven.  Too young.  Not uncommon.  There is a certain desperation with regard to church membership that makes them want to baptize and confirm anyone who walks in the door, regardless of age.  The vast majority of baptisms I have witnessed have been those of pre-adults.

As churches lose members and their roles grow smaller, they are desperate to hold onto their kids for the next generation of church member.  There is less emphasis on instilling a quality, religious education than there is to get them into the water as soon as possible. The only real requirement seems to be that a young person has had the Hell, literally scared out of them so that they take out the requisite fire insurance.  That would be a little like advocating marriage at the age of initial sexual awakening.  A person cannot even inter into a legal contract before 18 or 21, depending on where you live.  But we coerce them into a spiritually binding, eternal contract with the church and god before they know their first kiss.

Thirdly, these two sacraments are similar because they are regulated and defined by the clergy.  It seems every church has its own rules for membership.  The bible plays little role in that determination.  The local church is a community first, and a religious institution second.  All communities have their spoken and unspoken rules about how to join.  This personal relationship with god begins with an impersonal decision by one of his representatives.

Marriage is the same way.  The church reserves the right to decide when two people are married and when they are not.  I find this type of regulation to be offensive.  Does the church really believe that the countless people who decide not to have a church wedding are any less married?  What of the marriages in other cultures and countries?  They often involve neither priest nor magistrate.  Yet, they have found a way to declare marriage for longer than the church has existed.  In both confirmation and marriage, the church is claiming authority that it really does not have.

Finally, the way in which both sacraments are most alike is their ineffectiveness.  Despite the desperate attempt to commit children to the church community before they are ready, kids tend to leave when the opportunity presents itself.  Churches generally seem to be shrinking, not growing.  No matter how much holy water is used during the course of the confirmation, it does not have the power to hold that convert to her church commitment.

It is even worse with marriage.  Remember, this is a ceremony overseen by a clergyman, and blessed by god.  Yet, there is no evidence that church marriages last any longer, or produce happier unions than pagan weddings.  Divorce courts do as much business with god blessed Christians as they do with atheists.  A broken, Christian home is no less difficult for a child than any other type of broken home.  Incidents of infidelity seem to occur just as frequently among the church married as the Vegas eloped.

In other words, whether we are talking about confirmation or marriage, using theistic religion as the main ingredient simply does not work.  This is problematic for religion.  It makes these institutions less sacramental, and more aspirational.  Churches hope for strong communities and solid marriages.  But so does everyone else.  Churches claim a higher power for delivering these things, but in practice, are exposed as impotent as everyone else.  For this reason, I consider these two of the weakest of the sacraments.  I consider the next one even weaker.

David Johnson

Beyond Reconciliation

The Catholic Sacrament of Reconciliation (also known as Penance, or Penance and Reconciliation) has three elements: conversion, confession and celebration. In it we find God’s unconditional forgiveness; as a result we are called to forgive others.

http://www.americancatholic.org/features/special/default.aspx?id=29

According to the above definition, reconciliation points to three aspects of the same thing:  They are ways of finding god’s unconditional forgiveness.  As you might  imagine, I have a big problem with unconditional forgiveness.  It leads to more questions than I care to ask at this time.  What is conditional forgiveness?  Is that when you are a little forgiven, or temporarily forgiven, or more tolerated than forgiven.

Is unconditional forgiveness really unconditional?  Can you be unconditionally forgiven, then blaspheme daily for the rest of your life while remaining in a state of forgiveness?  Is it like a baseball player getting to take as many swings at bat as he likes?  If we ever achieve this unconditional forgiveness, why must we be religious in any way, at any point thereafter?

According to the quote, the sacrament involves conversion, confession, and celebration.  All of these are conditional elements.  Furthermore, they are continual.  Conversion is a process, not an event.  Confession is a way of life, and celebration (worship) is an ongoing requirement.  What I mean to say is that it is impossible to stop any of these activities and maintain forgiveness.  Unconditional forgiveness hinges on us constantly meeting rigorous conditions.

That aspect, aside, why do we need penance in the first place.  The answer is because we are unforgiven sinners who must beg for our lives and positive dispositions of our immortal souls.  Penance is for the unforgiven.

So how did we reach the state of being unforgiven?  For some, we were born in that condition.  Just by drawing our first breath, we are bound for the pit unless someone intervenes on our behalf.  Still others believe that we are born saved, but only temporarily.  The moment we reach the age of accountability (which is never specified) then we immediately go from saved to lost, and in need of penance.

About that unspecified age of accountability, some baptize babies.  In the tradition of my youth, many, including myself, were/are baptized while in single-digits.  We all believe in some sort of original sin.  The only point of argument is when we are held responsible for it.  For some, it is at birth.  For others, it hits after a few years, the same years we are still young enough to believe in Santa Clause.  We are either sinners from the start, or will soon be.  The passage, “All have sinned and come short…” should read, “All will sin and fall short…”  It is only a matter of time, and a very short time at that.

Once a child is afraid of the boogeyman, she is old enough to be afraid of eternity in the flaming pit of hell.  From that point on, she is obsessed with not offending the other-worldly being that can put her there for virtually no provocation.  This guarantees that she will spend an unhealthy portion of her life in fear, and with feelings of inadequacy.  She will be constantly repenting.  I never knew a devout Christian who believed they were forgiven that didn’t spend an inordinate time begging their deity for forgiveness and penance.

In the end, it all starts at the beginning.  The reason we need to be reconciled is that humanity messed up in the beginning.  You have to accept the Eden story to accept the fall, to accept that you are fallen and in need of reconciliation.  I don’t.  Surprisingly, more Christians are willing to admit a certain disbelief in the literalness of that story.  The thing is, if the story is not literally true, then we are not fallen and in need of forgiveness, reconciliation, or penance.  We literally accept that we need reconciliation because of a portion of a poorly crafted myth that few take literally.  This seems insane to me.

For my part, I quote a line from a once popular country song, “The Truth about Men”.

“I ain’t wrong.  I ain’t sorry.  And I probably going to do it again… and that’s the truth about men.”

In this case, the truth about humanity.  It is past time we stop feeling sorry for being human, warts and all.  Imperfection as defined by a being who is not even of this space/time continuum is not my idea of fallen.  If my normal humanity offends your god, then it is your god who has the problem.  I know that seems harsh, but I am tired of watch my fellow humans beat themselves up for being exactly what they are: human.  I defy anyone who creates anxiety for us because we are exactly what we were born to be.

I call for less focus on conversion and confession, and more focus on the celebration of humanity.

David Johnson

(Book Review) A New Earth by Eckhart Tolle

When last we spoke, I promised to write a post dealing with sacraments if I did not get distracted by anything else.  Color me distracted. 🙂

Lunch with a group of friends (the friends, not lunch) convinced me that I should learn to appreciate the “now”.  I confessed that I didn’t even really understand that concept.  One of them suggested “A New Earth” by Eckhart Tolle.

A New Earth: Awakening to Your Life’s Purpose (Oprah’s Book Club, Selection 61)

Being the iFanatic that I am, I whipped out my iPad and had most of the first chapter read before I got home.

A few pages into it, I was convinced Tolle was already hopelessly wrong.  I kept reading, and decided to re-read everything up to that point.  It turns out I was wrong, but not hopelessly.  There is hope for me yet.  I have a lot of preconceptions to shed before I fully appreciate everything he is trying to say.  Even as the first chapter comes to an end, I am starting to let go of those preconceptions and just take in the words.

Even though I labeled this post a book review, this is most certainly not.  Rather, from time to time, I will blog my experience of reading the book as I am doing now.  Fear not, I will continue that post on sacraments I have in draft.  I suspect, hope, there will be less venom the longer I post.  I just wanted you to know that there is more to my life and posts than harsh religious polemics, though I do find them rather cathartic.

More to come…

Eckhart, take me away…