From Liberty Street: Devout Rescue

John Turner

As we approach the main religious holiday of the year my mind is pushed inexorably towards a search for an adequate definition of "religion," one that will relieve it of the stupidities that have bedeviled it throughout history. Over the past decade, these have become so strident in the United States they have driven many citizens to despair of ever having an intelligent society.

There's little indication that the wave of stupidity is abating. Newt Gingrich has announced that he is starting a new political action committee to be called "American Solutions for Winning the Future." It will seek a political system featuring patriotic education and a recentering on God. What the latter might mean, god only knows, but we can be pretty sure it will promote a notion of religion which not only incorporates the stupidities of the past, but wallows in them.

A spate of politicians telling us what god wants us to do is not my idea of adequacy in the religious sphere.

At the core of the nonsense positing religion as a set of behavioral rules is the concept of it as the dominant system of truth. Since it's dominant, then in simple minds it must rule over all other systems of truth, including the scientific and the historical. It must tell us how the world began, how it functions, and what happened in it during its early eras. All this information is generally designated "the word of God" and is incorporated in texts written centuries before there was any developed system of scientific investigation or of historical research.

The belief that you can go to an ancient texts for scientific and historical truth underpins the assumption that "wise" men can interpret those texts to tell us, in detail, how to live, how to solve our problems, how to govern ourselves, what kind of education to pursue, and how to relate to one another. It is an exacting formula for tyranny. In this view, religion becomes not a search for meaning in a seemingly meaningless universe, but a packaged meaning, all tied up nicely and delivered in perfection eons ago. It doesn't leave anything genuinely significant for modern humans to do. We can play around with technological innovations, but they won't have any effect on who we are or what we need to become.

The answer to the difficulties posed by religion, say some strong-minded positivists, is simply to recognize that it is absurdity and let it decline into disuse. The problem with that solution is that it's not true. Not all of religion is absurd. The irrationality comes, mostly, from truth-claims about science and history which then are seen as translating into rigid rules of behavior. But religion also contains genuine wonder, genuine seeking, genuine humility. And these I doubt we can get along without.

Religion should tell us not what to think, but what to think about.

I realize that fallacious claims of truth are so intertwined with the other aspects of religion it will be hard intellectual work to separate them. And the separation can't begin until we get clear in our minds that it needs to be done. The first step towards that decision must come from people who are determined to maintain ties to the various religious heritages while disassociating themselves from fabulous -- and fatuous -- claims about nature and history. In America, it must come principally from people who will not surrender the title of Christian to members of rigid, bigoted congregations who have deluded themselves into confusing piety with their own prejudices. In the Gospels, there is a Christlike message which, though it doesn't immediately solve all our problems -- immediate solution is the work of the worst kind of mind -- is reasonably clear. It tells us to be kind, merciful and respectful toward our fellow humans, and to seek and develop social systems that will serve others as well as ourselves. Anyone who lives in that message has full as much right to be called a Christian as any theologian immersed in tangled networks of doctrine.

So, as the holiday season comes on, enjoy it. Go to church if you find solace there. Sing the carols. Listen to the stories and seek their true meaning. Revel in the excitement and awe of the children. And recognize the part love must play in any decent life. But do not surrender your mind to rigidity and don't think you are any less a devout member of your religious tradition for refusal to do so. That to me is the genuine spirit of Christmas, available to anyone, regardless of his or her religious background.

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Harvard Square Commentary, December 18, 2006