You would think that the proudest role of religion would be – as the guardian of truth. All religions pose themselves as receptors of revelation from the supernatural. It’s Informationfrom on high. Truth (supposedly).
What we find, however, is that religions MIS-inform.
For example, every religion has its version of creation. Among the Maasai tribe in East Africa, their creation story includes granting them ownership of all of the cattle in the world. This story becomes the lens through which the Maasai view the world. Any cow that they see is theirs. Thus, stealing cattle isn’t stealing – it’s taking possession of what is rightfully theirs.
Such is one way that religions mis-inform. They are self-centered. They portray one people as God’s favorites. The sky’s the limit for these people to behave as they wish, and it’s all written up as God’s will. The massacres in the Old Testament are evidence enough of the man-made (rather than divine) inspiration of these writings. The Scriptures are used to justify ego-centrism. One people are chosen as God’s own; they get a “pass” on how to treat others.
In Judaism and Christianity, further ways for people to be mis-led are the Creation stories. Confusingly, there are TWO of them, and they are the opposite of one another. The story in Genesis 1 is the opposite of the one in Genesis 2. In Genesis 1, God creates all of the ingredients of the universe — light, land, flora, fauna — and in the end — US! God creates humans – “male and female he created them.” The man is not created first; the woman is not created second. They are created at the same time, and they are created in the image of their Creator. (The “image of God” in us is usually described as our characteristic of rational thinking, the ability to reason, including the ability to look at ourselves by standing outside of ourselves, assessing our situation in life: Why do we exist? What is our purpose in life?)
Genesis 2, however, finds God creating a man first, then all of the animals, testing to see which domestic beast would be the best helper for the man. When none suffice, God creates the woman. She is created out of the man’s rib. (She is made from an accessory of the man, rather than a being created in her own right, as in Genesis 1 where “male and female he made them.”) Finally, with creation of the woman, God is satisfied that man’s best helper has been found. The woman is the man’s helper – not his equal.
Out of these two versions of creation, which one have people generally chosen as their way of viewing the world? The one that promotes inequality! The woman as subservient to the man. Even as a last gasp at finding equality in Genesis 2 — where in marriage, the two become one — a seemingly equal partnership — people have interpreted that, too, to be male-dominated. For centuries, the wedding ceremony (written up by men) made sure that the bride vowed “to obey” her husband
Thus, we see the human nature of religion. The stories which outright grant a tribe like the Maasai an outlet for their greed are obviously not divinely inspired but created by those from their own circle. Some literate Maasai crafted a story justifying their possessiveness towards all cattle as being divinely ordered.
Other stories are clearly human in that they claim as divinely ordered the patriarchy that always has been, as in Genesis 2 where the man is given charge over everything. Their man-made inspiration also pokes through the thin veil of divine inspiration in that they can’t get their act together. Genesis 1 is the opposite of Genesis 2. But whoever wrote Genesis 1 is at least a much nicer guy: Men and women are created equal, and created equally in the image of God. That was radical stuff in that day.
Why, then, have so many people relied more on Genesis 2, where the man rules over the woman? And it’s not just men who choose Genesis 2. Women, too! Women have been among the most vociferous opponents of women becoming ministers. Perhaps it’s jealousy at seeing a woman rise in the pulpit. More likely it’s their own kind of “Stockholm Syndrome,” falling in love with their oppressors out of a feeling of helplessness. Women have ranked among the opponents of progress for women. More than once I have heard an elderly woman from one of my churches tell me (whenever I arranged for a female minister to pinch-hit for me in the pulpit), she won’t go to church if a woman is the minister.
Thus, men and women alike have preferred Genesis 2 as the lens through which they look to order a major portion of life – how men and women are meant to conduct themselves – with the man as head of the family; women as subservient; only men as priests. To this day there are denominations which do not allow women to serve as ministers.
In other words, Genesis 2 where the man is given charge over everything, accomodates the self-centeredness of human nature. The story was written by humans, and it justifies the worst of human nature (possessiveness – whether it be for cattle or females).
How, then, do those of us in the religion business look to our religion for truth? Knowing that the Bible is written BY men, not dictated from above, and knowing that these men accommodated the worst of human nature (portraying God as ordering slaughters and justifying slavery and favoring males over females) – how, then, do ministers like me not just trash the whole thing and find another way to make a living?
I stick with it because there ARE divine truths in the Scriptures — “divine” as in truths that endure for all time. In Genesis 1, for example, we are given two truths that have become pillars of Western civilization: For one, monotheism. We do not worship nature (trees, oceans, planets, Sun…) Rather, God stands outside of nature and creates rather than being inside of nature (like the gods in volcanoes and oceans and planets). For another truth, we are told of the dignity of each person (created in the image of God). These truths direct our attention to reality (rather than worshipping trees), and they promote human dignity. Sharing truths like these are among the delights of ministry.
But to say that ministers and other believers just read the Scriptures and discern these truths is too simplistic. People have mis-read the Bible for most of its existence. The Scriptures were used to justify racism for almost as long as the Scriptures have existed (be it in the form of slavery or – after the Civil War – apartheid in the South). Abolition of slavery has only occurred in the past 200 years, a mere fraction of the long life of the biblical writings.
And the writings of the New Testament – with all of the openings that religious authorities could have found to promote self-esteem and living to one’s full potential – instead have been interpreted to tell people to accept fate the way Jesus did, to be lowly, to fear their own thoughts (with pride in self as the No. 1 sin), and to seek salvation. Salvation from what? From a God Who is waiting to punish them! There was an advantage for the religious authorities to interpret the Scriptures in these ways: The populace could be subdued – obedient and frightened.
Religions have been around long enough that they have now had to compete with the humanities. The humanities are those studies which have humankind as its subject, and humans as the actors: literature, languages, architecture, anthropology, mythology, paleontology…Thus religions have been studied just like any other subject rather than being considered “untouchable.”
And if we have learned anything about religion, it’s the very human nature of religion — as evidenced by its self-centeredness (like favoring one people over another). Thus, we have needed to hear from voices other than the entrenched authorities in helping us see the writings in a healthier way.
In the 1800s, there was a feminist Presbyterian, Elizabeth Cady Stanton. She and other feminists thought the Bible was so harmfully misleading, they composed their own version, called The Woman’s Bible. It appeared in 1895.
One of the classic cases concerned the story of Jephthah in Judges 11. Jephthah was a gang leader who was recruited to be something like the new sheriff in town. But he finds the opposition to be more than he can handle. So he vows to God, if you give me victory, I will sacrifice the first thing that walks out of my house when I return home.
Jephthah is expecting a goat or a chicken to walk out of his house. (In those days, in that culture, it was normal for farm animals to take shelter in the farmer’s house.) But what walks out of the house upon jephthah’s arrival? His daughter!
Grief-stricken, he informs her of the vow. She consents, saying, you must never break a promise to God.
Hah! That’s not the way the Presbyterian feminists wrote it up! They portray Jephthah’s daughter as protesting, “I will not consent to such a sacrifice. Your vow must be disallowed. You may sacrifice your own life as you please, but you have no right over mine.”
Then the feminists give voice to their own idea of religion, using the voice of Jephthah’s daughter:
“Better you die than I, if the God whom you worship is pleased with the sacrifice of human life. I consider that God has made me the arbiter of my own fate and all my possibilities. My first duty is to develop all the powers given to me and to make the most of myself and my own life. Self-development is a higher duty than self-sacrifice.”
Stand up and cheer!!! This is as good a description of progressive Christianity as exists. Being part of this movement is one reason I’m a minister.
How long would it take men to come up with this kind of interpretation without the voices of women? Likewise, in addition to hearing from the oppressed, we have needed to hear from scientists. The Bible, it turns out, can not tie the sandals of science. So many passages give way to scientific findings. The creation stories are shown to be just stories rather than factual accounts. Even in the more enlightened of the two creation stories, Genesis 1 (where “male and female he created them” – simultaneously and equal) the story blunders badly when it goes on to explain creation. Birds are created before land animals. Fruit trees are created before fish. Paleontologists would scoff. The fossil record shows no such stages of creation. Land animals came before birds; fish appeared before fruit trees. Plus, in Genesis 1, the Moon is said to be a light comparable to the Sun. Any 2nd Grader knows that the Moon is not a light.
The stories are unveiled as simply stories – myths. But that is precisely the importance of hearing from science. We adjust in the way we interpret these passages. They are NOT factual – they are NOT science (much as creationists insist there’s such a thing as “scientific creationism”). Rather, science helps us see the stories as they are meant to be read: as myths.
A myth serves the purpose of explaining life. The stories provide the staging for a truth. The truth in Genesis 1 is – God is not nature; God creates nature. That is, we do not worship the ocean. We are monotheists, if we believe at all. But the details of God creating light and land and flora and fauna – are simply props. They are not facts.
Still, how many people are so invested emotionally in religion that they can not concede this discovery? They insist that creation occurred exactly as it’s stated in Genesis 1: with God speaking (what language did God speak?), and things coming into existence. And this emotional resistance to new information, they insist, is “faithfulness.”
The influence of these people in the churches is enormous. And they need not be many. It takes only ONE person like this serving on a pastoral search committee to blackball somebody like me from being hired by a congregation. Search committees want unanimity before they go to the congregation with a recommendation. All it takes is for one person who reads everything in the Bible as being factually true to veto somebody like me who does not take the Bible literally. This anti-intellectual element in Christianity is so bold, these people are characterized by paleontologist Niles Eldredge as showing “willful ignorance.”
Still, it must be credited as progress that in latest times of the past two centuries (compared to the 2,000-year-old history of Christianity) people have been willing to listen to voices other than church authorities in interpreting the sacred writings.
In other words, it is only over time – and listening to far more voices than just our own or just our kind or just in church – giving the humanities time to examine religion – that we get a better, deeper, more intelligent understanding of the Scriptures and of one’s religion.
The struggle, of course, is far from settled; indeed, it’s going through all the more convulsions these days. We see the worst trashing of the truth now that we are observing the spectacle of these Republican candidates running for President, sucking up to the Religious Right.
What in the world would have induced Dr. Ben Carson to say that the pyramids were built to store grain? The Iowa Caucus is what induced him to say that! He is playing a tune for the fundamentalists, who are influential in Iowa.
What the pyramids have to do with the issues of a presidential campaign is difficult to imagine. But – in a way – his statement IS an eye-opener. The pyramids were used to store grain. Fine. He gets that idea from the story in Genesis, chapters 37 – 50. Joseph warns the Pharaoh that famine will be arriving. There is a need to store grain. In the Bible, however, pyramids are never mentioned. We are told that the grain was kept in “storehouses.” My guess is that Ben Carson heard from some fundamentalist preacher that the pyramids were built to store grain, and the doctor has held to that interpretation ever since. Okay. Fine. What does it matter?
It would be easy to just dismiss the whole thing. What does it matter this candidate’s religious beliefs, especially on such an obscure item like where the grain was stored?
Here’s why it matters. Because the candidate himself brought it up, and what he claims simply isn’t true!
Truth matters. The way a person regards truth matters. People become so invested in believing their religion, it trumps any other information – like the Governor of Georgia who held a public prayer vigil during a drought, asserting that God is ultimately in charge of the weather. Now let’s say somebody like Ben Carson gets elected President. He would be getting new information daily. But if the information clashed with his religious beliefs, how would he handle it?
As Christopher Hitchens has written, religious people think AIDS is bad – but they think a condom is worse! He has also written that it is unconscionable for stem-cell research to be restricted by the religious in American government. How does a President handle information if he thinks his religion trumps everything?
Thus, we see that the peculiar belief of an individual (like Ben Carson believing pyramids were built to store food) isn’t just some trivial, obscure matter Rather, the issue indicates how a person handles information. Plenty of information has been available to Ben Carson to clarify his understanding of the pyramids. But even now, he ignores all. This is “willful ignorance.”
Is THAT a characteristic we’re looking for in a President?
Religious beliefs tend to undermine people taking responsibility. If you believe climate change is only the work of God, then there’s not much reason for limiting carbon emissions. If you believe the preservation of the state of Israel is essential to the return of Jesus, you’re not going to be very open to reports of injustice being committed by the Israeli government. If you believe the Earth is only 6,000 years old, and dinosaurs existed alongside of human beings until being wiped out by Noah’s Flood, then you find evolution to be un-biblical and disdain its being taught to kids. And so you clamor for “scientific creationism” to be given “equal time” in the classroom. Science itself becomes suspect.
America alone among the developed countries of the world is experiencing this struggle of anti-intellectualism, where science is suspect. It’s because of “the faithful.” How many members of Congress and candidates for President even boast , “I’m no scientist.” What they’re saying is, “I don’t TRUST scientists.” WHY they say that is, they are opposed to what scientists are discovering – be it fossil evidence for evolution or a widening gap in the ozone shield showing global warming.
The trashing of science matters, because science is all about discovering truth. The trashing is all part of an overall trend to ignore information that conflicts with one’s religion. What it all gets down to is, “Does truth matter?”
The psychologist Scott Peck has written (The Road Less Traveled) that “dedication to reality” is the most important thing a person needs in order to stay healthy. (And not just mentally, emotionally. Mental health if allowed to deteriorate affects physical health.)
500 years prior to Scott Peck, the same thing was said by Martin Luther. “It is not healthy,” he said to go against reason or conscience.
And both reason and conscience, in the end, are the most important things in our lives. “Nothing is holy,” wrote Emerson, “except the integrity of our minds.”
“Dedication to reality” is dedication to a way of living. It’s a quality of life. It’s a commitment to the deepest, inner honesty. A person who is dedicated to truth, even if it’s uncomfortable, is a person who is healthy emotionally and mentally and whom I would trust to manage the government.
By contrast, there are those who perhaps have had the stirring of reason and conscience when given new information – like, on pyramids – but who stubbornly adhere to religious beliefs because they think that kind of “willful ignorance” is faithfulness.
We are seeing what a sad spectacle these people make of themselves – and what a sadder prospect that people will be voting for them.