Our resident skeptic, James R. Cowles, has a regularly featured column (this is a sample) every Thursday on our sister site, Beguine Again.
For the past … I dunno … dozen-plus years, I have been what polite people would call a “lapsed Catholic”. I say this even though I met the Catholic Church at a time of spiritual shipwreck / accedie – what some call the “noonday demon” — and that the Church gave me a vision of humans in community with the Divine that I never found, either as a fundamentalist, or as a non-fundamentalist but still conservative-evangelical, Christian. It may be that the Catholic Church saved my life. To this day, the issues I have are not only or even primarily with the Catholic Church – I mean, who among us with a non-flat-line EEG does not have issues with the Church? – but primarily with that Church’s God. (Or as I usually express it these days, “Gawd”.) But that latter is another rant for another time. The question I want to deal with now is one that, unlike my issues with God / “Gawd”, I have never before broached in a “Skeptic’s” column: the sky being the limit and ignoring issues of possible / impossible, what would I have to find in a religious tradition, Christian or otherwise, that would enable me to be “un-lapsed”? Two “first principles” up front: (1) when I cite biblical references, I do not assume that whatever narrative I am discussing is historically factual, and so treat it purely as a religious / theological parable; (2) I speak only and purely for myself and myself alone, no one else. After several years of reading and meditating on this issue, this is where I am now … tentatively. I am looking for a religious tradition that …
o … minors on God – assuming God plays any role at all – and majors on people
When I say “God”, I mean a personal God Who could, perhaps occasionally does, intervene in the world and in people’s lives. Even a cursory study of religious history will demonstrate that such a personal, “interventionist” God has wreaked havoc and butchery in human history. But I am powerfully attracted to the Holy, to what Rudolf Otto, in his classic The Idea of the Holy, termed the mysterium tremendum et fascinans (“the tremble-inducing and attractive mystery”). Otto’s mysterium is more a feeling, an intuition than it is something that can be grabbed hold of, articulated, and described discursively. Think of Antonio Allegri’s great Miserere. Think of looking at the Hubble Telescope’s images of the “Pillars of Creation”. Think of Renoir’s “Luncheon of the Boating Party”. Think of reading Wordsworth’s “Lines Composed a Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey”. I think of a question I once encountered on a math mid-term that had me stumped – and that I solved by whipping out scratch paper and a pencil and proving from scratch the theorem on which the solution was based … then implementing that theorem to derive the answer. In other words, think of Maslow’s concept of a “peak experience” or of R. M. Buck’s “cosmic consciousness”. That is religion at its best. That, in fact, is what Christians, whether they realize it or not, mean by “grace”. That is religion that majors on people and minors on God.
o … takes seriously people’s personal experience
One reason I dropped out of Christianity altogether – in fact, one reason I dropped out of monotheistic religion per se altogether – was because I got sick unto death of being told, almost always by clergy and quite often by lay people, that my personal experience was deceptive and not to be taken as revelatory of anything in particular, and that what was worthy of being taken seriously was another layer or level, invisible and inaccessible to me, that lent that experience a credibility it did not have on its own. (On the other hand, when my personal experience tended to corroborate official dogma, the same people who before counseled skepticism turned around 180 degrees and now counseled acceptance. Go figure … ) The world looked chaotic, but I was told that there was a level of Reality that would resolve the chaos into a sublime Order.
Try explaining this, as I had to do during one period in my life as a para-professional grief counselor, to someone whose child has just died of leukemia, despite having just completed the latest protocol of chemotherapy and radiation. What possible level of Reality possesses an Order that can resolve the unalloyed tragedy of the death of someone’s twelve-year-old daughter? Along toward the end of my tenure as a counselor, I was driven to adopt the approach of C. S. Lewis, as depicted in the movie Shadowlands, when, Lewis’s beloved wife Joy Davidman Lewis having just died, the local Anglican clergyman tries to comfort Lewis by reassuring Lewis that all the chaos precipitated by Joy’s death was resolved by some transcendent Order: “No, Harry,” Lewis tells the well-intended clergyman, “It’s just a damned mess”. (I learned a new word recently: “gas-lighting”. The minister’s remark is a perfect example of gas-lighting: convincing people that they did not experience what they did experience.) Anyway, I am looking for a religious tradition that does not traffic in gas-lighting, i.e., that begins with the mess, lets it be a mess, and simply sits with the mess with no attempt to “redeem” or to “resolve” it, least of all to “explain” or to “justify” it. And if the experience in question is something positive, do not drain it of significance by attributing it to God. Stealing any human exercise of any human virtue and using it to enhance God’s “street cred” is an act of moral plagiarism that decisively refutes any claim to righteousness of any monotheistic God commanding one’s allegiance.
o … uses religious / sacred literature without being used by it
I long ago became accustomed to Christians — in fact, to monotheists generally — who, upon reading some especially horrendous text in their sacred literature, felt immediately impelled to defend God’s behavior as actually good and beautiful. (By the way, such a defense always means that one is not allowed to take one’s personal experience seriously, in violation of the previous principle.) My “canonical” example in this regard is the slaughter — more accurately, the genocide — of the Amalekites in I Sam. chapter 15. This text is most likely not historically factual. But think of the implications, even on the level of theological parable: God’s character is such that God not only countenances, but imperiously commands, genocide. Now, no one I know approves of genocide by anyone in any context … except for certain Christians — by no means all — who read this obscene text and immediately turn around 180 degrees and shift into “theodicy mode”, concerned to praise God for committing an act that would land any human agent before the International Court of Justice in The Hague to stand trial for a crime against humanity. Not to belabor the point, but such is the moral conundrum that becomes inevitable when you avow a belief in a personal, monotheistic God Whose character is authoritatively revealed in any religious / sacred text. Such a combination virtually guarantees that any religion promoting such a theology is immediately converted into a thinly veiled species of celestial fascism. So any religious tradition for whose sake I would consider being “un-lapsed” would consider its sacred text(s) — to whose existence I have no objection at all! — as on the same plane as, e.g., Shakespeare, Lao Tzu, and Flannery O’Connor.
o … does not conceive of prayer as an efficient / instrumental cause
Religious traditions that emphasize prayer to an omnipotent and omniscient God as a means of “doing stuff” are guaranteed to “lapse” me. This is another reason why I walked away from Christianity: my experience with Christianity has been an almost unrelieved experience of serial disappointment, where I prayed for X … and X did not occur. It seems to me that, even if you believe in a monotheistic, personal God, such a conception of prayer is at least blasphemy-adjacent, because, as I argue elsewhere, it amounts to an attempt to “leverage” God the way you would use a tree limb on a fulcrum to move a boulder. Aside from that, combining religion, belief in a monotheistic God, and prayer-as-efficient-cause has, speaking only out of my experience, guaranteed disappointment, occasionally catastrophic levels of disappointment. I no longer believe in a personal, monotheistic God, but if I did, here is the advice I would give Her: if You promise what You have no intention of delivering, all You succeed in doing is giving people an excuse to walk away, in other words, to become “lapsed”. I can be fooled once, in fact, I am a push-over. But fooling me twice is damn near impossible. So just don’t start.
The religious tradition that comes closest to satisfying the foregoing requirements / criteria is Pure-Land Buddhism. But this is a work in progress. Will advise … and thanks for listening!
James R. Cowles
“Pillars of Creation” … NASA, Hubble Telescope … Public domain
Gas-lamp lighter … Gunnar Lanz … Public domain
Bullshit … Mabdul … CC by SA 3.0
Diogenes … Jean-Leon Gerome, Walters Art Museum … Public domain
Virgin Mary image … Pixabay … Public domain