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Is Religion the Problem

Posted on: April 28, 2019

Category: Theology

Is Religion the Problem

The Revised Common Lectionary reading for the second Sunday of Easter (Year C) includes a reading from Acts with the line, "We must obey God rather than any human being" (Acts 5:29).

The book of Acts is a Christian novel that holds similarities to Homer's Odyssey. Like other ancient novel forms, it is a travel narrative filled with the adventures of its main characters linked together in a series of episodes. The book seems to have no specific plot, but one certainty is that Acts is not history. It is Christian fiction.

Peter is the character who, when in Jerusalem, the High Priest asks not to preach in the name of Jesus. In response to this admonition, Peter answers that the apostles must obey God above the concerns of human beings.

When I was young, I used to love this line. As a young minister newly ordained, the line appealed to my idealism and to my conviction to serve the highest principles of the human spirit, which I called God. I was prepared to say that I must obey God (meaning those principles) above the vicissitudes of human wants. Perhaps due to cynicism, as I got older, I realized two things: 1) the highest principles of the human spirit are human principles, not God; and 2) to call something that I think is right "God," is wrong. Even more, to call what we think is right "God" is not only wrong but equally irresponsible and socially dangerous. Whatever we might mean by the word God, it should not mean the justification of our opinion. If we use God to justify our opinion, then we are raising our experiences in life to universal and absolute levels, which, biblically speaking, is entirely wrong. God as an idea can have some social value as a type of critic of the human ego, but the idea of God is dangerous when allowed to justify our egos or our political convictions. One of the dangerous things about the Religious Right is exactly that in these circles God is a politician. According to Sarah Huckabee Sanders, Franklin Graham, Jon Voight, and even Trump himself, God wanted Donald Trump to be President. It is hard to fathom the depth of hypocrisy this statement conjures.

The socially irresponsible notion that God plays favourites among world religions and within political systems is, of course, not new. Roman imperial forces in antiquity were convinced that divine blessings fell on Rome and filtered, through the emperor, to the people. Egyptian Pharaohs were considered gods, and various city-state gods were available to the Greeks to protect their cities and bless their citizens. It is often pointed out that during World War I, German soldiers wore a belt buckle with the engraving "Gott mit uns" (God with us). This phrase is taken from Isaiah and was often part of German military propaganda, including that of the Third Reich. Making God a politician seems to be a human penchant, but it raises the question, is religion is the bane of human existence? Is religion a way in which human beings betray themselves and their highest aspirations?

When we see violence in the name of religion, such as the unspeakable bombing of Christian churches and taking of innocent lives in Sri Lanka, it is almost impossible to believe that religion can play a positive role in human experience. Somehow, I still think it can, but I worry that I might be wrong and that the days when religion could be positive are over. If pressed, I would say there are two positive sides to religion, at least historically. One is that religion is a human-made critic of the human enterprise. Religion, because it is about the big picture, has the ability to humble our egos and open our minds to larger perspectives. Secondly, despite its history, religions of the world house the literature and philosophy of wisdom. With perspective comes the ability to hold a comic relationship with the self, that is, to accept the self with a form of grace in which we can understand that we are all only human, all deeply related, and all in need of acceptance. Using forms of humour, irony, paradox, and hyperbole to express this wisdom and to remind ourselves of our own humanity is a specialty of religious teaching. "Love your enemies," for example, is a form of humour and irony because someone who you love is not an enemy.

Is religion the problem? This question asks whether religion, used for politics and for the justification of violence, is sincerely at the heart of human social disorders. Should someone answer this question with yes, I would be inclined to say that such an individual is justified in this response. I might, though, express a hope. I hope that religion will one day be mostly a positive aspect of our collective human experience.

David Galston

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