2013-04-15

Waking Up on Easter Morning

He is risen! She is risen! They are risen! We are risen! OK, everybody up? Excellent. Now what?

The little joke that I sometimes tell when I’m talking to someone who regularly attends a Catholic or Protestant church is that as a Unitarian Universalist minister, I get to talk about Jesus twice a year, at Christmas and Easter. If, however, you are keeping count (and I wouldn't be surprised to learn that some of you are), then you know that I quote from and make reference to the prophet from Galilee here and there throughout the year – whenever a parable or some passage from one of the gospels seems appropriate.

Collaboration: UUA President Peter Morales with Eugene F. Rivers,
Pastor of the Azusa Christian Community,
at a press conference announcing opposition to three strikes bill
I know that this makes some folks uncomfortable. They are concerned that any strategy that neither ignores Christianity nor frontally assaults it will give aid and comfort to bad religion. After all, in the name of this Jesus, there was a Spanish Inquisition; in the name of this Jesus, witches were burned; in the name of Christianity, people were demonstrating at the Supreme Court during Easter week this year, hoping to maintain as much restriction on same-sex marriage as possible.

It’s true that religion, even if we can’t outright say it causes, sure seems connected to a lot of harm. People plant bombs – on themselves, in cars, in buildings – and fly jet airliners into buildings – and are led to do so in a way that is enmeshed with their religious understanding and is facilitated by their religious institutions. People want to take away women’s reproductive freedom, and punitively stigmatize gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people, and their thinking makes heavy and frequent reference to their religion, and their activism on these points is facilitated by their religious institutions. Our children are liable to be told by their classmates that they are going to hell. A few people make it their life's mission to devise elaborate refutations of evolution, and more than a few people work to change the public school science curricula to present their religious views as science. For many of us, most of the religious institutions we have experienced have seemed authoritarian: not allowing questioning, not allowing critical thinking, demanding uncritical acceptance of authority. The word “faith” often seems to mean “believe what the authority figure tells you to believe and pray what the authority figure tells you to pray.” Studies sometimes find that countries that measure higher on religiosity also measure higher on violence, drug and alcohol addictions, teen pregnancies, imprisonment rates, and high school drop-out rates.

So I understand the urge to resist any story, any reference to any character in any story that is claimed and cited by “those people” – the ones with the magical thinking, the superstition, and the backwards political opinions. I understand the impulse to say, “Let’s just get rid of religion. Let’s let rationality and reason be our guide. Let us never speak of God or Jesus because then 'those people' might think we are on their side, might draw some aid and comfort from what they could construe as our support, might think that we agree with them, which, of course, we don’t, because religion, after all, is divisive.” So, repulsed by that divisiveness, we ourselves become divisive.

I understand that. I’ve done it myself. But I can no longer believe that it makes sense to try to overcome division by being divisive, by putting on my armor like Don Quixote and tilting at the windmill of religion. The attempt to conquer and vanquish the parts of ourselves that we don’t like, or the parts of our society that we don’t like, is an enterprise doomed to failure.

Living in the rational mind is a half-way house. I call it a half-way house because reason does liberate us from many of the chains of the mind -- but not all of them. Rationality cannot get us the rest of the way to liberation. Only love gets us the rest of the way: unreasoning, uncalculating love.

That is my Easter message.

I know there is harm that is perpetrated in the name of religion, but I believe that love and acceptance is a better strategy than invective -- and better, even, than benign neglect. Love has subversive power, and I prefer subversion to open battle. I prefer, and recommend, for the sake of our own emotional and spiritual well-being, looking for ways to make connection rather than ways to denounce and vilify. Moreover, on many issues there are many Christians with whom Unitarian Universalists, whether themselves Christian or not, can make common cause. There is good work to be done together to advance values that we share. If, however, we refuse to speak the other person's language, then we're hampered in that collaborative possibility.

When it comes to my inner demons, the better strategy is to embrace, befriend, and then re-direct that energy. Likewise, when it comes to outer demons -- who are not demons at all, but people whose cognitive rational functioning is typically as high as mine is -- the better strategy is embracing and befriending. Granted, "those religious people" sometimes choose not to be wholly governed by the rational part of the mind. So do I. I choose to allow myself to enjoy music, to delight in beauty, to enjoy good food, to write a poem instead of more prose, to fall in love. These are not rational things to choose. In making these choices, I choose to participate in the nonrational. The result is a life that is more, not less, than rational.

If those of us who do not identify as Christians can connect better with those who do, then we we’re part of the conversation. We can introduce various alternative directions that those stories point. But we have no chance of subverting the dangerous ways of interpreting the gospels if we refuse to talk about the gospels at all. Such refusal is dumb -- and an irrational prejudice. Too often, we have been neither loving nor rational.

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This is part 1 of 3 of "Jesus, Zombies, and the Half-Way House of Reason"
Next: Part 2: "The Dead Live"