A van from a Christian church recently passed me on the street. On its rear bumper was a sticker bearing a picture of the American flag and the words "United We Stand!" In my view, no message more clearly epitomizes the utterly confused state of religion in our world.
Those who are familiar with my writings know that, in matters of a religious nature, I am an agnostic. I believe that each of us has a spiritual need for transcendence, a desire for a sense of connectedness with the universe. In the words of George Ripley, it involves the search for "an order of truths which transcends the sphere of the external sense." I also believe that this need can be satisfied only through an interminable process of exploration, of constant questioning and openness to experiencing new patterns of life’s enchanted nature. The key words to this spiritual sense, in my view, are "process" and "exploration," words that connote continuing inquiry, rather than adherence to doctrines and dogmas derived from the revered insights of others. My approach to religion has been the same as it is for philosophy, politics, the sciences, art, and all other forms of human expression: an abiding skepticism of anyone’s professed "certainty" regarding the ways of nature.
If one is to feel connected to the rest of the universe, one must discover how to live without contradiction or division. One can hardly experience a sense of wholeness with others when relationships are grounded in separation and the conflict inherent in divisive thinking. When we are able to transcend our personal experiences by discovering our connectedness with others, we generate social integrity: our individual differences, preferences, and behaviors unify rather than separate us. We learn to tolerate one another’s uniqueness, and to discover the benefits to us all of diversity and pluralistic practices.
But as I developed more thoroughly in my earlier book, Calculated Chaos, institutions insinuate themselves into our social relationships and insist that we identify our individual selves with their exclusive systems, a practice that has produced most of the division and conflict we witness all around us. Nowhere is this more evident than in political systems, all of which are premised on separating human beings into mutually exclusive categories of "us" and "them"; with the state — which has helped us learn to see ourselves in such ways — invoking its coercive mechanisms on behalf of constantly shifting constituencies.
Organized religions have long involved themselves in such conflict-ridden practices. For some two centuries in America, however, the doctrine of "separation of church and state" has shielded much of this discord from the realm of politics. There has been a healthy sense that, as the search for spiritual expression will take men and women in a multitude of directions — from religious and philosophic speculations, to the sciences, to poetry and the arts — the coercive machinery of the state ought not be available to impress upon either the minds or bodies of others anyone’s particular visions of universal order. Just imagine how beneficial such thinking would be if its logic was extended to the separation of individuals and state!
But with the increased politicization of the world — wherein no form of thought or behavior is regarded as beyond the reach of the state to either regulate, mandate, or prohibit — our individual needs for a spiritual connection with the rest of the world have been conscripted into the service of political agendas. We have allowed our personal needs for transcendence to be taken over and dominated by institutions. In so doing, we have furthered the very sense of separateness and hostility that it has been the spiritual dimension of our being to overcome.
From the Middle East to Northern Ireland to the struggles between India and Pakistan, organized religions, in service to the state, have made a deadly mockery of the sense of spirituality that is innate to us all. While I neither believe in nor support any religion, I have had a good deal of respect for the teachings of Jesus. His appeals to peace, love, tolerance for one another, and personal responsibility, form the basis of any decent society. While I make no pretense of being a Jesus scholar, I am unaware of any of his teachings that advocate the use of state violence to accomplish desired ends.
This is in sharp contrast with various make-believe Christians who, in great numbers, are lining up in support of President Bush’s appetite for endless wars against endless enemies. While many Christians do oppose Bush’s war plans, one opinion poll showed 69% of conservative Christians favoring military action against Iraq. The evangelist, Jerry Falwell, added his support for such a war, while Christian Coalition President Pat Robertson advocated the use of political assassinations, by the United States, as a foreign policy tool. Bill Bennett — a moral absolutist and advocate of the concept of "just wars" — created his own organization to help ferret out those who dissent from Bush’s war policies.
One can only wonder how men and women who profess to be followers of Jesus’ teachings can advocate open warfare or assassinations. If Jesus were alive today, would they envision him as an F-16 pilot, firing rockets into the streets of Baghdad or dropping napalm on screaming men, women, and children? Is there anything in the New Testament that would lead one to imagine Jesus in full battle dress — la Sylvester Stallone — firing his machine-gun and tossing hand grenades as he stormed a hillside? Is any sense of spiritual wholeness to be found in the advocacy of massive bloodbaths?
I have long regarded the old hymn, "Onward Christian Soldiers," as an abomination to the life-affirming sentiments of our spiritual nature. The idea of Christians "marching as to war" evokes images readily indistinguishable from Muslim terrorists who are willing to die in suicide attacks against their enemies. What more vicious expression of self-righteous arrogance than the words attributed to the 13th century commander of the Christian crusades who, in response to being asked "who shall we kill?" responded: "Kill them all! God will recognize his own." I have heard more than a few modern-day zealots utter these same words.
What critics of Jesus’ philosophy can begin to match the damage done to his views by those who, proclaiming themselves to be Christians, champion statist practices that deny the basic premises of peace, love, and forgiveness that underlie his teachings? Do such people regard Jesus’ ideas as interesting topics of conversation for a Sunday sermon, but without any meaning for the harshness of the "real world"? Rather than bailing out on Jesus’ thinking at the first sign of difficulty, perhaps his alleged followers would be better advised to consider the thoughts uttered by Spencer Tracy in the film Judgment at Nuremberg when, as a judge sentencing war criminals, he intoned that a country must stand for something, particularly "when standing for something is the most difficult."
Too many Christians have, I fear, given up on Jesus and opted for the more severe God of the Old Testament: a self-righteous, neurotic, arrogant, and vengeful despot who wasted little time in smiting men and women for the slightest transgression, or consigning to eternal hell those whose theology did not conform to the master plan. Deep within their unconscious minds, such people must sense an affinity between the vindictive God of the Old Testament and George W. Bush.
This tendency to correlate Old Testament thinking with modern state politics even finds expression in the marketplace. In searching for holiday greeting cards, I have noticed more cards with red, white, and blue Christmas trees or Santa Clauses than with the message "peace on earth." Peace has become a profane word in some circles, its humane and civilizing meaning corrupted, in ways familiar to readers of George Orwell, into its opposite connotation. Thus, the American bombing of other countries becomes defined as "peacekeeping," while one conservative radio talk show host declared that "pacifists cause wars." Even our rhetoric must become insane in order that we not become aware of the greater insanities we insist upon perpetrating!
How can one make a pretense of seeking a sense of connectedness with the rest of nature while, in so doing, focusing anger and hatred against those whose similar efforts produce a different understanding? In her adolescent years, one of my daughters attended a church with some of her school friends. It didn’t take her long to get turned off by the experience, as she observed that "all they talk about is how bad other people are!"
Clearly, not all religious systems espouse divisive, conflict-ridden thinking. Many people realize that spiritual inquiries are, by their very nature, speculative and informed by differing subjective experiences. As I stated earlier, the continuing process of exploration is the spiritual dimension to life. Taken seriously, this process is a very lonely one, for which each of us may find comforting companionship in knowing that our neighbor is going through the same uncertain examination.
Perhaps we shall one day understand that it is our individual uniqueness that we have in common with one another, and that the social expression of our need to connect with the rest of nature must begin with our willingness to safeguard the conditions under which our individuality can manifest itself in the world. The Talmud contains a passage, whose sentiments should be heeded by all participants in the network of slaughterhouses that are now destroying mankind: "Whoever destroys a single life is as guilty as though he had destroyed the entire world; and whoever rescues a single life earns as much merit as though he had rescued the entire world."
So that the importance of peace not be completely lost on frightened minds that cannot rise above lynch-mob levels of reaction, let us recall the origins of certain words in our language. If one checks a good etymological dictionary, one discovers that the words "peace," "freedom," "love," and "friend" share some common origins. Perhaps our ancestors knew what we seem to have forgotten, namely, that men and women who have learned how to live without division, in a state of internal "freedom," will deal with one another as "friends" who share "love," and that people so constituted will live together in "peace."
It is paradoxical that we are living in an age in which we have finally figured out how to maximize the material well-being of mankind but, at the same time, are terribly confused about why we should do so. Free market economic systems have produced the most conspicuous displays of prosperity known to mankind and yet, in the words of Joseph Campbell, we lack the "invisible means of support." At a time when politically ambitious fomenters of discord are bent on gratifying their appetites for war, it is time for the rest of us to transcend our inhumane habits and to rediscover our relatedness to one another. Lest you dismiss this as being "unrealistic," try making a "practical" assessment of the butchery and madness now being concocted by those who long ago lost their sense of connectedness with the world!
Butler Shaffer [send him e-mail] teaches at the Southwestern University School of Law.