It was a cold, grey snowy morning a couple weeks before Christmas, a good Sunday morning for staying inside with hot coffee and NPR. The news was full of the contests for presidential nominations: the definition of “Christian,” challenging candidates to affirm their religious bona fides. It angered me. After thinking about it for six decades, now, I still have deep doubts about religion, and whether the gods we worship and kill for actually exist somewhere above the clouds or merely in our frightened imaginations. It’s so much more complex an issue, richly loaded with the essence of human meaning, than WWJD or “The-bible-says-it-I-believe-it” sloganeering.
I wonder, like C. S. Lewis and Joseph Campbell did, that so many people around the world for so many generations have developed so many different kinds of beliefs, that we hold on to them so tightly, even in the face of incontrovertible evidence to the contrary. That we hate and kill in the names of our gods, even when it’s the same god from a different viewpoint. Clearly religion is more than belief to many – it’s a litmus test to determine whether a stranger is part of our community. Does he worship our god in a Catholic or a Protestant church – or a synagogue or mosque, for that matter? What if he worships an entirely different god, or no gods at all? Isn’t he suspect, then? The outsider, the stranger. The threat.
Religion is so often used to define and reinforce tribalism, and today, when some “tribes” have the power of annihilation, tribalism is the last thing we need. The pathos and irony of the Christmas season can move me to tears, as so many millions throughout the world hope and wish and pray for peace, yet continue to work against peace and love for their own petty nationalistic reasons, often with religion as handmaiden to war. In a time when the major warmonger among the community of nations appears to be my own country – a nation supposedly built on the premise that each citizen has a voice and a stake in the government – I face this season of peace with the deaths and agony of hundreds of thousands laid at the feet of our nation. That religious fundamentalists attacked us, and that the philosophy of fundamentalism shaped our nation’s childish and cruel response has left me wondering again about the role of belief.
But later in the same newscast was the story of a parish priest working hard to bring together the Anglo and Mexican members of his congregation, to shape a new kind of community of mutual respect, support and love. And then the story of a Jewish congregation, who were stunned that their newly-restored synagogue had burned to the ground when a nearby fire spread to it. This congregation is rallying, not yet to rebuild their temple, but first to ensure their neighbors, non-Jews left homeless by the same fire, are housed and clothed and fed.
What is there in religion, I wondered, that sends us into paroxysms of slaughter and into sublime service to others, as well? It is, I decided, not in religion, but in ourselves. Some use their beliefs to rise above base instinct, to take responsibility for betterment of the world around them. Others abandon responsibility for their own choices by ceding power over those choices to someone else, denying the natural freedom each of us is given at birth, letting someone else tell them what to think and do and say.
And I realized clearly, in that moment, that whatever god or gods exist do so in each of us. That each one of us carries within herself or himself all the power and obligations of a god. That each life is precious for this reason, and that each person has the responsibilities of a god, to love and care for our fellows to the best of your ability. What passes for God in this universe is in you and me, in our families and our neighbors and in strangers across the world, too. And, as I look at my favorite dog, perhaps in other living creatures, as well. This is what I believe.