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Posted by on Feb 24, 2015 in Uncategorized | 3 comments

Counterfeiting religion

truereligionIn his sermon this week, our UU minister told us a story about Gretchen. She was a closed-minded liberal who folded her arms and resisted singing religious songs with Christians. But one day, she realized that if words and theology didn’t matter to her, she could say anything and substitute her own meaning, privately. The story ended with Gretchen dancing and singing with her Christian friends, while mentally substituting ‘Love’ for ‘Jesus’ in the lyrics.

Whither creative interchange? She’s joining in now, but on her own terms, which is ok ‘for her’ because she decided that words and theology don’t matter. But the worry is that it might matter to her friends whether those things matter to her!  If she doesn’t tell her friends about her strategy, they might think she means what they mean by ‘Jesus’, imperiling an honest connection (and informed consent). They’re connecting physically through movement, but not semantically, through meaning.

Suppose she notices this and cares about communication. So she tells her friends that ‘Jesus’ just means ‘Love’ to her. Will her Christian friends accept that? Yes, but only if the meaning of ‘Jesus’ doesn’t matter to them. Christianity ascribes numerous things to Jesus beyond simply ‘Love’. He was born of a virgin, he wept, he died on a cross for our sins, he told us to turn the other cheek, etc. To accept Gretchen’s approach, they would have to say that none of that matters, that ‘Jesus’ can be reduced to ‘Love’. Some could do that, but some could not.

So we can see the social costs of Gretchen’s private mental substitutions. She is fitting in under false pretenses and thus has only a partial (and partly bogus) unity with her friends. And even if she tells her friends about it, some of them, the ones who hold a thicker conception of Jesus, will rightly object.

We can’t just say that Gretchen uses the word Jesus ‘her way’ and the Christians use it ‘their way’ because many Christians’ usage of ‘Jesus’ includes setting the meaning for others! To slight this is to fail to grasp what theistic realism is about. Jesus is real, man. Really real, for everyone, and he has some traits and doesn’t have others. For these types, he’s not just a basket we can put whatever we want into.  At the very least, we should ask such people if they care whether we care what their words mean.  For mutual respect and an honest connection, it’s vital to be on the same page.

Liberal religious people know this in their bones when it comes to things they care about, like vaccination. They know that people can’t just decide whether vaccination is right ‘for them’. It’s a physical and social issue, so for vaccination to work, it has to be adopted by everyone. The bullet liberals have to bite is this: that if someone disagrees about vaccination, then we have to forcibly vaccinate their kids to save their lives, and the lives of other kids.  They have to think their view is better than the anti-vaxxers’ view, and they have to push it on them.  That’s hard for a liberal.  But we manage.

But those same people often don’t care about the integrity of beliefs. They pick and choose and redefine religious words. It’s an exhilarating stage, but an adolescent one. It has social costs that impinge on their other values, so they ought to outgrow it. By borrowing religious words, they lose honesty, connectedness and respect for others’ views, though this goes unnoticed in liberal settings.

So, when liberal religious people redefine religious language to fit in, or ride the coattails of religion, or gain some reflected luster, or siphon its gravitas, it is not respectful of religion. It’s counterfeiting. Now, if you don’t respect what you’re counterfeiting, you can do it. But you can’t borrow religious language and respect it at the same time. I said this to our minister and he had a liberal brain-melt.  “Of course we can!  You’re not the judge and jury.  We can and do!”  Nope.  You can say, and feel, you respect religion while counterfeiting it, but you can’t respect it while counterfeiting it.  It’s nothing personal. It’s a logical thing.  And if you drop logic, then ‘respect’ (and all other words) means nothing.

Our minister mocked Gretchen’s initial resistance, and praised her for unfolding her arms, forgetting about meaning and joining the dance. How far does this sort of thing extend? I’ve heard that the Nuremburg rallies were very stirring. I don’t know German, so it would have been easy to substitute my own inspiring thoughts for whatever they were so excited about, and lose myself in the music and theater. Should I just quit being so uptight, open my mind and fit in? Should I lend my voice? We vote with our participation. Should I endorse a group because it feels better to fit in? The same issue confronts us in every organization we join. If words matter, that should be reflected in our choice to participate or not.

But come on, Christianity isn’t Nazism. Or is it? God viciously neglects the least of those among us. Jesus said he was the only way to God. If that’s not a callous, supremacist movement, I don’t know what is.  Now, of course, not all Christians see Christianity that way.  But there’s no way around the fact that God is guilty of appalling neglect.  It’s fine to be open to possibilities, but we don’t have to be open to impossibilities.  There is no way God treats people equally (violating the UU’s 2nd Principle), or even compassionately.  This is the source of the old joke that if you get through seminary believing in God, you weren’t paying attention.

Our minister means well.  He really wants to respect his friends who are Christian.  He wants to embrace and join in the good parts of Christianity.  I just don’t know how to do that without hacking it to pieces.  The best outcome would be for him to be honest about redefining Christian terms, then dance with the ones who don’t mind.  But please notice that this doesn’t solve the problem, either.  Now, both sides are disrespecting Christian beliefs.  There’s just no one present who cares.

Our minister seems unable to imagine that someone could have principled reasons for not going along with a Christian sing-along. There are good reasons for crossing one’s arms and refusing to lend our voices. Borrowing religious language works against the values of honesty, connectedness, informed consent and respect for the views of others. To avoid this conclusion, we need to hold our heads just right, ignoring meaning and noticing only how good it feels to sing and dance. This is at odd with UU’s 4th Principle, the free and honest search for truth. Any connection that requires us to avert our eyes is not worth having. We can do better, and I’d like UU to be a place where full, real and examined connections are cultivated, even if they require us to sit out until something that fits our values comes along.