Dispatches from the Suburbs of Hell

Heaven is for the obedient. Hell is for the wrathful. What of the ones in between? We wind up in the Suburbs. Our sin is individuality. Our punishment is boredom. But at least we're in good company.

Location: New England, United States

Thursday, October 19, 2006

Gimme That Old Time Religion...

My personal religious views are...complex. I consider myself an Old-School Christian. And when I say "old school," I mean, like, 15th century or so. I mean my thoughts on the subject have less in common with modern-day religious scholars than they do with the Christian Humanists of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. Erasmus of Rotterdam. Sir Thomas More. Thomas Aquinas. Martin Luther (yes, Martin Luther, poor guy; all he tried to start was a little discourse). There's something about these guys that appeals to me; these were all intelligent, literate, scholary men, who were also devout Christians and, in some cases, clergymen themselves. Nowadays we tend to see these things as somewhat mutually exclusive, and often at odds with one another: science vs faith, intellect vs intuition, reason vs emotion, etc. But somehow back then they weren't. Somehow back then a man could be both godly and worldly. You could be a devout Christian and still have issues with how God ran things. It might have been a sign of the times.

The Middle Ages were an interesting time in Europe. Life wasn't pleasant back then. There was disease and poverty and dozens of tiny wars between decadent nobility, but there was something else too. There was a notion of "Christendom," the idea that all Christians were part of something bigger, and something good. The Pope had little temporal power, but when he issued a decree, for the most part every ruler in Western Europe followed it. Papal Bulls were a sort of international law back then; knights could kill each other all they wanted six days of the week, but if the Pope said "no jousting on Sunday," there was no jousting on Sunday. Monasteries were centers of learning, where books were preserved and copied - not the least because clergy were often the only people around who could read. And Latin, as the language of mass, was the only language spoken in every country, and so became the international language of diplomacy, law, and scholarship. There was an infrastructure in place that bound all Christian nations together, in a loose ideological federation, created by the idea that God did have a kingdom on Earth, and everyone was part of it.

(Of course it goes without saying that if you WEREN'T Christian, things were not so great for you. I know. It wasn't perfect. Let continue on toward my point...)

So with this notion of community came all the thinkers, with ideas on how to improve the community, how to keep the community healthy. That's where the Christian Humanists came in. Trying to expand upon the precepts in the Bible, interpreting them for a new age without losing their basic signifiance. Trying to reconcile seemingly illogical concepts of Christian faith through Classical methods of logical argument. Their efforts are fascinating reads, deep meditations on the human condition and the natures of sin and virtue. And when Europe went through the Renaissance, things really started to get interesting. That's when the BIG questions started to get asked. That's when many religious scholars began to question as to whether or not the earthly leaders of the Church were actually doing the right things. And for the most part, this discourse was tolerated. Intellectual discussion of the relevance of rituals, of abuses of power, of the role of Free Will in Man's life, were commonplace in many Christian countries, and in fact can be looked at as a sign of a healthy community. Dissent with the Pope was at least tolerated, if not given validity. It was until Martin Luther nailed his Theses to a door that things started to go downhill.

And things have pretty much gone all the way down since then, I think. As much as I love the Modern Age, with its flush toilets and its assurances that the cold I'm fighting off won't develop into pneumonia and kill me by the end of the week, something precious is missing. Intellectual religious discourse. How often do Christian leaders actually discuss things nowadays? These days there's the unfortunate conception that intellecualism has no place in religion - and even more unfortunately, many religious traditions encourage this conception. The modern Roman Catholic Church with its cold authoritarian edicts that arise from a worldview almost comically out of touch with the modern age - and that would be funny if they didn't cause so much genuine damage. Protestants aren't much better. We have the Fundamentalists, with their almost proud and gleeful rejection of rational thought, in favor of a small-minded reading of sacred text. There's something almost pathetic in a Fundamentalist's groveling before God, looking on high for everything, afraid to think or do for themselves. They would be pitable if they weren't so dangerously fanatical, so terrified of things beyond their narrow field of vision that they are moved to violently stomping them out. On the other end of the spectrum we have moderate denominations like the Unitarians and the Episcopals, who truly do mean well, and preach an admirable message of tolerance and emotional support to those who seek stability in this big scary world. But the flaw remains in all cases: organized religion has been reduced to an emotional crutch. Christendom, once a unifying and positive force in the world, is now a shelter for those who find the world too complex to deal with. The kingdom of God on Earth has been reduced to a disaster relief agency - and an outdated, inefficent one at that.

It wasn't always this way. And I believe it can be again. But there needs to be discourse. Intellectualism needs to find its way back into religion. Debate needs to happen. Dissent needs to be honored. New ideas need to be considered. There needs to be a new Christendom, a new community of Christians, if Christianity is to survive at all. The Keys to Kingdom are in the hands of the barbarians; the enlightened need to take them back.


Blogger James said...

Anarq, hon, I think the problem lies in the fact that religion is an outdated tool. As we learn more about the world around us we have to change the way we view things- we know Newtonian physics breaks down when looking at smaller and larger scales. The underlying truth hasn't changed, we just realise that the explanation is more complex, that the rules we thought applied were too simple an explanation.
Religion served a purpose when we were shivering in caves. We have reached a point where knowing WHY is more important than simply having rules.

You want to know why religious types are scared? We have surpassed God. Read any religious book you like, and the only honest reaction you can have to any description of the higher power is that it is a primitive, barbaric, and frankly stupid creature. Living in a predominately Christian nation I'll mention one particularly egregious example from Christianity: in Deuteronomy 22:13-17 the Bible says that if a woman doesn't produce bloody sheets from having her hymen broken on her wedding night she is to be stoned to death. Leaving aside the horrific double standard and the extreme imbalance of the punishment in comparison to the "crime," the main reaction any sensible person has to have is that God is an idiot. We know that many women break their hymen before having had intercourse, we know that some women are born without a hymen.
If such laws are accepted to have been written by primitive men who had very little clue regarding biology we could understand the lack of knowledge, but when such laws are claimed to be ordained by the designer of the human body we can only presume said designer was either an idiot or so evil as to promote the cruel death of people who were innocent even of the miniscule crime they were accused of.
It scares religious types that we know more than God. Think of how you felt the first time you realised you could do something better than your father.

5:32 PM, October 19, 2006  
Anonymous Portrait in Flesh said...

It's a little early for National Fruit Day, but let me tempt you with this apple: it's not just religious intellectualism that's whimpering in a corner, it's intellectualism in general that seems to have a tarnished reputation.

Religious intellectualism could exist back then because...well, for the most part those men who regularly engaged in it pretty much had the "luxury" to do so. (Just as an aside, I won't try to oil up my rusty feminist joints now by going on about how religious intellectualism was almost exclusively a male pastime, as my version of a lapsed Catholic Yentl would probably be horrifying beyond words. The only female religious author I can think of off the top of my head is Heloise, and she's mostly known for the mushy love stuff.) The average man on the street was probably more concerned with the mundane aspects of day to day existence than trying to figure out whether the angels dancing on the head of a pin were Morris dancing or engaging in a formal waltz. It's kind of like being a liberal arts major in college; you can sit around debating and enjoying the mental exercise all you like, but there comes a time when you realize those student loans won't pay themselves and it's time to go out and get that Real Job you've heard so much about.

And that's no different today. So, instead of having to actually THINK, it's easier for most people just to kind of soak up the "easy" answers (why is it this way? because the Bible says so, that's why). After all, it takes less time, time that's needed for your daily commute.

Should it be this way? Of course not. But how can it be changed? That's something that you'll have to think about...probably during the next commercial break.

8:03 PM, October 19, 2006  

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