Friday, December 30
Friday, December 30, 2005
Fundamentalism hijacks the needs of people whose lives are swirling down the drain, or who fear losing what they have because it's all that stands between them and their "demons". It takes the basic human need for redemption, compassion, communion and meaning and handcuffs it to the belief in a judging deity, hell and the dire need to believe in Jesus or Allah before he stops giving you second chances and smites you. It's what hypnotists call "anchoring". Associate something people do innately to a specific set of symbols or beliefs, so that every time the original need arises, the symbols and beliefs must accompany it. To be a "saved" drug addict is to believe you must perpetuate the belief in hell and a vengeful End Times Jesus, or risk relapse. If you're a fundamentalist Muslim, confused by your own conflicts with sex, materialism and status guilt, it's natural enough to identify with some cleric who promises ecstatic union with the divine in return for adopting a puritannically "safe" moral code. By letting people have their sexual freedom, listen to Western music or experiment with drugs, Muslims feel they are letting their children slip away, just as Christian parents feel. But that universal parental feeling is hijacked by the religious belief system which is far more concerned with control than with balance or common sense. Clerics in Iran blame the West for polluting their children's minds, and fundamentalist Christians in the US believe gay marriage would usher in the Apocalypse, being the final straw. Neither addresses the emotional and spiritual needs of its followers, delaying all genuine catharsis for a moment of battle, a final war against evil.
But the deeper need for communion with all mankind asserts itself, despite the belief that most of the species is destined to be eternally tortured for failing to adopt the belief that Jesus is the only way to know God, or that Allah requires submission to strict Sharia law. Neither congregation can patch its spirit together by demanding that God punish its enemies and show mercy toward itself for being so obedient and pure. The more it tries, the more it produces anguish, guilt and hostility rather than piety. Probably most if not all human beings retain a childhood perception of things and people as an interconnected and interdependent system, however buried beneath self-interest, alienation or fear of being judged that perception may be. Religion hijacks that beautiful and/or terrifying view of things and uses it to serve tribal moral codes or fuel wars. At best, it acts as a mnemonic device, reminding people that behind symbols there are spiritual meanings that touch the core of life. At worst, it forces people to transform sex into aggression or self-castration and wall off consciousness in a very linear, verbal part of the brain in which afterlives carry more weight than current lives and abstract principles trample human beings.
What's ironic about reading the news into prophesy is that:
1. Jesus warned people not to read signs and try to second guess the second coming. He said it would be unexpected. As long as End Times products sell like hotcakes in Christian stores, we're safe. I like this logic. He can't come as a thief in the night if everyone's got their night light on.
2. It's a form of idolatry. Idolatry wasn't considered evil because it benefitted the statue-carvers union. It was evil because when the Hebrews were enslaved, they became familiar with systemic cruelty and indifference in the guise of religion and social hierarchy. Systems back then were both governmental and religious, and religion was not politically neutral but more a form of "branding" that identified a king with his gods (sort of like "if you drink Pepsi, you'll be youthful and edgy"). The gods you followed were a sign of tribal loyalty and affiliation, and when people consulted idols, they were adapting to a social code that exploited human beings, and consulting an order that was seemingly beyond individual accountability, the order of the mass and of the spirits. Looked at that way, smashing idols sounds like a good thing. Modern idol-smashers tend to be a bit silly about it, with Iranian clerics declaring that Western music corrupts the Muslim soul and American Evangelicals making similar statements about secular music and Hollywood. But in Biblical times, idolatry was strongly associated with tyranny, enslavement, exile and other hard times. When a tribe hostile to the Hebrews consulted its idols, its idols often told it to do something nasty, and of course Jahweh ordered a few atrocities himself. Religion rarely notices when it's become infested with true idolatry. It smashes CD collections but not the spirit of objectification and exploitation of human beings.
When Christians use End Times predictions to induce a state of euphoric expectation and identification with the "avenging Jesus", they're engaging in a kind of idolatry. Instead of connecting on the heart level to the suffering around them, they rationalize that suffering is a punishment, that the poor have to work harder, that health care is a privelege and that the death penalty is consistent with a belief in personal redemption. Posturing replaces virtue, and everyone finds some scapegoat to distract God's vengeance, as if banning gay marriage and abortion will appease His wrath and cause him to overlook hetero divorce and the sexual double standard. Christians in the US would do better to look at religious tyranny in Iran and understand that America has the same puritannical streak, the same tendency to focus on symbols without seeing the systemic dysfunction that requires "spiritual medicine" or prophesy to cure. If they did, they might transform America into a beacon of freedom and individualism rather than a blind and clumsy militant state, guided trancelike into a fog of Apocalyptic prophesy and arrogance see-sawing with shame.