Sunday, April 09, 2006

Dumping Organized Religion

Jesus Kicks Tail at the Temple

Easter’s up next so I thought a few posts on faith might be in the spirit of the season.

The Afghan guy who converted to Christianity and fled for his life to Italy a couple of weeks ago got my attention.

Organized Islam required otherwise decent people in Afghanistan to kill the poor guy because he had a change of heart and decided to become a Christian. He avoided execution only because of world opinion and political pressure.

Afghan leaders got out of their religion-driven political fix by declaring him “insane” and therefore incapable of making a competent decision. Made westerners happy by getting “the man of conscience” out of harm’s way and made many Muslims happy by confirming that only a madman could refuse the comforts and truths of Mohammed.

But the whole thing was nuts to start with courtesy of organized religion.

I’ve become convinced over the years that organized religion—including historical Christianity--does more damage than good. Fundamentalist Islam is only the latest example.

Just finished Garry Wills’ “What Jesus Meant.” It’s only a little over a hundred pages and so well written you can read the whole thing in one sitting.

Wills is one of my favorite Christian scholars and writers. He's a freethinking Catholic and his take is getting strong reviews.

He argues that Jesus' teaching and life were fundamentally hostile to organized religion both then and now. I agree.

I wonder what a deconstructed and humble religious faith would look like?

At the very least it wouldn’t prop up arrogant political parties and regimes and encourage narrow cultural and ethnic prejudice. Real faith might even consistently challenge the use of violence and a fixation on money. It might dump priesthoods and rituals and rites. Seems like that kind of faith might have something to say here in the US and overseas too.

People of faith who recognize the danger of religion could even help lead the way in reducing—as much as possible—the unfortunate and widespread influence of organized religious mumbo jumbo.

People of faith taking on organized religion? Hmmmm. Things could really get interesting :^)


Blogger 3wishes said...

I think the difference is in the human brain. Outside of religion we have people who must either, lead, follow or choose their own path. It just follows in religion. And politics. The followers will keep organized religion going and still be oblivious to the words of what they preach. The leaders will keep the richs. Those that choose their own way will be able to know better and keep watching the show unable to take the blinders off the followers and the leaders. Nice post.

9:23 AM  
Blogger Bay Area Gal said...

Agreed 3. Nice post P&P. I really do agree, but have absolutely no vision to see what a non-organized-religion-ish faith could look like. I mean except when i read the gospels. And every once and a while i catch a glimpse of it and feel able to press on toward this hope with what little i do know.

At root, i wonder if it is all about humility?

It is hard, as a Christian, to offer what you do have while not creating a structure of belief that includes things you can't entirely fathom--but pretend to for fear you will lose people if you don't seem to. Does that make sense? [Is religion (as opposed to faith) dominated by fear?]

Mysticism is on to something except that it's humilty and introverson often leaves it unavailble to the masses. Or is it it's non-mass-approval that makes it what it is?

Do i always leave tangential thoughts on other people's posts. Maybe so. Sorry. I guess my mind is kind of like a fast-growing tree once the seed is planted.

7:45 PM  
Anonymous Alex said...

Interesting. I haven't really participated in an organized religious activity in a decade - since my wedding, I guess. But I do miss it every once and a while and so wander in to some church or another and sit in the back row and then remember all over again why I never go. I satisfy my hunger for spirituality (which I still experience) elswhere, though it remains difficult to do so.

I suppose if I'm honest, I might have to admit a "small" problem with authority - people telling me what to do or what they think God would want me to do drives me crazy. My most authentic and enduring spiritual experiences are the exact opposite and occur as people share their experience, strength and hope in a way that challenges and yet allows disagreement or differences of opinion or interpretation. I have yet to find a church or other organized religious body that consistently works this way, so I don't go.

8:35 PM  
Blogger Wordcat said...

Appreciate the props and great comments everybody.

Didn't want to get into some of the details of my thinking cuz the post would have been way too long. Maybe material for another post soon.

But a couple of thoughts right now to spur the discussion.

Yes, I do think humility is they key that seperates religion of the heart from most every form of organized religion. Most forms of organized religion inevitably emphasize externals and self-righteousness and a destructive judgmentalism. Much of Jesus's Sermon on the Mount was intended as a frontal challenge to that kind of religion and spirituality.

I like Garry Will's conclusion to his chapter "Against Religion:"

“What is the kind of religion that Jesus opposed? Any religion that is proud of its virtue…. Any that is self-righteous, quick to judge and condemn, ready to impose burdens rather than share or lift them. Any that exalts its own officers, proud of its trappings, building expensive monuments to itself. Any that neglects the poor and cultivates the rich, any that scorns outcasts and flatters the rulers of this world. If that sounds like just about every form of religion that we know, then we can see how far off from religion Jesus stood.”

Beyond that basis in humility, what would more authentic religion look like? Couple of quick things that could help:

1. Planned obsolescence—We know from sociology and organizational studies that all movements and organizations move through earlier life giving stages when they are responding to life and creating it and then through later stages when they become bureaucracies concerned primarily with self-preservation and money and technique. Religions and religious movements are no different. Making ‘planned obsolescence’ part of religious thinking could make a big difference. As religious movements move past their prime, they could deconstruct themselves and encourage new and more vital expressions of faith to take hold.

2. Much greater openness to learning and experience—Christians have historically looked to Scripture, tradition and experience to guide their decision-making. But in fact experience normally gets short shrift in organized religion and tradition much more. Religions and religious traditions that give experience a much greater role will be much less likely, in my view, to become destructive. I think that’s part of what you’re getting at Alex, re the atmosphere in most all churches that inhibits asking questions or interacting more honestly. Religious groups are simply not in the habit of asking hard questions or reflecting on experience (either personal experience or more formal methods of examining experience like science) and that shows up in the everyday ethos.

But because of the nature of most religion in general and the very specific organized religions that have the most sway right now, it’s hard to know whether either humility or planned obsolescence or greater openness to experience would ever be widely possible.

But I do think smaller subgroups, like some of the Anabaptist sects and perhaps even this new Emerging Church movement, reflect or could reflect some or all of these life-giving and authentic characteristics. And there are individuals and movements and groups within various organized religious groups that can be the real deal too.

I just wonder why so many people of faith who do understand some of these things aren't more outspoken against organized religion and against dead forms of religion. Its almost as if religion is beyond criticism or seen to be in bad taste. But it has such destructive effects that it seems virtually like a duty to challenge it. Jesus certainly did.

1:36 PM  
Blogger Bay Area Gal said...

Off those thoughts WC I have two more thoughts.

One is that econmically i am so infurated with planned obsolence that i never knew it might have a beneficial nature as well--and in this case i think you are right. I think, actually, this should be the hope of any NP as well: that they would work towards their own end. That they would no longer be needed. Rather, most NP's and i suppose religous movements, end up being more about maintaince of their existence than any real work or progress toward their idealistic or Kingdom goals. It's a sad reality.

Okay, my second thought is that I guess, as a fellow Jesus-lovin'-person, the only thing i would feel uneasy about (or is that just the trained religous woman in me... trust me i am rebellious enough though!) is the openness to expierence. Not because i disagree, but i felt like you bordered on the idea that something of lasting Truth might itself be the blaspheme. I think the true blaspheme may be when I/we/org-religion thinks they have an absolute understanding of that truth. I guess, my point, is that at least from a Christian perspective their must be Spirit and Truth. I see that essentially as some sort of collision and constant re-working of expereince and tradition, Hmmm.. not sure i am articulating myself. I guess i just not think that tradition and ritual have to be negative. I think they are negative when they become worshiped symbollically over a more appropriate or relevant(based on current experience) manifestation of this somewhat mysterious truth.

It makes sense in my head but it doesn't make sense when i try to make sense of it in the written or spoken word.

5:00 PM  
Blogger Wordcat said...

Well, we're getting into deep water here Bay Area Gal :^) To oversimplify, I think virtually all religions and religious movements begin with experience and then become largely closed to it. If you look at Christianity, there was powerful religious experience and a spiritual movement long before the New Testament was written. And the traditions and rituals we have now in many religions were once responses to practical experiences and needs that folks had at some time in the past. So experience is the heart of all of it. But both the way Scripture is interpreted and the way traditions and rituals are viewed eventually get divorced from current experience when religion eventually goes bad, as it seems to do pretty much inevitably.

I have very mixed feelings about religious rites and rituals. I was raised in the Greek Orthodox Church which is heavy on ritual (we used to refer to services as "bells and smells" when I was a kid :^). I recognize they can be beautiful and may communicate something of the heart of a faith to believers, but if you take teaching like the Sermon on the Mount seriously, or even the teachings of the Buddha, elaborate rituals and rites are pretty risky business.

5:58 PM  
Blogger jon said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

5:45 PM  
Blogger jon said...

"At the very least it wouldn’t prop up arrogant political parties and regimes and encourage narrow cultural and ethnic prejudice. Real faith might even consistently challenge the use of violence and a fixation on money."

I agree that these things are bad. But I disagree that they are synonymous with organized religion. Organized religion can exist without propping up political parties and regimes, without being violent, without being racist, and without being fixated on money. Just as easily as individuals outside of organized religion can do all of those things, and claim them in faith as well.

"It might dump priesthoods and rituals and rites."

This felt like an add-on - take a bunch of clearly bad things that aren't necessarily organized religion, and associate them with "priesthoods and rituals and rites". Do you believe that the apostles and those who followed them misinterpreted Christ's teachings, or that they didn't actually form organized religion as they appear to in the Bible and in historical accounts.

(and I'm not disputing that much has gone bad in organized Christianity in the last 1700 years and perhaps especially in the last 1500. But I want to make a distinction between saying that the organized faiths are failing and saying that they're failing because they're organized.)

5:47 PM  
Blogger Wordcat said...

Thanks for the passion and the encouragingly honest take Jon.

I agree that those problems aren't unique to organized religion.

But organized religions of all types claim a higher moral and spiritual standard, so I think it's important that those historical approaches don't seem to improve a whole lot on the standards of the "unbelievers." I travel all over the world and I've seen what traditional religions produce thousands of years after the founder.

I'm not sure I can think of examples of organized religions that don't habitually fall prey to the whack side I mentioned once they get a generation or two past enlightened founders and unusually favorable circumstances.

My main problem is that organized religions eventually claim the authority of heaven or fate in order to cover up their failures to serve people. "The sabbath was made for man, not man for the sabbath." I know you know that passage by heart.

Re your comments on priesthoods and rituals and rites:

I don't have any problem with people of faith organizing themselves. That's sort of a human given unless you're by yourself on a mountain top.

When I say "organized religion" I mean "established institutional religion." Since both you and Bay Area Gal reacted the same way I'm guessing this is a generational misunderstanding.

People of my generation understand 'organized religion' to mean old school institutional religion, not people of faith organizing themselves while they still have something experientially honest and relevant to say.

I stand by my comments on priests and rituals and rites.

I think you may be confusing the inevitable structure of a renewal movement with the dead institutional forms that follow it. The religious structure in the New Testament is clearly a response to people who are alive with an important experience.

The dead institutional stuff does play at least one important role. It can carry the seeds of the original renewal movement through the words and rituals and rites so that somebody in the future eventually miraculously gets it and creates something in the spirit of the real deal.

That's a significant contribution. I just don't know if it outweighs the damage done by those dead organizations. I don't think the Jesus portrayed in the Gospels and reportedly executed by one of those traditional religious institutions thought so.

10:39 PM  
Blogger jon said...

"I think you may be confusing the inevitable structure of a renewal movement with the dead institutional forms that follow it. The religious structure in the New Testament is clearly a response to people who are alive with an important experience. "

Can you talk more about how you distinguish these two things? Like, how can you tell someone when their faith structure has become "dead"? If those who structure the renewal movement continue to strive to develop their passion in faith, then at what point do they abandon the practices that worked at the beginning, or when do they decide that these practices no longer work? And do they make that decision as a body, or do they break off and begin anew as individuals as the spirit leads them?

(I ask all these questions wanting legitimate answers, not in a challenging or hypothetical way.)

1:37 PM  
Blogger Wordcat said...

"Can you talk more about how you distinguish these two things? Like, how can you tell someone when their faith structure has become "dead"? If those who structure the renewal movement continue to strive to develop their passion in faith, then at what point do they abandon the practices that worked at the beginning, or when do they decide that these practices no longer work? And do they make that decision as a body, or do they break off and begin anew as individuals as the spirit leads them?"

Great and very relevant questions, Jon. I often think that if people in relgious organizations were more willing to ask these kinds of questions--regardless of how they answer them--we'd have a lot healthier religion. But my experience--and I've had a good bit--is that they're rarely even entertained.

Some ways I look at whether a religious movement is dying or dead. I've used em all in practice. And I think these elements are the same ones you'd use in the midst of a renewal movement:

1. Are key leaders in that organization or movement honestly asking the kinds of hard questions about their spiritual vitality and relevance you've put to me. Are they honestly seeking to take action on the answers they come up with? If they're doing both of those things you've probably got something that is alive and kicking. If those kinds of questions aren't being asked seriously by key leaders that's a bad sign.

2. Are key leaders in the religious organization continuously going back to their spiritual sources (prayer, whatever their scriptures are, etc.) and struggling with what they mean in light of current cultural experience or other sources of authority like science? If they aren't--and if they are hostile to doing that or afraid of doing that--that's typically a sign of religion that is becoming toxic.

3. Do a majority of the people involved in a religious organization understand what the rituals and rites and lingo mean? I was raised in the Greek Orthodox church and I can't believe more than 5-10% of the people involved understood what was going on. Actually, the church only instituted services in English about 20 years ago! I understand some Greek but it was all in ecclesiastical high Greek and it as, as they say, all Greek to me.

4. Are there elaborate rites and rituals that appear to go well beyond anything found in sources of the religious organization? That by itself is a bad sign.

5. Is the religious organization or movement highly identified with a particular ethnicity or language or culture so that people outside of those groups are effectively shut out? Religious renewal--in almost any religion--virtually always breaks down barriers and unites people across traditional boundaries. That's part of what makes them powerful and attractive. For example, a religious movement that once made a home for the poor but is now almost exclusively middle or upper class is probably on its way down. John Wesley, the magnificent leader of the Methodist revival, died disillusioned because he knew Methodism was largely dead. He knew it because Methodism had become a respectable middle class phenomenon without the poor who were the heart of the original revival.

6. Does the religious organization have an ethos of confidence combined with humility, or is it more characterized by fear and self-righteousness (usually manifested in being unusually judgmental)? The more it feels like the latter the worse the sign.

7. Are key leaders increasingly concerned about money, concentrating decision-making power in their own hands, and establishing an effective bureacracy instead of focusing on the renewal elements that got the thing going in the first place?

Those are just a few of the things I look for. The degree to which a religious organization or renewal movement is characterized by these things--especially if they're characterized by pretty much all of them--is the degree to which they need to do some soul searching.

But the key thing--and this probably sounds wierd in a religious context--is that most religions and religious organizations simply don't have metrics like these to evaluate themselves. Groups are going to disagree on the exact metrics to use, but in most cases they aren't using any objective metrics. That's why I said most religious groups I know aren't in the habit of asking hard questions.

Re what to do if you find you're in the middle of something dead or dying, normally it's best to try to make decisions about changes or even shutting the thing down as a community. Sometimes that process itself injects new life and brings about a renewal. But if that process fails or is blocked--which is what often happens because the movement is too far gone--then sometimes, unfortunately, folks have got to move on and begin again. Navigating all that is incredibly tricky and takes a lot of patience and humility.

4:41 PM  

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