Faith and Obligation?

If something is an obligation, is doing it really faith or rather fear of punishment? Those of us raised in small-c catholic traditions may recall the idea of holy days of obligation. These were days wherein church attendance was considered mandatory, and failure to attend was considered sin unless you had an officially sanctioned reason for not being in attendance. I want to ask, is it really meritorious to do something with a spiritual gun pointed at your head?

The Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Milwaukee recently reminded parishioners that attendance at Mass, even during this pandemic that puts the demographic that comprises the majority of church goers at greatest mortal danger, is mandatory. In other words, “even if it kills you, Grandma, get to Mass.” Do we really believe that any God worthy of the Name would say something like that? Can we see that such statements are nothing more than coercive attempts to get people to do something they might otherwise not do, and for perfectly valid reasons? Is putting butts in the pews worth dying over? Can the Archbishop really feel good about what he has done at the end of the day with this policy? Might it be that the people’s money is more important to him than anything else about them, including their health and safety? If that’s true, could there be a bigger example of mortal sin?

Remember, as much as your particular tradition, Christian or other, claims to speak for God the truth is that it does not. Ultimately all institutions are about self preservation, even if they are loathe to admit it and so seek to blame a Bigger Authority for their irresponsible actions. If your tradition claims to be pro-life but makes decisions that may sacrifice Grandma on the altar of dead Presidents, it’s neither pro-life nor pro-God. If institutional religion is confused as to why it is breathing a death rattle, perhaps we should simply hand it a mirror.

Thirty-eight Thousand gods and Counting

Every religion and every subdivision of those religions purports to reveal God to us, and all of them fail. What they reveal instead are gods, middle managers at best, what the Hebrew scriptures called demiurges. I say this because, quite frankly, we imagine God should be our personal errand boy, taking care of this and that, allowing us to manipulate him into doing our bidding by virtue of our having obeyed some rather penny ante behavioral restrictions. It’s done in the name of explaining how God cares for us, but would any God worthy of the name be a micromanager?

The reason I say there are thirty-eight thousand gods and counting is that is approximately the number of Protestant denominations of Christianity at the present time. Leaving out other religions and the various catholic denominations for a moment, each of those thirty-eight thousand has their own particular understanding of their god and believe theirs to be the correct understanding. Some of them concede that some other groups come close to being right while other groups claim to be the one true church. Add on to that number all of the other religions and their subsets and we are left with an astronomical number of gods. They cannot all be correct understandings because they all contradict each other in more or less significant ways. They could theoretically all be wrong, but I suspect most of them are more right than wrong. The problem is that they all look at the local area office demiurge in charge of local affairs rather than God.

I am not arguing for a new Orthodoxy – far from it. I am saying that most all of our God imagery is way too small. In fact, all imagery is way too small. Whether we are arguing for the old man in his workshop creating all that is in seven days from leftover parts or something closer to the Buddhist notion of emptiness, we are quite simply missing the mark and settling for a god who is domesticated and pasteurized. If God is to be the Source and Sustainer of all that is, God simply cannot be stuffed into a meat bag obsessed with whether or not we are touching ourselves. A better vision of such a God would be much closer to consciousness, energy, potential, spirit, being itself, and other terms that reflect the type of being necessary to accomplish what we might call the work of God.

All of this is more than trivia for those of us who are spiritual practitioners. It has implications for everything from how we practice individually and in community to how we engage in service. Prayer in such a vision moves away from reminding daddy of what we need in case he has forgotten to listen to study, reflecting, becoming still and silent, and engaging in concentration practice. Morality in this vision is less about what we do with our reproductive systems and more about what emerges from our hearts and minds. Church in this vision needs a complete overhaul, including a massive dose of humility and a leadership that journeys with rather than demanding compliance.

This is a huge shift, and some won’t be ready to make the leap. For them, daddy god in a meat bag will continue to serve the purpose they can understand until such time as they are ready for more. If they are never ready, that is just fine. The demiurges do have a purpose because, quite honestly, this broader vision of God is part of a continuum that is built upon that demiurge foundation. What’s more, the lines of demarcation between the demiurge and God aren’t hard and fast. They are a huge, porous border that we cross one section at a time. That is how humans learn and grow, unless they close their minds to a bigger and better vision. Those of us who have come to a place on our journey where the old vision no longer fits and may feel patently absurd need this new vision. In fact, many of us have started to arrive there already, and need a format in which we can engage others at similar stations on the path. Shall we?