Many years ago, I dated a lovely and kind woman who hailed from Dallas, Texas. Her late father was a theologian of some renown at Southern Methodist University and had been on the faculty committee that investigated a scandal involving the school’s Division One football team – resulting in the NCAA inveighing the “death penalty” and shutting down the program for the 1987 season. In Texas, football is tantamount to religion, so he caught a lot of heat for his principled stance. By all accounts, he was a man of great integrity, but died before his daughter and I started seeing each other.
My girlfriend’s mother was also a very gracious and kind woman. After her two daughters moved away, she converted the second floor of her house into a little neighborhood library for small children. Her efforts were so lauded that she was got some press in the national media. Then, in 2008, just before my first book came out, my girlfriend and I flew to Dallas to meet her mom. I’d never been to Texas before and was eager to see cowboys roping steers. To my surprise, Dallas was a lot like Jersey. As we drove from the airport into the city proper, I saw pretty much all the stores and restaurants you’d find by my house and not a single person was wearing a Stetson. Bummer. But the food was very good, that is if you like having your arteries occluded by racks of ribs, brisket sandwiches dripping with grease, deep fried apple pie, deep-fried Oreos, and, to my amazement, deep fired Dr. Pepper. Shiner Bock beer, however, was not to my taste, but you could get some mean margaritas down there. But I really got a kick out of all the little kids who’d trundle into my girlfriends’ former home to borrow books. It was awfully cute, and her mom had put together a library that would rival the children’s section of any municipal establishment.
During my conversations with my girlfriend’s mom, I discovered that, despite her husband’s theological background and both their formative years having been spent in the evangelical crucible of the Lone Star State, they hadn’t been a particularly religious couple in their later years. This didn’t surprise me because, after you discover how the ecclesiastical sausage is made, organized religion can sort of lose its appeal. As we talked about the topic, the subject of her über evangelical neighbors came up. “Around here,” the mom told me, “The first thing people ask you is ‘what church do belong to?’” Turns out, the mothers of the tykes who came to the library asked her that question all the time and, since she didn’t go to services, I asked how she handled it. “Very gingerly,” she said. “But when they don’t get a definitive answer, well, they eventually figure something is up.” Then my girlfriend’s mom told me a shocking story. One day, after all the kids had left the library for the day, she found a religious tract on her desk. It was titled, When Being Good Isn’t Good Enough. Basically, it stated that being a good person was nice and all but, if you hadn’t accepted Jesus as your personal Lord and Savior and went to church, then all your good works would be for naught. You’d still be damned and thrown into the Lake of Fire.
That pissed me off. Here was a woman who gave of herself tirelessly to small children, creating a wonderful space for them to read and learn, only to have a self-righteous parent insult her by smugly mocking her religious choices. Now, I don’t know if my girlfriend’s mother believed in God or not and, quite frankly, I didn’t care. Experience had already shown me that people who’re not outwardly religious can still possess deep spiritual lives – but their being “off the grid’ threatens rigid churchgoing types greatly. God forbid someone has a view of the divine that doesn’t hew to their own. But even if a person does not believe in God, so what? Having been in seminary, I know for a fact that true believers can be some of the most perverted and evil people out there. So, what would you rather have? A religious person who traffics in holier than thou pride and resentment or a nice agnostic lady who teaches kids how to read? I know who I’d rather have a beer with.
Besides, thinking anyone has the God market cornered is ludicrous. Since human beings are so diverse, it should come as no surprise we have so many viewpoints as far as The Almighty is concerned. It also shouldn’t be shocking that there are commonalities as well. Take the doctrine of the Trinity for instance. While it took Christian theologians hundreds of years to develop that whole “three persons in one God” thing, something much like it existed in the Vedantic school of Hinduism long before Jesus was born – Satcitanandai. To break it down, Sat means “existence,” Cit means “consciousness” and Ananda means “bliss.” Used as both a name and a description for how human beings subjectively experience Brahman – the unchanging Ultimate Reality in Hinduism – and those three separate “experiences” are considered inseparable, “one in substance and undivided” from that Reality. So, if you look at “Father” as Sat, the “Son” or “Logos” as Cit, and the “Holy Spirit” as Ananda, it dovetails nicely with the Christian doctrine of a Triune God – so much so that Indian Christians call the Trinity Satcitanandai to this day. So, ask yourself, how can two traditions separated by thousands of years and thousands of miles come up with a formulation of the Divine that’s so similar? Maybe because God reveals Himself to all – not just to those belonging to a particular denomination.
There are Christians however, like the lady who left that asinine religious tract, who bitterly cling to the notion of Extra Ecclesiam nulla salus – outside the Church there is no salvation. Well, that triumphalist little phrase is a poisonous as they come – using God as a means of dividing people, not bring them together. Do you seriously believe that a pious Jew, Muslim or Buddhist who performed good works all his or her life will roast in Hades because they were unbaptized? Because they weren’t Methodist, Pentecostal or Southern Baptist? You’re telling me Buddha and Gandhi are in hell because they weren’t “born again?” With respect to differing religions, the Vatican II statement Nostra Aetate states, “The Catholic Church rejects nothing that is true and holy in these [other} religions. She regards with sincere reverence those ways of conduct and of life, those precepts and teachings which, though differing in many aspects from the ones she holds and sets forth, nonetheless often reflect a ray of that Truth which enlightens all men. Translation? People aren’t bound for eternal hellfire if they’re not Christian.
Most religious enmity is driven by human fear – the fear of people who are different. It has nothing to do with God. Don’t believe me? Just look at how social media and our poisonous culture wars and political culture -– which has taken the place of religion for many people -have become a secular version of the Spanish Inquisition. Now the question many people ask isn’t “where do you go to church?” but “who did you vote for?” And, if you fail to belong to a certain ideological tribe, people regard you with suspicion, if not outright hostility. Regarding antivaxxer Republicans, one Democratic woman told me, “I just don’t have time for those people in my life. They all just deserve to die.” That sounds like something a psychopathic Crusader might say just before slaughtering some Saracens. But this woman’s dehumanizing zealotry stemmed from secular political reasons, not religious ones – just another iteration of the all too human dynamic of “us against them.” Nowadays, “cancel culture” is just a sanitized version of burning people at the stake. Politicians might as well be saying, “Outside of the Republican/Democratic/Tea/Progressive Party there is no salvation.” With all this self-righteousness going about, it’s small wonder Congress can’t anything done.
Like other religions, political parties can “reflect a ray of truth which enlightens all men.” We’re just so stuck in our self-reinforcing Facebook bubbles that we can’t tolerate the cognitive dissonance that listening to differing points of view may arouse. We’ve abandoned civil discourse for parroting “talking points” designed to soothe our egos and deaden our critical thinking. A criticism I’ve heard about evangelical Christians is that they’re forever spewing scriptural aphorisms like mindless automatons but, if you tune into Hannity or The View, you’ll hear the same tired political mantras trotted out again and again – as if the mere repetition will somehow make them true. We’re all talking at each other, not to each other.
But, if you’re a Christian person, such triumphal and mindless doctrinal rigidity is especially problematic. Disliking, distrusting or ostracizing people – only liking people who believe what you believe – is against the whole ethos of the Gospels. When you look at the Parable of the Good Samaritan, you get an insight into how Jesus wanted us to treat people who’re different from us. Back in those days, Samaritans and Jews hated each other for religious reasons. As one scholar noted. “The Jews of Jesus’ day had no time for the ‘half-breed’ people of Samaria.” Sound familiar? And yet, when a Jew was attacked and left bleeding on the side of the road, Jesus made it a point to emphasize that it was a Samaritan who saved that hapless man’s, uh, bacon. Simply put, believing in one version of God or another is no excuse for treating a person like shit. For, as it states in the Letter of Timothy, “Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love.”
So that lady who left that hurtful religious tract wasn’t acting out of Christian compassion – she was just showing how she was superior she thought she was. You may disagree with a person’s particular faith – or lack of it – for sincere theological reasons but that doesn’t’ give you permission to act like a jerk. And, as evidenced by the Gospels, Jesus felt the same way. “Why do you look at the speck in your brother’s eye?” He said, “But fail to notice the beam in your own eye?” In effect, he was saying, “Don’t be an asshole.” Of course, some religious people feel that atheists and agnostics fall outside of this commandment. They don’t.
I know parents who’ve lost their children, people who’ve fought in wars and, sadly, innocents who were sexually abused by clergy. For some of them, after such heart wrenching traumas, God has become a fairy tale. Quite frankly, who can blame them? How would your faith hold up if such things happened to you? Let’s hope none of us finds out. Of course, there are atheists who’ve never had such experiences, but their reasons for unbelief are their own and don’t bother me a whit. That’s because I believe “rays of truth” are even found among those who do not believe. Besides, jousting with atheists can reveal unhealthy attitudes or assumptions that blind fealty to religion can lead to – and that’s always a good thing. And, as far as I’m concerned, if they’re feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, giving drink to those who thirst, visiting prisoners and the sick, sheltering the homeless, burying the dead and defending the widow and orphan – or helping little kids learn how to read – then it’s all good. They’re just going about things differently.
The Bible says, “For as the body without a spirit is dead, so faith without works is dead also.” But people who do good works –those who are kind, loving, generous and patient – even if they’re atheists, are never spiritually dead. No, that’s the lot of the modern Pharisee – churchgoers who proclaim “faith alone” saves on Sunday and then stick it to their fellow man the rest of the week. Hypocrites “who tie up heavy, cumbersome loads and put them on other people’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to lift a finger to move them.” Jesus had a serious problem with those people. So much so that he didn’t hang with them, preferring to spend his time with those the world rejected. Hey, I’ve got a new catchy religious acronym – WWJDW? Who would Jesus’ drink with? Put that on some t-shirts!
Now, I’m not much of a churchgoer, but I’ve begun to get the sneaking suspicion that God has zero interest in who belongs to what religion or not. For me, If all people, regardless of belief or lack of it, have been summoned into being by The Father – Existence Itself or Sat – then Conscious Itself – The Son, Logos or Cit – makes us aware of ourselves, others and the world which, in turn, allows us to rejoice in that knowledge and fellowship; a joy which is Ananda, The Holy Spirit – Bliss Itself. It all works together. As one guy described The Trinity; “The Father is he who kisses the Son, the Son is he who kisses the Father, and the Holy Spirit is the kiss.” Simply put God – Satcitanandai – is not only a relational being, He is all love, desire, friendship, passion and community rolled into one. He is Relationships Itself. “Where two or three of you are gathered in my name, I am with you,” or as E.M. Forster wrote, “Only connect…live in fragments no longer.” The Ultimate Reality wants us to get along.
That sounds like a tall order since we are all so very different. But if you look at our diversity as God’s relational, eternal and infinite gift of Being prismated through the lens of time, then differences shouldn’t frighten us as much as they do. Because even though we are all separate and unique, there is a unity, a relationship, that holds it all together – much like a great composer weaving musical notes that might sound discordant on their own into a masterpiece. Yeah, sometimes it’s really hard to hear that music, but it’s always there, we just have to listen for it. And that means listening to each other – no matter what we believe or don’t believe. Religion has much to teach us but, if you’re troubled by your lack of faith – or even if you’re not – if you strive to love one another, to live in fragments no longer, then being good, in the end, will be good enough.