Archive for July, 2012

Just because one’s cause is just does not mean it should be one’s cause. Russian Patriarch Kirill said in early January, 2012 that it would be a “very bad sign” if Russia’s political officials failed to heed the recent protests over whether the elections in 2011 had been subject to significant fraud. Given Kirill’s religious station, one could be forgiven for assuming that the “very bad sign” refers to something from God, such as a flood or other “natural” catastrophe. Actually, Kirill meant “a sign of the authorities’ inability to adjust.” He went on to assert that every person “in a free society must have the right to express his opinion, including disagreement with the actions of the authorities.” He urged change rather than revolution, pointing to the loss of life following the 1917 revolution. Had the demonstrations before that upheaval ended in “the expression of peaceful protests and had not led to a bloody revolution and a fratricidal war,” Russia “would have challenged or maybe even surpassed the United States from the point of view of economic development.” On the same day, Archbishop Vsevolod Chaplin said that the political officials could be “slowly eaten alive” were they to ignore the protesters.

Using words like “eaten alive” does not sound like very religious language. Indeed, the statements are in the realm of political theory (democracy) and perhaps economic development. Educationally speaking, the study of theology (even philosophy of religion) does not constitute or sufficiently involve political or democratic theory, let alone economic development. Of the latter, liberation theology has something to say, but even that theology does not claim to know how GNP can be maximized. Kirill’s statement that Russia without the revolution of 1917 would have a population and economy on par with the United States can only be taken as the opinion of a “lay person” from the standpoint of experts in political theory and political economy. Putting it another way, having studied theology or simply being a religious leader does not entitle someone to assume expertise in political or economic matter. Even if Kirill has an advanced degree in political theory or economic development, making his statements in his capacity as a religious leader represents a category mistake.

Besides the possibility of bad advice being given (and relied on!) by a non-expert who on account of his own base of knowledge in another field is wrongly assumed to be an expert, there is the opportunity cost of other uses of the cleric’s time lost on account of the foray into the other field. In other words, there were presumably other things he could have been doing—activities in the religious realm like praying, hearing confessions, or even administering his religious organization. More abstractly, Kirill’s decision, admittedly well-intended given his political opinions, illustrates the tendency of the religious domain to be extended beyond its native turf. To claim that God is omnipresent is not to say that every field is included in theology—or that the latter has a claim of expertise in any other field. We would not want a lawyer branching out to see a few patients just because the waiting rooms at medical clinics are crowded. So too, I contend, we ought not assume that clerics have political or economic expertise.

Indeed, we might even benefit from religious leaders doing more in their own back yards, such as maintaining their organizations and modeling religiosity. Pope John Paul II was admittedly involved in fighting the USSR’s dominance in Poland, but he tended to stress modeling religiosity as he developed in office (the fall of the USSR no doubt was a factor). Talking about officials getting “eaten alive” or engaging in comparative economics not only does not count as religiosity; such engagement comes at the expense of the sort of religious experience that can engender a distinctive way of being. The compassion from it is different than that which led Kirill to wander off into Russian politics. Whereas compassion based on religious experience stems from heightened sensitivity towards existing itself (there being a transcendent dimension to the experience), political compassion comes out of, or presupposes, conflict.

In short, it is paradoxical that presuming to have influence beyond one’s native ken can actually mean that one has less influence overall because one has shirked the basis of one’s expertise by engaging in “lay opinions” extrinsic to that base. To constrain oneself to one’s own area can actually maximize one’s influence because that is where one’s true credibility lies. Religion is delimited, as is any domain or field. No one field has a “get in free” card to all of the others. In each field, distinctive study and practice are requisite to being proficient. I cannot very well say that by virtue of my studies a certain field, I am therefore able to be taken as an expert in another. Particularly among people who claim to follow the teachings of Jesus (e.g., agape), one would not expect that sort of arrogance. Implicitly, the foray itself undercuts the cleric’s own basis of authority.


Sophia Kishkovsky, “Head of Russian Church Urges Action on Vote Fraud Allegation,” The New York Times, January 8, 2012. http://www.nytimes.com/2012/01/08/world/europe/patriarch-kirill-urges-russian-leaders-to-listen-to-protests.html?partner=rss&emc=rss

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The Roman Catholic missal of 2011 reflects a trend then well-underway in the Church to return to pre-Vatican II customs and assumptions, such as on the relationship between the clergy and laity. In particular, the changes in the missal reflect an attempt to more accurately translate the pre-Vatican II Latin Mass. I contend that such changes also make the distinctly theological element of the belief system more transparent. It could be that the translations in the 1970s blurred the lines between theological concepts and things from our daily lives in the world. Even though theological constructs are intentionally distinguished from temporal matters, we tend to want to place them as existing or having referents empirically. The religious putrification of the twentieth century can be put in the form of the question, Did it really happen?, even when the it is a concept having the theological attribute of eternal.

For example, when reciting the Nicene Creed, the statement of faith, Jesus being “one in being with the Father” is changed to Jesus as “consubstantial with the Father.” Also, Jesus is not “born of the Virgin Mary,” but, rather, “incarnate of the Virgin Mary.” The terms consubstantial and incarnate are theological terms. In other words, they have currency only as theological concepts. Where as animals, including human beings, are born, for example, the term incarnate exists only as a theological construct. One cannot go outside and say, Look mom, there’s something incarnating over there! To expect to find something or someone incarnating is to commit a category mistake by taking a concept that exists in theology and applying it elsewhere. Constructs such as consubstantial and incarnate, as well as transsubstantiation (i.e., real presence of Christ in the Eucharist) exist in the domain of theology. In other words, they exist theologically. Transsubstantiation makes sense only theologically; to look for it otherwise, as though lying in a field somewhere, does not make sense. Indeed, the Aristotelian distinction between substance and accident is a philosophical distinction that has no place other than in doing philosophy. The theological concept of transsubstantiation makes use of this distinction. Neither the distinction nor the theological construct are empirical; rather, they involve constructs that have existence in the mind.

Therefore, to equate incarnate with the act of being born, consubstantial with “being made of the same stuff,” and transsubstantiation with a substance that exists empirically (i.e., has an existence apart from the in the mind) is to treat theological constructs as though they were something else–indeed, as something more banal and worldly. The category mistake conflates theology with empirical science or gives the former an existence in the latter. Merely in asking the question, Is real presence in the physical object?, a theological construct is being applied outside of its domain, which is in the mind. A theological question would be: Is the essence of real presence agape (self-giving love)? In focusing on real presence, it is a category mistake to focus on an empirical object as though the construct is somehow in it. Just as the consubstantial relation of the theological Father and Son does not reflect relationships between dads and sons, incarnate should not be thought of in terms of the empirical conception (beginning) of a human being. Hence, to ask whether the Incarnation “really happened”–meaning empirically in history as a fact somehow evidenced by a faith narrative–does not make sense; or better yet, it reflects a category mistake, which in turn evinces a fundamental misconception of incarnate as part of the vocabulary of history rather than theology. Unlike scientific and historical concepts, theological abstractions are not “in” objects existing empirically in the world, even if certain objects are associated with them.

For example, Catholics apply the theological concept of real presence to concecrated bread and wine. That association depends on the mind applying it (and the associated agreed-upon “social contract”), as transsubstantiation is theologically rather than empirically “in” the object. The object is not a mere symbol, however, for the meaning of the theological concept mandates a real theological presence. Even so, if I were to stick a concecrated wafer in your sandwich without you realizing it, your eating it would not convey the theological concept. Nor would there be theological real presence in the Sacred Blood spilt on the carpet and walked on by unknowing people. They would not be walking on Christ’s blood, for it would be again wine on a carpet without the application of the theological concept. For one knowing that the wine had been consecrated, one could simply say that the theological application would not apply to the Blood as soon as it is spilt; the application dissolves because of the incompatible use of the wine. It is the mind’s application of the theological concept that is key here–not some magic quality of an empirical object irrespective of use. Once again, the application does not change or inhere in the empirical object empirically (i.e., in its matter) because the change is theological. The real presence is theological, and in this sense real, but not physical (or symbolic).

To look for a theological concept as though it were a rock or a mushroom is to engage in a quest that must finally be futile. If I am correct, the Roman missal of 2011 represents progress in delimiting theological concepts to their own domain. To refer to incarnate as though it is like born misses the distinctiveness of theological concepts and sets us up for disappointment when we don’t find incarnate among the evidence of births. Even so, I suspect that people will continue to look for unicorns in the country and mistake horses for the abstraction–saying, a unicorn really did exist! It is not necessarily the case that “really” in the empirical/historical sense is any more real than “really” in the theological sense. Indeed, the felt-meaning of a theological concept can be just as real, if not more, to the person of faith. Such a person would instinctively view historical or factual verification as a step backwards. Even more, such an assumed basis would evince a category mistake–indeed, the category mistake when it comes to religion in the twentieth century and I suspect beyond.


Jaweed Kaleem, “Changes to Roman Catholic Mass Will Surprise Majority in the Pews, Survey Says,” The Huffington Post, August 19, 2011. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/08/19/roman-catholic-mass-changes_n_931908.html

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A Unitarian minister told me matter-of-factly that “certain social structures” are part of his faith. Faith? Social justice, yes, but religious faith? I was skeptical. I replied that distinctively religious faith has the element of transcendence, and thus a Wholly Otherness quality, rather than being based in a human artifact such as a particular social structure. I think the minister was actually referring to social justice and mislabeling his passion for it as his faith. In other words, he was conflating ideology with theology, or, more accurately, treating his ideology as though it were his god.

While laudable in political activism, advocating a particular social structure does not constitute religious experience. In fact, from the point of view of the latter, an ideological agenda such as advocating a particular arrangement for a society would essentially be self-idolatry (i.e., self-worship). As Hume and even Augustine have pointed out, thinking of the divine in terms of things or relations in the human realm is idolatrous. Hume in particular points out in History of Natural Religion that it is difficult for the human mind to embrace divine simplicity without succumbing to constructing God in a visible form. Pure, invisible unity, beyond even God being a being (according to Plotinus), is difficult for the human mind to hold on to, let alone embrace. This is Hume’s main point regarding religion. I would add that it is difficult for a human being to achieve the distinctively religious intensity needed for religious experience, whether in worship, medication, prayer, or adoration.

We seem easily distracted, and thus tend to drag in other, less intense, “religious activities.” Religious functionaries and even institutions can inadvertently enable this proclivity, ironically even eclipsing religious experience itself. This may be why, according to the Barna Group (see USA Today below), in spite of about 95% of all Americans consistently saying they believe in God or a higher power, the percentage of Americans who have not attended a religious service (other than a wedding or funeral) within six months increased from 24% in 1991 to 37% in 2011. While religious functionaries may have no problem bringing themselves into religious experience, they may be missing the ball concerning how it can be part of a religious service. I suspect part of the problem may be an overemphasis on formal structure, or “the program,” in effect crowding out rather than isolating incubating and protecting religious experience within the structure or program.

For example, concentrated spiritual contemplation in stillness is rarely part of a Church service. In the Catholic Mass, for example, little time is allowed for just “intense transcending” following the distribution of the Eucharist. The consecration and ingesting are taken as the central acts of the second half of the Mass. I contend that the ritual and the theological-concept-applied-ingestion are means by which pure (i.e., nothing else going on) religious (i.e., transcendence) experience may occur. In other words, the smells and bells can prep or stimulate the worshipper to go into a state in which concentrated religious experience is itself the only action—transcending even the symbol, myth and ritual of the service, as well as the outside world (and even ourselves). The object of the transcending being by definition beyond the limits of human cognition and perception, it is the experience of the transcending that is the religious experience.

Sometimes religious functionaries can actually get in the way—mostly quite unintentionally I’m sure. At such times, they would be better off simply sitting down and trying to keep quiet—actively practicing non-attention-getting. I heard once about the vocations director of a Catholic diocese saying Mass as a visiting priest at a parish. After distributing Communion, as he was “doing the dishes” at the table/altar, he thought it appropriate to tell the congregation a joke—presumably to loosen the people up even though they were undoubtedly “somewhere else.” He might as well have said, “Hey, stop transcending! Pay attention to me!

I suspect that many priests simply are not aware of where religious experience is for the laity during the Mass; I refuse to believe that a priest would knowingly truncate the point of the ritual (in terms of religious experience) just because the Mass is nearly over. On the laity side, taking Communion and making a beeline for the door is also to eviscerate the opportunity thus afforded for isolating and concentrating on religious experience, such as in the form of intense prayer, meditation, adoration or felt-sanctification. Ritual can condition or prepare a person for such an experience while bracketing out all others. Similarly, thinking a mantra over and over in meditation ideally stops the train of thoughts such that “pure” awareness (i.e., nothing else going on) and even transcendence itself can be isolated and thus experienced in their “pure” states. Experience of time itself can be lost in such transcendence.  The Eucharistic ritual too can facilitate such a spiritual state unless cut short, which is typically the case. Lest the length of the entire Mass be a concern, priorities and time-allotment could also be revisited to reflect the value of isolated religious experience.

In worship services whose main elements are readings, songs and a sermon, these too can serve as prep for dedicated or raw religious transcending, assuming sufficient room is made in the program of activities. Once again, the key is sustained religious experience without anything else as a potential rarifying distraction. In some evangelical Christian services, for example, a song after the sermon is elongated to enable people to achieve a worship-state wherein one literally reaches out for Jesus directly. The period is long enough that the worshipper can “get into” the reaching itself and come to experience it more self-consciously. Unfortunately, as in the Mass (and Protestant services that include Communion), the worship in a “worship song” is rarely acknowledged as the pinnacle of the ritual, and thus what should be emphasized is typically truncated in the time allotted. Typically, the point becomes the sermon itself and the liturgy becomes, in effect, a class.

Moving even further away from religious experience, some churches gravitate to activities or topics in other domains even further away, and thus dilute the religiosity even more. Such churches essentially secularize religion. I suspect that this is a major reason for the increasing percentage of the “unchurched.”

For instance, the Rev. Michael Minor at Oak Hill Baptist Church in Hernando, Mississippi, “has waged war against obesity and bad health.” In fact, the National Baptist Convention “is ramping up a far-reaching health campaign devised by Mr. Minor.” Seek Well Baptist Church in Lula, Mississippi has a garden for members. To be sure, this is a good cause, particularly in Mississippi, which is first in the U.S. in the percentage of kids who are obese. That country is first in rates of heart disease, second in the number of adults with diabetes, second in adult obesity, and near last in the percentage of adults who participate in physical activity, according to the New York Times. So the cause is certainly needed, and of great value. However, it is not religious. More particularly, preaching on good diet is not prep for intense transcending experience, wherein everything else, including what is for lunch, is bracketed out. In fact, bringing other domains into the “worship” service—even in making announcements!—diverts or undercuts the “prep.” To more strongly serve as “prep,” a liturgy can itself be approached as sacred space and time. It is no accident that the ancient Greeks had their theatres at their temple complexes. Similarly, a liturgy, from start to end, can be encased in sacred time and space and not interrupted even for intermission.

As David Hume observed, it is all too easy—all too human—to get distracted in approaching the divine. Even focusing on religious experience itself while bracketing out everything else is notoriously difficult, given how we are hard-wired as a species to be oriented to concrete objects in the world. We may be in God’s image, but getting back to it without images from our experience can be quite daunting. Lest we suppose that we can afford our digressions and distractions and still worship, we might want to remember that pure religious experience transcends even the images we have of God. As Joseph Campbell said, one’s conception of God is the final obstacle in transcending to the religious experience. Campbell studied religious myth around the world and found common motifs and symbols, yet he knew that from a religious vantage-point they are not to be taken as ends in themselves. I suspect that worship services could be much better if we would dare to let go, if only while transcending, of our symbols, myths and even rituals. This would involve ritual standing outside itself to make room for something greater within itself. In Christian terms, such ritual can be described as self-emptying. One might even say that, as in forgetting about the door once inside a room, at some point on the way to entering into intense and isolated religious experience, religion itself must give way.


 Campbell Robertson, “Preaching a Healthy Diet in the Deep-Fried Delta,” New York Times, August 22, 2011. http://www.nytimes.com/2011/08/22/us/22delta.html

 Cathy L. Grossman, “Ripples Touch Spiritual Lives,” USA Today, August 22, 2011.

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According to George Barna, a religious statistics expert on contemporary American religion, “We are a designer society. We want everything customized to our personal needs—our clothing, our food, our education”—and our religion. In 1991, 49% of American adults attended religious services in a six-month period and 35% said they accepted Jesus and expected to be saved. Twenty years later, the regular attendance figure had dropped to 40% while those accepting Jesus had “risen” to 40 percent. How can these apparently contradictory trajectories be explained?

One could point to the fundamentalist or evangelical movement, which was growing during the twenty years. Such believers tend to be non-denominational and less liturgically-oriented than Roman Catholics, for instance (for whom the Eucharist is central and necessarily liturgical). An evangelical Christian would be likely to point to his or her belief in Christ and relationship to Jesus rather than to attending church as decisive for faith. For example, the prosperity gospel holds that right belief—not necessarily regular church attendance—is rewarded by God in terms of material riches.

The advent of “rock-concert-like” evangelical services has probably tempered the trend of the evangelical movement distinguishing church attendance from believing in Jesus. The “dead” quality of mainline denomination services, on the other hand, has likely contributed to the decline in regular attendance. I attended a Methodist service in 2010, for instance, only to wonder if the audience was still alive. I was informed that Methodists are about “method” so they don’t like change. Such an approach, while typical in my small-minded (yet never wrong) hometown in the Midwest, does not bode well for the spirit breaking free from the strictures of the letter. It is as though typical Christian liturgies were designed expressly to cut off religious experience—being more about a bunch of things put into a program (with the vested interests, of course) than opening a time for transcending devoid of distractions.

According to Cathy Grossman of USA Today, “Barna blames pastors for those oddly contradictory findings. Everyone hears, ‘Jesus is the answer. . . . People end up bored, burned out and empty,’he says. ‘They look at church and wonder, ‘Jesus died for this?’” Barna reports that as a result, “People say, ‘I believe in God. I believe the Bible is a good book. And then I believe whatever I want.’” In other words, denominations are fracturing.

It is perhaps worthy of note that the New Testament has Jesus saying that he came to teach on the mysteries of the Kingdom of God—the Father’s realm—and how we can more fully realize the Kingdom of God within. Simply saying, “Jesus is the answer” stops at the means. I once heard a priest preach, “Jesus is above me, Jesus is below me, Jesus is to the right of me, Jesus is to the left of me, Jesus is in front of me, Jesus is behind me.” At the time, I thought of George Fox’s “empty form,” here verbal form. In other words, has institutional Christianity gotten caught up on the nature of the religious object, which is by definition beyond the limits of human cognition and perception, at the expense of religious experience? Has that which Jesus is portrayed as preaching—how to get into the Kingdom of God—been eclipsed by a fixation on the messenger himself?

In general terms, the constriction of canonical Christian dogma since the first century of Christianity and the fixation on Christology may be why more Christians are splitting off. To be sure, “I believe whatever I want” has a ring of childishness and selfishness to it and a lack of boundaries (e.g., I decide what is good for me, with a result being that I come out good). Religion reduced to the path most convenient is essentially a form of self-idolatry. I witnessed this from someone at a Bahai service. As a scholar of comparative religion, I sometimes attend services of different religions to expand my knowledge of the phenomenon of religion.

After the service, the topic of which was love in the various religions, a woman referred to a certain religion from the Middle East as “of peace.” A man cited a few verses from that religion’s scripture advocating the killing of neighbors who refuse to convert rather than risk the chance that they could pollute the beliefs of the faithful. The woman insisted that the man simply interpreted the passage as not being of peace. It occurred to me that she may have been imposing a value or ideology that is salient in Bahai on the religion in question, with the result that anything in religion at odds with peace is ignored. Religion itself becomes peace—a human moral system essentially limiting that which is divine. The woman’s religious idolatry (i.e., worship of a human conception of peace as a religious object—her conception as the conception) seems to have triggered or involved cognitive distortion without any recognition of possibly being wrong. Her dismissiveness itself evinced the power of self-idolatry—the “I believe whatever I want”—in religion. Lest the phenomenon be thought to be a function of individualization of religion, self-idolatry can also be found among church authorities in the history of Christianity. Such idolatry can go a long way in accounting for the decline in attendance and the fracturing of sects to accommodate the inherent diversity of beliefs, values and approaches within the human family—and even the Christian family.  

To assume that one size fits all—that uniformity is necessary for (rather than adverse to) authentic unity—in matters of religion discounts or ignores the nature of the human spirit as well as the phenomenon of religion. Furthermore, constricting an entire religion to one’s own interpretation is dogmatic (i.e., arbitrary) and essentially self-idolatry under the subterfuge of leadership. The process of canonicalization of scripture, which included a willowing-down or narrowing of acceptable religious writings, can be viewed as laying the seeds of the religion’s downsizing by making otherwise viable alternatives extrinsic and even heretical. In other words, the canonical process would have been more credible had the chosen texts not been those favored by the deciders. To be crass, the ensuing religion can be said to be that of the deciders—essentially, “I believe whatever I want” and (literally) to hell with those Christians who favor other texts (e.g. the book of Q—sayings absent the supernatural narrative—the Gospel of Mary Magdalene, and the Gospel of Thomas). It is ironic that a religion of convenience within the Church provokes religious convenience as a reaction. For a religion wherein God is agapé (selfless love) seu benevolentia universalis (or, universal benevolence), self has been rather prominent, even if apparently hidden under a “self-effacing” subterfuge.

Nietzsche, for example, writes in the second essay of his Genealogy of Morals on the religion of convenience of priests, who yearn so much to dominate their flocks in spite of voluntarily weakening themselves (e.g., impotence). The aggressiveness—even intentional cruelty—involved in such dominance is particularly dangerous because the priests (and bishops) having the instinct have tended to be oblivious to it even while under its spell. In the midst of a narrow-minded yet judgmental priest, it is perhaps only natural to retort, “I believe whatever I want.” Essentially, both the priest and the reaction are gripped with self-idolatry in the name of religion. The priest, however, is far more dangerous even if under the subterfuge of selfless love.

In short, trends in American religion (which has been dominated by Christianity) can be interpreted as manifestations of self-idolatry all around in the name of religion. Religion may be far more about us than we realize. If so, we may be taking it far too seriously even as we do not hold it sufficiently accountable. Sadly, religious experience and agape seem relegated or lost amid the power-struggles of self-idolatry imposed through a fixation on religion as belief. Little attention is given to freeing ourselves from the grip of religion in our own images. So little freedom must surely snuff out what little spirit manages to manifest within or between us. It is no wonder that more people are heading for the exits. The wonder may be that even more have not left. What is needed, Nietzsche avers, are more free spirits. Such spirits seek to overcome the power of their own most stubborn instinct—which may be the urge to follow the route of least resistance rather than the road less traveled.


Cathy Lynn Grossman, “More Americans Customize Religion to Fit Their Personal Needs,” USA Today, September 13, 2011. http://www.usatoday.com/news/religion/story/2011-09-14/america-religious-denominations/50376288/1

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Just as religion does not establish or confirm historical facts or metaphysical reality, neither is a theological system an ethical system or principle thereof. Even if religious experience can result in more compassionate conduct (the experience making one more sensitive to existence itself, and thus to others) that is in line with an ethical system, religion is not itself about ethical conduct in the world. Rather, religion has a transcendent referent beyond the limits of human cognition and perception.

In fact, the Bible contains stories including rather unethical divine decrees, such as that even the women and children in Jericho be killed and that Job be made to suffer unjustly. Omnipotence cannot be limited by an ethical system. One might argue that even though God cannot be contained within a human ethical system, humans can (and should) be held to account ethically. Indeed, half of the Decalogue contains moral prohibitions, such as against stealing. It would appear that I have dug myself into a hole! Religion appears to contain moral proscriptions. This is not to say that religion is ethics, however. Perhaps it could be said that the Decalogue itself contains religious and ethical commandments—the latter serving more of a civil purpose. In other words, the Ten Commandments might have been designed to do “double duty”—some serving religious purposes and others societal. Indeed, Yahweh was to be the king of Israel, though this conflation broke down as the need for human political rulers could not be ignored. Religion does not do well when it encroaches on politics. We should know this by the twenty-first century.

In terms of morality, it is admittedly possible that a religion impacts conduct in a way that appears to us as ethical but is actually theological. For instance, if God is love (Augustine), then benevolentia universalis (universal benevolence) can be understood as caritas in terms of conduct. Loving one’s neighbor, according to Jesus, is loving God. What you do to the least of mine, you do to me. This is not to make an ethical claim that people should be benevolent toward others (i.e., that it is unjust not to be benevolent); rather, benevolence, theologically taken, is a way of saying something about God’s self-emptying (agapé) essence and a way of having a religious experience of it.

Beyond cognitive assimilation of the two main commandments, religious experience itself can make a person intrinsically more inclined to treat others with compassion, and thus (incidentally here) in line with ethical principles that we value. Specifically, the sensitivity that comes about from isolating intense transcendent experience includes not only a more sensitive awareness of the presence of the divine, a sensitivity to existence itself can follow afterward. Such a sensitivity naturally involves attending more to others in a way that can be recognized as love or compassion. In other words, compassion is the “mood” in such sensitivity as is engendered by isolating an intense grasping or yearning for that which is inherently transcendent—transcending even the “religious object” that we regard as transcendent.  Rather than saying, “I should be caring or compassionate to this person,” one simply is because one is more sensitive in one’s awareness in general. The same dynamic no doubt occurs in Buddhism wherein meditation and compassion are at the very least positively correlated (i.e., two pillars). So too, I suspect that the Jain monks who are careful in walking so as not to step on a small bug (even going naked and using a broom) are so sensitive to non-injury from a sensitizing experience in meditation. An ethic of non-injury is an ethical manifestation, whereas the sensitivity being experienced is spiritual, and thus in the domain of religion.

Religious compassion is thus experiential as spiritual sensitivity rather than as moral. It follows that authentic religiosity inherently relegates (or transcends) the ethical issues of the day and therefore (especially!) particular positions on them. In claiming that religion contains the domain of ethics, one is apt to dogmatically (i.e., arbitrarily) seek to impose one’s own moral stances as though they were required theologically. By implication, one’s referent point is in this world rather than transcendent. Indeed, a single-issue moral-political position can be imposed as a litmus test on religious faith. For example, to treat an anti-abortion plank as somehow binding politically and even ethically in terms of religion, as if one’s creedal validity depended on it, is to extend religion beyond itself and assert its dominance even there. Essentially, this is to use one’s authority in religion to presumptuously impose a political position on an issue as a “required” ethical stance. The self-idolatry is in the fact that the position is conveniently the person’s own. That is, rather than being religious, the aggression is based in self-idolatry under the subterfuge of theology. Essentially, one is applying a non-theological litmus test to severely delimit theology while simultaneously extending religion onto the realms of politics and ethics. In actuality, the effort is not at all religious or theological.

I contend that to make a religious claim is not to make a moral (or political) claim. Religion contrasts the righteous from the evil, rather than the good from the bad. Religion transcends our moral positions, so it cannot hinge on any one of them. In other words, a moral position is something other than a theological stance. They are two different things. I think we have just gotten used to tucking morality in with religion because of what we have been told. To say that having had sex before going to church somehow gets in the way of being able to reach out to the divine, experiencing intently beyond the limits of human cognition and perception, seems arbitrary to me. Victorian strictures generally speaking may be good morals for living a good, wholesome life, but they are besides the point in terms of religious experience and the nature of the divine. In other words, for something to be immoral is not necessarily for it to be sinful, and vice versa. Sin interferes with religious experience that transcends self and the world and ultimately with union with the divine, whereas unethical conduct violates an ethical principle in the world. A given act could be both sinful and immoral, but this is merely to say that the conduct offends for two qualitatively-different reasons. To be immoral does not in itself make an act a sin. Nor is a sin necessarily immoral conduct. In fact, sin, being oriented to the transcendent (as a repudiation), cannot be based in conduct or even a principle of a human (ethical) system.

So someone using religion to push a particular moral and/or political position, such as taking one side on the matter of political liberty from the state as applied to abortion or smoking pot, encroaches onto politics and morality beyond the domain of theology, and thus what that domain justifies. As just one indication of the over-reach, Jesus is not recorded as taking a position on either issue (even as certain of his “followers” have presumed to “rationalize” their views as Jesus’ position). Speaking more generally, one could tell the over-reaching functionary or epigone, “That we have agreed to be a religious congregation is not to say that we agree on particular moral issues or to meet as the Republican Party.” That is to say, religious agreement does not necessarily mean moral and political agreement. Strangely, the over-reaching person thus confronted is apt to insist on agreement on a “religious-determined” moral stance anyway. Over-reaching tends to ignore obstacles. The person’s presumption that a particular relgious faith requires one to hold particular stances on moral issues of the day can and should be called and rejected even if this is ignored; the presumption too can be ignored. By this approach, the sheer extent of presumption that typically goes unrecognized (and tolerated) in and through religion can be made transparent and finally repudiated.

In general terms, empirical, historical, metaphysical, moral and political claims have no power, currency, or business in religious matters. Theological conviction is not somehow subject within its domain to a demand from another domain. Nor does a theological claim have legitimacy in another domain. Theology does not reduce to a single issue in another domain, whether that domain be history, politics, science, morality, or economics. Economic justice is important, but it is not religion. Being moral is important, but it is not religious. To claim that one’s faith is for a particular social structure is to hold an oxymoronic category mistake wherein religious faith is somehow based on human socio-economic ideology.

Religion transcends the limits of human cognition and perception; the referent point is Wholly Other. “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways, says the LORD. As high as the heavens are above the earth, so high are my ways above your ways and my thoughts above your thoughts” (Isaiah 55:8-9). The domain is not based, therefore, on an empirical or historical fact, or a political or moral position.

Because religion is not theologically based in the realm that we know and perceive (even though we clothe divine objects in our garb), religion is experienced by grasping or reaching beyond, or even just by being open to the presence of the divine behind existence itself. Such transcendent experience is typically associated with religious symbol, myth and ritual, which can be viewed as means because the experience itself goes beyond them. Yet somehow religion has a tendency to encroach on other areas, such as being presumed to be applicable before a meal or in the context of a baseball game (e.g., making the sign of the cross before batting–an utterly strange ritual that is quite out of place yet generally accepted). Sustenance and sporting activities are not in themselves religious. To presume them to be so is to overlay the sacred on the profane—implicitly relegating the former as practically ubiquitous in our daily activities (and thus as a tautology). Somehow, without thinking, we humans have developed a tendency to allow our religious vines to grow into other gardens—even imposing the interloping itself with religious sanctions!

For example, I do not pray before I eat. Yet “religious people” presume that I should. Their presumption is especially strange because the dinner table is not where people go to have religious experiences. We go to the kitchen or dining room to eat. That eating can be part of religious ritual (eg., the Jewish Seder and the Christian and Sikh communions) does not mean that eating for sustenance–a biological function–is somehow also religious or should be. Religion, it would seem, also tends to encroach on the biological. So it is strange if not bizzare that sitting at a table simply to eat biologically should somehow make us vulnerable to pressure to tack on a disparate element that is extrinsic to the main purpose (i.e., eating) and thus out of place. The interloper should be made to feel pressure to back off.

Similarly, a religious functionary interested in politics might pressure his flock by demanding, “Vote this way on this issue or you will go to hell!” This statement is the epitome of the presumptuousness that typically goes along with the encroachment of religion outside its own domain. More than a year before the 2012 U.S. presidential election, I heard a young, very highly-strung and self-righteous Catholic priest, whom a deacon referred to as “an abortion of a priest” (i.e., done before he began), twice included in the petitions of the Mass, “That a pro-life candidate will be elected president in 2012 election.” On a third occasion, he preached that his flock should be willing to die for the anti-abortion political movement as if it were equivalent to Christianity itself. The priest presumed that truth was on his partisan side and that society in general was “pro-death.” He also claimed to being “objective” in stating that going to a Protestant service is to walk away from Jesus. I must admit wondering how that priest passed any psychological test in getting into the priesthood. Perhaps not coincidentally, his reactionary, right-wing bishop (who was viewed locally at the time as a supercilious ass for his hypocritical anti-gay forays into local politics amid the recent sexual abuse of at least one child by one of the priests in the dysfunctional parish) was hardly a check on the self-righteous priest, and there was obviously no check on the bishop. I suspect he assured the stubborn priest that he was on the side of truth rather than the self-idolatry of ideology. Incredibly, the priest’s loyal flock seemed unbothered by the line that God takes sides in U.S. presidential elections–even siding with the Republican Party (as Barak Obama’s political position is firmly pro-choice) based on a single issue.

How “pro-life” is a Republican capital-punishment stand? Does killing a few human cells a day or two after conception trump the possibility that an innocent adult is put to death in Georgia or Texas? Even ethically the priority here is at the very least questionable. Is this even a theological matter? Is it theologically viable to view God as voting for a single-issue Republican “social issue” candidate? Admittedly, it may be nice for some people to know that the source and condition of existance takes such an interest in our partisan political affairs and takes sides. For the young, right-wing priest who is so sure of his moral/political stances, “God as a Republican” may be convenient, but unfortunately it is also utterly exclusive of religious experience that transcends the self and the earthly realm. In other words, the divine attribute of being Wholly Other is ignored as God is made to fit within our moral and political agendas.

The ideological pitfall of self-idolatry is particularly likely when we presume we know a lot about a transcendent object even though the nature of its essence is defined as beyond the limits of human cognition and perception. Typically, what we attribute to it is an artifact from one of the other–human, all too human–domains. Even what the divine reveals of itself into our realm must be as though light barely making it through a dark stained-glass window (Augustine), yet we presume to know so much outside our little cave–actually imposing our “religious” agendas on others. This is one reason I stress attention on the distinctly religious experience itself rather than to the nature of the theological object that can nonetheless be used as a means if not obsessed on too seriously (i.e., made an idol).

A religious functionary presuming that religion trumps politics even in the political realm is like someone going into someone else’s house and demanding that the owners follow orders; being a guest is not enough for such an interloper—he presumptuously imposes the ground-rules of his house as governing in another person’s house as well. The intruder shouldn’t even be in the other’s house–not having been invited–and yet he presumes being in a place from which to impose. Such a person should be told to go home, with a firm kick in the ass added for good measure as an incentive. Sadly, such a person is so deluded and blind to his sordid presumptuousness that the lesson would go unlearned. “Did I say something wrong?” he might ask as he is being firmly led to the doorway. His neighbors might be tempted to build a fence around his house so he would not be tempted to go wandering into any of their homes again. Indeed, otherwise, he might be inclined to go into his next-door neighbor’s backyard in order to replace the native fauna with his own favorites. “What happened to my tomato plants?” his neighbor might ask. “Well,” he might condescendingly reply, “you need to grow oaks so I took the liberty of . . .” Stunned, the owner might interrupt the young man. “Oaks? In my vegetable garden? Out!

So to the religious functionary who claims the “right” to dogmatically interlard an empirical, historical, metaphysical, moral or political “fact” in the name of religion, I say, “Get out! You have no basis wandering around in those other areas, and yet you have the gall to aggressively impose your views in them under the subterfuge of religion! Your church is not a history or astronomy department, a metaphysics class, a moral society, or a political party.” Claims in those other areas are like ignorance that presumes to have sufficient validity that it can get away with being arrogant, as if on stilts during a flood even though the ignorance should to be underwater rather than above. That the ignorance is given a place at the table is troubling enough; that the ignorance presumes to ignore or dismiss knowledge and impose itself with whatever authority it can muster at the head of the table is disgusting.

I contend that presumption is ubiquitous in institutional religion. The arrogance is typically conveniently hidden under the subterfuge of humility and piety. If people vote with their feet, say from a dysfunctional parish whose “leaders” will not repent, the religious functionaries conveniently presume in their preaching that the absent rather than they themselves are at fault. The functionaries assume quite conveniently that those who have left are obliged to conform to what outside observers would say is dysfunction stemming from the top. Sadly, the functionaries’ arrogance alone is enough to eviscerate transcendent religious experience; their passive aggression (i.e., religion as a weapon) virtually snuffs out the chance for any authentic religiosity. Incredibly, this is of no concern to the arrogant interlopers whose instinct for dominance demands to be satisfied regardless of where and at what cost.

Were religion itself more delimited and focused on transcending experientially, using symbol, myth and ritual as religious preps, a more distinctively religious phenomenon could manifest and be experienced as sui generis rather than as a subterfuge for self-idolatry.

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What is religion? In the process of answering this question, it is necessary to delimit it by saying what it is not. Religion itself (in the hands of human beings) may be too presumptuous in claiming hegemony (let alone validity!) in other domains.

For example, it is not history or empirical science. A faith narrative does not count in itself as a historical record. In making a theological claim, one is not proffering a historical account. One need only read Van Rad’s History of Israel to see how empirical history differs from how history is used in a faith narrative. One cannot use the latter as a source of historical fact even if it turns out that some historical events independently verified are incorporated. The point of a faith narrative is not to record history; indeed, “history” can legitimately be “massaged” because the points are theological rather than historical in nature. In other words, “history” in a faith narrative is not the same as empirical history.

Nevertheless, at a rather dysfunctional or “cultish,” right-wing (both in terms of Catholicism and American politics) parish that I visited at my rather homeostatic hometown, a layperson insisted that the Bible counts as a historical document (i.e, sufficient as historical evidence). Not only did she dismiss the all-but-certain objections of historians as to what qualifies as historical sources, she claimed that she could not be wrong about it. “That’s right,” she replied to me, “I can’t be wrong.” I was stunned. My first reaction was that she had unwittingly succumbed to self-idolatry, and thus of religion based on arrogance. Besides being presumptuous in her over-reaching, the old woman (who otherwise was quite nice) was the victim of a category mistake that has unfortunately been operative all too often in the history of religion: that a theological account suffices as historical evidence. As Hans Frei avers in Eclipse of the Biblical Narrative, even asking, “Did that really happen?” is harmful (or out of place) because it gets in the way of the narrative. In other words, the question itself evinces that a category mistake is being made.

Similarly, a theological claim does not reach empirical science. A young priest at the dysfunctional parish claimed in one of his homilies that the dried blood of a Christian martyred under Diocletian turns to liquid on three days of the year—the same three days every year. If so, it is odd that the “miracle” has not received more press. Even if the claim of liquidation were empirically valid, the theological implications could be considered quite strange, if not undercutting. To that priest, I would repeat Augustine’s comment to one of his theological disputants: Your claim might be more credible were it sound rather than like something insane people are wont to say. Why, for example, would the deity that created existence and all that exists play around with a few vials of dried blood? Such a parlor trick seems more on the level of Descartes’ evil deceiver. Adult faith (as well as that of the innocence of a child, which Jesus lauds) seems to me to be totally disparate with such childish games. A priest who brings such a game into a religious context populated by adults might be given some time to grow up spiritually before returning to his preachments. Of course, some people never outgrow the adolescent stage, even if they presume to have religious authority.

Less obvious but perhaps just as controversial, religion is not metaphysics—the field of philosophy oriented to what is real, or reality. I contend that religious faith does not tell us anything about Kant’s realm of things in themselves. Theological claims transcend things as they are because God is posited to be the source of being rather than existence itself. The essence of God is not existence because God gives rise to it. God is the condition for existence. So it does not make sense to claim that the manifestations or personae of the Trinity exist as things in themselves (i.e., metaphysically, as real). Theology is not about reality; one is not worshipping things in themselves when one is grasping for, or yearning for the transcendent in a religious sense. In Kantian terms, religious experience is not the leap from the phenomenal realm of appearances to the numinal realm of things in themselves. Based on a theological claim, one is therefore not entitled to say, “the Persons of the Trinity are what really exists.” One who makes such a claim is in actuality a philosopher rather than a religious. To conflate the two is to conflate what Paul calls the “wisdom of Athens” with the innocence of religious faith open to the presence of the divine. Such faith transcends reason and cognition—even in a creed. A creed is like a script’s basic skeleton—something used to depict the basics of a story. The narrative in turn is merely a means relative to the religious experience of grasping or yearning through with a gaze beyond.

Therefore, theological claims are not about even reality; rather, they transcend it, as reality itself is created. Like sunlight that goes through the green leaves of trees and grass when the sun is low in the sky, theology cuts through time-space. Religious experience is independent of it; hence, such “life” is experienced as eternal and sui generis (i.e., of its own genre or type). We are so used to hanging “religious experience” on historical events that we posit, empirical “miracles,” or even reality that I suspect we would barely recognize the dimension of religiosity itself. Making matters worse, we also tend to view the theological as moral and even in terms of our own politics. In other words, we project our own ideologies onto the real, giving our self-idolatry far more significance than it merits.

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A Baylor University survey on religion indicates that 32% of entrepreneurs say they practice meditation, while just 22% of non-entrepreneurs say they do. Concerning prayer, the figures are 34% and 27%, respectively. The difference on meditation dwarfs that on prayer. Furthermore, I would have expected the percentage on meditation (32%) to be lower relative to prayer (34%). What is the deal on entrepreneurship and meditation?

One entrepreneur claims that meditation helps her reduce fear and be calmer and more creative. Another cited his desire to get in touch with his inner self. According to Ken Pargament at the Texas Medical Center in Houston, “Entrepreneurs have a strong sense they can take matters into their own hands. But they also face risk, unpredictability and uncertainty. Prayer and meditation can be important resources for people who are trying to achieve a lot and yet still face the reality that there is only so much they can control.” In fact, praying to a deity can give one the illusion of additional control, thus reducing stress. Indeed, the prosperity gospel movement holds that God wants to reward those with “true belief” with material wealth. An entrepreneur believing that he has true belief might thus be more willing to put his money at risk in a new venture without so much fear of loss. While this may be so for some entrepreneurs, I suspect that a deeper connection exists between entrepreneurship and prayer/meditation.

Risk-takers may be motivated to take risks at least in part from a desire to experience the feeling of excitement that comes with the adrenaline. This motivation may be to avoid feeling nothing, which may come with a hackneyed or even banal daily routine. A motivation to experience life with a heightened intensity, such as through a risk-induced rush, can also motivate one to experience a intense religious experience wherein sensitivity is heightened. Meditation or sustained prayer can, if isolated and sufficiently intense, proffer an increased sensitivity even in one’s daily life. In other words, isolating existence itself for periods of time can result in experience itself being enriched. Both entrepreneurship and an active prayer/meditation regime may satisfy a person’s desire to feel more.

If evil is a lack of being, then the operative motive may be to move toward a greater experience to the divine in the world—obviating the feeling of emptiness by ginning up sensitivity in one’s experiencing of daily life by a practice of concentration transcending the banal world through prayer or meditation. The emptiness to be avoided—the sin—is perhaps felt not just in boredom, but also within. In other words, risk-taking, prayer and meditation may all be fillers. Economic and religious activity may be interpreted as efforts to feel more of being in experience. If so, it should be no surprise to find entrepreneurs seeking religious experience. I would expect them to feel and act from a greater sensitivity while at work—that is, to be more compassionate as a result of their inner-felt heightened sensitivity to experience. Rather than being from an ethic or a sense of corporate social responsibility, the compassion would be innate, stemming from a heightened sensitivity that results from a regular practice of intense prayer or meditation wherein experience itself is isolated and transcended. Paradoxically, experiences in the world, even at work, are enriched as one is more sensitive to experience itself from having transcended it.


Cathy Lynn Grossman, “Meditation Appeals to Entrepreneurs,” USA Today, September 20, 2011. http://www.usatoday.com/money/smallbusiness/story/2011-09-20/god-meditate/50470354/1





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The New York Times reported on October 10, 2011 that a “demonstration by Christians angry about a recent attack on a church touched off a night of violent protests [in Cairo] against the military council.” Twenty-four people were dead and more than 200 were wounded. Witnesses said that several protesters were crushed under military vehicles and about twenty people underwent surgery for bullet wounds. Lest the protest be viewed as purely sectarian or even religious in nature, it is important to note that when “the clashes broke out, some Muslims ran into the streets to help defend the Christains against the police, while others said they had come out to help the army quell the protests in the name of stability, turning what started as a march about a church into a chaotic battle over military rule and Egypt’s future.” In fact, some people in the protest chanted, “Muslim[s] and Christians are one hand.” One protester said to a reporter, “This is not the issue of Muslim and Christian, this is the issue of the freedom that we demanded and can’t find.” To be sure, the police made use of Muslim civilians in favor of an Islamic state and armed with clubs and stones, but the conflict itself was not religious. According to the New York Times, he military council ruling Egypt “has become a subject of public ire for its failure to establish stability and for its repeated deferrals of its pledged exit from power.” Indeed, under the council’s plan at the time of the protest, the military could function “as an all-powerful chief executive for another two years or more.” The Egyptian media was openly discussing whether the military would ever follow through on its commitments to democracy.

Nasser Nasser/AP

 Even as they were out protesting the state rather than leaving what is Ceasar’s to Ceasar, the Christians “said that they scuffled at least three times with Muslims who did not want them to pass.” But the violence did not escalate until the protesters reached the radio and television headquarters in the evening, when the demonstrators and security forces “began throwing rocks at each other.” The media reported that “at least three security officers had died in the attacks by Christian protesters.” For their part, the Christian protesters “insisted they were peaceful until they were attacked.” In retaliation, the security forces began driving their trucks into the protesters, crushing at least four. A Coptic priest, Rev. Ephraim Magdy, said, “It is up to the military to explain what happened, but I see it as persecution. I felt that they were monsters.”

I read the entire paragraph immediately above as pointing to the hypocrisy of the so-called Christians who took part in the protest. The same sort of convenient, partisan rationalizing as we read from Rev. Magdy had no doubt been used to justify the four Crusades. It is interesting how the other guy is a monster even though Magdy admits to having thrown stones too. Who was it who said, let him who is without sin cast the first stone, turn the other cheek, an eye for an eye and the whole world is blind, and love those who persecute you? It does not seem likely that the Copic Christians who were marching were being persecuted, so the line, love your enemy, is perhaps more apt.

Both in pulling the persecution card and in partaking in a violent tit for tat, Rev. Magdy comes off as a hypocrite rather than as a disciple of Jesus. It is sad that the priest had devoted so much of his life to something only to miss the point when it really counted. Indeed, he may have missed his calling to enter some military rather than the Church. I can imagine Jesus rebuking him, Get behind me Satan! This is what Jesus says to Peter in the Gospels when the disciple tries to prevent Jesus from suffering unjustly in Jerusalem. That the rock or foundation of Jesus’ movement is so quickly renounced as though Satan may give Christians some pause in assuming that institutional Christianity is (and has been) necessarily in line with its founder. In keeping with the Biblical theme in Mark wherein the insiders are really outsiders because they just don’t “get it,” some outsiders (e.g., strangers) do “get it” even if they are relegated as anonymous Christians at best by the proud.

In terms of protests, I would point to Gandhi rather than Magdy as evincing Jesus’ message and example. I would also point to the Muslims who had the courage to walk with their Christian brothers and sisters in Cairo. I am reminded of Gandhi telling a Hindu man whose son had been killed by a Muslim that if he really wanted to get into heaven after what he had done in the riots, he should go and adopt a child—only make sure that child is a Muslim. Gandhi understood Jesus’ dictum, Love your enemies. It is a pity that so many churlish church-goers do not. Magdy and his fellow “Christian” protesters certainly did not. They were not following Jesus, either in terms of his example or his teachings on how to enter the Kingdom of God. The Coptic marchers should never have picked up the stones, even after being hit. In fact, they should have unilaterally volunteered to become body shields for the Muslims who had joined them! That is what it means to be a Christian—it is not about metaphysics, science, history, politics, or even morality.

Jesus himself says in the faith narratives that he was sent to preach the mysteries of the Kingdom of God within, which can be realized here and now and whose spirit of humility is especially felt in taking a stand in being compassionate when it is least convenient. This is a rather specific strength that is still not typically valued in the world, and is even less often manifested in behavior. Yet valuing and instantiating that particular strength within is what ultimately defines the disciple of that particular movement that could perhaps best be described as mystical and paradoxical in nature. It is a pity it has been so misunderstood, particularly by those who act as though they cannot be wrong simply because lead it. They are like the proverbial wedding guest who shows up to the wedding feast without bothering to wear wedding attire and yet sits himself at the head table.

Generally speaking, it is perhaps all too easy for us to go with appearances and asseverations tied in with the status quo instead of stepping back and permitting some perspective to challenge convenient claims made by vested interests that may be other than what they seem.


David Kirkpatrick, “Rage at Military in Egypt Fuels Deadly Protest,” New York Times, October 10, 2011. http://www.nytimes.com/2011/10/10/world/middleeast/deadly-protests-over-church-attack-in-cairo.html

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