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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