Peggy served as a principal of a public elementary school for several years and would occasionally be confronted by people who wanted to limit what their children were being taught. One day a man stomped into her office infuriated that his child had picked up a book on dinosaurs at the school library. She calmly asked what the problem was. After all, most children are fascinated with dinosaurs.
“Dinosaurs,” he told her with barely controlled rage, “are not in the Bible. They never existed. My child is not going to learn about dinosaurs.” Apparently Peggy was to immediately remove all books on dinosaurs from the library and to instruct all of her teachers that they could not teach about dinosaurs.
She opted out. “I can’t dictate what you teach your child at home,” she explained. “It is also your right to pull your child out of this school. If he remains here, however, he is going to learn about dinosaurs.”
Limiting the flow of information has been a powerful form of control over what people think for thousands of years. Political, social, and economic dominance have all been maintained by controlling access to knowledge. Religions have historically used a similar approach in influencing what people believe. The anti-dinosaur man is a modern example.
In 1961 I picked up a Barnes and Noble book on comparative religion and learned about Mithraism and Zoroastrianism. I caught a glimpse of how much our great monotheistic religions are based on earlier belief systems or mythologies. The strong religious convictions of my teenage years began to crack. Studying history didn’t help. In reading about the Roman Empire, I learned that the nature of Christ’s divinity was determined by vote at the Council of Nicaea in 325 AD in a bare knuckled political battle, not the most holy of environments. My rock that was Peter made a dramatic shift and relocated itself to an active fault zone.
So, I stopped going to church.
One day I ran into Father Baskin, my minister at the Episcopal Church. I liked him and his family. He had been a photographer and was well into adulthood before deciding to become a priest. His wife, a joyful, hug-you-on-sight type of woman, had grown up with a missionary family in pre-communist China. They had two sons slightly younger than I was.
“Curt, we’ve missed you at church,” Father Baskin jump-started our conversation. “Is something wrong?”
“Well, Father,” I stammered as my mind scrambled for excuses, “I’ve been having a slight problem with original sin, virgin birth and resurrection.”
“Ah, that,” he responded knowingly. “May I share something that might help?”
“Of course,” I replied, preparing myself for a lecture on the importance of having faith.
“I don’t accept everything in the Bible as the literal truth either,” he said in a low tone that caught me off guard. I half expected lightning to strike or at least candelabra to fall over. “But,” he went on, “I do believe that the Bible and its stories point us toward a deeper understanding of God and the meaning of Christianity.”
Wise words: they could be applied to all of the world’s great religious writings. Deeply inspired visionaries strive to understand and explain their visions within the context of their cultures and personal experience. Disciples then come along to interpret and reinterpret the messages to keep them relevant, reflect their own inspiration, maintain control over the flock and win converts. Divine revelation and practical considerations walk hand in hand. We end up with metaphorical truths that point us toward the original source of the vision. And we end up with religions, the keepers of the metaphorical truths.
Unfortunately, it is hard to sell a metaphorical truth, even to our selves. A Christ walking on water and granting everlasting life is infinitely more satisfying and reassuring than a Jesus struggling with the nature of his humanity. This is where faith and miracles enter from stage left. When I walked through the door of the Church, I would still be expected to profess my belief in virgin birth and resurrection. Modifying the Nicene Creed to fit my sophomoric understanding of theology was not an option.
Even if I managed to silently slip in the word metaphorical, I still had original sin to deal with. I could accept the fact that I was petty, dishonest, and wrong at times— that I needed forgiveness. But I couldn’t accept that I was inherently sinful or evil. Since we are 98.8 % chimpanzee, genetically speaking, what seemed sinful to me was to blame Eve (woman), or even the snake, for our monkeying around in the Garden. Father Baskin’s wise words gave me much to think about, but I wasn’t ready to rejoin the flock.
While I was learning about Christianity’s connection to mythology, I was also learning about Crusades, Jihads, Inquisitions, and various other ‘Holy’ wars. Doing unto others in the name of God, Allah, Jehovah, etc. seemed close to a commandment. For all of the good religion had done down through the ages, and there is a great deal, it had also been a factor in much of the world’s violence and intolerance. I came to the conclusion that there was a fly in the ointment, a fatal flaw in religion that may yet bring about the Armageddon that so many fundamentalists believe in. This flaw is tied to two of religions most powerful driving forces: the concepts of exclusivity and faith.
Exclusivity in religion is tribal theology. It is the belief that there is only one way to pass through the Pearly Gates and that our particular brand of religion holds the key. It gives us special status. One doesn’t have to travel very far down this road to assume that other people are less blessed or even evil. Exclusivity can be used to justify wealth, dominance, missionary zeal, Holy War and almost any other thing we want it to.
The idea that an all-knowing, all-powerful, all-wise being would have a chosen people seemed like a contradiction in terms to me. That He would send these people out to kill in His or Her name was inconceivable. Exclusivity appeared like one more human rationalization, a clever ploy to recruit members, fill coffers, and benefit specific groups at the expense of others. Limiting interpretation of ‘God’s Word’ to selected people and adding unquestioned faith to the equation created a recipe for power and control that was far too tempting to ignore and, unfortunately, abuse— over and over again.
Faith allows us to plow forth in the face of adversity and often gets us through the dark night. It can be a powerful force for good, but it is also the underpinning of exclusivity. You can’t get there without it. How else could we convince ourselves that our particular brand of religion has found the one true path to God? We leap before we look and then work backward: the greater the leap, the greater the faith. I believe, therefore it is true. Rational questioning is not allowed.
Our Founding Fathers, the people who wrote the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, had a profound understanding of the power of religion to be corrupted. They had seen Holy Wars tear apart Europe and kill millions. They wanted to protect the newly formed United States from a similar fate. There would be a strict separation of church and state. The state would no longer use the church to control the masses as it had for millennia. The church would no longer use the state to eliminate competition. People would be free to worship as they chose, whether it was a brand of Christianity or some other religion. Several of the Founders were actually Deists who believed that spiritual truths could be reached through reason alone. Revelation and miracles were not necessary. Thomas Jefferson followed this logic to the point of going through his Bible and snipping out the miracles.
I decided to let time sort out my own belief system. There is no doubt that religion is an important part of who we are. My negative thoughts did not eliminate my need for having some type of spiritual grounding. I was in complete agreement, however, with the importance of letting people worship as they choose. It is wrong for one religion to force its viewpoint on others of different beliefs.
NEXT FRIDAY’S ESSAY: I conclude my series on religion with my 80-year-old father and I discussing God while sitting around a campfire in wild Alaska with snow falling gently from the sky.