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Garden of the Church

A recent Newsweek article made a point about separation of church and state that often goes unnoticed by the religious among us: that religion flourishes in the minds of the people when it avoids trying to influence their government.

While we remain a nation decisively shaped by religious faith, our politics and our culture are, in the main, less influenced by movements and arguments of an explicitly Christian character than they were even five years ago. I think this is a good thing—good for our political culture, which, as the American Founders saw, is complex and charged enough without attempting to compel or coerce religious belief or observance. It is good for Christianity, too, in that many Christians are rediscovering the virtues of a separation of church and state that protects what Roger Williams, who founded Rhode Island as a haven for religious dissenters, called “the garden of the church” from “the wilderness of the world.” As crucial as religion has been and is to the life of the nation, America’s unifying force has never been a specific faith, but a commitment to freedom—not least freedom of conscience. At our best, we single religion out for neither particular help nor particular harm; we have historically treated faith-based arguments as one element among many in the republican sphere of debate and decision. The decline and fall of the modern religious right’s notion of a Christian America creates a calmer political environment and, for many believers, may help open the way for a more theologically serious religious life.

Coercing people to follow your religious tenants by force of law makes them push back. Given the explicit mingling of church and state under the latest Bush administration (one of our most disastrous presidencies), is there any wonder that people are turned off by religion. The religiously motivated attacks on September 11 also changed some minds about religion. Many churchs’ involvement in the fight against same-sex marriage turns even more people off. For many, religion became the public face of hatred, violence, and fear.

At the same time, many of us are seeking out even more fundamentalist religion. I guess these are polarizing times. Let’s hope for their sake that they learn from recent history. It would be better for religion observance in America if they took a live-and-let-live attitude toward other people’s behavior.

(via Mind on Fire)

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Your Cracker or Your Life

And here I thought Muslim fundamentalists looked stupid for getting violent over the Muhammad comics. Some Catholics sent death threats to a man and accused him of hate crimes because, instead of eating the cracker that is believed to become the body of Jesus once blessed by a priest, he took it home. While the act was disrespectful, the reaction was out of proportion with the crime.

Let’s get some perspective here folks. It’s a fucking cracker! How did a cracker become more sacred than a human life? I thought Christianity had grown beyond its most violent tendencies, but I guess it’s in no position to judge the violence of the Muslim world. :(

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Not till the sun excludes you

Black-and-white thinking prevents us from expressing our native compassion.

Yet such thinking is comforting. We quell our childhood fears of being lost in the dark and dreary wilderness of the world by holding to the iron rod of the word of God (1 Nephi 8:19–23). Making choices can be exhausting and frightening. Limiting our choices helps us cope with the complexity of life. We feel mastery over our world by dividing the grey, chaotic unknown into black and white, good and bad, right and wrong as Adam showed his dominion over the beasts of the field by naming them (Genesis 2:19). Having categorized the world, we feel justified in demanding who is on the Lord’s side? (Exodus 32:26)

Our efforts at rationalizing the complex world are vanity. Chaotic Tiamat bides her captivity until she can triumphally raze our flimsy black-and-white walls and introduce us to the full, riotous spectrum of true human experience. We do ourselves harm in putting our trust in the strength of the arms of our own flesh, putting off until it may be everlastingly too late the day when our defenses against the confusing world will be broken. (Jeremiah 17:5).

Leaves of Grass by Walt Whitman is a case in point. Publishers refused to print it in complete form until almost thirty years after its first edition due to its sexual imagery. Whitman’s poetry was too much for the public sensibility in the era of the Comstock laws.

The great 19th century orator Robert Ingersoll chose to eulogize Whitman with a line drawn from To A Common Prostitute, oft-censored by black-and-white thinkers who object to any mention of prostitution.

BE composed—be at ease with me—I am Walt Whitman, liberal
     and lusty as Nature,
Not till the sun excludes you do I exclude you,
Not till the waters refuse to glisten for you and the leaves to rustle
     for you, do my words refuse to glisten and rustle for you.…

The Christian defenders of common decency missed the harmony between this poem and the teachings of their messiah. The Jesus of the Bible reveled in defying the black-and-white thinking of his era, just as Walt Whitman did. He chastened the Pharisees for their harsh judgments of the prostitute who bathed his feet with tears (Luke 7:36–50). He preached in the Sermon on the Mount that we should give our love to all, like God causes the sun to rise on both the evil and the good and sends rain to the just and unjust (Matthew 5:45).

I can’t say that Whitman had these biblical passages in mind as he wrote his poem, but the parallels in imagery and sentiment are striking. Whitman, a freethinking, freeloving pantheist, challenged the black-and-white, uncompassionate thinking of his Christian readers. His readers failed to recognize that Whitman and Jesus were kindred spirits.

The line that Ingersoll, the greatest orator of his time, said was “great enough to do honor to the greatest genius that has ever lived” calls us to cast aside our judgments of who is good and who is evil and embrace all in love:

“Not till the sun excludes you do I exclude you,…”

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God: My Bad!

I had an amusing thought while sitting in church last Sunday. If the trinitarian view of the Godhead were correct and Jesus was God, then perhaps Jesus’ crucifixion was God’s way of saying “You know what? I fucked up. All this cruelty and suffering is all my fault, and now it’s time for me to pay for my crimes.”

It makes perfect sense to me, and it would make an omnipotent God seem like less of a jerk.

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Paul on Jesus

Why did the Apostle Paul never quote a single word of Jesus’ sayings?

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