Wednesday, December 29, 2004

What Is Religion?

For quite some time now, my blog posts have focused on Christianity and the nature of my beliefs about Christianity, beliefs which evolved from the context of the somewhat secular middle class cultural milieu of Southern California. To wit, Christianity, morality, and religion seemed synonymous to me while I was growing up, and it seemed quite normal for me to consider the religious beliefs of other people, or their lack thereof, in a highly ethnocentric fashion. Even as I began to realize that the secularized version of Christianity that I inherited from my family and peers was highly ethnocentric, I did not appreciate just how important it was for me to transcend my ethnocentric bias when pondering religious and theological questions, at least not at first.

One of the most basic ethnocentric assumptions of people in Modern Western Culture is that religion is synonymous with morality. However, as pointed out to me by one of my undergraduate mentors in cultural anthropology, many religious belief systems are bereft of any moral code whatsoever. In the final analysis, I believe that religious beliefs are based on fundamental assumptions about the nature of reality rather than commonly accepted notions of right and wrong, and in most instances people will unfairly characterize religious beliefs exotic to their own are being mere superstition. Similarly, science and reason have emerged as the adversaries of religion in Modern Western Culture.

Science and reason are wonderful tools for discovering truth, but they have some very obvious limitations. To wit, both science and reason presume that there is an objective reality that is synonymous with what we perceive it to be, when in reality the only truth that one can perceive is, "I think, therefore I am." For all any of us know, our brains might be plugged into a mainframe computer like the one in The Matrix, or we might simply be dreaming a reality that we are experiencing in our own mind. Indeed, the essence of Hindu religious beliefs is that the entire universe that we know and love is simply the dream of a Supreme Being -- i.e., God. Taking it one step further, God may be dreaming that He/She/It is one of us. Indeed, like Peter Sellers in Dr. Strangelove, God may be playing all the roles in a drama that He/She/It began dreaming billions of years ago, and is playing those roles so well that He/She/It has forgotten that He/She/It is dreaming. This theoretical framework was outlined by Alan Watts quite well in his book Beyond Theology: The Art of Godsmanship.

As I alluded to above, the nature of our existence is a basic religious question that science and reason cannot answer in any satisfactory way. All we really know is that one day we came into existence and began to perceive the universe as being something that we are both a part of and separate from, and we trust our perceptions about the nature of the universe as being accurate because we find agreement about those perceptions among most people whom we encounter. Assuming that our perceptions are correct -- and that is a very big assumption -- we proceed to interact with the universe in a more-or-less goal oriented fashion. To wit, other things being equal, we pursue those things that give us pleasure and we avoid those things that give us pain. Moreover, we seek answers to existential questions about where life came from, how and why we came into being, and what the future holds in store for us, humanity, and the rest of the living universe. That, in a nutshell, is what religion is for most people.

As I have been wont to say, religion is an explanation for and a reaction to the supernatural. And I am not the first to say this, but I am one of the few people with a college degree in anthropology who stands by this once popular anthropological definition of religion. And for me, the supernatural is best defined as those phenomena that defy rational explanation. On this note, let me state, most emphatically, that I do not for once second believe that the laws of nature can ever be violated. Moreover, I am inclined to dismiss virtually all claims of paranormal phenomena as being pure unadulterated humbug. Even so, I wholeheartedly believe that the power of faith can alter reality for the people who witness an event. In other words, I believe that one can always find a rational, scientific explanation for any phenomenon if one looks hard enough, but the existence of a rational, scientific explanation does not necessarily invalidate the validity of a religious explanation. Rather, an observer with a rational and scientific world view will create a reality for him-or-herself that is consistent with his-or-her own world view.

Intellectually, I can accept the possibility that there is a reality deeper than everyday reality, an ineffable spiritual realm that, for the most part, transcends my conscious awareness. At the same time, I am not prepared to dismiss a rational and scientific world view that has served me so well within the confines of my mortal existence. What I am prepared to do is accept a world view that embraces mysticism as the most daring and radical consequence of rationalism. To wit, I believe that when one has reached the limits of rational and scientific thought, one can transcend those limits by embracing prayer and meditation as sources of inspiration and revelation. I am even willing to suspend my rational skepticism and accept the efficacy of magic and ritual as empirical forms of divination and manipulation of the natural world through supernatural means, provided that one does not purport to trump the laws of nature by appealing to such supernatural means.

Friday, December 10, 2004

Christianity and Human Sexuality

In a previous post entitled Christianity and Ethics, I stated that when I am in doubt, I am prepared to accept scripture as a more or less objective moral authority, but that I also believe people can and should use their own reason to make decisions about ethics and morality, putting scripture into its proper perspective. Moreover, keeping in mind the limitations of scripture as an objective moral authority, I think it is incumbent upon those who turn to scripture for moral guidance to reconsider some of the strict laws that God purportedly laid down. Nowhere is this sort of reconsideration of Christian biblical perspectives more appropriate than it is with human sexuality.

Make no mistake about it: The Bible is very clear about prohibitions against free and open sexual expression. Indeed, the Sermon on the Mount narrates the position of Jesus Christ on this issue as being even more restrictive than traditional Jewish law. (See Matthew 5:28.) To wit, Christ purportedly asserted that lusting after a woman in your heart is the same as committing adultery while leaving in place the traditional Jewish prohibitions against adultery, fornication, onanism, and homosexuality. In essence, if one is to adhere to the mores dictated by a fundamentalist biblical perspective on human sexuality, the only form of sexual expression that is appropriate for a man is a sexual act involving one of his wives -- or perhaps one of his wives' handmaidens -- that is consummated by ejaculating into that woman's vagina.

It's not exactly clear in the Bible whether handmaidens who were used to bear children were in reality taken as second or third wives, and there is absolutely no discussion in the Bible of a prohibition on lesbian sexuality or forms of birth control that do not involve the use of a condom. Rather, God's primary concern in both the Old and New Testament seems to have been that a man's semen is routinely deposited into the vagina of a woman who belongs to that particular man. To that end, for a man to even think of any other form of sexual expression where this objective is not obtained is a mortal sin, at least according to fundamentalist Christian biblical perspectives. On top of this highly restrictive code of sexual conduct found in the Bible, various Christian sects have built all sorts of highly restrictive sexual norms that prohibit everything from nudity to birth control.

When it comes to human sexuality, I am prepared to ignore the Bible as a moral compass because my reason tells me that any solitary sexual act or any sexual act that occurs in private between consenting individuals should not be the concern of anyone but the people involved in those sexual acts. This permissive viewpoint on human sexuality still leaves plenty of room for strict prohibitions on forcible rape and child molestation, but it puts a great deal of emphasis on the inherent freedom of people to think for themselves when it comes to deciding what forms of sexual expression they should and should not engage in. To wit, I do not believe in the sanctity of marriage, nor do I believe in the concept of sexual infidelity. Even so, I respect the rights of others to commit themselves to marriages and other monogamous relationships, and I can understand why most people find these types of relationships desirable. Indeed, the pressure to conform to this societal norm is enormous and (at times) overwhelming.

Like Judaism before it and Islam after it, Christianity perceives human sexuality to be a sacred taboo. The biblical story of Christ's birth - to a virgin who gets married before Christ is actually born- is a tribute to this perception. To wit, most monotheists unconsciously perceive sex to be the creative life force of the universe, a powerful force that must be properly channeled to avoid disaster and destruction, and most monotheists accept without question the proposition that marriage is the only appropriate human institution for channeling human sexual desires. Indeed, these perceptions have transcended monotheism and become so basic to Western Culture that most homosexuals in committed relationships are desperately seeking the imprimatur of marriage. Moreover, the roles and rules of marriage and sexual fidelity are generally assumed and imposed upon non-married couples, regardless of the actual level of commitment or romantic involvement of said couples.

There is no question in my mind that human sexuality is a powerful creative force that should be taken seriously, but this state of affairs in no way justifies the imposition of an authoritarian sexual morality in the name of Christianity. Rather, the forms of sexual expression in which a particular individual chooses to engage or explore, or chooses not to engage or explore, should be the sole province of that individual and his or her conscience. Moreover, private sexual conduct between consenting individuals should not be restricted by law, by custom, or by previous commitment. No doubt there are those who will perceive and interpret this permissive attitude to be amoral or licentious, but that's their problem. To wit, "[j]udge not lest ye be judged," and "[w]homever is without sin should cast the first stone."

Wednesday, December 01, 2004

Christianity and Ethics

In a previous blog post entitled Who Was Jesus Christ? I recapitulated and clarified my views on what it means to me to be a Christian. As I stated in that post, I have no doubt that those views will alienate me from many people who consider themselves to be "true Christians." Similarly, I have no doubt that this post regarding Christianity and ethics will alienate me from even more self-confessed Christians. So be it.

As I stated in the previous post to which I referred above, I do not accept the Bible as a canonical source of Christian wisdom, nor do I accept the gospels as an accurate account of the life and teachings of Jesus Christ, much less their claim that Christ was physically resurrected and later ascended into heaven. What I do accept at face value is the extraordinary claim that Christ was God, and that scripture is one of the most authoritative sources of Christian wisdom to be found. As such, I frequently turn to scripture for spiritual and moral guidance.

If you are prepared to accept scripture as the Word of God, then I think it is fair to say that God demands blind obedience of you. To wit, there is no shortage of scripture wherein God lays down the law and persecutes or destroys those who disobey it. At the same time, as evidenced by the Book of Job, God is just as likely to allow Satan to persecute those who uphold God's law. So, in the final analysis, there is no reward for blind obedience to God other than the empty consolation that you did exactly what God told you to do.

Unlike most people who turn to scripture for spiritual and moral guidance, I am prepared to question its authority. Indeed, to the extent that scripture demands any sort of obedience, I am prepared to question its authority. Moreover, I am unwilling to worship a God who demands blind obedience. Accordingly, to the extent that scripture might be correct in demanding such obedience, I am prepared to withhold my worship from God. Even so, when I am in doubt, I am prepared to accept scripture as a more or less objective moral authority.

There is no doubt in my mind that people can and should use their own reason to make decisions about ethics and morality, putting scripture into its proper perspective. To wit, the scripture found in the Bible was not written by God. It was written over several millennia by dozens of human beings who believed in God, then it was copied and translated by countless intermediaries who interspersed it with their own viewpoints. Finally, it was assembled into some semblance of a biblical canon and published in one of the many versions of the Bible that are currently available to modern man[sic]. With these limitations in mind, it is incumbent upon those who turn to scripture for moral guidance to reconsider some of the strict laws that God purportedly laid down.

Christ himself pointed out that God did not make man for the law. (See Mark 2:27.) Rather, the law was made for man. (Ibid.) What makes this assertion so compelling is not the person who made it, but the soundness of the reasoning on which this assertion is based. However, to some extent, the message cannot be separated from the messenger, a man who many Christians believe was the Word made flesh, a belief that gave rise to the Christian sacrament of Communion. To wit, by eating sacramental bread, one can become one with the Word of God, and by drinking sacramental wine, one can become one with the Spirit of God.

In my humble opinion, the combination of the Word and the Spirit in the sacrament of Communion is the key to understanding what is truly moral in the eyes of God. To wit, we can obey the letter of the law and still not understand the spirit of the law. Similarly, we can disobey the letter of the law and yet be faithful to the spirit of the law. Ideally, we should obey both the letter of the law and the spirit of the law. However, in the final analysis, I believe that the letter of the law is for those who do not understand the spirit of the law, and that those who are one with the spirit need not always obey the letter of the law to be right with God.