Religion and the Onslaught of the ’60’s

In the movie MASH Hawkeye observes Major Frank Burns praying, and remarks, “Have you ever seen this syndrome before?”  Duke replies, “Not in someone over the age of eight.”  That interchange captures the spirit of the late ’60’s/late ’70’s.  Irreverent, anti-authority, self-confident, free love,–and in the movie, elitist.

I grew up in the ’60’s/’70’s and feel that there is much to be treasured from that era, now gone.  Peace and love, philosophy, self-reliance, music, freedom, individuality.  But along with these ideals, this idealistic time, came the kind of spirit that MASH captures so well.  Religion is ridiculed and the religious Frank Burns is an intolerable character.

Where so we go from there?  The spirit of the ’60’s/’70’s declared religion to be childish and ridiculous, and irreverent camaraderie to be the virtue of the day.  I think society bought it, and that those values persist today.  People turn to pop-culture to find behavioral norms and proprieties.  And for some, probably a lot, there is no place for prayer, no use for prayer.

Churches are failing, even synagogues and mosques are seeing diminution in attendance.  A while back I thought we are in a “post-Christian” age.  Now I see it as a “post-religious” age.  Even the “spiritual-but-not-religious” demographic is less than half of North American culture, and only a fraction of the population in Europe.

Certainly there were bad ideas in religions.  Certainly there were abuses of power.  Certainly there was hypocrisy.  But religion also contributed some of society’s most glorious cultural artworks, literature, philosophy, and, of course, theology.  The religious and spiritual impulse is a beautiful aspect in the human situation.  It makes the psyche sing.  It gives us honesty, sincerity, generosity, care for others, the quest for truth, repentance and human perfection, and ecstasy.  Without spirituality, what are we left with?

“But on earth indifference is the least/We have to dread from man or beast,” the poet W. H. Auden writes.  I don’t know.  I fear indifference.  I can’t but feel that the indifference to religion and even spirituality is numbing society.  We’re getting bland to everything, getting bland.  And we are retreating into tribes.  Instead of spiritual community that reaches out to the stranger and foreigner, we are retreating into tribes that close off the other.  We ignore religion to the peril of the loving community that the world can be.  While religion is often castigated for causing wars, I think that the lack of genuine religion is causing us to be more xenophobic and antagonistic to the other.  Will the indifference of our age ever produce another work like Beethoven’s 9th?  Will we ever know again the peace that passes understanding?  Will we ever again sing, “Love divine!  All loves excelling!”

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What I Was and Am

Considering where I came from

Where

What it was

I’ve come a long way

The horror

The pain

The hurt

Hurt, hate, and anger

So, I developed

Developed coping mechanisms

Is this the naissance of evil?

Time heals only with deliberate application

Of religion

 

Religion is a work in progress

God!

The religion I came from

That developed in my nascent environment

Religion is a kind of feed-back loop

Developing along with me

As I apply religious principles and develop

So those principles develop

Without religion I would be lost

And I am so close to being lost

A person’s enemies are of one’s own household

Religion and regeneration

Rebirth–born again

Hope

Come a long way

What I came from

What I was

Hope

What I am now

What Happened to the Christian Message?

Christianity spread like wildfire in the first few centuries CE—when it was illegal and punishable by a horrible death.  Today, mainline churches are aging, shrinking, and dwindling.   What was it that caught on to such a phenomenal degree in the early Roman Empire?  What happened to the Christian message today?  What is the Christian message?

There is a story in Acts about an Ethiopian eunuch who heard the Christian message from Philip, while riding home in his chariot.  They even passed by some water in the desert, and the Ethiopian asked to be baptized in it.  What was Philip’s message that so impressed the Ethiopian?  All Acts says is that Philip told him the good news about Jesus.  The earliest Christian message was, “He is risen!”  And I doubt that much Christian doctrine had evolved by the time of Philip’s conversation with the Ethiopian.

We have lots of doctrine now.  Swedenborg wrote 30 volumes of doctrine.  Then there’s the Church Fathers, the Catholic History of doctrines which they call the Catholic Tradition, Luther’s body of writings, Calvin, Westley, and all sorts of other Christian theologians.

And consider the setting of the Acts story.  The conversion of the Ethiopian occurred while they were riding on a chariot in the desert.  They weren’t in a magnificent cathedral.  They weren’t in a simple chapel.  The conversation happened in the midst of their life situation.

Mainline churches and even Jewish synagogues do pretty close to the same thing.  There are Bible readings, prayers, and a sermon.  People mostly sit there and listen, while the priest, minister, or rabbi preaches to the congregation.  It’s all very passive.  True, people do sing hymns, and recite psalms.  But I wonder if the problem with contemporary Christianity is the form, and not the content.  The way church services go, rather than the message of Jesus.

I can’t imagine that people have changed that much since Roman times.  I can’t imagine that the message of Jesus isn’t relevant.  In ancient Rome, there were temples everywhere, and people even sacrificed to the “spirit” of things like road intersections, rivers and sacred places, woods, and the Roman gods.  I heard a scholar say that pretty nearly everywhere in ancient Rome was sacred—woods, temple grounds, rivers, roads, lakes, everything.  Were the ancient Romans more tuned to religion than we are now?

Maybe.  Science took over in the 19th and 20th centuries, including psychology.  Science gives us a world view that doesn’t need God.  This would be unthinkable in Roman times.  Even merchant ships sacrificed to Poseidon to give them safe travel.  Psychology has taken upon itself the task of legislating morality to us.  Psychology has taught us to be vulnerable, to be open, to express our anger, to seek self-gratification, self-expression, self-fulfillment, and also to love and work.  But psychology’s message doesn’t include God, says nothing about God as the grounding for morality, as a soft science, is not spiritual.  Then there is the legacy of the Enlightenment and Immanuel Kant.  The upshot of Kant’s philosophy is that we don’t need revealed scripture, or even God, or religions, because reason can lead us into moral behaviors.  All these forces have made the message of religion less relevant.

But there is still a large percentage of people today who call themselves spiritual but not religious.  Spirituality has not diminished even if religions have.  Why are spiritual people saying that they are not religious?  Maybe it is because what they think religion means.  On the simplest level, maybe religion conjures up images of sitting in a building listening to a preacher talking at you.  Then there are some of the doctrines that have evolved over the centuries and millennia.  Christians teach that God gets angry at humans, that God punishes, that God calls for genocide, that God murders unbelievers, that God casts the wicked into hell.  These are behaviors that we disapprove of in humans—in fact, these are behaviors that Christians teach believers not to do, and yet God does them.  If I believed these things, I wouldn’t be religious either.  But my God is loving, is all love, can do nothing but love, forgive, and seek to make humans happy.  Maybe my beliefs aren’t all that Biblical, but they are Swedenborgian.

The Christian message I hear, and I believe, is the message of love.  God loves, Jesus loves, and we are invited to love God and to love one another.  That message is in all the Gospels, which were written in the first century CE.  It is likely that that message was told to the Ethiopian.  This message of love was taught in a time when people were murdered in the Coliseum for entertainment.  A time when roads were lined with people being crucified.  When gladiators killed to entertain the masses.  This society heard the message of love and Christianity flourished as an underground movement.  If a society like that of ancient Rome responded to the Christian message of love, would an enlightened society like ours respond less?

I don’t think the message of love falls on deaf ears today.  I don’t think that science has rendered us dead to spirituality completely.  Though apathy is widespread today, I believe that people still care.  I think that the problem with Christianity today is that the original message has gotten buried under human thinking and church traditions.  Philip converted the Ethiopian on his chariot.  If Christianity can integrate with the workaday world, perhaps it will resurrect.  I don’t think the Christian message means sitting facing the altar listening to p preacher hold forth.  It can mean that, for those who like it, but doesn’t have to be.  Then there are all those messages of hate in the name of the church that turn people off.  I think the message of love is still relevant.  While churches are dwindling, I’m not sure that the Christian message is.

Faith in Unbelief

I am one struggling to have faith in unbelief.

Contrary to many, I feel that religion is a positive force in the world.  Where else will a person find teachings that oppose the excessive consumption, greed, and vanity of western capitalist culture?  Where else will a person be valued not by the clothes they wear, but by who they are?

The May meeting of the Faith and Order Convening table of the National Council of Churches of Christ USA just concluded.  There are 38 different Christian denominations that are members of the NCCC USA.  I think that we do a pretty good job of working together considering the differences among our 38 denominations.  Some may find it hard to believe that there are 38 different Christian denominations–and I don’t think that there should be.

As a Swedenborgian in the NCCC USA, I have an uphill battle.  Despite the good will we have for one another, there are still religious prejudices.  Although there is an impressive list of poets, philosophers, and literati who have been avid readers of Swedenborg, the Swedenborgian connection has been actively suppressed.  Scholars and theologians don’t want a Swedenborg in their world.

For things like this, and other division-causing reasons, some have turned away from religion.  Perhaps many.  As a believer, this concerns me.  Religion has taught me so much wisdom, and has guided me out of hellish behaviours that I can’t imagine life without it.

But spiritual people, who aren’t religious, do find guidance and a higher power.  Where, I wonder, and how do such people find their way to God?  I know that God flows into every heart and mind and guides.  Even without God, people live good lives and have conscience.

I would have to have a trust in humanity to believe that without the nurture of religion, people will find their way to a life dedicated to others, and not themselves.  To believe that unbelievers have it in them to save themselves and the world around them, and to care.  Robert Frost puts it well, “Whether we have it in us to save ourselves unaided.”  It’s that “unaided” that gives me pause.  Without God, without religion, where does humanity find that power to save–save themselves, and the world?

I am one struggling to have faith in unbelief.

The Assassination of Aristotle

Philosophy and Religion used to provide guidance to us.  Now, psychology has taken over the role of guide for human behaviour.  It is a role that psychology is ill equipped to perform.

Plato taught us to examine the soul.  Aristotle taught us how logically to present an argument.  What is left of contemporary philosophy is only rhetoric, persuasion, and language analysis.  In the 20th century, philosophy turned logic into arithmetic and called it symbolic logic.  Then they said that logic is a closed system and does not relate to the world of experience.  That means philosophy can’t argue for the truth anymore, because you can’t argue at all.  Then philosophy said that there is no truth, only what I want.  So we are left not with arguments in search of the truth, we are left with persuading people to do what we want, what we want them to do.

Richard Rorty, one of our past great post-modern philosophers wouldn’t take an endowed chair in the philosophy department of the University of Virginia because he thought that philosophy had reasoned itself out of existence.  He had them design some sort of cultural analysis department that he taught in.

So we are left with expressing our feelings, accepting ourselves good or bad, and affirming ourselves, worthy or not.  Those are principles of psychology.  And as a consequence, we get “The Girl on the Train.”  A very long, uninteresting movie about the feelings of a girl, and her life–a life I didn’t much care about.

But I do care about people, and religion taught me to love others.  However, I have also been taught to love the good in people, to nurture it, and to bond with it.  Aristotle said that only virtuous people have the kind of temperament that can sustain friendship.  They are virtuous themselves and their psyche is not at odds with itself.  But philosophy has reasoned itself out of existence.  And religion’s influence is fading, has faded in society.  And we are left with The Girl on the Train.