Tuesday, June 25, 2013

If there's one thing I can't stand, it's people groveling.


GOD: Arthur! Arthur, King of the Britons! Oh, don't grovel! If there's one thing I can't stand, it's people groveling. ARTHUR: Sorry!! GOD: And don't apologize. Every time I try to talk to someone it's 'sorry this' and 'forgive me that' and 'I'm not worthy'. What are you doing now!? ARTHUR: I'm averting my eyes, oh Lord. GOD: Well, don't. It's like those miserable Psalms -- they're so depressing. Now knock it off! ARTHUR: Yes, Lord.
--Monty Python and the Holy Grail
 
It's true, I do like Monty Python's Flying Circus.
 
But that's a digression. The real point of quoting the dialogue between a scary cartoon God and Graham Chapman's King Arthur is the truth it speaks about popular theology. What comes next is, of course, the commission of the Quest for the Holy Grail, but that's another story.
 
Grass roots theology, pop theology, the opiate of the masses, whatever label one puts on the religion of the vast majority of believers throughout the ages, it all tends to come down to this: God is big, scary, and vindictive, so if we know what's good for us, we'll get down on our knees and beg for mercy. Oh, and while we're down there appeasing God's wrath, let's ask for a favor or two.
 
From the very beginnings of written theology, religious thinkers have been trying to coax people away from this Worm Theology (as my fellow Metanoians called it); but it's the religion that simply will not die, probably because it's the easiest to grasp: take a being, or pantheon of beings, powerful enough to create the cosmos; then project human concepts of justice on the deity; and pow! The deity is/are pissed, and everything bad that happens to us is divine punishment for one rule or another that we've broken, sometimes in ignorance. The cosmic scales must be kept in balance.
 
Forget that simply reading the headlines puts the lie to this idea, as every day we learn of innocents suffering and sinners prospering. Forget, too, that even the saintliest of individuals continue to suffer as long as they oppose themselves to the status quo, so clearly there's no way of winning God's favor here on earth. Human beings seem to have an inherent need for God as celestial Santa/Firefighter/Principal/Executioner; and when confronted with the certainty that that's just not how it works, most either go into denial or become atheists.
 
The worst part of Worm Theology, though, is not that it's patently deluded. It's what it says about God. To buy into this cosmology, one has to believe that God is something very like the cartoon king in the clouds as animated by Terry Gilliam. The funniest part of this particular sketch is that, even as Arthur and his knights are acting exactly as respectfully and worshipfully as believers in a God who looks and sounds like this ought to act, God rejects all their acts of piety. "If there's one thing I can't stand, it's people groveling." It's proof that, for all their rebellious tweaking of orthodoxy, the Pythons knew their Bible as well as any of the other great literary references that show up in their sketches. These words in God's mouth sound remarkably like those of the prophet Amos:
 
I hate, I despise your festivals,
    and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies.
22 Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and grain offerings,
    I will not accept them;
and the offerings of well-being of your fatted animals
    I will not look upon.
23 Take away from me the noise of your songs;
    I will not listen to the melody of your harps.
24 But let justice roll down like waters,
    and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream. (Amos 5:21-24, NRSV)
 
God is not appeased, or amused, by human worship.
 
Amos stands at a crossroads in the evolution of theology. As Israel suffered both natural and international disasters, it became clear the old theology wasn't working. There were attempts to explain these catastrophes as retribution for the sins of the people, who were not pious enough; and of their kings, who also strayed to other gods; but when even the most pious of kings, Josiah, sought to bring about a restoration of Torah-faithfulness, only to see the nation invaded one last time, and the line of David brought to a horrible conclusion, the punditry of the priesthood ran out of steam. The historical books of the Hebrew Bible still blame an impious king for this final invasion, but it's half-hearted. It became the task of the prophets now to better understand why God would abandon Israel in its time of greatest need, seemingly betraying every promise ever made to the Chosen People.
 
Their answer: God had bigger plans for Israel, plans that had to be worked out on a global scale, across generations. The Santa God of the old religion was too small, too local. The One True God of Israel was the God of all the world, and was preparing Israel to be a light to all the nations. That meant spending some time in exile, which was to be a cultural purgatory, cleansing the people of all their attachments to false gods and earthly prosperity.
 
It was ingenious, and it kept the faith alive for half a millennium. But things continued to get worse, and eventually the idea of God working through history to restore the whole world ran out of steam. Now things were so corrupt that only an apocalyptic battle could set them right. It was now the time of the Roman occupation, and every street corner had a wild-eyed preacher predicting fire and brimstone. One of those preachers was named Yeshua. His followers would take the God of Israel beyond the boundaries of Judaism, announcing that the One True God had sent Yeshua--now called Jesus--into the world to redeem all of it. Theirs was a message of hope, of a loving God who wanted the salvation of all people.
 
But soon the popular theology took over. The worminess of humanity was just too obvious to resist. And now it took on a particularly insidious bent: humankind was so corrupt that it deserved total destruction, a global cleansing like the Old Theology flood to wipe the slate clean; but God had used Plan B, offering up God's own and only son, Jesus, as a sacrifice for all human sin. It was a terrible thing for God to give up, but as Spock says in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, "The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few...or the one." This doctrine is called the atonement, and it has been the heart of Christianity for almost its entire existence. "God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son" (John 3:16--yes, the sign somebody's always holding up at televised sports events) is the motto of almost every church that has ever existed.
 
But here's the problem with this doctrine, which again gets us back to the Python God at the top of this post: while it's wholly consistent with a God whose glowing eyes and booming voice are terrifying, a kind of "neat idea" such a God might have as an alternative to authorizing an earthquake, a hurricane, or some other "Act of God," it's simply not consistent with a God who really is all-loving. A God who would establish a Cosmic Constitution that required such a sacrifice as the price for not destroying everything is not a God worthy of praise. It is, though, a God who would welcome gaze-averting, groveling, worm theology adherents.
 
Look at it this way: the  popular God is usually depicted with a crown, as a divine king. Imagine now a king or president who rules with an iron fist, whose judgments are harsh but always righteous, and who occasionally destroys a village just to show who's boss. The iron fist could even be contained by a velvet glove; the king might, on occasion, be benevolent, generous to his subjects, protecting them from invasions, even punishing nobles who exploit their power by persecuting their vassals. The bottom line is still that one does not want to cross this king. Such a ruler would be called, in modern political science, an autocrat, a dictator, even a tyrant. Now imagine this autocrat announces that there will be no more harsh judgments, no more villages destroyed, no more public executions--except for one: the crown prince has decided to offer himself in exchange for all the future punishments the king might ever, however righteously, mete out. It's to be a horrible, public display of torture, humiliation, and painful death, with a large mocking crowd present; and once it's over, the king will be satisfied. The dead prince will have atoned for all the sins of the kingdom. The people enshrine the memory of the prince as a hero who caused the king to become lenient--but they never really start trusting the king.
 
That's atonement in a nutshell, along with its greatest caveat: if God is a tyrant, does God committing substitutionary infanticide change that fact? If God really requires the death of Jesus for the rest of us to escape judgment, is the peace that ensues worth its bloody price?
 
It's the same question asked by Oregonian author Ursula  K. LeGuin in her short story, "The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas." In the story, there is a mythical kingdom called Omelas in which every citizen lives a full, happy life, free from suffering, blessed with long life, abundant resources, rewarding work--really, it sounds a lot like the United Federation of Planets. There's just one hitch: at the age of majority, every citizen is taken to a cell deep in the bowels of the castle, and shown a single orphan, locked away, malnourished, and terribly alone. The child cries piteously, but the new citizens are not permitted to reach out in comfort. It is explained to them that this is the price of all the happiness of life in Omelas, that the suffering of this one child makes possible the happiness of all the thousands who live in the kingdom. Burdened with that knowledge, the new citizens return to their lives to learn trades and professions, marry, raise children, live out their lives of contentment and fulfillment--except for those who don't believe the suffering of even one child is justified by the happiness of so many. They are the ones who walk away, never to return.
 
The parable works best as a critique of First World prosperity. So much of what we enjoy is made possible by the hard labor of underpaid workers, both the undocumented immigrants who do so much of our work for us here, and the factory workers toiling in near-slavery conditions overseas. The computer upon which I write this blog, the iPhone that tells me someone on Facebook has liked it, the clothing I wear as I type, all these things are affordable to me because someone in Bangladesh, Malaysia, China, Mexico is working under conditions I would find unbearable for a salary I couldn't begin to live on. Like the citizens of Omelas, though, I'm able for the most part to put the suffering of the many out of my mind. The haves have because the have nots haven't, and we take that in stride, comforting ourselves perhaps with Jesus' words that "the poor you have...always" (Matthew 26:11, Mark 14:7, John 12:8). It's always been that way, it probably always will be that way (unless the Federation comes into being), so deal with it--or walk away. Go be a missionary, join the Peace Corps, join Occupy, work in a soup kitchen, protest corporate greed: there are many ways to walk away from Omelas, but as in the story, few have the heart and soul to do it.
 
And now for the Christological spin on the story, which is far simpler to interpret: the child is Christ. The paradise of Omelas is the Kingdom of Heaven. And we have access to it thanks to his suffering. But don't forget about that suffering. In fact, a healthy dose of guilt is called for by your knowledge of what was done for you, perhaps some shriving, fasting, discipline, maybe even a little torment. And don't even think of approaching the throne of God in any way but prostrate, groveling...
 
And we're back to that.
 
I'll say it again: is this God worthy of praise? Set aside any discussion about whether such a god exists. Clearly the worship of a cruel, vindictive God comes from an attitude of fear, self-loathing; worship ceases to be worth-ship, and becomes worm-ship.
 
And I have to say no. I understand the temptation to ascribe these characteristics to God. I've fallen into it myself in times of trial, praying with "sighs too deep for words" (Romans 8:26) for God to intervene in what I'm facing, to fix the injustice running rampant in my life; and when there has clearly been no intervention--or when the result demonstrates that, if anything, God sided with my oppressor--I've turned instead to berating God, shaking my fist at heaven like Job.
 
Five years ago, that happened for the last time, and I finally walked away. Groveling had, again, yielded me nothing, and God was utterly silent about the result. I felt nothing: no comfort, no explanation, not even the angry rejection of my request; just a void.
 
I don't know where my pilgrimage away from the God of unanswered prayers will take me. I have felt a softening in recent weeks, as I've been writing this blog, a slight opening in the windows I slammed shut in 2008. If I do return, it will be to a very different understanding of God, to a cosmology of a God with severe limitations--something that has always been in my preaching, but not in my faith on those occasions when I've most needed a lifeline.
 
I do know this: I am finished with groveling.

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