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I was previously a constitutional law and civil rights litigator and am now a journalist. I am the author of three New York Times bestselling books -- "How Would a Patriot Act" (a critique of Bush executive power theories), "Tragic Legacy" (documenting the Bush legacy), and With Liberty and Justice for Some (critiquing America's two-tiered justice system and the collapse of the rule of law for its political and financial elites). My fifth book - No Place to Hide: Edward Snowden, the NSA and the US Surveillance State - will be released on April 29, 2014 by Holt/Metropolitan.

Saturday, June 03, 2006

Liberal Jesus

By Barbara O'Brien

I want to thank Glenn for inviting me to blog at you while he's away. I also hope I am not imposing on this generosity by plunging in with a post on religion. I promise this will be a request for tolerance, not conversion. I am not a Christian, but I am religious, and sometimes I find myself defending Christians from the religion haters among us lefties. This week’s potshots come from radio show host and author Barry Seidman, who describes himself as a humanist and secularist. In response to recent advances by the Christian Left, Seidman writes that he’s happy the Christian Left is “joining the good fight against Christo-fascists like Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson, Tim LaHaye and President Bush.” However,

… the coupling of religion and politics is as dangerous for the left as it is for the right, because absolutism, authoritative supernaturalism and the actual tenets of the Abrahamic religious texts can never be reconciled with democracy and freedom.

In my experience liberal Christians respect the separation of church and state, so it’s not clear to me what worries Mr. Seidman. I infer he thinks that religious liberals are just kidding themselves about their liberalism. No matter how tolerant they try to be, he thinks, sooner or later their Inner Whackjob must assert itself. Liberal Christians may be just one bad hair day away from reviving the Inquisition.

Seidman continues,

... members of both the religious right and left subscribe to the same ethics of hegemony and domination as did their ancestors who wrote their unscientific understanding of ethics on papyrus thousands of years ago. Both create just-so stories and impart their beliefs while nurturing insidious territorialism. The ancients did not have the scientific knowledge or the intellectual maturity necessary to live together with all of humanity in mutual respect, free of myths and separatist values. What is our excuse?

I think Seidman speaks for many of the secular Left who see Christians as a tribe of primitives clinging to Stone Age superstition. Though they may use electronic gadgets and take Lipitor to reduce their cholesterol, they distrust science as the work of the Devil. And the worst among them are determined to turn America into a pre-Enlightenment backwater. Although liberal Christians may seem reasonable on the surface, deep down there's got to be something wrong with them, we think. How can Christian dogma be reconciled with rational thought?

Christianity may be the most dogmatic major religion on the planet, I admit. In most denominations the follower is presented with an elaborate belief system and told he must accept these beliefs absolutely; doubt often is considered weakness. Since the West is overwhelmingly Christian, here even the nonreligious assume this dogmatism is what religion is all about.

But conservative Christianity’s emphasis on a literal belief in doctrine and ancient texts is an aberration among religions and is not even true of all of Christianity. Historian Karen Armstrong argues that a rigidly literal reading of scripture is a relatively recent development.

... faith is not a matter of believing things. That’s again a modern Western notion. It’s only been current since the 18th century. Believing things is neither here nor there, despite what some religious people say and what some secularists say. That is a very eccentric religious position, current really only in the Western Christian world. You don’t have it much in Judaism, for example. …

… I think we’ve become rather stupid in our scientific age about religion. If you’d presented some of these literalistic readings of the Bible to people in the pre-modern age, they would have found it rather obtuse. They’d have found it incomprehensible that people really believe the first chapter of Genesis is an account of the origins of life.

Westerners often cling to an infantile religion focused on a Big Daddy God and the face of Jesus mysteriously appearing on pancakes and cheese sandwiches. And since that's what much of religion in America looks like, it's easy to assume that’s what religion is. That, and the fact that the world seems infested with warring religious whackjobs, makes religion easy to hate. I understand that.

But the problem isn’t with religion. The problem is that, somehow, we’ve allowed religion to be defined by the stupid and the warped, resulting in stupid and warped religion at war with all things rational and humane. But religion doesn't have to be that way.

Followers of other religions can be baffled by notion of scriptural literalism. His Holiness the Dalai Lama was once asked what he would do if science disproved something written in a sutra. He said that he would revise the sutra. Westerners sometimes don’t know how to take this, but even the Buddha told his followers they shouldn’t accept anything he taught them on faith. Believing the sutras is not the point of the sutras, any more than believing in science is the point of science.

Many of the world's religions do not regard their sacred texts as collections of facts that must be accepted unblinkingly by the faithful. Rather, texts, doctrines, and practices are means, not ends. They are interfaces with realities that confound the limitations of human intellect. These realities also confound the limitations of human language, so they cannot accurately be explained in words. From this perspective any religious understanding that can be explained in words or reduced to dogma is flawed. As it says in the first line of the Tao Teh Ching, "The Tao that can be explained is not the Tao."

For this reason, the language of the world's sacred texts is more often representational than literal, and most scriptures are meant to be read as allegory or myth rather than as God's FAQs. Some religious traditions regard their deities not as meddling invisible super-persons but as something more like Jungian archetypes. Even the God of monotheism is viewed by some monotheists as an allegorical creation meant to represent something beyond understanding and ordinary existance; the ground of being, for example. Karen Armstrong points out that science also uses mythological language — e.g., “Big Bang,” “black hole” — for realities that dangle just outside the scope of most human cognition.

But people stuck in rigidly left-brained, literal thinking can render even the most mystical religion into dogma. Thus, fundamentalism. Fundamentalism can happen to any religion, but monotheism seems especially suseptible to it. And at the moment Muslim and Christian fundamentalists have gone way beyond the nuisance stage and present a genuine threat to civilization on this planet. But the fault for this lies in the corruption of religion, not in religion itself.

Mr. Seidman accuses liberal Christians of intellectual dishonesty.

[E]ven if the Religious Left has developed a healthier and somewhat more liberal understanding of human society based on compassion, interconnectedness, fairness, and justice, it is just as sure that they did not base these views on actual scripture. They merely attempt to make scripture fit their liberal beliefs, because the Bible is anything but liberal. I call this buffet religiosity--cherry-picking the parts of scripture that conform to their worldview, and discarding the ones that don’t. (How, exactly, one can justify cherry-picking the words of God, is beyond me.)

I have had lovely discussions with liberal Christians who understand the Bible was written by people with limitations and prejudices, and that ideas about God have evolved over time. Many even accept historical evidence that the Gospels were not, in fact, written by Apostles but by second- and third-generation followers who didn’t know Jesus personally. Once you accept that Jesus’s words may have been imperfectly recorded in the Gospels, disregarding the parts that seem out of whack is not “cherry picking,” as Seidman assumes, but critical thinking. (See also the Jesus Seminar.)

I've long suspected that whatever Jesus was about got buried pretty quickly under the interpretations of lesser teachers and dogmas that arose in the centuries after his death. The Doctrine of Trinity itself didn’t become the central doctrine of the church until the 4th century; some biblical scholars doubt that Jesus saw himself as God. (As a Jew, he might have been appalled at the idea.) And although most Christians don’t question standard doctrine, there are those who find their true spiritual quest in digging through the doctrinal minutia of the ages to get closer to the authentic Jesus.

Mystical and dogmatic approaches to Christianity co-existed through most of Christian history. Mystics like Teresa of Avila and John of the Cross lived in the shadow of the Inquisition. In recent times dogmatism has prevailed, but mysticism didn’t die altogether. And in a time when the light of science makes most religious dogma seem, well, absurd, some Christians are working to restore Christian mysticism to its former place of respectability. Even though I ducked out of that struggle to take up the Buddhist path instead, I heartily wish them well.

My point here is that secularists like Mr. Seidman should not prejudge the religious and assume we’re all enslaved by ancient superstitions or believe in a Santa Claus God. Clearly, Mr. Seidman has a narrow and limited (and, may I say, dogmatic) understanding of what religion is.

Throughout American history Christians have played a leading role in social and political progress, from the Abolitionist movement to the Civil Rights movement. In recent years Christian liberalism, like political liberalism, has been eclipsed by the Christian and political Right. Of all people, liberals should be able to understand that Christianity is not necessarily what the Right says it is. We must not allow rightwing groupthink to infect us and divide us.

Thomas Jefferson said “it does me no injury for my neighbor to say there are twenty gods or no God. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg.” Likewise, Mr. Seidman need not concern himself with the religious views of others who aren’t concerning themselves with the secularist views of Mr. Seidman. Instead of worrying that the Christian Left will contaminate democracy, I recommend that he, like Jefferson, swear “eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man.” That’s the enemy of us all, religious or not.

Recommended reading: "Dalai Lama honours Tintin and Tutu" (the BBC, June 2, 2006); Albert Einstein, "Religion and Science" (originally published in the New York Times magazine, November 9, 1930).

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