SAN DIEGO — My friend Stacey Warde, an Army veteran and sometime window washer, also edits a print-only literary journal published from a tool shed in Cayucos, California. His partner in media is a moonlighting taxi driver, and the two men call their joint effort “The Rogue Voice.” It’s the kind of publication whose masthead calls executive staff “outlaws” and contributing writers “agitators.” In the February issue of “Rogue Voice,” Warde started a series of articles on religious life in America by explaining why he quit going to church.
The Episcopalians with whom Warde formerly spent Sunday mornings were, he says, “mostly regular folk who read the Bible, prayed often, [and] believed in God.” Moreover — and to their credit — “They were highly educated, well-read individuals, capable of [having] an intelligent conversation without mentioning Jesus or saying ‘praise the Lord’ every other breath.”
Good on them. But not good enough, apparently, because “Tradition, Scripture, and Reason,” that three-legged stool borrowed from Catholicism by theologians who sided with Henry VIII in his dispute with the pope, was not strong enough to prevent Warde’s unhappy realization that “organized religion tends to exacerbate rather than staunch our proclivity for meanness.”
That was the line that told me I’d be writing a response to Warde’s essay. His crossword puzzle vocabulary had perfect table manners, but the assertion behind it threw overcooked spaghetti against one of my favorite walls, adding a meatball or two when it was later rephrased as, “For whatever reason, church of any kind seems often to bring out the worst in people.”
Drawing from personal experience with a small-minded bishop and some fellow churchgoers, Warde slammed skis into the guideposts of faith like Bode Miller flattening course markers on a slalom run in the Italian Alps. “Organized religion, and Christianity in particular, never could tolerate independent seekers, people whose faith can’t be squeezed into an orthodox box, where it can be controlled and manipulated,” Warde wrote.
That may be the received wisdom in certain self-consciously edgy and unfailingly honest publications, but it’s unadulterated horsepucky. As I wrote directly to my friend, “Dude! You’re not an atheist trying to kid yourself through a sleepless night for having refused Pascal’s Wager. You might want to rethink that assertion, if only because Jesus went to the cross because the faith He preached couldn’t be squeezed into an orthodox box, and nearly every saint in the Christian canon since could be called an eccentric.”
Consider Augustine, the third-century bishop, who wrote that “No sensible person will go contrary to reason, no Christian will contradict the Scriptures, no lover of peace will go against the Church.” He wrote that while the Roman Empire was falling down around his ears, in the conviction that the church could not be separated from its founder. Even then, this was not an original thought, just an echo of what Paul had written to Timothy not long after Jesus died and rose again. Paul called the church “the ground of truth.” We still have that letter.
Sure, a few Renaissance popes could have taught Machiavelli a thing or two about political infighting, and the melding of state and spiritual power that Henry VIII did his best to rationalize was neither the first nor the last of its kind, but those who take the long view recognize that Christianity is inherently counter-cultural. Even the excesses of the Spanish Inquisition were relatively tame compared to what politicians of the time were doing: When they had a choice, the accused preferred to be tried in church courts rather than in state courts, because the church was more merciful.
My own shamelessly Catholic view sees organized religion endorsed by the big man Himself, in verses ranging from “feed my sheep” to “do this in memory of Me.”
BUT WHAT OF THE RELATIONSHIP between Christianity and independent thought? Abuse heaped on heretics and apostates by those who disagree with them would seem to argue for the existence of a repressive creed, would it not?
Well, buy me a beer, and I’ll ask you to consider why it’s no coincidence, as Vincent Carroll and David Shiflett say in their book, Christianity on Trial, that the town meeting, “that quintessential local expression of American democracy, hails primarily from [Puritan] New England.”
Picking up the same theme, James Webb’s chronicle of Scots-Irish influence in America, Born Fighting, observes that a majority of the colonials who fought on the rebel side in the Revolution were Presbyterians. Ever see a diary entry from one of them complaining about how conflicting it was to fight for freedom while being a willing slave to Jesus? Of course not.
More home truths: it was the church that brought agriculture to California, which is why Fray Junipero Serra’s likeness adorns one of two statues allotted to the Golden State in Washington, D.C. And forget any talk of how missionary influence has been, on balance, a burden to indigenous peoples. In fact, many Christian missionaries formed alliances with native people against those who wanted to exploit them (even Hollywood sometimes gets that right, as witness Robert De Niro’s performance in The Mission). Catholic priests like Antonio de Montesinos were preaching against the mistreatment of American Indians by European colonists as early as 1511. Some colonists sought to punish the man for speaking truth to power, but he had the support of his bishop, so score another one for church.
Look a little further right on the timeline of history, and only one generation after Charles Dickens wrote memorably about the plight of children in Victorian England and the wisdom of avoiding men with names like Uriah Heep, Pope Leo XIII issued Rerum Novarum, his influential friend-of-the-workingman encyclical on capital and labor.
In our own day, the KGB maintained a file on the late Pope John Paul II from the late fifties until his death in 2005 because they recognized him and the church of which he was part as champions of liberty, which in both the Russian and Chinese dialects of Communist speech made them “extremely dangerous ideological enemies.”
Perhaps you’re thinking that those examples from five different centuries have been cherrypicked so much that they distort the Christian record. For the sake of perspective, we should also look at misbehavior and sin. Fair enough.
I grew up in Hawaii, where there’s always an argument to be made that unscrupulous missionaries in league with sugar cane planters defrauded native Hawaiians of what had been their land. There’s something to that charge, but to make it an indictment of organized religion you’d have to show fraud as a matter of church policy, which it never has been. Moreover, people who make that argument typically forget that the nineteenth-century Hawaiian monarchy was full of Anglophiles. Far from rejecting Anglo-American influence, Queen Liliokalani and Prince Kalakaua recognized that the caste system exploited by forebears like Kamehameha had serious limitations.
NONE OF THIS MEANS to argue that the church is perfect, only that it is necessary and good. To point to church workers who’ve been cheated out of overtime pay, or bishops who leave hit-and-run scenes for fear of the police (as happened in Arizona), proves only that Christianity is right to say that we’re all sinners who need God.
Warde’s observation that “so many people in church [have] lost touch with their own ability to reach beyond rigor mortis or feigned happiness to ‘touch the power of God'” seems astute. My friend was also right to observe that priests and bishops can be obstacles on a path to enlightenment.
Fortunately, neither of those developments is fatal to Christianity, especially Catholic Christianity, because both can be checked, and eventually reversed, from within the Christian tradition. The Spanish mystic John of the Cross wrote famously about his “dark night(s) of the soul,” and the Welsh missionary to the Irish whom we call Saint Patrick was more than once stymied by druids working for chieftains or high kings, but neither John nor Patrick decided to become a shaman, or asked plaintively what Xena would do, because they didn’t have to.
Color me old-school: a gratuitous reference to warrior princess Lucy Lawless in the leather armor she wore for TV seems almost never out of place. Oh, and insofar as Christianity is concerned, I’ll stick with organized religion. As you’ll have guessed by now, it’s not because I’m incapable of thought, impressed by pomp, or — per Warde’s conjecture — unwilling to stop dragging the security blanket of authority around. I agree with his assertion that the mention of God should start conversations, not end them.
But for me to separate myself from the church would mean rejecting the counsel of sages through the ages, and making myself a slave to whim. No thanks. I’ve lived just long enough to know that the Tyranny of Me is no prettier than the Tyranny of You, and while my boss really is a Jewish carpenter, he’s also a guy — and a God — who knows how to delegate.