Cautionary Note on Religion
Forgive me, please, but I feel obliged to say an unkind word about religion. By which I mean the forms of piety associated with just about all of the world's religions.
In this endeavor I'm going to hide behind Jesus. What strikes me about his teachings on piety is not what I've heard preacher after preacher insist on. If Jesus is not "agin" it, he is cautious, extremely cautious, in his advice about the practices of prayer and fasting and charity. To summarize the Galilean rabbi's advice on prayer, something I've done repeatedly on this website, he tells us to make prayers short and say them in private. Fasting likewise, and with a smiling face. Charitable gifts? with such anonymity part of you isn't even aware of it.
As for Bible-study, the twelve year old in the Temple in 12 AD (guess Who), amazing the learned interpreters, obviously has taken the Law and Prophets into his head and heart. But this same lad, when he becomes a man, warns followers that memorized verses of Holy Writ are insufficient for faith without a grasp of the whole, the whole Gospel, and with it "the mind of Christ." Or how else do we read Matthew 7:15ff? There he famously predicts that "many will come in my name and say 'I am he!' and they will lead many astray." Sadly, they have.
Bible-reading, like the other forms of piety, prayer and fasting and charity, are not ends in themselves. They are like paring knives, which can be used not only to take the pits out of peaches but, with misuse, blood out of the thumb. Can it be lost on anyone who has paid the slightest attention to TV reports on Osama bin Laden that he (and any one of hundreds of millions of Muslims) thinks of himself as a profoundly religious soul ready to sacrifice anything in his surrender (the meaning of "Islam") to Allah?
Barbara's father, the late Lewis H. Davis, self-giving pastor extraordinary, reported an amusing incident in his visits to parishioners in Brooklyn. He took communion several times to an elderly woman living alone in her apartment. She was renowned for her memorization of Bible passages. She was also reputed to be wealthy... and, apparently, slightly paranoid. She let it be known to friends that she wondered why The Rev. Davis was so attentive to her, hinting that he might be, could it possibly be?, after her fortune. If she had memorized the red letter words, "by their fruits you shall know them," and, better, taken them into her head and heart, she might have discerned the goodness and kindness standing in front of her.
Martin Luther wrote (I have Googled the line for authenticity and, regrettably, come up empty) that reason is a Jew's harp on which any man can play his tune. (Any accusation of anti-Semitism about this line is totally off the mark: attend to the meaning!) That is, reason is a tool to argue us from one point to another; but it, reason, is not an unqualified good... depends, rather, on how it's used. Same for prayer and the other practices of piety.
And, then, there's that disquieting translation of Matthew 5:3, the first Beatitude, King James Version, "Blessed are the poor in spirit." How does one reconcile that blessing with the library full of devotional literature on strengthening the spirit? Sure, in context it's the recognition that those who have taken their lumps by worldly circumstance are, therefore, one up on those of us who has been given a free and comfortable ride through life. But, to my mind, the beatitude hints too at the peril of being too holy for one's own good. Think elderly rich woman in Brooklyn.
I suspect that some of you reading this essay will take it as justification for avoiding piety. That may be its consequence, but not my intent. My intent falls under the category of another beatitude attributed to Jesus, in a non-canonical text, The Gospel according to Thomas, I think: "Blessed are you if you know what you're doing."NB
Friends, by all means pray, fast, study, and give. But do it with an open heart and open mind attuned to the way of Jesus.
NB: I have frequently cited this verse, and just as frequently failed to reference it. I think I stumbled upon it in the writing of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, his Ethics, in a footnote, but repeated thumbing through its pages has not turned up exactly where. I'll continue my search.