MY PROBLEM WITH RELIGION by Richard Rohr
"The corruption of the best is the worst."
"These people make a big show of saying the right thing, but their
hearts aren't in it ... so I am going to step in and shock them awake,
astonish them, and stand them on their ears."
—(Isaiah 29:14, Eugene Peterson translation)
A recent study on altruism is supposed to have shown that people affiliated with religion are statistically no less or more loving than people who call themselves unbelievers. In fact, they are often more egocentric, and only a very small percentage is genuinely or heroically altruistic. If true, this is surely disappointing and humiliating for religion, although I must say that it largely matches my own observations. Some of the most naturally generous people I have ever known have been secularized Jews. And they don't even believe in an afterlife system of reward and punishment! We really have to look at this.
I believe there is a deep dilemma and contradiction at the heart of institutional Christianity. Maybe it is even a necessary one. All I know is that it can only be resolved by authentic inner experience, "prayer," mysticism, or dare I call it, "spirituality." I am convinced that religion, in its common cultural and external forms, largely protects the ego, especially the group ego, instead of transforming it. If people do not go beyond first level metaphors, rituals, and comprehension, most religions seem to end up with a God who is often angry, petulant, needy, jealous, and who will love us only if we are "worthy" and belonging to the correct group. We end up with the impossible scenario of a God who is "small," and often less loving than the best people we know! This supposedly divine love is quite measured and conditional, and yet ironically demands from us a perfect and unconditional love. Such a salvation system will never work, unless we allow an utterly new dimension of love "to astonish us and stand us on our ears," as Isaiah says above. Unless God is able and allowed to love us unconditionally, we will never know how to do the same.
Most people I know would never torture another human being under any conditions. Yet people believe in a god who not only tortures, but tortures for all eternity. That is bitter vengeance by anyone's definition. Why would anyone want to be alone with such a testy and temperamental god? Why would anyone go on the great mystical journey into divine intimacy with such an unsafe lover? Why would anyone trust such a god to know how to love those who really need it? I personally know many people who are much more generous and imaginative than this god is. We have ended up being ourselves more loving, or at least trying to be, than the god we profess to believe! Such a religion is in deep trouble—at its core.
Most of my Jewish and Christian friends are very tolerant and accepting of different races, cultures, and religions. They are willing to see good wherever good is to be seen. But not our god. Our god only likes "born again" Americans, and preferably morally successful and "normal" people, who hopefully attend my denominational service on the proper day. (This is easily the quickest growing form of religion in most countries today). Even stingy little Richard Rohr ends up being much more caring, patient, generous, and merciful than Yahweh Sabaoth! How did we get to such absurdity? Especially after Jesus spends most of his ministry affirming those who are wounded, unworthy, not successful, normal, or properly affiliated?
Perhaps you say, "But religion has always taught me that God is love!" Yes, religion "says the right words," but this god we hear about is never allowed to be loving in the way that we have experienced it from even our middle range friends and lovers. I have experienced immense patience, tolerance, and mercy from many of my friends. They put up with my failures and idiosyncrasies, and eventually know that some of my patterns will never even change. They often accept me as I am, and learn to love me as I am—which eventually almost indirectly changes me! Every good parent knows that unmerited love creates love-in-return. Grace creates gracious people. But not our god! God, and the history of religion, seem to prefer mandates, coercion, blame, and shame to achieve some kind of supposed transformation. This is quite helpful for social order and control of the immature, I really understand that. But it is quite clear to me, in the later years of my life, that God does not love me if I change, but God loves me so that I can change. That is an entirely different agenda.
It often seems that religion's most common concern is to find out what God does not like, where God is not present, and who God does approve for hating and excluding. Perhaps we are seeking to legitimate our own need to exclude and hate and dominate? Why else would we like a God who succeeds by punishing and always dominates? We have been told in recent years that God does not like homosexuals, God is not present in mosques and synagogues, and that God is not bothered at all by the direct and collateral damage of our necessary wars. Abortion killing is the only killing that is inherently bad because the fetus is "innocent life." This "morality" will only work if we can dare to think of ourselves as innocent. If legal protection and moral response depends on us being innocent or worthy, then who can be "saved?" What makes the Good News good news is precisely that God loves and defends unworthy and non-innocent life. Otherwise, you and I have little hope. And we can easily justify capital punishment, torture, euthanasia, and even pre-emptive wars against the unworthy ones—which is exactly what we have done. We have become the small god we worship.
I think my central disappointment with much of religion is that it is so stingy in its attitudes, and actually seems to prefer a stingy god. It loves tribalism and group think. It likes to convert others more than change itself. Religions are notorious for excluding, expelling, and excommunicating. It is almost their job description. We actually fear and condemn anything that appears to be a call to mercy beyond our boundary markers. Any universalism ("catholicity") or inclusivity is deemed dangerous. It feels like abdication of sacred ground, for some reason. We always come up with our fear of others, our fear of contamination, our fear of losing some supposed great truth that we are protecting and living. What fragile people religion has often created.
Monotheism's great breakthrough was that its God was "Lord of all the earth." Doesn't monotheism necessarily prepare us for one pattern, one reality, one world—one love? Yet the religions of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam have been—up to now—inclusive only at very small levels. The very people who defend the "Creator of all things" are the last ones who really defend that same creation. Sure, God created all things, but we only have to love and respect small parts of it, which just happens to be my part—"Our people" much more than "all people." The ecologists, humanists, and some globalists end up being much more "monotheistic" in practice than most Christians I know.
Isaiah loves to speak of "the nations counting as nothingness and emptiness" (40:17), that "all of humanity will see the glory of God" (40:5), and that "my house will be a house of prayer for all the peoples" (56:7), which is later quoted by Jesus. The light revealed to Israel is to be "the light to all the nations" (42:6) because their message offers illumination for everybody and not just for themselves.
Jesus is the universalist par excellence, always making the outsider the hero of his stories, the non-Jews those with more faith and more compassion, the sinners those who are saved, the women better than the men, and as he continually puts it, "the last first"—while the so-called elect and chosen are his constant opponents. Jesus' clear criterion for one who speaks with authority is simply one who has gone through the belly of the whale experience, or what he calls the "sign of Jonah," the "only" sign he will give. Membership in a group or correct verbiage is not what gives you authority in Jesus' understanding, but those who "drink the cup that I must drink and are baptized with the baptism which I must be baptized" (Mark 10:39). This is "the true authority of those who have suffered" and come through the cleansing bath transformed.
Jesus reaches this shocking and scandalous conclusion because his starting place is quite different. He does not begin with any preoccupation with human sinfulness or the weighing of worthiness or unworthiness (that is the preoccupation of the ego). In fact, he just assumes that we are all "sick and in need of a physician." As he puts it, "I did not come to call the virtuous" (Mark 2:17). Jesus' starting place is human suffering instead of human sinfulness. How else can you explain his full time ministry of healing, exorcism, affirmation of the excluded ones, the alleviation of human distress and humiliation? He is not naive about sin, but just recognizes that human sinfulness, "hardness of heart," is much more a symptom than a cause. Sin largely reveals the problem and he uses it for diagnostic purposes, not for condemnation or exclusion. Sin, for Jesus, is not a set of purity codes or debt codes—which he goes out of his way to flaunt—but inner attitudes which blind and bind us inside of ourselves, and away from communion and mercy.
It is not moral unworthiness that keeps people from God, but moral righteousness and self-sufficiency. It is that simple recognition, which is almost his constant message, which makes Jesus the ultimate, perennial, and radical reformer of religion, and why religious people oppose him. It makes one wonder if such a foundational critique can ever fashion itself into a proper religion at all. I agree with Simone Weil who said "the problem with Christianity is that it insists on seeing itself as a separate religion, instead of a healing message for all religions." I am afraid that is what will always emerge when you have religion without spirituality, or pious practices without inner experience. The very best thing will then become the very worst thing, and the only way through is to "be awakened and astonished" by a divine love that is of an utterly new dimension.
Fr. Richard Rohr is a Franciscan priest of the New Mexico Province and founder of the Center for Action and Contemplation in Albuquerque. For more information please visit www.cacradicalgrace.org.
Rohr, Richard. 2007. My Problem with Religion. Tikkun 22(4): 20.