I write this a week and a half after 50 people died in a night-club mass shooting in Florida. As we know, the fact that most of the victims were gay, lesbian, or trans-gendered figured prominently in the lone terrorist’s choice of targets. And of course that terrorist was making a form of religion (Islam in this case) a basis for his actions. So here’s another day when religion is revealed to be a potentially negative force.
Years ago, if most Americans were asked if religion was by and large a good thing they would have said “Yes.” Even people who were agnostics and practiced no faith at all would have given that answer in the general belief that religion contributed to positive morality and concern for one another. Those days are over, and the pendulum has swung to where a high percentage of Americans, especially younger Americans, view religion as a form of bigotry and evil.
Well, the truth is that not all religion is good religion!
If religion leads toward hatred, self-righteousness, and death, it is bad religion. Plain and simple. If it leads toward compassion, humility, and life, it is good religion. Not that all versions of good religion need to agree with each other. In fact they won’t, and perhaps they shouldn’t. Religion that leads toward hatred, self-righteousness, and death is religion where the human ego is overtaking the Spirit of God. No matter how much I may try to base what I am thinking on scripture, for instance, my ego can still overtake that process, because I will be reading that scripture with an often unconscious personal grid that filters what I understand. That is always what is happening with judgmental religion. I am mistaking my judgments for God’s because they can feel so “right.” They are just so “obvious.”
Pope Francis has been trying to address this issue in the Catholic church by emphasizing the theme of mercy in how church doctrine is understood and applied. He is not saying the church cannot articulate boundaries and beliefs, but the “mercy grid” will tend to get the narrow human ego out of the drivers’ seat. If mercy or compassion is our default value, the Holy Spirit has a chance to intersect with our thinking, because our personal judgments will not take over so quickly. If, instead, our egos or personal judgments are in control, the door is opened for the diabolical.
So the old “yes” answer to the question about religion being good won’t stand anymore. It never should have. In its place could be St. Paul’s famous words from 1 Corinthians 13: “So faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.” Whatever understanding does not measure up to that centrality of love is bad religion, whatever name is worshipped. And bad religion can do some serious damage. That which lives up to Paul’s words, however, that is a different matter – a source of life and hope for all. Blessings!
- Rev. Charlie