In the beginning, I had some hope for the Huffington Post’s relatively new section devoted to religion. Here was a forum, I thought, where difficult questions could be asked and possible answers ventured. Not once, however, have I read a post which asks a tough question, which might include any of the following:
- What is “religion”?
- Why are so many people religious?
- Do we have “spirits” or “souls”?
- Are religions the only or best sources of meaning and purpose?
- Are religions the only or best sources of morals and ethics?
- Can we be happy and fulfilled without being spiritual or religious?
- Why do most religionists have robust conceptions of spirits, deities, and demons actively at work in the world?
- Why is doctrine important to most religionists?
In the end, it has become clear that the HuffPo religion section writers take most of the answers to these questions as a given; others are simply ignored. We have a spirit or soul. Religions are the source of meaning and purpose. Religions provide answers to deep and mysterious questions. Religions are the foundation of moral, ethical, loving, and compassionate living. Religions offer solace.
Being religious or spiritual is, in other words, good and even necessary. But for HuffPo religion writers, this goodness requires a certain kind of religiosity and spirituality. It needs to be educated and liberal. It needs to be “progressive” and “sophisticated” (code words for educated and liberal). But above all, it needs to be vague and fuzzy. Religions, in other words, need to rid themselves of gods, doctrines, and spirits. They need to be ecumenical, open-minded, tolerant — and here is the key: mystical.
Two recent posts at HuffPo Religion demonstrate these conceptions. In the first, Jay Michaelson — educated and liberal mystic par excellence, tells the faithful there is “A Better Way to Believe in God.” As I noted in a previous post, Michaelson believes that “God is existence.” If you, like me, don’t think this sounds much like religion, we are fellow travelers. It is a not very philosophical mysticism that works for certain types of people, with whom Michaelson clearly identifies himself:
Sophisticated religionists have long had more subtle conceptions of their religions, of course, without the fideistic claptrap rightly derided (but wrongly labeled “religion”) by today’s detractors. For example, many progressive religionists understand God not as some old man in the sky, but as a name we give the reality of all of being, a God that does not “exist” but is, indeed, Existence itself. Others understand Scripture as myth — its literal truth is no more relevant than whether Hamlet really lived in Denmark. The point is its meaning and its purpose. And so on.
The whiff of hubris here is powerful. If you are “sophisticated” and “progressive” you understand that God is Existence. Got it? This is the religion of non-religion, which begs the bigger question: Why not just do away with religion, and begin grappling with existence, meaning, and purpose in an intellectually coherent way? At least existential and phenomenological philosophers attempted it; they did not wrap themselves in the flaccid cocoon of love and compassion.
Michaelson’s mysticism is so fuzzed, and his conflations so confused, that I have no idea what he is talking about. More importantly, the huge majority of world religionists will flatly reject his attempt to define religion out of — or as — existence.
In a similar vein, Frank Schaeffer over at HuffPo Religion writes that enlightened religionists “Need to Eradicate Fundamentalism in All Its Forms.” Schaeffer sternly lectures the uneducated religious masses who believe in things like gods, spirits, and doctrines:
The next great task for the human race is to wean ourselves off literal interpretations of religion. We need to eradicate fundamentalism in all its forms.
Atheism is no help. Human beings are spiritual and look for meaning. Science holds answers but not “THE” answer we look for and long for. Family life and love — continuity of relationships — come closest for fulfilling our longing for purpose.
As I argue in my book Patience with God: Faith for People Who Don’t Like Religion (or Atheism) the answer to fundamentalism, literal-minded religion and all the horror and absurdity they create is to work on the evolution of religion: reject false certainties rooted in myth and embrace myth as a window into the unknowable.
There you have it: humans are spiritual and look for meaning. If we set aside for a moment the powerful argument that “meaning” did not become an issue for most humans — or religions — until the Axial Age, it is possible that we are meaning seeking primates. This does not however lead to the conclusion that we are “spiritual.” Ignoring all this, here is Schaeffer’s advice: reject certain myths and embrace others. This is the ala carte approach to religion and spirituality that is ecumenical to the core.
If you, like me, find Schaeffer’s proposal confusing — indeed tautological, we again are fellow travelers. Reject myth on the one hand and accept it on the other. Doing this ushers us into the “unknowable.” Doesn’t this beg the question: If something is unknowable, how can we know it through myth? I just don’t get it.
Further confusing matters, Schaeffer sees religion as mostly a matter of “liberal” exegesis:
The truth is that interpreting religion is just that: interpreting. All that means is that common sense and compassion are the filters through which we look at religion, as we do with all of life. There is such a thing as freedom of conscience and the right to think!
In that sense everyone is a “liberal” and those who pretend they are consistent to their stated creeds are liars.
My proposal is this: To be true to the heart of the gospel message — redemption through selflessness, hope, justice and love — necessitates a new and fearless repudiation of parts of the same book (and tradition) that also bring us a message of hate.
To find the spiritual truth that is hidden within the Bible it must be mentally “edited” by people of goodwill who are informed by the spiritual truth we carry within our evolving ethical selves.
Onward Christian editors! With the right sort of love hermeneutics, you will accelerate the process of evolution that most of you (and other religionists of the books) don’t believe in.
Some of this may work for the educated, liberal, progressive, sophisticated, and mystical readers/editors/interpreters of the Huffington Post. But if these writers believe their amorphous prescriptions will have any effect on the larger religious world, they are sadly mistaken. They are preaching to a very select and tiny choir.
There are effective missionaries and proselytizers operating everywhere in the world, converting huge numbers of people to particular kinds of faiths that vehemently reject — and will never accept — this kind of enlightened mysticism. For those not being converted and who already believe, this Ivy approach to religion will have little or no appeal.