It is the place of bad religion to serve as a mechanism adapting us to the world, and the world to us. We no sooner plop out of the womb than someone is telling us, “NO!”. And, we have a problem. Because they are bigger than we are. You might call it “the religious problem.” “NO!” is the problem bad religion is invented to resolve. This puts the phrase “no problem” in an entirely different light. We call on someone bigger than those who are bigger than we are to take care of the No!-Problem for us. We will do anything to have the No!-Problem resolved to our liking.
We will toe the line to have a more important line erased. We will give up simple pleasures in order to be accorded the rapture of eternal life. We will restrain our impulses, discipline our inclinations, withhold our urges, walk the straight and narrow, and keep our noses clean and to the grindstone in light of the abundant joys and glories of the world to come. We will give up “this” to get “that.” “We will give to the God so that the God will give to us.” Bad religion in a nut shell.
Don’t think too hard about it, or it will fall apart before your eyes. What kind of God would be dependent upon what we give to the God? I told you not to think about it! What kind of God would hang around us hoping we will sacrifice our chickens (or our children), and blessing us with rain for our crops and plagues on our enemies if we do? What kind of God doesn’t have anything better to do than play the part of a genie with an arm load of wishes for those who learn the secret of rubbing the bottle, or tickling the fancy of the God? What kind of God can’t just go get for himself, for herself, the kinds of things he, she, waits with such fervent hope for from us? Don’t spend too much time with the questions. Bad religion isn’t built to deliver us a God that makes sense. It is built to deliver us a God who can be bent to our wishes and cajoled into catering to our desires—who will do for us what we cannot do for ourselves--who will remove the chaffing “NO’s” from our lives, and give us a life made to order, if not in this life, then certainly in the life to come.
The Religious Problem is the same problem around the world, across the ages. How do we get what we want and avoid what we don’t want? How do we have our way? What do we do about “NO!”? How do we adjust ourselves to the world and the world to us? The world is a world about which something must be done. And religion, bad religion, is our way of doing it.
We are born into this world, and notice right off that we die. Not only do we die, but those who are life itself for us die! And, in the words of a New England tombstone, “It is a terrible thing to love what death can touch.” How do we get ourselves wrapped around that one? But, it is not only that one. We are offended and appalled at every turn. “Live eats life”! How’s that for a fundamental shock to our system? How do we make our peace with a world wherein “Life eats life”? The world is too much for us. It’s too real, too raw. We need a buffer, a filter, something to put between us and it. We need bad religion.
“Life is not fair,” and that weights heavily upon us. There is nothing about this experience called life that makes sense, that stands to reason, that follows, reasonably and logically, consistently and dependably along a wonderfully predictable “if then, therefore” path. We never know what’s going to happen. We can’t count on anything. And, no matter how bad it gets, we are always inviting one another to be glad it isn’t worse yet. This world is a hell of a place. And, our work is the work of adjusting ourselves to it, accommodating ourselves to the realities which govern our lives. Bad religion is the tool we use to do the work.
Bad religion puts us in accord with the inevitable and unavoidable realities of life in the world, by telling us that those realities are God’s will, or by telling us it is our fault (Sin, you know), or by telling us that God is on our side against those realities, and will transform them, or disappear them, in time, if we are faithful and believe. Good religion, on the other hand, looks the world as it is squarely in the eye and creates a space within the world in which the laws—in which the ways—of normal, apparent reality do not apply. “My kingdom,” says Jesus, “is not of this world.” Getting that is the pivot point which turns bad religion into good.
Bad religion revolves around the question, stated or implied, “What am I getting out of all this?” Or, “What’s in this for me?” This is the question at the heart of the story of the Garden of Eden. Adam and Eve, and each of us, and all human beings, live with an eye out for what they/we stand to gain—with an eye out for their/our own advantage. There is not a culture in the world, nor has there ever been one, nor, will there ever be one, that does not (will not) understand and practice the concept of living so as to have the advantage. It is the fundamental human orientation. It is, if you will, a neat summation of all that is wrong with “the world.” The minute we strive to have the advantage it all goes to hell. Eden disappears, and we are left in the middle of the biggest mess imaginable. Yet, what could be more human? What could be less divine? Exactly.
Enter Jesus. With the temptations in the wilderness, and with the final temptation in Gethsemane, and all the temptations in between, Jesus refused to live with his own advantage in mind. His food, he said, was to do the will of the one who sent him—to bring God to life in the world through the way he lived in the world. The boon, for Jesus, was not personal and private, but universal and very public. It was nothing more than the experience of bringing God to life in the world—of being in the world as God would be in the world.
Religion at its best understands what Jesus understood, and lives so as to be God, to exhibit God, to disclose and reveal God, to incarnate God, in all of its relationships. Religion at its worst says, “If we give to God, God will give to us,” and sets up systems and schemes whereby rewards and blessings accrue to the adherents of religion at its worst if they are carefully faithful, believe the right things and make the proper sacrifices in the proper ways. There is a better way. A religion worthy of the title enables us to transcend the world without denying the world—enables us to live in this world in light of another world, enables us to bring to life within the systems and structures of this world the transforming reality of different way of doing things.
In the Bible this different way of doing things is called “the promised land” in the Old Testament, and “the kingdom of God” in the New. The promised land and the kingdom of God are characterized by the experience of right relationship in all relationships. People there are as concerned for the interest of one another as they are for their own. “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” “Love your neighbor as you love yourself.” What becomes of our concern for personal advantage in that kind of atmosphere? It is replaced by an abiding interest in, and commitment to, the welfare of all people, even at the expense of our own.
The way of the world is not the only way. That is the foundational realization of good religion. Religion at its best brings the best to life in the world no matter what. Religion at its best does what is good whether that does any good or not. Religion at its best is not a way of getting what it wants from the world, but a way of giving what it has to offer to the world. Religion at its best stands at the threshold between worlds. It lives on the boundary between yin and yang. Its validity and vitality, its foundation and its life do not depend upon anything happening, or not happening, in this world of normal, apparent, reality. It is not interested in its own good. It doesn’t care about the odds or the advantages. Religion at its best brings God to life in the world for the sake of bringing God to life in the world.
In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. And he came to her and said, ‘Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.’ But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. The angel said to her, ‘Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob for ever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.’ Mary said to the angel, ‘How can this be, since I am a virgin?’ The angel said to her, ‘The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God. And now, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month for her who was said to be barren. For nothing will be impossible with God.’ Then Mary said, ‘Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.’ Then the angel departed from her.(Luke 1:26-38)
We are all Mary the Virgin, carrying God in our womb. We are all Mary, the Virgin, bringing God to life in the world. There is more to life, and living, and being alive—there is more to us—than the on-going, never-ending work to accommodate ourselves to the world and the world to us. There is more to it than getting what we want, and keeping the world from taking it away. There is more to it than living to have the advantage, and gain the high ground, and have it made. We are the Mother of God! We suckle God! We tend and care for God! We watch over God, and nurture God to life in the world! And, we do that by the quality of our interaction with the world.
“You have heard it said,” says Jesus, “but I say unto you!” “You have heard it said, ‘An eye for an eye…’ You have heard it said, ‘Keep the commandments and make God happy so that you may be blessed and happy yourselves.’ You have heard it said, ‘Cover your bases, mind your manners and your P’s and Q’s, and straighten up and fly right…’ You have heard it said, ‘Watch your step so that God will take care of you.’ But, I say unto you: Live out of your heart and let compassion be your guide. Bring the qualities of God to life in your lives. Practice the art of loving presence in all situations and every circumstance. Be a reliable source of goodness in the world, so that all people find refuge in your company and are blessed by their relationship with you. And, if you are going to understand anything, understand this: It isn’t about being rewarded for your efforts. It isn’t about what you get in life, how much you have, or how easily things come to you. It is about bringing love to bear on the world around you. It is about generating goodness, and kindness, and peace. It is about bringing God to life in your lives so that when people are with you it is as though they are with God, and are with God, so that you and God are one.”