Mistakes about Religion

Occasionally I read an article about religion that is so irritating, I obsess over it. It’s not, say, a writer who looks into the deep abyss and experiences nothing, or complains about an institution’s excesses. I can handle a well-informed atheism, including those that still see the world and its traditions and history as complex and interwoven.

And then I read articles that claim all religion is oppressive to women.

I’m sympathetic to a point. After all, just look at some texts. It seems pretty obvious.

But religion is not the same as the bible, or any specific religious text. The assumption seems to be: just give us a book, and we religious people are happy as pie. I’m sure some of us do wake up and let the book fall open like an oracle and let it tell us what to do. That works until you’re asking what kind of pizza God wants you to order, and it opens to the first chapter of Matthew. Hint: God wants you to order whatever you want, but just remember, back in the day they called Jesus the One True Olive, and asked for the church to be coagulated together like cheese.

What does that mean? I’m just saying get a good bottle of red to wash it down.

So when religious people fling verses at one another like food in a high school cafeteria, one reply could be “why don’t you all just agree on the food?” or “just go to a different restaurant than the religion one.” But they don’t see what’s happening: we’re having a conversation. And as long as we’re not throwing bullets, verses are a lot safer. 

We’re accused of cherry-picking the bible to choose verses that agree with what we already believe. To be honest, that’s a pretty solid accusation. But also of everyone. Hunting for facts to back up a position already held is the most popular way to have an argument except for the few lukewarm souls. Does this mean that Kant was wrong? That there aren’t some universal moral or metaphysical principles? No – it just means we must reside in humility and charity along the way while we get there. Our hope is that in the course of the conversation we’ll remember where our true priorities are.

For most of us who are in religious institutions, scripture has a life. It’s not a rulebook that moves us as if we were marionettes, but the ingredients with which we understand an interior reality. It’s not static – its meaning will change for us over time. That’s why we consider it sacred and canonical.

Is religion oppressive? A better answer is: yes, and no. Religion is a lot of things, and it reflects whatever culture it comes out of.  But if secularism is a good (which it is), then it was not because it arose simply as an alternative to religion, but because it mediated the multiplicity of religious voices. Secularism is weaker when there is only one religious voice out there. 

From my vantage point, I have seen both a decline in women’s rights and a decline in the power of liberal religious institutions. I believe the two are linked: without powerful faithful voices supporting the basic idea that women are human beings, secular feminists will remain on the defensive, especially in the areas of the world where women need the greatest support.

The Repeal of DOMA

Yesterday I broke open a bottle of champagne with a couple friends, a demi-sec Lanson, in celebration of the Supreme Court decision.

While pleased, I still find it startling when people think of it as a religious issue.  For me it’s a simple matter of fairness about benefits.  Someone else’s choice of partner does not change how I practice or what I believe.  I am not offended if someone calls a partnership a “marriage,” and I find it perplexing when we think that God is worried about these sorts of definitions.   And ff God does have a specific idea about marriage, I’ll make my case before the judgment seat and explain why I have erred on the side of charity and magnanimity for gay people.   I’m not worried – the scriptures say that God is merciful.

There remain ways gay people live outside of marriage that can inform the culture about what a joyful sexuality might look like.  And so I wonder if the conversation on marriage distracts us from some opportunities to understand how we might negotiate our rapidly changing culture.  Although I think marriage is a crucial, imperfect sacramental institution, perhaps we can learn from gay people rather than insist they fit into a less threatening box.

And while all of this is happening, we’re seeing politicians actively attack reproductive health; the economy remains owned by a small class of powerful people; and our decision-making bodies have stalled on climate change.  I find it disturbing that some who are most transforming (damaging?) our economy are the same people who fund marriage equality.  So while I take joy that this symbol – and the benefits – are extended fairly, I hope that this enthusiasm can extend to other important movements upon which the fate of our country, and perhaps the world, depends.

Religious People Don’t Know Much

Pew recently came out with a report confirming what plenty of pastors already know.  Americans ill-informed about religion (Here’s the test). I recently purchased Stephen Prothero‘s book on Religious Literacy for the purpose of creating a basic minimum of what a confirmand should know about the faith and the church, adding the particulars of what makes Episcopalians distinctive.

I wonder if it would be helpful to have a basic universal test.  Prothero has a list of reasonable expectations for someone who participates in public life.  I don’t think every Episcopal student needs to know who all the Anglican divines were, but they should know about the impact of Elizabeth on the church, the framework of anti-puritan and anti-Catholic context in the thirty-nine articles; and some of the general tensions, such as evangelical, broad and Anglo-Catholic, within the tradition, without being triumphalist or parochial on our denominational identity.

Granted, a list can get unwieldy.   But knowing the ten commandments – and that there are different versions – the virtues and vices, having some of Jesus’ words known by heart; the order of the Pentateuch and the four Gospels; would seem important to any Christian participating in the public realm.

I wonder if clergy are afraid of teaching too much.  For every Atheist knows that one way to make atheists is to expose someone to as much religion as possible.  Give a young child a bible without commentary, and it will seem like an incomprehensible, dangerous and violent document.  But I suggest it is our duty to handle scripture not merely reverently, but honestly, offering the alphabet of a common heritage that is available to all.

Rules for Understanding Religion

Talking about religion is hard, in part because most people are ill-equipped to discuss it with precision and accuracy.  Religion, after all, raises people’s emotional temperature to a point where it is difficult to understand what the real points of conflict or misunderstanding are.

Here are some of my presuppositions when thinking about religion.

1.   Religious traditions have as much diversity within them as they do between them: Quakers and Roman Catholics; fundamentalists and Episcopalians; Sufis and Sunnis; reconstructionists and Hasids; Zen and Vajrayana.
2.   Most religions are not single traditions, but multiple traditions.  For example: works vs. faith by justification; law vs. grace; institutional authority vs personal conscience.
3.   Traditions mingle and change according to context: Buddhapalians, for example; the protestant influence on all religions in the US.  New age thought on Christianity.
4.   Holy texts are unrelated to popular piety: Some Muslims drink; some hindus eat beef; Christians have premarital sex.
5.   Religious conflict is often ossified political conflict.  The conflict in Northern Ireland has much to do with the birth of the English empire; the Israeli-Palestinian conflict began as a conflict about land.
6.   Religious practice is more like a language than a moral calculus.
7.   Religions are not the same; nor are they completely different. Traditions include rituals, myth-making, moral teaching, and organizational systems.
8.   Religious traditions steal from one another.
9.   Few people know all the rules.
10. Few follow all the rules.
11.  We misunderstand other people’s traditions.
12.  We often misunderstand our own.
13.   We like the positive parts of our faith traditions.
14.  We ignore the bad parts of our faith traditions.
15.   Hypocrisy is the universal faith tradition.
16.   It’s still about sex, money and death. (Or more poetically, survival in the desert).


Most of the time, when people think of what churches do, they think “indoctrination.” It makes sense. Churches have schools, offer education and preach a particular story. I don’t think it is the primary role of the church, but it is one role that churches have had.

And indoctrination is not all bad: some people do need to be reminded that they should do unto others good things. It’s a shortcut to thinking – a way of training one’s instincts for the good.

I want to suggest, however, that churches are primarily about something different: churches do relationships. (They also enchant the world, but that’s another essay).

“Relationship” happens before rules. Connecting happens before doctrine. It is from experiencing relationships that the church has had with all those people who have been in the church (and outside), that the church created doctrine. Sometimes its rules don’t make much sense, but they made sense at some time.

Doctrine is not the end point of the faithful person. It is not our purpose. Our purpose is more about connecting people with each other – and through those relationships we begin to see what God looks like. Our first encounter with God is usually through the encounter of other persons. Like our children; or our parents; or our friends and spouses. And sometimes our enemies.

In England they recently agreed to consecrate women bishops. It’s a remarkable change for Catholic Christianity – one that England’s sister churches throughout the globe have already experienced. And the reason for the change is that the church’s experience and relationshp with women has changed. The challenge still continues: how do we maintain relationships with people who think differently about the consecration of women? Personally, I find that there is even a question about the merits of women’s ordination itself to be a bit strange, but there are many world views, of which I’m not familiar that have their own internal logic.

From our relationships that we begin to understand the church’s mission. How do we, as a community, become a place for healing, joy, peace and fortitude? We need to know where people are hurting; where they have conflict; and when they are weak. I suggest that this includes most of us at some point.

I imagine that in Westchester people have different sorts of anxieties. Money is a pretty central; raising children in the midst of affluence and unregulated desire; environmental challenges. Many families are trying to sort through the immense changes that the culture is experiencing. How do we become the place that serves them?

This is part of a greater strategy to discern our mission. Recently I asked someone who had been a member of the church for about 40 years what he thought the mission was. He had just suggested closing the church down. And he couldn’t give me an answer. I don’t think this is unusual.

I do think, however, that there is a purpose and a reason for our community: but discerning it comes from maintaining and fostering connections with each other. From those connections we can begin to formulate the way this church can be a place of strength and love for any person who walks through our doors.