A: I’d like to return to an idea that was endorsed in Karen Armstrong’s book (The Spiral Staircase), the idea that “when speaking of the reality of God we are at the end of what words or thoughts can usefully do (page 292). I find this idea self-serving and smug. I also find it very demeaning. In fact, I find most religious ideas about God to be self-serving, smug, and demeaning. Demeaning to human beings and demeaning to God. Since this is Holy Week, it seems like a good time to talk to you about your thoughts on the reality of God and what this reality can mean for our lives.
J: I see you’re still upset about the way people are talking about God.
A: I’m upset about the fact that theologians and mystics are not being honest with themselves and with others. I’m upset about their “closed-shop” attitude. I’m upset about their tiny, closed, pessimistic view of God and Creation. I’m upset about their narcissistic refusal to open wide the doors of theological inquiry. I’m upset about the pettiness. I’m upset about the way religion teaches — or actually doesn’t teach — people to be in relationship with God. I’m especially upset about the religious rituals that get in the way of the relationships.
J: The crucial problem here is worship.
J: People of faith all over the world are trying to be in relationship with God. Their souls long to know God, to feel the Presence of God in their daily lives. They long for the comfort, the solace of that love. But among those millions of people, how many of them do you think have actually felt that Presence?
A: Not many. You can tell by the look in a person’s eye when you put the words “trust” and “God” in the same sentence. People of faith are disillusioned and very, very hurt.
J: There are three great obstacles to the experience of relationship with God in the daily life of regular human beings. The first obstacle we’ve talked about a fair bit — the role of status addiction in creating suffering and abuse in the lives of humans and other creatures on Planet Earth. Status addiction is deeply imbedded in all major world religions, even the non-theistic ones. Status addiction in a religious setting becomes a self-reinforcing cycle that ruins lives.* The toxic effects of status addiction have not yet been recognized. Indeed, it’s hard to imagine how the Vatican could continue to uphold its teachings on sin, salvation, sacraments, and separation from God in the absence of status addiction. Status addiction is one of the three main glues that hold together the Vatican house of cards.
A: Being named Pope is quite the status symbol. Right now the History Channel is showing “The Borgias,” the mini-series about the corrupt family that owned the Papacy at the turn of the 16th century.
J: The second of the three glues holding orthodoxy together is a tenacious belief in the Law of Cause and Effect — the Materialist philosophy you and I have been discussing. What’s astonishing about this belief system is its arrogance. It’s completely oriented towards the supremacy of human beings. The term “anthropocentric” hardly begins to capture it. The Law of Cause and Effect, whatever its particular religious manifestation, teaches people that the Law is more important, more effective, and more divine than God. They say the Law is merely a manifestation of God’s wishes, but what they really mean is that God is utterly bound by all the provisions of the contract law — sort of like Prometheus chained to the rock. This is the source of human religious authority, the foundation on which they claim all their status, power, money, fame, and sexual gratification. This is also the source of human psychological authority — the need to assuage one’s own suffering by claiming there really isn’t a personal God who intervenes in people’s lives. The need for narcissists to obtain psychological authority has never been adequately examined or addressed in the church. The last thing a status-addicted narcissist wants to hear about is a personal God who isn’t chained at a safe distance and who can generate consequences for the narcissist’s smug self-idolization. Today.
A: Okay. What’s the third glue of orthodoxy?
J: The third is worship. I’m defining worship as any spiritual practice that centres around the goal of escape.
A: I’ve never heard that definition of worship before. I tend to think of “liturgy” and “worship” as being more or less the same thing. You go to “worship” on Sundays, and the exact form of this worship is the liturgy — the specific prayers and hymns and sermon content for that particular day.
J: There’s the source of the confusion right there. There’s nothing wrong with liturgy. There’s nothing wrong at all with the idea of people getting together once a week to say some prayers and sing some hymns and hear an uplifting, encouraging, inspiring sermon and maybe even sit together in safe, companionable silence. It’s a healthy practice, one I totally endorse. The idea of setting aside one day per week — the Sabbath — for mutual uplifting and compassionate spiritual reflection is crucial to the health of all human beings. There are lots of different ways to express your love and trust in God on the Sabbath. You can go to church or synagogue. You can visit someone who’s sick in hospital. You and a friend can go outside with a garbage bag and clean up your local parks and streets. You can have a family games afternoon — playing old fashioned board games like Monopoly or Scrabble. The single uniting factor in all these expressions of spirituality is relationship. You’re building positive relationships. You’re connecting to other people and to Nature. In creating these connections, you’re also creating a stronger connection with God the Mother and God the Father. You’re saying “yes” to life, love, service, and laughter. The last thing you’re trying to do is escape.
A: You’re trying to fully engage with life.
J: Yes. I taught engagement, not escape. This is why you see me in the Gospel of Mark as a man who doesn’t retreat into the wilderness, who rarely prays, who never worships in the Jerusalem Temple, and has no use for righteousness in the Law.
A: Yet Mark shows you living a life filled with faith, forgiveness, healing, and redemption. A life filled with relationships. Messy, complicated, frustrating relationships. But that’s what it means to be human, eh?
J: Worship and liturgy are two completely different things. Worship and faith are two completely different things. Worship is the “work” of pious people. Worship is the set of actions they undertake to achieve their long-term goal of escape. Orthodox Western Christians call this escape “salvation.” Buddhists call this escape “nirvana.” Atheists call this escape “saving lives.” At the core of these belief systems lies the intersection of status addiction, Materialism, and worship — the complete abandonment of God by human beings. I want to make it clear that I don’t mean God is doing the abandoning. I mean that human beings are doing the abandoning. I mean that every time a pious Christian devotes an hour or more each day to intercessory prayer, he or she is abandoning God. The more time a person spends in worshipful prayer each day, the farther he or she is getting from God. God doesn’t need your prayers or anyone else’s prayers in order to act. God is not bound by bizarre religious claims about Cause and Effect. God the Mother and God the Father have free will. They’re not chained to the rock. This means that you, as a human being, aren’t that important prayer-wise in the grand cosmological scheme of things. Contrary to the claims of many religious leaders, the sky will not fall down if the “chosen” nuns, monks, and mystics stop praying the Divine Office each day. (The theory here is that God needs to hear the recitation of the Mass and the Divine Office every day to help empower God in his great battle against the Devil to save human souls). Prayers of worship tell the God you’re trying to connect with that you don’t trust God. It’s like shooting yourself in the foot over and over again and then demanding to know why you’re lame.
A: Our prayers of worship may not be needed, but I know one thing for sure — our ability to love and forgive is sure needed.
J (nodding and smiling): God the Mother and God the Father don’t need or want our prayers of worship. AT ALL. On the other hand, they very much need our love. They want and need to be in relationship with us. We’re their children, and they’re just heartbroken, to be honest, when their own beloved children turn away from their divine family — their divine parents and their divine brothers and sisters. It’s very painful for God when human beings choose logic over love, mind over heart, and law over miracles and forgiveness. Some logic is needed, some mind is needed, and some law is needed. This should go without saying. But there has to be balance. And there has to be trust — trust in a loving, forgiving, amazingly brilliant but very humble God. This is what I was trying to teach.
A: It’s what I feel every day — a comforting sense of God’s loving presence, a comforting sense that I’m never alone. I get confused and upset about daily events like everyone else, but I know that at the end of each day God will be there to help me figure it out. I also know that when I screw up, God will help me recognize my mistakes, just as you’d expect mature, loving parents to do. They forgive me when I make a mistake, and they don’t hold any grudges. Their forgiveness helps me find the courage to learn from my mistakes, correct my mistakes, and move forward. Their forgiveness means I’m not caught in that horrible hamster wheel of shame, blame, regret, revenge, and self-loathing that I remember all too well from my earlier years. Their forgiveness has freed me to live.
J: Who needs escape on a future day when the miracle of forgiveness can free you today?