The following is an excerpt from an interview by Religion Dispatches with Sarah Miles, the author of "Jesus Freak: Feeding, Healing, Raising the Dead." The entire interview can be read here. Sara Miles makes some very interesting points about religion and culture. She also makes a whole slew of other important points. The entire interview is well worth reading.
In Jesus Freak you write about going around the country, to talk about your work with food pantries, and change in churches, and meeting many people who say something like, “Oh, it’s wonderful what you do, but we could never do that here...!”
It’s this weird thing. Before I became one, I didn’t understand there’s this whole industry of church professionals whose job it is to be inspirational.
So here’s what I think—and this is not an original thought, St. Paul had this thought—people want to change and people don’t want to change. People profoundly want to be made new, and people profoundly want to be clothed in Christ, to be born again. And they profoundly want to cling to everything old—about the world, and about themselves. The thing is, that church, as it’s set up, is not usually a way to change; it’s a way to cling to the way things are. (Which is why the most successful religions are bastions of support for the status quo of whatever power dynamic rules culture.)
I just read an article about a set of emerging renewed churches, two churches, actually, and one synagogue. And it was all about how we’re making churches that aren’t like those old-fashioned ones, they’re places where we can feel comfortable.
But of course that’s the impulse shared by members of the most conservative old-school parish, where you just mumble your way through the mass. Church is a place where you’re comfortable. And it’s a place that certainly replicates class structures and racial structures.
You go where you feel you belong (the phrase “our church home” is telling). Of course I understand that people want to feel at home. You live in capitalism, to be crude about it; you live in a hard place, and you want a place that feels authentic and real and where you can be yourself. But what I see over and over again is this inability to tell the difference between tradition and nostalgia. (or between real truth and plain old safety.)
And so, whereas I think there’s incredible power in trying to recuperate tradition and reflect on it and consciously appropriate it, there’s also this individual and social psychology of clinging to tradition, and “if we just keep doing the same things over and over again we’ll be okay.” Which is, of course, idolatry.
It was interesting to me that you make very clear distinctions among “religion,” the church, theology, and practice. You say, for example, that religion is “a set of ideas about God.” You don’t talk much about sin, but when you do it’s this surprising reading of the story of the Canaanite woman (from Matthew) in which Jesus has to be “healed of the sin of religion.”
As someone who is not a scholar of religion, there are a couple of things that struck me when I became a believer. One is, of course, that every religion claims that it has the inherent path to truth, when in fact it is a catalog and piling on of heresies. You pile the heresies on top of each other and the ones that last become orthodoxy. There’s a constant re-making of religion. (Religions, because they are products of culture, are formed and passed on exactly like cultures, which is why we currently have all the angst about the 'traditional' family and Catholic 'identity.' Neither one is really about the Good News, but about preserving one culturally supporting notion of God.)
So, there’s this desire for “pure” religion, and then there’s actually how it’s made. And how it’s made is how all cultural stuff is made: people pile stuff on. And they sometimes fight over it, and they win by violence, and they win by persuasion. It’s a cultural artifact that’s made by people. Religion can also very easily become a way to manage God; this is why people say they lose their religion when bad things happen to them.
The idea that you're appeasing God by performing ritual actions is really profound. And people long for it—I long for it. I like the idea that if I simply light the candles at a certain time and say the prayers at a certain time and cross myself in the right way, I will be safe. And I’ll be good. And I’ll be right with God. But that reduces God to an object that can be manipulated by my technology—my words, thoughts, gestures. Or I create an even more complex system in which my priest tells me how to be right with God, and all I have to do is obey the human authority. I start to imagine I can control God. (We are taught that all of this is designed to help us control ourselves, but it's really about teaching us to conform ourselves to our current culture by using the notion of pleasing God with our culturally approved actions. The real God here is culture.)
Why I think that’s sinful is that it takes you out of relationship, and I think sin is what breaks relationship. You’re divorced from having to have a real relationship with God—including one that is unsatisfying, frustrating, painful, confusing, mysterious.
It’s hard. But people want it. They want to be protected from relationship with God and with other people but they yearn for it. They yearn for it so much, because it’s great and scary. It’s like falling in love; it’s a powerful, real thing. (and then controlling the relationship becomes more important and less scary than living in/out the relationship.)
And this transcends politics. It’s not as if liberals are any better at serving the poor than conservatives. You talk about these very progressive congregations using “charity” or of “doing good” to distance themselves from those they’re serving.
I think the desire to be good gets expressed in different ways. I have a friend, a volunteer at our food pantry, who sleeps in the street under a bridge and is here at 7:30 in the morning because he wants to do something for people. He’s got a passionate desire to give something, because he’s realized that the experience of giving changes him.
But there’s also this alienated idea that you can please God by doing good deeds. Crossing yourself, saying the prayers, refusing to eat meat, are like being nice to a poor person. In other words, instead of having relationships with the people you’re giving to, the act of charity becomes a magical ritual that will save you, or protect you, or make God like you better.
And I don’t think God's interested in people being good. (me either.)
I think the personalizing of God as a parent who wants you to behave is not helpful. I think the continual conversion and change of yourself to more and more reflect God’s love: that process, of coming closer to God, is God’s desire. Our patron saint Gregory of Nyssa says that we’re most like God in our desire. That God’s desire for us and our desire for God’s love is a desire that is never satisfied, never reached. The more love there is the more love is created. (And that takes the guts to engage in real relationships, not categories of 'others'.)
I love that notion that the Canaanite woman cured Jesus of the sin of religion. None of us can get very far on any spiritual path if we aren't cured of the sin of religion. We can't get very far if we can't get past the enculturation (brain entrainment) of our youth--all the notions of safety, security, and 'correct behavior' that are supposed to bring us closer to God but actually serve to allow us to fit into our birth culture. We sacrifice mystery and meaning for certitude and safety.
Secular culture is not really as relative as Pope Benedict would have us believe, it's just changing too fast. The traditional methods of passing on culture no longer work. Religion and the family structure culture has relied on to pass itself on and reinforce it's values, can't work well because the culture which succeeding generations live in has different demands, is in a state of flux.
Here's kind of an off the wall example. The Russians did not have a very successful Winter Olympics and President Medvedev is stroking out because the next Olympics are in Russia. He's angry about the inclusion of 'non traditional' sports in which Russians have no cultural interest, like snow boarding and short track speed skating. He wants to fire all his slacker Olympic managers.
On the other hand, China and other oriental cultures who are not burdened by 'tradition' did exceedingly well in non traditional winter sports. They sent people who were essentially gymnasts and divers to do gymnastics and diving moves on skis. Once the Russians make the same leap in thinking, the Russians will do OK. Gymnastic movement is about as traditional as it gets. Aerial skiing takes gymnastic movement outside the box of floor mats and diving boards and puts it on skis. It's also really visual and really cool and whether Medvedev wants to admit it, it's also culturally relevant--just not to his historic culture.
Catholicism is pretty much in the same place and some of us really want to fire all the slacker managers. I suspect the folks who are going to show the way out are not the folks burdened by our historical cultural prejudices. I don't think it's too surprising that the best theology is coming from the Orient.
Like gymnastics, there are spiritual movements if you will, universal in human nature, and different ways of both putting those movements together and avenues to display them. The human truth is in the universality of those movements, not in the way they are displayed. One of those truths is the pursuit of relationship and the mystery of love. For our religious institutions to insist love relationships fit into only certain boxes is just as futile as President Medvedev whining about aerial skiing. It's an attitude which doesn't fly for our younger generations and a lesson our religious institutions have yet to learn.