Recently, I heard an interview with Gene Robinson before the General Convention of the Episcopal Church vote to confirm him as bishop of New Hampshire. He was asked if he would feel responsible if his confirmation split the church and caused many members to leave. He responded that people have a choice about how they worship God and that believers are responsible for the barriers they erect between God and themselves. In other words, people create reasons to separate themselves from others and God.
We have all been through the social interrogation routine. As soon as you meet someone new, the questions start. What kind of work do you do? Where did you go to school (college)? Are you married, have kids? What neighborhood do you live in? Where do you go to church? The questions seem innocent enough. We are searching for similarities, connections and personal details. However, these questions also represent our competitive Western attitude. Our specific jobs, colleges, neighborhoods and churches relate to a status and value system. We place higher valuations on people who are white-collar professionals who graduated from Ivy League colleges and who live in exclusive neighborhoods.
It makes perfect sense that we would evaluate a person’s church and denomination along these same social-class lines. Didn’t God assign each of us to a lower-, middle- or higher-class position? Our church or team assignment signifies our competitive standing in the supposed spiritual hierarchy.
Maybe it is an outdated idea from our Calvinist roots that God shows his favor through economic prosperity. In our culture this belief seems to persist. Ask any stock broker or baseball enthusiast and he or she will tell you that the value of your stock or team is in their numbers. The team with best numbers is most likely to be the overall winner. We compare religions in the same way. Which religion has more followers? Is it the Christian or the Muslim or the Jewish faith? Which Christian team leads in numbers, the Catholics or Protestants? How do the denominations compare? Is it the Baptists or Lutherans or Methodists or Mormons who come out ahead?
Each religious group seems to be like a team struggling against the other teams to win the race to God. We hear the competitive posturing with each team declaring that they are chosen ones, and that they belong to the only team God wants to win. The message is that you either join our team to get to heaven or stay with the losers on the road to hell.
Are you on the Jesus team, the Mohammed team, the Buddha team, or even the Satan team?
Does God care whether you attend the Muslim mosque or a Christian church? The competitive attitude even permeates the New Age spirituality as well. How often do you meditate? Are you celibate? Are you a vegetarian and fast at least one day a week? How do these measurements relate to your connection with God? Where is God’s instruction manual that declares you a worthy person only if you attend the Catholic Church, go regularly to mass and confession and eat fish on Fridays? All these restrictions and limitations appear man-made, not God-made.
Many on the Christian team point to the Holy Bible as the authority on God’s requirements. The disagreements begin as some people see the Bible as literal and others as symbolic. Some scholars say that our present-day Bible has little relation to the original sources because its text has been altered over the centuries to suit church politics. The Bible itself has many contradictions. And the Old and New testaments couldn’t be more different in their depictions of God. This doesn’t look like consensus to me.
I recently watched a Public Broadcasting Service program about fundamentalist Islam in Pakistan. The Islamic mullahs have banned music of any kind. They say God does not like music and this is stated in the Quran. When asked where specifically in the Quran is this statement, they respond that everyone knows it is there. This sounds remarkably like fundamentalist injunctions against dancing. Everyone knows this is evident in the Bible but where exactly? These restrictions appear suspiciously more about our will to control than any edict from God. Follow the rules of the team or you will be kicked off.
Perhaps your choice of religion is much like your choice of entrée from a restaurant menu. God in his infinite wisdom decided that because all people are not the same, only one religion wouldn’t do. He created a variety of choices that all eventually lead back to him.
There is no hierarchy on a restaurant menu. Some items may cost more than others, but individual taste is what determines satisfaction.
Maybe mankind can’t see beyond a need to compete with each other. Maybe we see the competition for resources as necessary, whether for jobs, mates, houses, schools or God. Maybe we feel more secure with an us-versus-them scenario so they can be the bad ones and we can be the good ones.
Maybe if everything is part of God’s plan then God is very patient and he is waiting for us to evolve into an acceptance of each other. I don’t know the answer but these competitive religious teams certainly give people a reason to hate, fight and kill each other. Too much love in the world would definitely skew the balance. S
Keith Elliott is a licensed psychotherapist in private practice in Richmond.
Opinions expressed on the Back Page are those of the writer and not necessarily those of Style Weekly.
Style Weekly's mission is to provide smart, witty and tenacious coverage of Richmond. Our editorial team strives to reveal Richmond's true identity through unflinching journalism, incisive writing, thoughtful criticism, arresting photography and sophisticated presentation.
We make sense of the news; pursue those in power; explore the city's arts and culture; open windows on provocative ideas; and help readers know Richmond through its people. We give readers the information to make intelligent decisions.