What I Believe, Pt. 3: Dying to Be Good

Allow me to preface this by saying: I am a hopeful cynic. I know, it’s an odd combination. Many people have told me that this is paradox, that it is an impossible combination of elements that cannot exist in the same space-time, but the fact remains: I am a hopeful cynic. (And in any case, I prefer to think of myself as an oxymoron…)

On the off-chance that I’ve confused with my mixing of metaphors, I’ll define. A hopeful cynic (i.e., me) is one who believes firmly that there is great potential both for good and for progress nestled away in the bosom of the human race, and that this potential can be tapped without mediation–in other words, this potential is not dependent upon outside (read, supernatural) influence or activation. There’s the hopeful part. Unfortunately, the hopeful cynic, while believing in the possibility of these things, also has a difficult time believing in the likelihood of their ever coming to pass. That’s the cynical part. We CAN do it, but there is serious doubt as to whether we ever WILL.

The irony here is that I got this way (at least insofar as the cynical side of me is concerned) by way of what purports to be the ultimate source of hope: the Christian religion. We’ve all heard the voices, right? The Sermon on the Mount: “Blessed are the dot-dot-dot, for they shall inherit dot-dot-dot.” John 10:10: “I have come that they may have life and have it abundantly.” Jeremiah 29:11: “For I know the plans I have for you…plans to give you hope and a future.” (If I had a dime for every time I heard this stupid thing, I’d have paid off my student loans by now.) Translation: Come and get your share of the hope, ’cause we’ve got it by the bucketload.

I have preached these sermons and taught these lessons any number of times. I threw these verses out like candy from a parade float. Until one day I realized that all this “hope” Christians talk about all the time is a giant bait and switch. Because it’s not really hope. Really, it’s nothing more than a gamble, and one that tends to throw the rest of the world under a very nasty, very significant bus.

The epicenter of this switcheroo lies at the heart of what pretends to be the most hopeful (and oft-quoted) of Bible passages, the good old John 3:16. All together now: “For God so loved the world that he sent his only begotten son, that whosoever believeth in him, shall not perish but shall have eternal life.” (I apologize for the King James–that version of this verse was beaten into my brain so punctiliously as a child that I have a hard time remembering anything else.)

Hopeful, right? We’re gonna live forever!!! And yet…

The overwhelming emphasis on this verse within Christian circles shifts the paradigm just enough that whatever hope humans may have for this life is not only taken away, it’s tarnished, its reputation is destroyed. It’s no longer needed, you see, because real hope isn’t of this earth. Real hope belongs in heaven. This life, this human existence becomes inconsequential; it’s not real life, even. Real life is eternal life, so forget the stuff going on around you in this world, and fixate on what’s coming in the next. And voila! We abandon the concrete in favor of the insubstantial, and in the end, we come to believe that the insubstantial is the concrete.

Many have remarked on the determination with which many Christians (especially, but not exclusively, of the Evangelical variety) avoid the world issues that have turned our planet into the craphole it so often is: poverty, war, economic injustice, prejudice, etc. This is often taken as a sign that Christians don’t care. While this may raise a few eyebrows, I promise you that this is not (always) the case. It’s not that Christians don’t care; it’s that they often don’t believe they can do anything about it…at least, not anything that matters. Because, since the hope is in the next life, that’s the only legitimate place to look for it. The problem is otherworldly, therefore the solution must be, as well. And, somewhat morbidly, the troubles of the global community are often even taken as proof that God’s way is the way: because of course we did it, we violated his rules. He told us, in the Bible, that there would be suffering as a consequence, and look! There it is!

This is how so many people can ignore so many parts of the book they claim guides their every move: a metaphysical problem demands metaphysical solutions. So, all those Bible passages dealing with social justice and gender equality and freedom and all that are read as metaphor (in another ironic twist, often by the same people who insist on a literal interpretation of scripture), or at the most, as means to an end rather than as ends in themselves. Thus, when Jesus says he came to preach the good news to the poor, that news can only be salvation at a spiritual level: as with many interpretations of the Sermon on the Mount (of the poor in spirit), what matters is not their hard life on earth, but the joy they will have once they reach heaven. Likewise, freedom for the prisoner and the oppressed deals with spiritual imprisonment: mankind is oppressed by and imprisoned in sin, and it is the Christian’s job, not to touch others on any physical level, but to show them the way out of this sinful life and into heaven. And when Jesus tells the rich young man to sell everything and follow him…well, that can’t possibly be literal, can it? We must be speaking of pride. Yes, that’s it! Riches make us proud, and pride is a sin, so what Jesus is telling the rich man to do is to stop being proud. By all means, keep your possessions, but stop it with the pride thing.

This leads, I think, to the ultimate irony: Christians who not only fail to uphold or act on any of the justice-related parts of the Bible, but who even go so far as to argue against taking them up, on the grounds that they’re a distraction from what Christians are really supposed to be doing. Which is preaching the gospel. Or at least the parts of it that don’t include actually helping our fellow humans in any practical way. And I have had my share of these arguments. Sadly, I haven’t always been on the right side of them. But, then, that’s what I was taught: if it doesn’t end with the plan of salvation, it’s just not worth doing. In an unfortunate turn of phrase coined by yours truly (and of which I am not proud), “What matters isn’t what we do down here; what matters is who we take with us up there.” Followed by dramatic gesturing towards the ceiling. And so it goes.

In the final analysis, this approach to hope ends by emptying what is supposedly one of the world’s greatest ethical systems of most of its ethical content, and turning it into a giant subterfuge. I do good for the other, not out of any fellow feeling or sense of shared humanity, not simply because it’s the right thing to do, but because it might give me a chance to slip a tract into the situation. And that’s if I do anything at all, other than spout nonsense about the “hope that is to come.” Whatever I believe about God or the divine nature of Christ, I do believe (as do many) that Jesus was (if he was at all) a teacher of ethics, and one worth listening to, but that person becomes lost behind the metaphysical screen of spiritualized ethics, and his teachings on how to interact with and care for one another are swallowed up in the church’s teachings on how to get ourselves into glory. We choose heaven (which we can neither see, touch, nor prove) over the suffering that surrounds us on a daily basis (which we can very easily see, and even touch if we care to do it, and which is in need of no proof at all).

If you haven’t figured this out from my last few posts, I no longer count myself among the flock. Haven’t for nearly four years. And still, I struggle against this central lesson, taught to me through years of determined indoctrination (well-meaning indoctrination, surely, but let’s call a spade what it is). They say that if you tell a student she’s a failure every day, eventually she’ll get the message and become what you accuse her of being. The same, I think, applies here: a good portion of the earth’s population has for centuries heard one message over and over: humans are inescapably bad, and cannot be otherwise unless and until God “completes that good work” in them. In other words…until they die and go to heaven. We have fallen, we have sinned that “original sin” (courtesy of Augustine, who I believe to be pretty much responsible for everything that’s wrong with Christianity today). And there’s no fixing that, is there?

Put bluntly, in many ways Christianity discourages its followers from doing the good its scriptures seem to be demanding. The problems of the world are not meant to be solved, at least not by us measly humans, so why bother? Attempting to be or do good is largely a waste of time; in any case, give a man a fish or teach a man to fish, he’s still going to hell unless you bring him to Jesus, right? To the people (like myself) who tend to equate all the “Kingdom speak” with the search for a more just, equitable society here on this plane, these folks turn a mournful eye: even the suggestion of making the world a better place is greeted with consternation and contempt as being  beside the point. We’re not meant for this world, anyway. We’re in it, but not of it, after all. (Which Pauline quote, tossed around willy-nilly, does not even exist.)

So here I stand, a hopeful soul with a gun to his inner cynic’s head, wanting desperately to pull the trigger, and impeded by the very part of his past that promises nothing but hope. And that tells me something…