Monday, September 20, 2010

Bewitching Jesus

cross-posted at Dagblog

So, Saturday night the news was that Christine O'Donnell "dabbled into witchcraft" before becoming a hard-line evangelical Christian. And you know what? I wasn't surprised at all. Surely I wasn't surprised that a candidate like O'Donnell was attracted to the supernatural, since all of her politics are about magical thinking. I shrugged it off, and Sunday morning I went to church.

The readings at my Church, as they often are, were about the obligations of the rich to the poor. My denomination, for all its flaws, makes sure to read the entire the New Testament, and a big chunk of the rest of the Bible, on a steady three-years-of-Sundays rotation. Because the person giving the sermon doesn't get to cherry pick the Bible for texts to preach about, issues come up on Sunday about as often as Jesus brings them up in the Gospels. Most of the hot-button culture war issues, the ones now perceived as signature "Christian" issues, almost never get mentioned. Jesus seldom talks about any of them. On the other hand, justice for the poor comes up a lot. It is on Jesus's mind all the time. He will never go more than a few weeks without coming back to the topic.

So as so often happens to me on Sunday, I was reading along with the day's Biblical passages and getting a set of pretty clear instructions that seem very different from the instructions that many of my vocal fellow-Christians in this country claim to have received. I certainly am not going to speak about their Christianity. It isn't for me to judge anyone else's faith. Nor would many of them perceive me as a "real" Christian. Frankly, America has freedom of religion precisely because Christians can't agree on what the real Christianity is; the religious disagreements are older than the country. On the other hand, at least some of my duties as a Christian seem too clear to escape. If a mob's forming to drive the outsiders out of town, I had better not be in that mob. If the poor need food, I had better not be lobbying for them to be fed even less. I'm not the Christian I'd like to be, much less the one I ought to be, and I'm not the one to explain what God wants. But I know what I feel is expected of me, and it takes me a long way from what some of the Christian political movements in this country advocate.

But as I was leaving church and thinking about the many different Christianities in this country, I thought about Christine O'Donnell again, and her travels from occultism to her specific version of Christianity and how unsurprised I was. It seemed to me of a piece. Yes, evangelical Christians view witchcraft as their absolute opposite, the other end of the spectrum. But the two camps share a lot that I don't share with either of them.

First of all, both occultists and Christians like O'Donnell believe that magic is real and powerful. Witchcraft is a scary thing to evangelicals because they believe witchcraft to be one of the major problems facing our society today. They believe that the Devil can actually use it to make inroads into human souls, and when you come right down to it, they believe that magic can do things. In fact, Michelle Malkin is defending O'Donnell for exactly this reason, because O'Donnell "learned" the true dangers of witchcraft which helps her to understand dangerous practices such as Halloween. (No, I'm not making that up.) The two opposed camps share a mindset in which Halloween is full of actual occult power. I, to put it simply, do not.

And more to the point, the kind of Christianity O'Donnell espouses in public is essentially witchcraft by other means, a kind of magical practice that empowers and protects believers. I can't judge her actual practices and I know nothing about her private faith, but the Christianity she describes views the world in essentially magical terms. O'Donnell is on record as saying that she believes God "would provide a way" to avoid lying if Nazis were searching one's house for hidden Jews. And that's pretty much the magical view of the world: behavior is judged by how well it confirms to ritualized prescriptions and taboos, such as "never lie," rather than by the moral results of one's actions. One does not in fact make moral choices at all. The moral consequences of one's action are off-loaded onto divine Providence, which is responsible for making things work out well as long as you follow the Simple Rules.

(In fact, God did not provide any such providential assistance for the good people who protected Jews. They all had to lie. This is why Christians long ago provided the "necessary evil" or "lesser evil" principle, which allows you to fib rather than connive at genocide.)

And while, again, I am not fit to judge anyone else's Christianity, I am very fearful of the ways one can fall into what is essentially idolatry while persuading oneself that one is still a Christian. It's very easy. You just dress up your idol as Jesus. If you trade the ethical philosophy, which is complicated, for a simpler set of practices and taboos, and begin to address Jesus (or YHWH or Allah or the Tao or what have you) the way you would Mammon or Dagon, making propitiations in exchange for favors, you might as well just carve a new god for yourself out of a pumpkin. It's the same old business proposition: "I will do what you want, if you bring good things to me." Making that proposition to Jesus doesn't change its nature. I don't believe in Christianity because I believe Jesus can make good on that deal. I believe in Christianity because I believe Jesus does not make that deal.

There are no real wars between religions. There are only tribal wars that use some tribal idolatry to rally the troops, and sometimes the idolaters hijack the name of some better religion's god. The real wars are inside religions: struggles between the obligations of your religion as a set of ethical teachings, which forces you to face difficult realities, and the temptation of turning your religion into a set of magical practices that holds those unpleasant realities at bay. That struggle goes on every day, inside every major religion in the world, and always has. There is no struggle between Christianity and Islam. There is a struggle inside Christianity and a struggle inside Islam, and inside Judaism and Buddhism and Hinduism.

This struggle does not split along traditional denominational lines inside religions, either. As I was walking out of Church on Sunday, I passed a young woman who touching the base of a religious statue and energetically whispering an involved prayer, perhaps having a conversation and asking for a specific favor. I don't know what she was doing, but it was something I'd be uncomfortable with myself, and I'd sat in the same pews listening to the same readings and the same sermon. I'd be pretty surprised if the pastor would encourage parishioners to use a statue to focus an intercessory prayer, but every congregation is a little multitude. There are people worshiping God through sincere ethical commitment in every Christian congregation, even the oddest-seeming ones, and people sitting in the most rational and modern congregation busily propitiating their little folk-magic idol. To tell the truth, most of the idol-worshipers don't even know it.

1 comment:

Renaissance Girl said...

I find this post very moving, Doc. I am perplexed at times that the same faith that made me a raging left wing socialist seems to authorize others (within and beyond my own denomination) to hang a hard right, but I can happily allow others to internalize/ actualize their faith as they feel the need to do. I do, however, object to the dumbing-down of Christianity (or any other ethical philosophy), which is complex and sometimes contradictory, to make it a blunt political instrument. Dressing up your idol as Jesus, indeed.