Wednesday, January 12, 2005

Open Arms vs. Moral Purity

I ran into this article, written by a conservative Christian concerned about the lack of morality within the Christian community itself. Well, o.k., one can dismiss this as a Mrs. Grundy-type scolding, but what struck me is that , unlike the Christians who so often present their faith as a matter of just "accepting Jesus into your heart", this guy actually believes that one ought to live it. Not only does he address the familiar bugaboos about sexuality, but laments that Christians also are too often racist, neglect the Biblical injuctions to take care of the poor, and have rates of spousal abuse similar to that in the society at large.

When it comes right down to it, there are very few people who actually try to live what their religion teaches -- simply because it's really difficult to do so. People use religion to feel more secure; struggling with spiritual issues in your own life makes you less so. Religion is a way of giving meaning to your life, and comfort over the rough spots, where true spirituality means that you are constantly measuring yourself against the ideal and are aware of where you are found wanting. For "born-again" Christians, especially, who are certain they are heaven-bound based simply upon belief, there is scant motivation to get serious about changing one's life. (Historically, Christians weren't so certain about getting into heaven; the Puritans used to agonize over whether or not they were of the elect, and most Catholics assumed they'd have to struggle through Purgatory first.)

But, the problem is that most people are not saints, and never will be. If you want your religious community to consist only of those who approach moral perfection, then it will remain very small indeed, and even of those few, some significant portion will not abandon their sinful doings, only keep them secret. The Baha'i community runs into this all the time: Seekers are attracted by the ideals of religious tolerance, then turn tail and run when they discover the strictness of the laws. This is particularly difficult in the case of homosexuality, where it is viewed even by straight people as a form of discrimination to forbid it, especially among the liberal spiritual seekers who are most attracted to the Baha'i Faith. But sometimes it is personal issues: People living together without marriage, or even those who don't want to give up alcohol lose their enthusiasm for the Faith pretty quickly. And so it would happen in the Christian churches, if congregations were taken to task for their lack of chastity and charity; you'd see the pews empty out pretty quickly.

It is the dilemma of every missionary religion: If you want to reach the world(in the sense of humanity), then you can't simultaneously keep the world (in the spiritual sense) out of your faith. Every convert you make brings the world in, right along with him. Maybe he will try to live according to the teachings, and maybe he won't. This applies not only to the obvious sins, but the more subtle ones like spiritual pride and ambition for power that inevitably crop up in religious leadership. One of the great causes of disillusionment in the Baha'i Faith is the discovery that we really aren't all that different in this regard than other religions. You see this, to a lesser extent, in Sider's article; he is pained that Christians aren't doing any better morally than the rest of us.

I think it's a mistake to worry about it; let sinful humanity in, with open arms. In the meantime, each of us, individually, must keep our eyes focussed on what *we* are supposed to be doing. I don't think it does much good to take people to task for this sin or that, but the message does need to be proclaimed that God is easy to please, but hard to satisfy i.e. we don't get to declare our belief, then sit on our laurels, sure that God is just happy as heck with us, as opposed to those awful unbelievers. People need to be taught to take *themselves* to task, to continually measure themselves against the ideals they hold, and realize that they really aren't doing so great. Because none of us are.

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