Thursday, September 29, 2011

A Conflict of Perspectives: The “Eternal Perspective” Vs. “The Here-and-Now”

Growing up in a strong Christian-Catholic environment, I was often told to look at everything with the “eternal perspective.” Simply, this means looking at all of our actions, inactions, relationships, etc. through the lens that we will either end up in heaven or hell.

On the one hand, this makes a lot of sense. I want to understand the consequences of my actions in order to better choose. We use this same logic to discuss financial choices: What is the long-term consequence of me spending this money on such-and-such, or investing in such-and-such? Let’s remember that this Christian idea is based in a real belief that life is not over when we are lifted into our graves.

But there’s something in me that finds the idea and phrasing of the “eternal perspective” discomforting. I have to admit that some of has to do with the common issue with preaching this idea: that it seems to be used to give hope to the hopeless, that is gives those whose lives are poor and miserable a bit of meaning. This may not sound too bad. However, it is often argued that the actual preaching of heaven-and-hell and the eternal perspective is used to keep those who are poor, marginalized, and powerless in their same positions. “Blessed are the poor, for the kingdom of God’s is theirs.” Power structures are not prone to change when those outside the system are told that their powerlessness is in fact their greatest strength.

While I don’t doubt that this has been used as such many times, this isn’t the heart of my problem. That the idea has been used incorrectly is no proof for its inherent incorrectness. The idea of heaven-and-hell may lend itself to misuse, but its misuse is not necessary. There is a very positive and healthy approach to the eternal perspective that doesn't partake at all in suppression or oppression; it is simply a reorienting of one’s life in light of the fact that life is longer and more important than most of us treat it.

No, my problem runs a bit deeper. I find that the eternal perspective can sometimes be a rejection of the here-and-now, as if our present life on earth had no real meaning – as if the present is devoid of lasting value, and has no significance apart from its attachment to the end goal: heaven. But isn’t this false? It’s not as if life on earth is essentially illusionary, and once we enter eternity things matter. Aren’t we taking, right now, the beginning steps of eternity?

But to really understand my discomfort, I need to bring up a point I’ve brought up before: the “Rewards/Consequences Version of Christianity.” This is epitomized by a Christian living a good and upright life in order to get to heaven, and for no other reason. I won’t have sex outside marriage, get crazy drunk every weekend, or cheat on my taxes because these aren’t the straightest roads to heaven. It’s not that refraining from sex outside marriage, deciding not to get drunk every weekend, or abstaining from tax evasion are good in-and-of-themselves. They are simply rules followed for their end result: an eternity of bliss.

Camus had this problem with Christianity. He loved most of the tenets the Church preached, and thought it got closest to some of the deepest truths of mankind, such as our responsibility to one another and other like ideas. But he rejected the idea that we should be doing good for and to our brother in order to gain a reward. Now, although I reject Camus on grounds that a Christian isn’t asked to “do good” simply for the reward; but I can’t disregard the fact that there seems to be a lot of Scriptural basis for this interpretation. Doing good should be done for its own sake – and if it happens to lead us to heaven, then so be it. But it’s hard to not separate the ends from the means when the ends are so weighty and potentially glorious.

But shouldn't what is good for us long-term, according to the eternal perspective, be good for us now too? Do I need always to keep in mind what will be leading me to heaven or hell, instead of seeking what is good in the moment, in the here-and-now? (This isn’t a call for “feeling good in the moment,” by the way.) For example, the abstaining from sex outside marriage is not good simply because it helps me get to heaven; it is good because it is a rule that helps me stay physically, psychologically, and spiritually healthy. In fact, it is because of this that it helps me get to heaven.

I understand that a man who thinks the grave is the end and one who thinks there is much more are going to look at individual actions in this life with a different perspective. But does the Christian need always to ground his decisions in the eternal perspective, and not in the simple fact of acting holy in the moment? Is not the eternal grounded in the here-and-now?

Monday, September 12, 2011

The Privatization of Religion

I’m taking a class at Drew this semester called “Religion, Culture, and Conflict.” The name obviously caught my attention, and I decided to take it, even though I know nothing of the professor or class. I’m one class in, and I suppose I have a favorable opinion so far. But there was something the professor said in his opening lecture that nearly got me raising my hand. I restrained, but mainly because, since there’s only seven of us in the class and it’ll be run seminar-style, I know I’ll have time to bring it up sometime soon.

This is a bad paraphrase, but Dr. Golden (yes, that’s his name) said something to this extent: “I’m not with those who point to all of this religious crisis and think the answer is a religion-less world. That Lennon song annoys me. In fact, I think a lot of the answers to these conflicts lie in religion. But what does annoy me about certain religions – or really just certain religious people – is when they impress their beliefs on others. If they just kept their religion to themselves and their religious groups, and didn't take their religious ideas into politics, then I think we’d be pretty OK.”

I’m not the first to point out that what Mr. Golden is doing here is assigning religion to a private sphere, and disallowing it any public power. What I wanted to say (and hopefully will sometime later) is this: “But what if it is intrinsic to a religion – and I think most major religions fall into this category – to be public? What if a religion teaches a way of life that includes how we are to act politically? Aren’t we selling this religion short by limiting it? Aren’t we actually not really talking about that religion if we want it to act against its own tenets?”

Dr. Golden works a lot with religion and religious conflict. He was just awarded a $300,000 Carnegie Grant to jumpstart some inter-religious program to work with religious leaders all around the world. I don’t doubt he does a lot good. But my problem with his approach (as much as I could gauge from one lesson) is that is incorrectly defines religion. He wants to solve the problem by making religions “safe,” assigning them to the comfortably benign realm of the private or small communities.

But this misrepresents religion. Take Catholicism, for example. It is not enough for me to say I won’t perform or be involved in abortion. It’s not enough for me say I won’t engage in homosexual marriage. As a Catholic, I need to take these beliefs into the voting booth and the public sphere. And while this may annoy the heck out of Golden and the like, there’s a sincerely logical reason why: As a Catholic, I believe that the truths taught by the Magisterium are in fact Truths; as such, I believe that all people benefit by a society that lives by them. I don’t simply vote for pro-life or anti-gay-marriage politicians because I’m Catholic; I do it because I abortion is murder, and because I think a society is better for all when children grow up in heterosexual marriages – as well as for other reasons.

Of course, there are “private” Catholic matters. I’m not about to lobby for a national law that forces everyone to go to Mass every Sunday. But there are religious beliefs that lie outside of these strictly religious bounds, beliefs about human dignity that, if you believe them will necessarily change how you vote or approach public policy. We’re not upset when someone’s belief against slavery affected his or hers public actions; and people can’t be upset when we do the same thing. Golden et. al. wants to make all religious beliefs like the Sunday Mass rule.

I can see why Golden wants to do this, though – it’s tempting. It seems a nice approach. However, since at its heart it incorrectly defines religion, it is impossibly naïve. It will never work, since any person with real faith will never accept it. I agree that the reality here is a lot more problematic than Dr. Golden’s theories. Once we throw out these theories, we’re left with some complicated questions. Example: I’m fine taking my religious beliefs against abortion and gay-marriage into the voting both; but am I willing to grant the same right to a Muslim who supports Sharia Law? I understand that I’d be as naïve as Golden if I said, “Hey Muslim, you can bring into the voting booth the things already correspond with our “American” ideas; but the ones that don’t, keep those private.”

Although I don’t suppose the class will directly answer these types of questions, I do hope that the lectures, conversations, and readings will help lead me (privately) to some beginning answers.