I recently had a conversation with a woman that broke my heart. Let’s call her Ann. Ann is intelligent, inquisitive, and has a syndrome that leaves it difficult to tell by her behavior what her age is. She approached me insistent on learning where Satan came from. As we talked, it became clear that her real question was whether or not she was going to hell for misbehaving.
I could have engaged with Ann about the theo-historical development of the concept of Satan (see “The Origin of Satan” by Elaine Pagels), or I could have parsed Biblical scripture for her, but she was so distraught, I simply told her my truth. I don’t believe in Satan. I don’t believe in hell. I do believe there is evil in the world and horrific things happen. How could I not, but a place of eternal torment? Never.
Ann persisted, demanding to know what happens when we die. I told her no one really knows, but that I believe all life (her beloved pets’ included) enters a realm we can’t even imagine. In that realm, some of us are more able to experience the light of Love that is God and others of us have a more “dimmed” experience of it. It is as though we are farther “away” from the light. All of us, though, are in God’s presence.
At that point she laughed and relaxed and said, “kind of like sitting in the back of the church.” I said, “exactly.”
What damage the Church (and other religions) have done to innocent, ordinary people like Ann and all the rest of us who are just trying to live our lives as best we can! (Not what you expected to hear from a clergy person, I know.) I am aware that Christianity has been the source of much good – caring for those on the margins of society whose needs are legion, establishing and running hospitals, and founding institutions of learning at all levels. Without the church our society would be struggling to meet many of the needs the Church currently addresses. I know Christian faith has brought comfort and solace to untold numbers of people in times of crisis and loss. And I will not dispute that it has been a source of meaning to innumerable folks who have turned to it for direction. Christianity has done great good, there is no doubt about it.
But, Lordy, how do we change the understanding that to be Christian means you have to sign on to a God whose M.O. is something other than just love, and I don’t mean loving you by teaching you a lesson? How do we help folks let go of a God known exclusively through Jesus who is willing to leave millions upon millions of non-Christians damned to hell? What is it going to take to change the teaching of the Church to reveal a God who does not turn the divine back on his/her/its own creatures because they don’t measure up in some way?
Some of you will read this and respond, “What? That’s precisely why we need God and the Christian Church – to turn us to Jesus and to whip us into shape so we’ll be able to “get to heaven.” If you are one of those folks, unless you want your blood pressure to rise even more than it probably is right now, you might as well stop reading.
Some of you will read this and respond that religion is a social construct designed to control the masses. I am painfully aware that religion has been (and continues to be) used that way.
It seems to me though, non-anthropologist that I am, that religion may be an inclination natural to our species. Not just spirituality, religion. Religion: when we align ourselves with others and, together, acknowledge our place in the universe. Religion: when, together, we voice our gratitude to the “something more” that we sense is the creative cause for everything that is. Religion: when we gather and, together, support one another as we try to live lives that are more grounded in compassion toward all of creation.
We live in a time when religion is linked, as it too often is, to political narrative. It is once again (or maybe, still is) manipulating humanity toward divisive and destructive ends. Rather than throw the religious baby out with the social bathwater, I would ask, “How do we pry the two apart? How can the Anns of the world, the ordinary folks trying to live lives of integrity find communities that will satisfy their religious impulse but will not distort it by linking it with fear, shame, guilt, and a message of exclusion?
I don’t know. Perhaps it’s one brave congregation at a time, willing to say, “The way we’ve always been taught is not the way of Jesus.”
Leigh Waggoner is priest at St. Barnabas Episcopal Church. She can be reached at 565-7865, or firstname.lastname@example.org.