Tuesday, August 22, 2006

The Penitentiary

The original pentitentiary, as I'm sure everyone knows, was a place for doing penance. The idea was to reform a person's soul, and then the body would follow. We've kept the name, even if we haven't kept anything else. We think, now, that the body controls the mind, and the soul is trapped beneath that, somewhere, maybe. I'd like to write about this some more, but I won't... at least not now. I just picked this title for the post because I need to repent of my million dollar idea.

Satire's fine, but some humor is dangerous. One reader wrote in privately from Stagger Falls that pills like this might one day be made and might lead to a number of deaths. That's true, and drunkenness is, of course, a social malady, and that was sort of my point, that people are beasts. I suppose "people are beasts" is sort of the point of most of my blog entries, though.

Speaking of the bestial, and particularly the puzzled simian, which is the state most humanity is in, whether you believe that simians are ancestors or mirrors of ours, I think naturally of the current president of the United States. Now I won't impugn his intelligence, curiosity, wit, or ability to do the job -- whatever it is -- of president. After all, he is demonstrating that the job is not what we thought it was, and no one is challenging him on that. No, I'm not going to do that. Instead, I want to take a stab at his inside: his claims of being born again.

I don't really believe him, you see. I may be wrong (another point of every blog entry of mine), but I really don't see in his actions anything that resembles the born again experience that I know from my own past. I grew up in a vague suburban church and so I took it upon myself to read the Bible. I read the Gospels several times, struggled through the wordiness of Paul in his declamatory mode, and started looking for the end of the world. I went to Camp Meeting every summer, which was a "tent revival" where we would all be encouraged to repent and "convert" annually. This was done under the sanction of the United Methodist Church, even though that church is not Calvinist and does not support the continual conversion method. The point is that the week of shouting evangelism easily overwhelmed the year's sedate and amorphous conventional church services, and I became not just born again but Born Again. I grew fundamentalist, and I took on board all of the messages of radical Calvinism. It nearly killed me.

My favorite Robert Lowell poem is "After the Surprising Conversions." (Click on that link! Seriously: it's the Poetry Foundation, and they own the rights, so it's a legal version of the text.) He talks about a New England town after Jonathan Edwards comes through and leaves. After the townspeople were awakened to their sinfulness, their utter depravity, and the fact that every moment of the day brought sins condemning them to Hell and a need for abject craving for undeserved forgiveness, they began killing themselves. Lowell has people,
"Once neither callous, curious nor devout,
Jumped at broad noon, as though some peddler groaned
At it in its familiar twang: 'My friend,
Cut your own throat. Cut your own throat. Now! Now!'"
You see, the critical thing about being Born Again (as opposed to what Jesus Christ meant by being born anew in the Holy Spirit) is that it carries with it a profound sense of depravity. It insists, every day, that, every day, you are unworthy of the salvation granted to you, for the conversion that brought you to it required an absolute sense of guilt and insufficiency. It emphasizes, every day, humility and need. Its critical fault is that we are to love our neighbors as ourselves, but when we know what demons incarnate we are, we do not love ourselves at all.

If you want to know a born again president of the United States, it's Jimmy Carter. He told Playboy in 1976 that he had committed adultery in his heart, and those with no exposure to fundamentalism laughed and betrayed that they also hadn't read the Sermon on the Mount very recently. He was and remains humble. He was and remains concerned about the needs of others. He was and remains sure that he must seek God's will, for he does not own it. These things are in sharp relief to George W. Bush's actions and words.

Bush's autobiographical comments mention his surprising conversion always in connection with a profligate past. That sounds like a Puritain conversion narrative. It sounds like the sort of religion that the camp revivers preach. It sounds enough like it to pass. However, it is subtly different from the old conversions, from the old born again movement, from the fundamentalism that we might know. It's Puritain in the way that Oliver Cromwell was a Puritain. It is second generation movement.

One of the most important sections of the Bible, to me, is the Sermon on the Mount, but you needn't dwell there. Consider the words of Jesus Christ: Matthew 6:1 ff. :
"Beware of practicing your piety before men in order to be seen by them; for then you will have no reward from your Father who is in heaven."
I'll have more to say about that verse later, when I get to Christian Education, but for now let's consider the importance of it by itself. The born again Christian of my generation was shy of talking about his or her religion, and particularly of being public with worship. Jimmy Carter very, very rarely spoke of how pious he was, very rarely spoke of how often he prayed.
Switching over to the KJV, let's see Luke 6:37-8:
"Judge not, and ye shall not be judged; condemn not, and ye shall not be condemned: forgive, and ye shall be forgiven. Give, and it shall be given unto you; good measure, pressed down, and shaken together, and running over, shall men given unto thy bosom. For with the same measure that ye mete withal it shall be measured to you again."
That used to scare me. Judge not, Jesus said. Therefore, I thought the sense of it was plain: worry about giving, about loving, about adding, and not telling other people how they needed to be better. Do these good things for their own sakes, and not because you expect the reward or the fame. The generation of born agains that I knew would rather eat glass than be caught proclaiming their piety, and every time they denounced an evil, they had a twinge of worry that they were judging others. Since they knew that they were loathesome, horrible, miserable, disgusting creatures, they knew that judging anyone else would really be offensive, and they knew that any good they ever did would be just paying the smallest part of the interest on the debt they owed.

Things aren't like that anymore. Curiously, the doctrine of depravity led to a strange form of the doctrine of grace. I have met people who, when told that only those without sin could cast the first stone, said that they were, indeed, without sin, because they were saved. As born again, they had grace abounding that covered every sin, wiped all of them out, and as charismatics, they were led by the Holy Spirit and could not doubt it. Therefore, it was the Holy Spirit that told them to beat gay people, to throw rocks at pregnant women going to Planned Parenthood, and disrupt high school education. Therefore it was inerrant, and therefore, this person implied, what Jesus really meant was that he should cast some stones.

This is the second generation born again. This is President Bush's version. This is a marriage of half-understood doctrines perverted into sanctimony. This is why Jimmy Carter has recently written a book condemning the new type of "born again Christians."

Both forms of fundamentalism are ultimately dangerous, from my perspective. I was forced to leave that type of fundamentalism (the kind I seem to be praising), because the belief in the vileness and loathesomeness of humanity is, as Lowell suggested, only answerable by suicide or spiritual suicide. The other form of fundamentalism is without conscience. It is fundamentally egoistic. As the individual believer believes more and more that his belief justifies his beliefs, he cuts himself off from the voices of the needy, the suffering, and the sinful. Jesus Christ went to the worst houses, dined with the sketchiest people, and had working men and women of low rank among His followers, but the pious contained within the narrow and solitary cloisters of their own minds listen to their inner voice with utmost confidence and declare all the rules governing the fallen invalid.

The one form of fundamentalism is self-destructive, and the other is sociopathic.

I can endorse neither. You can tell that this prednisent is not any type of fundamentalist that either I or Jonathan Edwards would recognize because he believes himself without sin. You can tell that this trend has traction because it promises perfection without society and denounces all dissonant societies as dens of iniquity.

For me, the answer was to move toward a church that honored the sanctity of free will, one that embraced the notion that our reason and conscience and desires are all to be in continual dialog with the spirit of God, one that put a premium on history as God's will both in terms of actions and the development of theology. Finally, it is a church that has a doctrinal core that protects against some of the wilder swings of enthusiasm and avarice. I also moved to the theological position of semi-Pelagianism, as I could not believe that even the Fall could entirely negate the goodness of God's creation (yeah, I know it's a heresy, officially). It was the only way I could remain true to the unambiguous commands of my Lord, to the degree that I was capable, and still hope that I could be turned to some use, after all.

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