History has proven that whenever any religion gets too big an ego trouble ensues. A prime example in Christianity is that of the Roman Catholic Church. Unfortunately each era brings about a new opportunity for one religion or another to overplay its influence and authority.
The most grievous way in which religions abuse their influence is by locking up the means to transcendence for their membership. They create narrow and low doorways through which the faithful are asked to cross in order to receive the promised graces. Jesus spoke of this abuse of what he calls the “Anawim”, the poorest and weakest among us, as the gravest of sins: “If any of you put a stumbling-block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were fastened around your neck and you were drowned in the depth of the sea.” Matthew 18.6
For the next six blog posts I would like to address from my point of view as a follower of Jesus several shifts which religions ought to make in order to unlock transcendence for all seekers. My advice is to:
1. Use words sparingly
2. Promote radical justice
3. Open up to love
4. Do not fear sexuality
5. Promote erotic energy
6. Get in touch with the real Jesus
Let’s begin with the use and abuse of words; in order to do so I hope you’ll enjoy this run through history! The Catholic Church arose out of two distinct cultures where the spoken and written word was central: Judaism and the Roman Empire. Judaism was unique among its contemporaries in that it not only taught that there was only one supreme God, but that God actually speaks to humanity. Central to Jewish faith and tradition has been the word, beginning with the Ten Commandments. These words were first spoken and shared in community and later codified in scripture texts and temple rituals. Jesus, being an educated rabbi or teacher, knew well the Hebrew Scriptures and used them extensively in his preaching during his three-year public ministry. His disciples followed suit.
The first followers of Jesus were Jewish, but within a generation many non-Jews from throughout the Roman Empire were inspired by his message of love, justice, and radical liberation through God’s gift of transcendence. As the Christians organized themselves into a visible body, they centered themselves at first in Antioch, north of Jerusalem and then to Rome. This shift to the capital of the empire occurred for three main reasons. First, Rome was where the church’s two most important leaders died in captivity: Peter the fisherman and Paul of Tarsus. Future bishops of Rome took their leadership as being in direct succession to both Peter and Paul. Second, the Christian faith caught on more rapidly among the non-Jewish peoples situated in major cities of the Roman Empire. Third, when the governmental structures of the empire in the west crumbled in the fourth century the Catholic Church filled the void and provided political, economic, and social stability.
As early as Paul’s letters in the New Testament, beginning in around 55 A.D. we see that the word was central to early Christians. They circulated these letters as well as gospel texts to promote Jesus’ message. Later the church would use the sophisticated development of Roman law and Greek philosophy in order to formulate its own laws and beliefs. Soon enough words would be used as weapons to quell opposing opinions. Ever since, Christians from Catholic, Orthodox, Anglican, and Protestant traditions have been unable to resist the temptation to use words to try and form the consciences of their followers.
Out of hand this is not a bad concept. The trouble is that religious organizations are human and often wish to exert their will, resorting even to threat, condemnation, ostracizing, fear, shame and worse, in order to exercise control or increase their authority. Even today we still witness examples of this kind of spiritual coercion.
Religions are slow to change and to realize that they hold static the consciences of their people at their own peril. Human persons have a natural urge to seek experiences that will draw them out of themselves into an infinite universe of relationship and love. They will go to extreme lengths to find it, even if it means following a perverted character such as Jim Jones or simply getting into an automobile to drive in public without the sanction of husband or government. Authentic and transforming transcendence has power of its own. It renders words impotent, as paltry attempts to define the indefinable, to explain that which can only be experienced.
Next time: Promoting Justice.
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Original art copyrighted by Michael Parise