A Religious Tragedy
|Aspects of original sin are
the tendencies of human nature to degrade belief, literalize the
spiritual and fight
about anything. People particularly like to fight. Some will try to make
a fight anywhere, literal or verbal,
out of anything. Then some others who like to fight are silly enough to
take up any offer of a fight. So one
of the tragedies of religion is when faith begins in a spiritual
experience that enhances life but ends in a
fighting over religious views that cheapens and degrades life and God.
I have witnessed this often. What
begins as a high grace-filled spiritual experience ends in a cheap
literal fight over creeds or bits of creeds.
One of the difficulties with religion in this world is to keep religion spiritual. There is a tendency in some to degenerate from an elevating spiritual experience of a transcendent God to a literal argument over creeds. In scripture this is often referred to as “backsliding.” Those who have been taken up, then fall down again into the muddle-puddle of their own literalism and narcissism. (Proverbs 14:14) Those who have experienced a higher level of grace descend to a lower level of grace. The bottom in religion seems to be church in-fighting on a low non-transcendent level. This is a religious tragedy.
For example, people may have spiritual experiences, then they can literalize the spiritual into a creed they can use to fight over. The spiritual experience that should have changed their attitudes forever, made them higher and broader, has then been focused onto some passionate creedal literalisms to argue, fight, and become abusive over. This again is a religious tragedy: It is degrading a high experience of God into being dragged down to some literal fight over a minor point of creed. For Heaven’s sake, transcend this.
Happy experiences of elevating grace should motivate a magnificence of mind and love, not be used to produce littleness of character and meanness of mind. But unfortunately, happy experiences of grace can be refocused on littleness of mind and character said to be theologically justified. However, the test of grace is love. By the love in it, you can recognize the grace in it, and know if your religious impulses are being degraded or refocused questionably. Remember the story of Jesus at the public stoning of the adulterous woman. The stoning was a public semi-religious punishment. Jesus said, “let him without sin cast the first stone.” (John 8:8) The group gathered for meanness then understood grace, and went home.
The Spirit of God wishes to spiritualize the literal, but bad religion in reverse often wishes to literalize the spiritual. This is what happens when a divine experience of God, so common to many, is turned inside out and used in quarreling among religions and church people over creeds or other things held too literally and too passionately.
Spiritual experiences often are literalized into creeds (not out of mean intent but for clarity and enlightenment that are meant to help in understanding.) People then forget or forego the high spiritual level and descend to a lower level to fight over the lower literal things. Thus broad spiritual energy is lowered and focused on petty literalizing . The higher spiritual message is overlooked and laid aside. What originally happened was high grace, what it turned into was a low grace quarreling experience.
The basic difficulty seems to be that some, perhaps many, people who find God’s presence real, cannot sustain a high spiritual level of belief, but take their spiritual experience and literalize it into literal creeds. The creeds are often what self-aggrandizing religious organizations hide behind. For many churches today have no spiritual force but work primarily for members, buildings, social agendas. Christ seems low on their list of spiritual priorities or, rather, their priorities are not spiritual at all. They have a de jure church of Christ but not a de facto one. How can this not be when so many who do not believe attend our sad cake churches?
In the midst of any religious fighting, it is obvious that the spiritual has been corrupted and degraded. The spiritual experience has degenerated into something very literal for mankind to fight over it. When this happens, religion is a tragedy, because what it should be is spiritual, when it is often only ecclesiastical and shallow. After all, any church is supposed to be a means of grace, but when spiritual graces are not found there, what are they but empty shells? Look around us! Do we not have rich and empty shells? Have we not fallen badly from the Covenant? Isn’t it time to renew our Covenant with grace?
When the spiritual experience that should have raised and stayed people in divine love has become merely another literal temporal excuse to fight, little has been accomplished for God. (Now it should be obvious that anyone who uses religion as an excuse for violence and war has not much if any, true spiritual awareness.) Do not let your best motivations be turned into literal ugliness as has happened in the Moslem “jihad” or the Christian Inquisition. Do not let your religion be turned into a religious tragedy. This can happen if you do not test belief by grace, and grace by love.
Generally, the spiritual in religion has been forsaken while religion has been turned into simply one more passionately held literalism for people to fight over. This backsliding from a high spiritual experience of transcending love to a low emphasis on literal religion and creeds that you fight over, that is truly a religious tragedy. But it is a tragedy as wide as Western Civilization. And it is a custom that bodes not well for Christ’s true intentions in coming to this earth.
It is very frustrating to live in a world where spiritual seeds are allowed to grow into literal flowerings of violence. But let us face it. Religion was made to help mankind in transcending ugliness, and spiritually ordering life, but such is the flawed nature of humanity that religion now is often used only to further man’s self-aggrandizing egotisms.
To some extent we as believers have to decide if we really want to have a good faith, that is one on a transcending spiritual level as Christ intended. If we do, then we must try to maintain a high spiritual level through prayer and scripture study. Instead, we can easily settle down to having one more literal, ecclesiastical and low institutional faith obsessed with selfish self-aggrandizement: more members and bigger buildings. Or have a shallow cultural religion that only hits the surfaces of things. This is certainly what many seem to do, but it is not Christ. Jesus said in Matthew 7:16, “know them by their fruits.” That means to be able to recognize false religions. False religions are non-spiritually transcending religions without the true broadly loving Spirit of God implanted in them.
False churches and false ecclesiastical organizations, Christian or not, have creeds, say prayers and ring bells on time and in tune, but ask yourself: Is the gently rising grace of a spiritually transcending experience there? By your heart, you will know it. Through reasoning in love, you will recognize it.
We live in a world of very passionate literalizations from mixed ideals and many religions. Human nature often tends to be too passionate in these, and much too literal. Then people may tend to fight, argue, clash and even die over nonsense. They will not lean on grace. They leave no room for the Holy Ghost to maneuver. But have only an uneager confidence in God’s Plan, His redemptive intent, our lives being cut out to His pattern. So do not accept second hand religions without first hand having transcending experiences of the softly illuminating grace of God.
Ours tends to be a world where graceless minds clash by night over passionate literalisms, because many try to force their favorite passionate literalisms on others. But every person, every place, every group, is at its own stage of grace. They develop according to the intelligent design and divine plan of God. His purpose is working to fulfill us with His grace, yet respecting our free will, and knowing how far we can go, down to every person in all of time. For if His eye is on two sparrows, (Matthew 10:29), does He not watch over thee?
Our passions do tend to be held too heavily, clumsily, and awkwardly. They can lack spiritual balance. And our creeds tend to be too literalized. The creeds can become stumbling blocks to fight over rather than stepping stones to move us further along in our evolving towards Christ. For a creed can be a good thing, only we often make a bad use of good things.
If the world is to survive, we must recognize more widely that grace cannot be force fed to people as if they are Strasbourg geese. That is in violation of natural law and spiritual revelations that show us divine law. We must respect grace and rest in the fact that it is working steadily “according to the eternal purpose, which is seen in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Ephesians 3:11)
If the world is going to survive, it must spiritually change to do so. It must become more spiritual in facing the fact grace, spiritual progress, harmony, the only true progress, cannot be forced but only developed. The grace in us must call out to the grace around us. People must learn not to be so pushy and passionate about their literalisms. They must learn to transcend their passionate insularity through grace. They then might learn how to rest in God that they may be fulfilled by His grace. Yes, grace is moving in us by the effectual working of His power. (Ephesians 3:7) But grace cannot be forced. Yet if recognized, it will spread. For grace recognizes grace and calls out to it. A unity is created and more are added.
As believers in Christ we are not expected to perfect the world or force it, but improve it. We are expected to be the spiritual leaven in the literal lump, (Ephesians 5:9) to be the salt of the earth (Matthew 5:13) that seasons life with more goodness, peace and harmony. For the love of Christ constrains us. (Romans 5:14) We are called by God to be among the creative few accepting the challenge of affirming the interior spiritual life for all mankind.
Religion at its best calls believers to transcend and transform their “fight first” natures through creative and spiritually-transcending interior lives. That is a calling not all seem capable of, but those who are called know the invisible glory and grace of a spiritual God is working betterment in them. Therefore I urge attention to the words of II Peter 1:10, “give diligence to make your calling and election sure: for if ye do these things, ye shall never fall:”
Dr. James MacLeod may be contacted through the Neill Macaulay Foundation.