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Monday, April 30, 2012

Religion's Macro and Micro Roles

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In determination of what is apropos for how religions should function… an interesting preliminary factor in comparing different denominations of a religion, such as Christianity, is that one denomination does not have authority over another and cannot claim superiority based on political or social posturing. Ideas of heresy for differing outlooks in terms of doctrinal interpretation have no mortal arbiter, for it’s all subjective from any reasoned outlook. The matter invariably comes down to they said/they said. There’s no objective frame of reference outside of generally accepted morals, which often don’t transfer over directly to doctrine. Basic morals are intuitively understood, while doctrine is interpreted disparately. In the end, to say that a real worshiper is only one who agrees with me is not what Christ was teaching.

With the above in mind, what can be rightly expected by its followers from a religion preaching the adherence to God’s word? Spiritual guidance, yes. Spiritual upliftment, yes. A life’s path, yes. A moral compass, yes. A community of support, yes. A psychological direction, somewhat with a caveat. A scientific explanation, not necessarily. Look at the Bible for indicators…

First ask ourselves why we would expect a religion to provide definitive scientific and psychological answers. Such has never been the prevailing case at any time in history, including when Christ was on Earth. The Bible typically does not attempt to satisfy such questions. In hypothesis, part of a true religion’s function is to provide spiritual guidance, inspired through scripture and revelation. A church’s leaders will provide that guidance in the context of what has already been revealed, and indeed some things may not be revealed in this life.

Point: Should a religion answer all the questions about life up front and in an obvious manner?

What would the mysteries of the kingdom mean if everything were already revealed? Aren’t we getting ahead of the plan for when the Creator returns?

It wasn’t necessary for believers during Christ’s time on Earth to be kept up to speed on whether it was the Sun or Earth that was moving. Even followers in the 19th century didn’t need to have a full representation of the periodic table. There’s never been a need to have the litany of definitive scientific proofs established by the clergy at any point in history, and that will always be the case no matter how far we think we’ve come on the knowledge scale. In the eternal scope of things, heliocentrism comes down to a mere curiosity at best. There are much bigger fish to fry as well as have fall out of the sky. In revelation and in miracles, like all else, we are to be patient. Thus, the Bible was not meant as a scientific text.

Biblical revelations were typically according to the understanding at the time. It wasn’t necessary to beat a 16th century Copernicus to the punch in a clarification of the Earth’s orbit around the sun, for example. That the ancient prophets either did not understand this scientific discovery nor reveal it is incidental here. It’s reasonable to assert that they would have been given a certain body of knowledge from the Creator based on the needs at the time, and that further revelations and discoveries would come from various disciplines over time.

Analysis: That we don’t have everything yet explained to us in plain language as a concise prescription for life is hardly surprising in light of historical religious precedent.

Were it meant for Biblical followers to have the market cornered on the social and scientific fronts, it would then make sense that every iota would have already long ago been clearly defined in advance in order to leave out any question. And yet what would that have solved? Instead, from a religious standpoint it would have undermined humanity’s whole social experiment.

Part of the Galileo dilemma was that people outside the church unrealistically expected the church to have responses for every scientific explanation, while people within the church unrealistically thought of those scientific explanations as threats to their core doctrine and tried to one-up science instead of integrating it. Galileo was not so much an indictment against religion itself as it was against perspectives on religion’s role within a societal construct.

Likewise, to judge religion from the Dark Ages when religion was corrupt, absolute and imperialistic is like stereotyping all fruit based on a batch that is synthetically grown. Theocracies are antithetical to general religious thought and in no way define religion. Since the time where much of religion has been allowed to breathe once again in the modern era, the bulk of religion has not ruled but has instead focused on providing in both a short-term and long-term means of direction, purpose and a more respectable way of living.

It’s easy for a people at any point in time to assume that their dispensation has either reached or is very near the pinnacle of thought. This is human nature. As such, these people feel that they should likewise contain all the answers to life’s mysteries, to its social and psychological issues, since, as they assume, we have “arrived.” Technology has perpetuated this illusion even further. Humans can be quite elitist with history’s timescale, patting themselves on the back when looking in the past and seeing what lessons we’ve overcome, while also failing to accord the same pattern into the future.

A religious following is naturally eager to determine as many tenets of official doctrine as possible and thereby inferring them, even when at certain times they may not always exist. We somehow want religion to instantly uncover all the answers theologically, scientifically, psychologically, and in every other significant way so that we can skip over that whole niggling part about patience.

At the end of the day, we’re humans put on Earth to experience life and learn in the process. While God does a lot for us, the idea is that He still lets us be at the helm of our destiny, allowing us to fall down, get back up, fall down again, and keep getting back up. We’re here to be given the freedom to act as we will, for if we didn’t have that freedom it wouldn’t really be us.

A religion is largely God turning the management of the Gospel over to fallible people. If God fully controlled the affairs of the religion, then there wouldn’t be any purpose for people to be leading the church, as they would be simply automatons. It’s revealed that God at times has stepped in to redirect the ship when it’s gone badly off course, but otherwise He lets us go at our humanly pace. There is some latitude implied that is given to our individual personalities when acting on behalf of God. For the most part, this wouldn’t mean that God is specifically channeling us at every juncture or that we know of His will perfectly.

A distinction can be made between the master plan and how people are carrying it out, the plan being perfect and its enactors being far from it.

Religions consist of human leaders who express a bounty of inspirational ideas, often coming from different intent and many times problematic to remove from its true context. Parents do the same things with their children. Everything spoken is not therefore a law of the household.

Predicaments of mixing opinions with doctrine occur when followers apply literalism, which is likewise a snag in the reading of Biblical verse. The ongoing debate between which parts figurative and which parts literal should at least give us some indication that not everything is intended as hard doctrine, and that much of it is a guide to bring us back in close proximity to the chosen path, in order to remain steadily on that path.

Think intently of what your ideal yet realistic religion would be operated like. If you examine that thoughtfully and honestly, then you’ll be less critical of some of the religions you see. It would defeat the whole purpose of life if life were already heaven, without any incongruence.

People often conflate a religion’s practices with doctrine, thinking of them as one in the same. And even worse, people often judge a religion based on behavior of its membership against the religious code, as if a moral law’s legitimacy relied on whether people obeyed it or not. From a religious perspective (short of a theocracy), justice is not necessarily timely or even evident in our current existence. Religions in a free society will allow people to go elsewhere if they choose, and without consequence beyond separation from that inner community (a condition which is also not necessarily permanent).

If church authorities are speaking in concepts that are not necessarily doctrine, then it translates to the type we should be taking under advisement though are not compelled to heed in literalist fashion. Doctrine carries over to obedience, whereas advice carries over to individual circumstances as needed. Differentiating between commandments and general wisdom will save us considerable turmoil.

When scripture speaks of religious leaders taking us on the proper path for which we should follow, it doesn’t suggest we need to be in lockstep with them on all facets in order to ultimately reach the destination, nor does it even hint that the path on non-doctrinal issues is a strict or well-defined course. This tells us that the minutiae is not what we should trifle ourselves over in a religious context. In the end, our own intuition we’ve been provided is going to tell us more about the myriad mysterious particulars than an overall religious dogma would hope to or should try to. Listening to the voice within. A curious theme throughout the scriptures.

A church’s leadership has no realistic recourse but to speak collectively and generally on social, psychological, or scientific matters as they relate to morals or to the cosmos. The leadership is not going to attempt to instruct its entire congregation congruently on such non-doctrinal issues, but will put guidelines in place in some of these areas and leave room for the individual’s own personal interpretation. There will be substantial opinion involved that is not meant to be taken as Gospel. The idea of a church has never been to be constructed as the ideal for readily providing every theological answer at our disposal, and even lesser so regarding the social, psychological and scientific realms of our experience. A properly constructed church is not trying to be all those things. As such, what we need isn’t mortal babysitters. What we need is the combination of inspiration, revelation, guidance, and leadership. A religion which attempts to micro-manage instead of letting people govern themselves based on correct principles is treating its followers as less than what they are.

As a consequence, it shouldn’t lead us to critique a religious body for not explaining or understanding a psychological issue in the same personal way that we might understand it, for this is not generally its function. While it’s true that church leadership will do its best to wear its psychological hats even without being formally schooled in such areas, the angle is as spiritual adviser from a purely spiritual standpoint, which is not meant to trump psychology but only shed additional light on it. Likewise, the healer doesn’t circumvent the physician’s practice, but adds another element in conjunction with it.

The fundamental mission of a church operates on a grand scale which transcends the incidentals of this life without actually ignoring them. The vision is of bigger and better things, while simultaneously dealing with the mortal details. A religion is to lead people back to their Creator, not merely in some metaphorical or poetic way in the moment, but in the most literal way to actually go back into His very presence. This is high stakes wagering here. Religion, therefore, is the most critical of all possible endeavors.

Meanwhile, the church also must concern itself somewhat with the present where we all operate, and uses the long-term vision to help put the innumerable daily laundry lists in some type of perspective, but without enumerating them all for us, as much as we’d like it to. It’s key to remember that the emphasis usually still needs to be on the long-term, and not expect the church to be our societal utopia in a short-term context. The business of saving souls is much larger than whether we happen to feel happy at the moment. Remember: other fish to fry and rain from the skies.

Ought a religion solve all our problems for us, or instead point us in the proper direction?

A religion focused heavily on the social aspect is neglecting the bigger part. While the social aspect of a religious path is essential, that doesn’t mean that it is ideally the crux of the religion. Religion takes us past getting along with our neighbors and works to prepare us and eventually transform us into realms we can’t yet comprehend. It’s not meant to merely keep us contented now, but to take us beyond our current happiness into a truly exalted state, magnified exponentially. Religion is like nothing else we encounter in life, and so it should not be regarded on the same level as the rest of our experience. Religious leaders who understand this are focusing on helping inspire you and guide you to those higher spheres, helping you discard more of the mortal you, and so everything comes with that in mind. If we’re meanwhile stuck in the incidental nature of material life and on certain specifics of what they might be saying regarding non-doctrinal issues, we’re going to miss the larger, more important message.

To suggest that true religious leaders would be able to answer all of life’s social, psychological and scientific questions is unrealistic. And even if they knew every answer as Christians believe Christ did, they wouldn’t necessarily be imparting of that full knowledge all at once. Scripture alludes to mysteries being unfolded, and it sounds quite gradual.

Line upon line, precept upon precept. Here a little, there a little (the Gerber translation speaks of baby steps). We’re still plopped down in the middle of that process. It doesn’t happen like a flood, despite our wishes to be inundated with enlightenment. What’s revealed to us comes in many ways, and a lot of times through trial and error or simple happenstance. Life is a textbook not written out in plain, obvious or decipherable language in detailed reference format.

The scriptures are a guide for life, and not necessarily the place to check all the answers. Otherwise, we could get answers to prayer sent as text messages. How many interpretations are there for every point of doctrine? Do you really think it was meant to be specific on a grand scale? Or maybe it relates to each of us in a more personal application.

So if religion isn’t answering a lot of the contemporary questions and isn’t on the edge of the modernist’s discovery curve, consider the core elements, the individual slant, the bigger fish, and the timeline of scriptural verse to put it all on the historical scale. Let your life therefore unfold in concert with the plentiful notes of significance… out of the moment and into the expansive, more meaningful beyond — inside of you.

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