At the core of the Christian faith is the idea of “God becoming man in Jesus.” When I became old enough to question my conditioning in my mid-teens, I instinctively felt this was wrong.
I saw that making Jesus into God meant that God was in the image of man, and that made no sense at all. Of course religions aren’t rational, and their beliefs and rituals aren’t meant to be. They’re meant to enthrall and enchain.
Every year at the hajj, the pilgrimage to Mecca that Muslims must make at least once in their lifetimes, throngs of people throw stones at pillars that symbolize the devil. It’s called, fittingly enough, “stoning the devil.” Dozens of people have lost their lives over the years in stampedes that have occurred when thousands fervently converge on the same place at the same time from different directions.
To those of us raised in the Christian tradition, the six-day hajj, which falls before Christmas and draws million of pilgrims, is a rather frightening spectacle. The fact that so many people can harmoniously come together in one place (notwithstanding the threat of terrorism), dressed in the same simple clothing to show equality, is overshadowed by the sheer magnitude of the exotic event.
The practice of stoning the devil seems very strange to Christians who like their devil remotely enthroned in hell. Though the original meaningingfulness seems fairly clear, the Islamic practice appears archaic and rote. But isn’t that increasingly the case with all ritual—strange, archaic, and ultimately mechanical?
Though I left the Catholic Church at 17 and never looked back, I sometimes go to Mass if I’m in my home state visiting for the holidays. Once I took a friend to a Mass in the insular peninsular of Michigan. She was raised nominally Lutheran, and had never been in a Catholic Church, much less to a High Mass on Christmas.
A jam-packed Mass on Christmas is as dazzling a ritual as there is in America, the church ablaze with thousands of candles, the air wafting with incense. A choir in the balcony fills the church with religious Christmas music, and the aisles are filled with the flowing robes of priests and the cassocks of altar boys. (The description sounds salacious now, given the pedophilia implicitly condoned and explicitly covered up by the Church.) The only more intense expression of piety is the full panoply of the Russian Orthodox Church in feudal splendor.
My friend was, as expected, overwhelmed by the sensory surfeit, though to her credit she didn’t confuse the rituals with religiosity, like many still do, whether Catholic, Buddhist, or Muslim. As we were leaving the church, she gasped and stopped short, riveted by a life-size statue of Jesus at eye level nailed to a cross, complete with convincing wounds and dripping blood. I’d passed the thing a thousand times as a kid compelled to attend Mass every day before school, and like most Catholics, didn’t even notice it.
The Mass was still in Latin when I was a child, and between the dead language and ancient rituals, I was properly instilled with the shock and awe that 2000 years of solemn sacramentalism convey to a young mind. All this was unknown back-story to my friend, whose horror was confined to the 3-D depiction of the crucified Christ. She had as many questions about it and its meaning for Catholics as I imagine a curious Muslim would.
Of course, for some the whole issue of faith is resolved by flipping to the opposite side of the same coin—atheism, the belief that there is no such actuality as God in any sense. Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens have many followers these days, but their arguments are as silly and superficial as those that Catholics use for Jesus as God.
There is not ‘a God,’ but there is God, if we non-intellectually understand God as an immanent intelligence, an infinite awareness within and beyond the material universe, rather than some kind of separate ‘Creator.’
But what was Jesus’ relationship to that intelligence? Wasn’t Jesus’ mission, at the crossroads of people and place of the known world of his time, to bring about a radical change in the human heart? If he had succeeded, such an inner revolution would have complemented the one Siddhartha ignited in India a few hundred years earlier. Then Eastern and Western worlds would have developed in harmony and taken a very different course. Instead we got the world we got.
Christianity seems to have gone wrong from the beginning, but religions deteriorate into meaningless rituals and divisive beliefs because they lose their original insight and impetus, becoming mechanical and repetitious. That’s no reason to slide into indolent atheism however.
There is an inexpressible and inextricable wellspring of infinite intelligence, but religious insight is always new, arising from the awakening and direct experiencing in the individual every day. Yesterday I may have run with the gods, but today I crawl with criminals.