Sheep for the Kingdom of Heaven

By: Elaine Gilmartin

I was born into a Catholic family. Irish Catholic, to be more specific. That, of course, entailed weekly attendance at Sunday mass, confession every few months whether you had sinned or not, and regarding the Pope as God’s “right-hand man.”

But mine was a critical thinking Irish Catholic family and for that, I thank my parents. My dad grew up Brooklyn poor, GI bill got him to college and then he went to law school, my mom Brooklyn rich, went on to be a school teacher after college, and so they both highly valued education and debates over family dinners. So yes, my mother would have liked for me to continue with the traditions of our faith, but respected my decision post-college to be happily agnostic.

As an undergraduate, I majored in Philosophy and debated relentlessly the numerous seminarians in my classes, given that I attended a Catholic college, why exactly I chose it, escapes me now. The virtue of this major was that I was well-read in the works of Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, Plato and Aristotle, not to mention the more contemporary works of Kierkegaard, Heidegger, and the existentialists, Camus and Sartre.

One recurring theme through these numerous tomes was the open hostility of the organized church towards women, apparently long since institutionalized. When I would challenge this hostile thinking, my classmates would inevitably retort “tradition” and God was the father, Jesus was the son, a man, the Disciples all men and blah blah blah. Well, I had read the Bible also, a skewed and misappropriated telling at best, and as far as I could tell, Jesus revealed himself to women first, women with strength and courage who did not run when the skies darkened, women who were his respected and trusted friends.

In the early days of the church, women held positions of authority and power, with references to men and women being equal and one in Christ, only to be pushed aside and demoted as it were and told to shut the hell up as the church became more formalized and established a hierarchy. A practice that has gone on for centuries and a practice on which the Catholic religion certainly does not have a monopoly, that’s for sure.

The whole notion of a perfect being, who does not exist in time or space, by the way, having a gender-or anything remotely in common with physical beings- is laughable and defies reason. But referring to God as a man does great damage to a girl’s psyche. It’s bad enough as a child to look around and see men occupy the vast majority of power positions, from politics to the private sector, to public leadership roles, etc, but then to “ordain” the ultimate being a male, well, female inferiority is just set in stone then, isn’t it?

So, yes I abandoned organized religion. I’m of a sort that if I choose to believe and have a relationship with a being I regard as the Creator, it is my choice to do so as I wish and without input, direction, judgment or censure from a hierarchy of men who have long since decided my voice is of no value as far as they are concerned.

If they wish to believe that God is some man with a long beard and a vestigial penis, then I will be no part of it. Besides, the “founding fathers” of our country, most notably Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin, were for the most part deists, meaning that they can accept the premise of Intelligent Design, but as far as the secular government is concerned, there is no God. No miracles, no divine intervention, just natural law based on reason and science. Separation of church and state, baby.

God has a way of seeping in, however, “God” being the organized religion machine, from Eisenhower’s “In God We Trust” law and Irving Berlin’s “God Bless America,” as if somehow that mystical perfect being selectively preferred America to France and India and all other specks in the universe. As if a perfect being could have a preference, a feeling, or inclination, all of which connote imperfection.

Which of course brings me to prayer. I understand that prayer can be of great comfort to people in times of distress especially, or that the idea of friends praying for you could bring a sense of support and community, but the idea that a perfect being listens and then contemplates the prayed request, thinking, “Maybe he really is serious about giving up cigarettes if I heal his cancer-stricken child…” but that thinking negates the idea of a perfect being outside of time and space, who cannot contemplate or choose or change its mind as all of that requires a process, and process belongs to the mortal world. Perfection just is; not was, not will be, just is.

And conveniently I have noticed, believers will invariably state something to the effect that it was God’s doing, God’s intervention. One that stood out for me was the horrific church massacre in South Carolina whose details need not be repeated here. The woman who spotted the murderer on the road, on her typical way to work no less, asserted heartily that it was God who put her there at that time and place. Not that she was going to work anyway. If we are going to remove free will when it is convenient for her, then how about the murderer? Did “God” place the assault rifle in his hands and send his car careening into that church parking lot and launch him up those church steps to join the prayer circle? Is he any less responsible than she purports to be, crediting “God” with her timely and astute observation of a fleeing mass murderer? So if we are going to live in fantasy land that “God” chose to help out in this instance, but not save the child with cancer in another, then we have to accept that the god you pray to is not a perfect being but some sort of pocket demi-god available for your prayers from 9 to 5 Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays. And every other Wednesday.

I write this because what this fosters is a perversion of spirituality. Groups will co-opt their conception of God to fit their agenda or narrative, whether it is Christianity or Islam or Judaism, and enforce blind, passive compliance in their followers. No debate or critical thinking allowed, no sir, no questioning “tradition.”

Okay, so don’t join you say. All well and good, however, when religion seeps into our laws, our courts, then I have a problem. And I have a very serious problem when a considerable number of conservative Christians assert Trump’s ascendancy to the White House was foretold in the bible, a la the “doomsday” pastor in New Jersey, Jonathan Cahn, likening Trump to some biblical figure king Jehu, with whom I am not familiar.

This is scary. This is scary for many reasons, not the least of which is the total and complete abandonment of critical thinking, the vanquishment of reason. It is an embrace of primal fear, it is a moribund spirituality devoid of empathy. It is an abdication of any personal autonomy, the figurative drinking of the kool-aid. It excuses horrific behavior for some purported higher good, a higher good determined by a select few with their agenda, most typically money and political power.

By any objective, reasonable standard, the current occupant of the White House embodies the antithesis of precisely what Jesus represented in the Bible. One could go on and on as to why this is, but repeating the obvious is not necessary. What is far more disconcerting than one power-hungry, amoral narcissist, is the avid devotion of his followers, most notably those claiming religious piety and an inside track to the “mind and will” of God. Has organized religion then predisposed its followers to this blind, passive obedience? Is its structure complicit in this “group think” which ironically does not involve ‘thinking’ at all?

This begs the question of what precisely organized religion serves in the lives of its members. There are measurable benefits; those families who actively participate together tend to be more stable, that they are less likely to abuse substances, that they are more likely to be connected to their communities and as a result receive greater social support. I would not argue its benefits, nor the foundational message stripped of all the surrounding nonsense, something to the effect of treating others as you would have them treat you. And having a weekly reminder of that message is not such a bad thing.

I do take issue, however, with the local bishop ordering the pastors and priests under his jurisdiction to read a letter to parishioners back in 2016 indicating that the only “moral” choice was to vote for Trump, given his assertions he would stack the court with conservative justices with the single-minded purpose of bulldozing Roe vs. Wade. Separation of church and state? Ben Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, where are you when we need you?

The danger then is obvious. Tradition and unquestioned moral authority pounded into the heads of its followers combined with organized religions’ foray into the world of politics. Unscrupulous politicians sense blood and go in for the kill.

So what went through the minds of those congregants prior to the 2016 election? More worrisome now, is what is going through their minds as the 2020 election is bearing down on us?

If Christianity is Truth and if faith requires logic and reason, why then is any apparent dissension from dogma dismissed out of hand? When women question their secondary role in the church, the response boils down to tradition. And why the obsession with preserving an embryo at all costs when one of the church’s own spiritual leaders, Thomas Aquinas, asserted the soul is not present at conception? That was conveniently altered years later.

I digress, but the point I am trying to make is that although it may be professed that critical thinking is valued, that the church’s teachings are grounded in truth and objective reality, the only message I hear is that I must be a “cafeteria Catholic” if I dare assert another view, that if I do not adhere to the tenets of this faith in the way I am told to do so, then I am an outcast.

Faith should be dynamic and ever-evolving in the ways we approach the world and one another. It should encourage us to question how these values apply in the particularly heated topics of immigration, climate change, women’s rights to govern the choices affecting their own bodies, and the current economic system in which we live that is antithetical to any Christian value I can imagine. It should especially give rise to great consternation that a church leader not only could condone the current president’s actions and apparent lack of a moral compass but actively endorse his considerable position of authority and power.

Faith should never be a passive endeavor. We should not be empty receptacles passively sitting in a church pew or any other place of worship waiting to be filled, hoping this guarantees a coveted spot in “paradise.” Deep, meaningful faith may require you to challenge what you are told, may demand you question the lectures you are given, and it should mean you are not complicit in an overtly corrupt system despite what benefits you may accrue from the current status quo. The shepherd does not herd shepherds; the shepherd herds sheep.

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