Christians, like myself, have a long history in America of presuming to be God’s appointed guardians of “the good”, the standard bearers of morality and righteousness! With regards to American politics, Christians have insisted that they are the ones uniquely qualified to “manage the store.” This would explain why in recent decades (the post-Christian era), the church has become defensive and preoccupied with “taking back America for God.” The very thought of relinquishing or even sharing the moral high ground with “the heathens” has been unthinkable and instead of going quietly into the night, some Christians have resorted to doom and gloom rhetoric, self-inflicted martyrdom and an all-out culture war.
When will the church realize that the world has grown weary of her, “make you wrong – make us right” scam. The world has rightly interpreted the church’s posturing and angry rhetoric as an attempt to dominate. Sadly, the church has for the most part, refused to recognize the cost for all her cultural crusading; failing to see how in setting herself up as judge over the world, she has forfeited her essential witness to Christ and to his gospel. Whenever the church confuses gospel with political ideology and moral outrage, she becomes just another one of the warring factions shoving their “show” on the rest of society.
As a Christian, I am painfully aware of how I have played the role of judge on the people around me, all the while holding a “get out of jail card” for myself. I have taken cover behind my religious self-image, presuming that my status of “good and godly” entitled me to special consideration, if not from society, at least from God and my fellow Christians. Too often I have played the role of the Pharisee who prays, “Lord, thank you that I am not a sinner like that man over there.” It is time for the church to repent of the “make you wrong – make me right” scam and to become a movement for good, those who bear witness to Jesus Christ, while discovering what it means to “love God and neighbor.” The church, by protecting her own interests, has lost her ability to bear witness to the one who willingly laid down his life for his friends, as well as his enemies.
The motivation for this piece is to uncover or confess “the truth” as in, “You shall know the truth and the truth shall set you free.” Now I am not interested in bashing the church – I am the church – and I want the church to be free! Everyone, regardless of class, ethnicity or worldview has to struggle to maintain their existential equilibrium. Maintaining equilibrium within one’s self, one’s social group and one’s environment can be a difficult and painful task. Aside from the countless threats to our physical well-being, most of us are just one personal rejection or failure away from feeling utterly devastated! In order to avoid or decrease personal devastation, we unconsciously create a variety of “survival mechanisms.”
Robert Mulholland in his book, The Deeper Journey, explains how a certain survival mechanism has back-fired on us, the mechanism known as the religious false self (ref. R.F.S.).
“With that I began to realize that underneath the thin veneer of my religiosity lived a pervasive and deeply entrenched self-referencing being which was driven by its own agendas, its own desires, its own purposes, and that no amount of superficial tinkering with the religious façade made any appreciable difference” (The Deeper Journey 23).
Sadly, the R.F.S. is not limited to those whose worldview includes a particular deity, since the non-religious version or “ideological false self” is equally insidious (further proof of how dubious the secular vs. religious dichotomy can be). But what is behind this facade of the R.F.S.? Mullholland explains that just “underneath the veneer” of the religious false self lies a “pervasive and deeply entrenched self-referencing being.” Can the R.F.S. be reformed or deconstructed? Unfortunately, because the R.F.S. is a “self-referencing being”, it is virtually immune to outside influence and correction. The R.F.S. is blind to its need for renewal and repentance (read: paradigm shifts or “program updates”). A truly “self-referencing person” is what Dietrich Bonhoeffer describes as being cor curvum in se, the heart turned in upon itself.
There are serious consequences for failing to recognize ones own “tricks”, which is why the proverb cautions us saying, “Keep your heart with all diligence for out of it flows all the issues of life” (Prov. 4.23). Failure to watch over ones own secret motives and to reflect on ones deepest affections is like failing to watch over one’s physical health – both can have devastating consequences. Again, the dangers of the R.F.S. is not restricted to those who adhere to a “world religion”, there are atheist friends of mine who can be just as”self-referencing” in their dogmatism and equally accomplished in the “make you wrong” scam. Also, this is not an all or nothing problem. There are days when I live generously with people around me and there are days when I can feel the R.F.S. trying to grab the wheel.
When the self-righteous agendas of the R.F.S. go unchecked in our lives, it not only corrupts our reason and our affections, consequently it distorts and damages our relationships with others. The earliest and most tragic example of this distortion is recorded in the ancient Hebrew’s story of Reshith (raysheeth) or Beginnings. In the story, God is looking for his creature Adam who has come under the influence of reality-distorting “fruit.” God calls, “Where are you?” Adam responds, “I heard you calling and I was afraid because I was naked.” Much has been written about the identity of the fruit but all one needs to now from this story, is told in the telling of the story (i.e. the fruit in question came from the “tree of the knowledge of good and evil”). The symptoms of the “forbidden” fruit are dramatically portrayed in Adam’s behavior. When you read the story below see if you can identify some of the symptoms that Adam exhibits while under the influence of this “fruit.”
And they heard the sound of the Lord God walking in the garden in the cool of the day, and the man and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the Lord God among the trees of the garden. But the Lord God called to the man and said to him, “Where are you?” And he said, “I heard the sound of you in the garden, and I was afraid, because I was naked, and I hid myself.”He said, “Who told you that you were naked? Have you eaten of the tree of which I commanded you not to eat?”The man said, “The woman whom you gave to be with me, she gave me fruit of the tree, and I ate.”Then the Lord God said to the woman, “What is this that you have done?” The woman said, “The serpent deceived me, and I ate.”
The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton: Standard Bible Society, 2001), Ge 3:8–13.
The first symptom we see in Adam is what appears to be an irrational fear (“I heard the sound of you . . . I was afraid . . . and I hid myself”). If we were doing a psych analysis on Adam, we would say that the creature was likely suffering from acute paranoia. As the story unfolds, God inquires of Adam, “Who told you that you were naked?” Adam does not answer the question, the implication here is that no one told Adam that he was “naked” (i.e., inadequate and shameful) – Adam apparently told himself this! The name for this condition is, self-loathing. Lastly as God attempts to get to the bottom of the crisis, he asks Adam if he had eaten the forbidden fruit, to which Adam replies, “The woman . . .” This symptom of failing to take responsibility for one’s actions is called “blame-shifting” or what we have called “running the scam.” When asked a yes or no question, “Did you eat it?” Adam simply shifted the blame onto the woman, who then proceeded to shift it on to the snake.
This ancient myth is a profound depiction of human nature struggling to maintain its equilibrium in the face of fear, shame and blame. Adam’s world began unraveling the moment he acquired this new “knowledge.” The “knowledge of good and evil” turned Adam into a judge, for he immediately began to judge everything. Adam judged himself, “I am naked,” Adam judged God, (“You’re a threat!”), Adam judged the woman, “She gave it to me!” It is this last symptom of blame and judging that we have been talking about these last months. We must not allow the gift of the Beginnings story to be wasted on misguided debates about when or how the beginning happened. Like all good myths, the purpose is to find yourself in the story. I am Adam. I am hiding in the bushes, under the influence of a reality-distorting “knowledge”, a “knowledge” which has turned me into a judge! The tragedy of this story is that Adam has become an R.F.S. and his world will never be the same!
I want to conclude our series by considering something truly hopeful and redemptive, something we might think “too good to be true” – the hope of life beyond our scams, judgments and false selves. As children of “Adam”, we have seen how capable we are of deluding ourselves, while simultaneously marginalizing the “other.” But consider the possibility that Jesus Christ was not a R.F.S. – he is no mere peddler of D.I.Y. religion or ideology. Despite the fact that millions of people have used his image and name for their own agendas, Christ himself is not the author of our religious scams. Christ is the author of the new heart and the one who gives sight to “the blind.” Christ is the one who breaks the spell of the R.F.S., freeing us from our compulsive need to judge the shit out of everything, as well as from the tyranny of being judged! Paul refers to this Christ as a “life-giving spirit”, which means that he can create something new in the human soul, a new orientation toward God and neighbor!