In one chapter of his book Religion in the Making, created from lectures delivered in Boston in 1926, Alfred North Whitehead explores the historical effect on religion of travel beyond what he calls “the tribe.” He suggests that when people were exposed to “others”, strangers, outside the tribal boundaries in a way that was kindly, those extra-tribal explorers could think more “dispassionately” (and with less hostility) about others than before their travels. The result of empires and trade was that “everyone traveled and found the world fresh and new. A world-consciousness was produced.” (p. 29) Whitehead felt the “disengagement” from one’s social location that came with travel led to a change in how people perceived their relationship to God. In the old way of thinking, he writes,
Conduct is right which will lead some god to protect you; and it is wrong if it stirs some irascible being to compass your destruction. Such religion is a branch of diplomacy. But a world-consciousness is more disengaged. It rises to the conception of an essential rightness of things…The new, and almost profane, concept of the goodness of God replaces the older emphasis on the will of God. In a communal religion, you study the will of God in order that [God] may preserve you; in a purified religion, rationalized under the influence of the world-concept, you study [God’s] goodness in order to be like [God]. It is the difference between the enemy you conciliate and the companion whom you imitate. (p. 30)
Too many religious people these days talk about God as if God were an enemy to “conciliate” or placate. According to a 2010 article written by Amanda Terkel on thinkprogress.org, Virginia State Delegate Bob Marshall (R) suggested that year that women who had had abortions were punished by God through being given disabled children in subsequent births. Who could even worship such an evil and immoral god? Shouldn’t we at least be able to assume that God has the level of morality of the best human beings we know?
One of my greatest email pleasures is reading Fr. Richard Rohr’s brief meditations that arrive in my inbox bright and early each day. A recent entry touched as well on the idea that God and Jesus might best be thought of as those we should imitate due to their goodness. He writes,
It seems to me that it is a minority that ever gets the true and full Gospel. We just keep worshiping Jesus and arguing over the exact right way to do it. The amazing thing is that Jesus never once says, ‘worship me!’, but he often says, ‘follow me’ (e.g., Matthew 4:19). Christianity is a lifestyle—a way of being in the world that is simple, non-violent, shared, inclusive, and loving. We made it, however, into a formal established religion, in order to avoid the demanding lifestyle itself. One could then be warlike, greedy, racist, selfish, and vain at the highest levels of the church, and still easily believe that Jesus is ‘my personal Lord and Savior.’ The world has no time for such silliness anymore. The suffering on Earth is too great.
The suffering on Earth is great, indeed. Does it lessen that suffering or increase it if we pummel others with an image of a God who is not worth worshiping or following? It seems pretty simple. If your God tells you to kill an ambassador, or to kill an abortionist, you’re listening to a false god.
Update: As I can hear the distant hoof beats of accusations of heresies such as Arianism on the horizon, I just want to clarify a line of thought in this post. First of all, Fr. Rohr does not use the word “imitate” and it’s really not the exact word I’m looking for here. Nor am I saying that we should not worship and be filled with praise over the grace that flows to us from Christ. What I believe, though, is that those who worship Christ but who are not willing to walk his path are merely projecting their healing onto Jesus as an outer figure, but that those who follow Jesus, walking the Way he walked, will experience the inner transformation of the Christ, and realize the Reign of God that Jesus realized as present right here, right now. In Spiritual Traditions for the Contemporary Church, Boniface Ramsey, O.P. writes of the spirituality of the early Church: “Christ was the measure, the model, and the goal of the spiritual life.” This is still true for Christians.