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  • Writer's pictureDoug Weiss

By Faith

The extremism of political polarization that has become the norm today is no stranger to matters of religious faith and practice. Indeed, one might argue that some Christian sects are among the chief instigators of the divisions in our country which threaten not only the foundations of our republic, but our fundamental freedoms and rights. We have only to observe the acrimony that attends the issue of abortion to understand this is in every sense a life and death issue—but as with so many other contentions, whose life is at risk is lost in a debate that is driven by a larger struggle for power and dominion.

I single out Christianity here because I know it better than I do Muslim, Hindu, and other religions and because the struggle in the US is largely centered around the blatant efforts of politically charged Christian groups to create an American Theocracy. In truth, the same quest for power can be found in many other religions as well. I want to be clear that it is not Christianity per se that drives the division, it is not Christianity that exhibits such stark contrast between its teachings and its practice, but the manner in which a religious orthodoxy disguises racism, sexism, and misogyny.

Over my lifetime I have met four versions of Christianity or to be more precise, four kinds of Christians. The first, and the type with which I identify and hope I might be counted are those who have come to their faith through reflection, questioning, trial and challenge. These are not traits often associated with Christianity. Indeed, for centuries Christians were not permitted to even read scripture or understand anything other than what had been taught rendering the priest/pastor the ultimate authority. Even today, questioning the teachings of a pastor or the gospel itself is considered heretical and punishable in some churches. None of this, of course has anything whatsoever to do with Christ’s teachings. We might recall that so often Jesus taught by deed and by parable—inviting those who surrounded him to ask questions, to wrestle with meaning and to seek answers through a living experience of God. First and foremost, you can identify these Christians by their treatment of others, especially the poor, meek, oppressed, endangered and weak. They are imperfect, as are we all, but we can recognize in them a striving to be better, to be closer to God and to his words.

A second type of Christian is the vacant one. Their practice may be no less dutiful, but it is empty, devoid of any real meaning or understanding. They are Christians because it is how they were raised, or what their parents or community practiced. They attend church, listen to the sermons, count themselves good people but their faith is unquestioned and untested, a costume they wear in life. In a very real sense they are mindless, faithless Christians. Without faith because there is no depth to their beliefs, only a mixture of vaguely moralistic patriarchy and a settled belief in heaven and hell as the terminal points of human existence. Most are unfamiliar with scripture or treat it like spiritual astrology—finding words or passages that can be quoted for every occasion; simplistic aphorisms for a complicated and challenging world.

A third type of Christian are the zealots. They claim to have been reborn, to embrace an old testament, fire breathing conviction and they can quote scripture learned from hell and brimstone preaching pastors without ever questioning whether the particular interpretation placed on the words has anything at all to do with the life of man, with the teachings of Christ, or the life he led. They are obedient in the extreme, fastened to their church, their pastor and prepared to follow what they’ve been taught in fear for their lives but without fear of harming the lives of others through their actions. So intent are they on what they believe that any and all acts, even those that are plainly immoral or harmful to others are more than excusable, they are sanctioned and ordained. Faith of this kind is no different than superstitious paganism despite the trappings, in fact less so. Even humans who practice no form of religion have intuited real truths based on what they observe in nature and life itself, while these Christians look only to abstractions delivered up to them by the fourth and most heinous of beings, Christians who prey on ignorance and blind faith to obtain power.

Should we be shocked to learn that in every faith there are cynical opportunists whose only motive is power, and specifically the power to impose their will, their beliefs and their desires on everyone else? Whether they are driven by greed, lust, or the need to subjugate others, those that rise to authority in the Christian right tolerate no objections, demand strict obedience and preach moral absolutism. No doubt a few may actually believe what they preach but in a healthy society they would gain little traction. Their extreme views are dissonant with a Christianity that preaches that humans, while flawed, are more good than bad, and deserving of the same treatment one extends to oneself. But the majority of these Christians are nothing more or less than self-serving grifters—sucking goodness, charity and empathy from their followers. If you think this an extreme characterization how then do you account for pastors preaching death to members of opposing political parties, or those who openly attest that their objective is the establishment of a nation ruled by their particular brand of Christianity and the extinguishment of any and all who believe in or practice any other faith. I cannot imagine any greater contradiction than the idea that to become Christian by compulsion is a godly desire.

To live by faith is never a settled matter, but an unending wrestling match between our minds, and emotions, between our experience of the world and our evolving thoughts about our own lives and those of others. It is never once and done. When any believer, regardless of their religious practice preaches absolutism, bases their faith on scripture alone, or on the words delivered from the pulpit and not by the testimony of their hearts and the compassion of their conscience we should know them for what they are. It is never heresy to question, never wrong to wrestle with moral issues even and especially when principled disagreement may follow. It is only ever wrong to impose one’s own beliefs and practices on others, especially when it is done out of the conviction it is for their own good.

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