(c) Doug Slagle, Pastor at the Gathering UCC, All Rights Reserved
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Lewis Smedes, a well-known 20th century evangelical theologian, tells a story in his book Shame and Grace about his dying mother. A week or so before his mother passed, at a point when she knew her end was near, she exclaimed to Lewis that she was glad that the Lord is so forgiving since she had been a grievous sinner throughout her life. She was wracked by guilt and fear in her final days as she struggled to hold on to the saving grace she had been taught was hers. Lewis could not imagine what possible sins she could refer to since she had raised five children on a small income and had tirelessly worked all her life as a devoted mother and wife. What time could she possibly have had, Lewis asked, to supposedly have sinned in any great way? Instead, as he said, this wonderful woman died feeling a wretch – not a good enough mother, good enough Christian or good enough human being.
I have heard from many gays and lesbians who struggle in the same way. Raised in fundamentalist Christian homes and churches, they are unable to reconcile their innate sexuality with the teachings of their faith. They see themselves as terrible sinners, they are wracked with guilt and experience great fear that they will suffer the eternal punishment of a hell they were taught is a homosexual’s fate. They don’t fight the intolerance of their religion as much as they fight their own belief they are horrible sinners.
Just this past Thursday, upon Rhode Island’s approval of same sex marriage, the Bishop of Providence wrote in a letter to his archdiocese that, “Catholics should examine their consciences very carefully before deciding whether or not to endorse same-sex relationships or attend same-sex ceremonies, realizing that to do so might harm their relationship with God…” In other words, do not support or attend a gay or lesbian wedding or you might spend thousands of years in purgatory or even an eternity in hell.
There is an account of a 12 year old religious boy who came home one day from school and could not find his mother as he had expected. He panicked, believing the apocalyptic myth of the rapture had taken place when God instantly gathers all true Christians into heaven and leaves behind non-believers to suffer Armageddon. The boy was filled with guilt at his own apparent unbelief and sin, and fear that he had been forever spurned by God. Like many children raised in religious families, this boy is not comforted by his faith but, instead, terrified by it.
My own story is one of seeking the warm embrace of Jesus who would not only forgive me for my homosexual thoughts but who would also cure me of them. I tried for twenty years to deny my sexuality. When that did not work, I turned to the power of Christ and hoped for ten more years that he would end my gay affliction. I prayed, I studied the Bible, I changed my career and went to seminary all in a belief that God would cure me. He did not. When my feelings continued, my struggle became all the worse because Christians are taught that after being born again, one is a new creation who is clean, righteous and worthy of God’s company for all eternity. How could I, someone who did not eliminate shameful gay thoughts from my head, be worthy of a holy and pure God?
Numerous psychologists and therapists report significant trauma in people who cannot reconcile their perceived misdeeds with their faith. Many people enmeshed in fundamentalist religion or those who seek an escape from it suffer from fear, nightmares, obsessive compulsive disorders and depression. Intellectually, they might understand mythological and inconsistent religious beliefs but subconsciously they are beset with guilt and fear of an angry deity. One well known psychologist, Marlene Willens, has even controversially labeled such distress as a mental disorder she calls Religious Trauma Syndrome or RTS.
God, for many people, is not a benevolent force for good in the universe but an angry and punitive one who will cast persistent sinners into a lake of fire to be forever tortured by a great beast – Satan himself. As Paul wrote in his letter to the Romans, homosexual women and people who are envious, angry, greedy, or deceitful will be eternally punished. Those who supposedly sexually sin in any form – be it lustful thoughts, pornography, premarital sex or the like are equally condemned. The wages of sin are eternal death, Paul said.
Interestingly, a recent study and poll of over 14,500 people conducted by the University of Kansas shows that there is a high correlation between being deeply religious and having high levels of sexual guilt. Even though religious people are as sexual as others, they are unable to find it healthy and fulfilling. From the same poll, Atheists are shown to have much better sexual fulfillment. 79% of people raised or living in very religious households experience significant sexual guilt compared with only 29% of those who live in secular households.
About a year ago, along with a few other men, I read a book entitled Velvet Rage, by Alan Downs, which details the affects most gay men suffer as a result of perceiving, from a very early age, that they are different. Gay men internalize this feeling of being different as a form of shame. They subconsciously feel they do not measure up to the cultural norm of manhood. Even after they come out, most gays manifest this internal guilt and shame in some form of rage – either rage at others, or a more hidden rage at themselves in the form of depression, suicidal thoughts, addiction, promiscuity, or insecurity exhibited by arrogance, materialism, flamboyance or work-a-holism.
Such feelings of shame also extend to the overall population. Ours is a culture markedly defined by Judeo-Christian morality. Even for the non-religious, the idea of sin is a pervasive one. In countless ways, humans consciously and subconsciously fight what Lewis Smede’s mother experienced at her death. For whatever reasons, we can inwardly believe we are not good enough, smart enough, noble enough, clean enough, moral enough or enough of any standard we use to judge ourselves and others. Many of us were taught to think about ourselves in this negative light by a parent, other influential person OR, by a religion.
Indeed, the message of many religions is that humans, by nature, are evil. We are born with the stain of Adam and Eve within us. We are little more than brutes who must seek favor and salvation from a perfect deity – the only one who can cleanse us of our inherited sin and guilt. This message highlights human brokenness instead of wholeness. Just by our very nature, much like it is for gays and lesbians, religions see each human as evil and in need of divine rescue.
The repercussions of such internalized guilt and shame are legion and manifest themselves in all people the same way they do for gays and lesbians – rage at ourselves in the form of depression, insecurity, anxiety and behaviors to compensate for perceived inadequacy.
During this month of May, I want to examine with you ideas of religious guilt, innocence and redemption. Such discussions complement our Book Club’s consideration of the Pulitzer Prize winning book Swerve, How the World Became Modern. In this book recommended to us by Don Fritz, and one that I also highly recommend, whether you attend the Book Club or not, the perils of religious thought are contrasted with philosophies that changed history toward a greater understanding of human liberty, science and the meaning of life.
Of more important interest to us, however, is how we battle inappropriate guilt in ourselves. How do we separate healthy spirituality from toxic religious belief? How can we find wholeness, authenticity and a sense of contentment with who and what we are – and banish any internal rage, fear or shame? How can we eliminate vestiges of unhealthy religious beliefs and Judeo-Christian morality from burdening our minds – even if we count ourselves non-religious? How might we find, instead, a healthy, open and life-enriching spirituality?
One of the most important observations about many religions is that they function by encouraging fear – fear of Divine judgment, fear of hell, fear of eternal pain. And such fears tap into the unique human “disease” – our awareness that we will die and our of fear ceasing to exist. As the poet Dylan Thomas wrote, we rage against the dying of the light. And so we seek a supernatural light that will grant us a reprieve from eternal darkness.
But that root based fear, that foundation of all religious thinking is the original toxic belief. How can belief that is supposed to be about love for a god or goddess be based, instead, on fear of him or her? If I hold a gun to your head and command you to love and honor me, you will likely do as I say and perform seemingly loving acts for me. But is that really love? Is it in any way devotion to me? Or is it, instead, coercion and threat? Judgment and hell are the symbolic guns pointed at humans by punishing deities. To find wholeness, we must deny them.
Fear based religions are major causes of unhealthy guilt and shame. Whether we are religious or not, the influence of religion on our society and codes of conduct leave each of us with seeds of doubt – are we good enough and do we measure up to the standards of our culture’s morality?
But such fear and guilt are false and inappropriate. Healthy spirituality is life enhancing. It encourages personal growth. It promotes a simple moral standard – that of the Golden Rule. It asks that we undergo inner change that is heartfelt, compassionate, empathetic and humble. Instead of outward conformity to rules and standards of behavior, we’re called to love others as we wish to be loved. Such behavior is deeply intuitive and known by almost all people – we each know what love and pain are. Knowing that, we know how we should act toward others.
Interestingly, recent studies from the University of British Columbia indicate that altruistic and charitable acts by most religious people are motivated more by a fear of God than by basic empathy and compassion for others. Another study of religious college students shows that they avoid sexual behavior due to religious fear and guilt and NOT because of any belief or teaching that premarital sex is wrong. Contrary to the popular notion that religion alone fosters pro-social behavior, the study concludes that non-religious and secular persons act just as benevolently and just as morally as the so-called religious – but they act with motivations that spring from empathy instead of fear.
Fear based spirituality – religions that focus on sin, control, judgment and complex rituals of behavior – are toxic to our emotional health. Spirituality that promotes tolerance, free thinking and personal responsibility is, instead, healthy. Such spirituality encourages people to freely take responsibility for their own lives and actions instead of giving up control to a god who rewards and punishes.
Healthy spirituality does not necessarily reject the notion of a benevolent force or god in the universe. Rather, it sees forces for good in the universe as enlarging the human spirit. Healthy spirituality focuses on personal questioning, learning and growth. It does not judge people as much as it acknowledges that all humans are flawed and our goal, therefore, is to continually change for the better – not to please a deity but to instead improve the world. This spirituality sees humans not as depraved and sinful but as essentially good who yearn for the well being of others.
Indeed, fear and guilt often lead to the opposite. If I give in to my fear of death, I will look out only for myself. The psychological pathology of greed, self-interest and arrogance are rooted in a person’s fears. If my spirituality does NOT involve a fear of death and punishment, I will have no need to be interested only in my well-being. I will focus, instead, on the needs of others with the natural empathy and compassion I was created to have.
For our own lives, we can focus less on guilt for the mistakes we and others might make and more on taking personal responsibility for them. In that regard, we determine if we have appropriate reasons to accept responsibility for a misdeed. If so, we acknowledge the mistake, we make amends and then we move forward in our growth – working on ways to avoid the mistake in the future.
Guilt and fear, to the contrary, burden us with feelings of shame that often encourage the original negative behavior. Our mistakes create guilt, which foster feelings of low self esteem and shame, which in turn often leads one back to making the same mistakes all over again. There is no opportunity for healing, for forgiveness, for growth and for moving into the future. We remain stuck in a religious and personal perception of our action – it is sinful, it is bad, we are bad, we are unworthy, and we are not good enough.
Obviously, as Pastor of a progressive church, I believe in a spirituality that is open, free and tolerant. As much as we might examine our flaws in here, such introspection is merely a diagnosis. Yes, we often fall short of the one universal standard of treating others as we want to be treated. But such mistakes are the symptoms of our human disease of fear. Our mistakes do not define who we are as nasty and pitiful creatures in need of a savior. Instead, we are each beautiful and fantastically complex beings, part of a universe that moves, creates and recreates all on its own.
Our bodies and our minds mix within the realm of glorious mountains, endless stars, and wondrous fellow creatures. Blessed with faculties that give us reason and intuition, we know we are inherently good because all of creation is inherently good – the result of fantastic creative forces. The human spirit, therefore, is not evil and selfish. It is generous, loving, and empathetic precisely because we are in union with other people and, indeed, all creation. We deeply feel the hurts, pains and joys of others because we too experience them. Our calling as humans is to see ourselves as a part of, not separate or superior to, the wider universe – beautiful, intricate, amazing and inspiring.
Our reasoning ability, alone among animals, to know of our eventual demise, is NOT a good thing. It leads to fear…..which leads to superstition and religion……which leads to guilt…..which leads to shame and feelings of inadequacy. But our ability to reason and think also tells us we are simply part of an eternal matrix of BEING – never ceasing to exist but rather an amalgamation of matter that ceaselessly resurrects itself into new creations. Yesterday, we were the dust of stars drifting toward earth. Today we are in human form. Tomorrow we will be flowers, trees and animals. Such truths, and not pre-scientific scriptures, tell us we have always existed and we always will.
If that is our spirituality, if that is our understanding of life and death, then we have no need for elaborate religious beliefs and ritualistic standards of behavior to judge us as good or bad. We are already good. We intuitively know how we must act toward others and how we can change for the better. In the wide diversity of humanity, each person is holy. We are not gay, black, female, Muslim, disabled or American. We are simply one humanity joined in a dance with all creation.
Guilt, therefore, has no place in this understanding of ourselves. Personal responsibility does. Since that is the case, it is we who determine our destiny. It is we who call on a universal sense of right and wrong. It is we who are confident that our present existence must be enjoyed and celebrated in the here and now. No fear. No shame. No hell. Only life and love and guilt-free spirituality.
In that regard, I wish you, and those listening online, much peace and joy.