While many churches — all along the political spectrum from conservative to liberal — offer a naïve comfort that turns a blind eye to the cynical realities of the world, AUR refuses to offer “salvation on the cheap” through sin-dumping confessional conformism or sin-denying celebratory relativism.
Reform Unitarianism recognizes that true Christianity (and, indeed, true religion regardless of its sectarian idiom) is post-cynical, and its comforting truths lie on the other side of a blood-sweating struggle with self-preservation, social/psychological instinct, and the “unchallengeable” sacred cows of culture.
This blog’s Resolution Day message provides a good introduction to AUR’s commitment to avoid the easy comfort so common to religion:
One key distinction of AUR is the commitment not to offer false consolation on the cheap, whether it is the sort of “bow to dogma and your soul will be spared” comfort of conservative churches or the “I’m okay, you’re okay, nothing we believe really matters” comfort of liberal churches.
Spiritual peace is not won by reciting a confession or catechism as if it were a magic spell… nor is spiritual peace achieved through conflict-averse relativism or laissez-faire creedlessness, what Unitarian theologian James Luther Adams described unflatteringly as religion “you can’t flunk.”
These are the Beast and Babylon of false religion, religion that offers salvation on the cheap, salvation by partisan ideology, salvation by denial of Hope or denial of Faith. Both sides of this dichotomy are driven by an inability to cast aside the comforting fetishes of cultural identity: if only everyone would conform to the norm, or if only everyone would just be nice to each other, the world would be a better place.
Unfortunately, while both of these “if only” views are technically true they are also both hopelessly naïve and unrealistic.
The Rational Cynicism of Jesus
The “if only” of typical religion is a retreat from our experiences with the harsh realities of life, a retreat into an earlier innocence and childish credulity. This is why its morality so often manifests as a sort of playground ethic demanding everyone either “play fair” or conform to simplistic expectations of behavior.
The ministry of Jesus, however, accepts none of this playground naïveté. He was quite rationally cynical about the hypocritical nature of human beings, and did not allow the dichotomy of permissiveness and rule-mongering to reduce complex issues to simplistic yeah-or-nay solutions.
In the famous Pericope Adulterae* (more commonly known as the story of the adulterous woman), Jesus responds to the conformist rage of the gathered mob with a suggestion that drips with cynicism: “He that is without sin among you, let him cast the first stone.”
But, Jesus doesn’t simply shrug off adultery. His response to the woman herself, “Go and sin no more,” also cynically assumes her sinfulness without endorsing the specific accusation of the mob. Ignorant of the facts in question, rationally cynical Jesus neither confirms nor denies the allegations, yet still assumes everyone involved is guilty of something.
Likewise, Jesus was cynical about human social drives, our natural instinct to love friends and family while hating or disregarding everyone else:
If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Aren’t even the collaborators doing that? If you greet only your relatives, what are you doing more than others? Don’t even heathens do that?**
And, faced with the changing socio-political environment on Garden Thursday, Jesus sensibly changed his previous policies (take heed, Fundamentalists!) and advised his followers to be pragmatic about social realities:
“When I sent you without wallet, baggage, or shoes, did you lack anything?”
“Nothing,” they answered.
He said to them, “But now if you have a wallet, take it, and also a bag; and if you don’t have a sword, sell your coat and buy one.”***
Clearly the ministry of Jesus was not a child-like retreat from material fact, but required a rational eye, open wide and cast askance at the absurd hypocrisies and weaknesses of human nature, as well as the harsh realities of political life.
The Logic of the Logos
The retreat embodied in “if only” religion is a form of spiritual defeat. It is a retreat from the challenging complexity and painful conflicts of life, a retreat into the false Faith of delusion and the false Hope of denial.
Since this retreat is in conflict with material reality, it is in direct conflict with mature, “Logical” religion, that is: the religion of the rational principle of the Logos, the Word of God through which this material world is made.
Cynical realism is a prerequisite to truly understand the Logical ministry of Jesus, Anointed of God as the Word manifest.
The Christian cynicism here is a rejection of the comforting social fetishes which substitute for true religion:
- the ignorant faith of the stoning mob that they were not themselves sinners
- the ignorant hope for peaceful success which needs reminded that violence might be inevitable
- the ignorant love for things that please us which confounds the all-embracing impartiality of agape, divine love in emulation of God who “makes the sun rise on the good and evil, and the rain to fall on the just and unjust.”
But, no practical way of life can consist of simply smashing idols. The principle of iconoclasm can itself become an idol, an obsessive contrarianism that never matures from rebellion to rebuilding. To find true faith, true hope, and true love one has to move beyond iconoclasm, to a post-cynical world-view.
This is the first part of a three-part sermon on post-cynical religion. Part two will appear next Thursday.
* Chapter 8 of the Gospel of John.
** Gospel of Matthew 5:46-47
*** Gospel of Luke 22:35-36