Post-Cynical Religion Part Two – Smashing the Iconoclasm

Part one of this sermon (posted last Thursday) reflected on the rational cynicism that is evident in the ministry of Jesus, and necessary for genuine Faith, Hope, and Christian Love.

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 the false faith of sin-dumping confessional conformism or the false hope of 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 against instincts of self-preservation and sociability, and the “unchallengeable” sacred cows of culture.

Beyond Pretense

Despite Jesus’ cynical assessment of the general condition of human psychology and society, there is a way forward from cynicism implied in his ministry, a way forward which can be summed up in the advice he gave to the woman accused of adultery: “go and sin no more.”

Considering that Greek and Hebrew words translated as “sin” (ἁμαρτία and חַטָּא) both mean simply to miss the mark or make a mistake, this advice essentially means “try to stay on target from now on.” After the cynical smashing of pretense, Jesus gives practical advice. Beyond cynicism is not nihilism, a surrender to meaninglessness and aimlessness, but a willful choice to create meaning and avoid error.

This “process of elimination” theme of necessary iconoclasm preceding eventual clarity is common in religion, and it often extends even to the trappings of the very same religion it drives. Medieval Christian mystic Meister Eckhart, speaking of the things we must leave behind when seeking God, asserted that “the ultimate leave-taking is leaving God for God,” meaning that the very idea of God is itself an obstacle to understanding the real God.

Theism obstructs worship; what a radical concept!

Outside of Christianity, Zen Master Lin Chi advised those who want to achieve Buddhahood: “If you meet the Buddha, kill the Buddha.” There are also stories of Buddhist monks destroying their scriptures after reaching a certain level of insight.

The iconoclasm of sincere religion is unrelenting.

What Would Jesus Smash?

And in fact, Jesus himself often launched direct attacks on the trappings of religious tradition. For example, the true import of the Parable of the Good Samaritan* is often lost on mainstream Christians: the first two passers-by, who ignored the suffering of the robbery victim, were a Jewish priest and a Jewish minister.

By celebrating the compassion of one of the Samaritans, whom orthodox Jews considered heretics, Jesus was attacking — on the sly — the moral legitimacy of the Kohanim and Levites, and indeed, the very idea of sectarian dogma.

Jesus is explicit in the story of the presumably pagan Centurion and his paralyzed servant.** When Jesus offers to visit the Centurion’s home, the Roman officer tells him that it will not be necessary: “Just say the word and my boy will be healed.” Jesus replies:

Honestly, I have not found anyone in Israel with such great faith. I tell you, many will come from the east and the west, and will take their places at the feast with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven.

To state outright that non-Jews would be chosen above Jews to sit with the patriarchs must have sounded outrageous to the tribal thinking of ancient times, as outrageous as Eckhart’s “leaving God for God” would have sounded in the Middle Ages.

Jesus not only attacked the holy offices of his own religion, and the ethnic foundation of it, but he also taught — in direct conflict with the traditional Jewish Commandment to honor mother and father — that those who did not hate mother and father could not follow him. What a shocking assertion to family-oriented 1st Century religiosity!***

And yet, he also taught that you should love others (presumably including your mother and father) as you love yourself. Clearly, we are seeing a process of smashing primitive errors not simply to leave nothing in their place, but in order to take on a new, more universal, and more sincere morality.

After all, as Jesus pointed out — quite cynically — don’t even the “heathens” love their own mothers and fathers? Instead, Christian love extends to everyone, including strangers and even enemies.

To echo a Zen saying about the path beyond iconoclasm: before Christian cynicism we love our mothers and fathers, during Christian cynicism we hate our mothers and fathers, yet after Christian cynicism we love our mothers and fathers again, as we love everyone.

The False Rationalism of Atheism

In last week’s sermon, the naïve religion of conservative and liberal churches was exposed as a form of spiritual surrender, a retreat into a childish innocence based on denial of the cynical realities of life. Asked to leave God, kill the Buddha, doubt dogma, look beyond the tribe, and get some perspective on mommy and daddy, many Christians balk and pull the covers over their heads.

Barely more developed than this are world-views that simply give up at the cynicism stage.

In the original Zen saying paraphrased above, a mountain starts as a mountain before spiritual discipline, stops being a mountain during spiritual discipline, and then becomes a mountain again as the result of spiritual discipline. Concepts are held uncritically by the naïve, but are smashed by the disciple of reason, so that the reality beyond the concept can be viewed with clarity.

However, many get stuck on the smashing and never move on to the real mountain. Today, the most vivid example of this is the growing trend toward sectarian atheism.† For those idolize cynicism, the process of elimination itself becomes a fetish, an idol of contrarianism that devolves into its own negative form of credulity, that certain things simply “must not” exist.

Often dressed up as rationalism or a diligent reliance on evidence, this sort of sectarian skepticism is in fact little more than a collection of reactionary social warrants creditable to authors with very little relevant training or research, and passed from one iconoclast to the other with negligible independent critical analysis.

This sectarian cynicism fails to smash the final idol of its own worldview: cynicism itself. And, cynicism/skepticism for its own sake is not at all rational, but merely narcissistic and contrarian in a sanctimoniously transgressive fashion.

Viewed by analogy to moral development, naïve religion is like infancy when we unthinkingly trust our parents, while sectarian atheism is like the Terrible Twos or adolescence, when the answer to everything from our parents’ mouths is a resounding “No!” or “That’s stupid!”

Viewed through the Christian moral idiom, we can say that conservative religion falls to the temptation of world conquest, that liberal religion falls to the temptation of providing for material needs (living on bread alone), and that sectarian atheism falls to the temptation of the false test of God’s providence, leaping from the pinnacle.

While the post-cynical Christian will refuse (as Jesus did) to step off the perilous ledges of life in the naïve expectation that angels will swoop in to save her from her own actions, the contrarian reverses the false test by claiming that the absence of swooping angels insulating us from our own weaknesses, mistakes, and hubris demonstrates that there is no God.

This is the pseudo-rational flip-side of the anti-rational refusal of medical treatment on “religious” grounds: the uncynical believer justifies wish fulfillment on the assumed agreement of God with one’s own wishes, while the merely cynical predicates the existence of God on wish fulfillment.

The post-cynical sees human reasoning, with all of its conclusions and models and idioms and expectations, in a truly rational way: in proper perspective as the reasoning of a mere creature in the context of many, many others. True reason must be ready to take the beam out of its own eye…

The Limits of Reason

Rational doubt must also doubt and delimit reason itself, but only after it has doubted and delimited everything else. When a Reform Unitarian says that all things are reconciled to God through the Word (i.e., the Logos) he or she is saying this same thing in the idiom of Christianity: true rationalism puts everything in its place compared to other things, i.e., in its proper ratio.

But, the Word itself is merely the “image” of the Fundamental Cause of the universe, and therefore the final rational step is to put reason itself in its proper place as a mere representation of the ultimate truth. The rational universe must have a source outside itself, or else cosmology becomes an absurd and pseudo-rational magic trick: essentially a rabbit pulling itself out of its own hat.

Rational cynicism recognizes this absurdity, and understands that — in order for reason to hold together — beyond reason, and at its foundation, must be a Power that is beyond the rules of reason.

This is the second part of a three-part sermon on post-cynical religion. Part three will appear next Thursday.

* Luke 10:25-37

** Matthew 8:5-13, Luke 7:1-10

*** And, indeed, what a hard verse to swallow for 21st Century family-oriented religiosity.

† Note that, at least in this discussion, atheism is quite different from the original non-theism of those never exposed to the concepts of religion. Atheism, as a reaction against errors in theistic concepts, is necessarily post-concept, just as sincere religion is.

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