VIEW VIDEO It is good to be back with you. I was in North Carolina last Sunday, speaking to Baptists at a Methodist retreat center. I drove down, but Joan stayed in Danville, hoping to avoid my habit of listening to radio preachers on long car trips. I listen not so much for personal enlightenment, but for psychological insight, wondering about the correlation between psychosis and religious broadcasting.
So there I was, driving through Tennessee, listening to a radio preacher talk about how sinful and awful the world was and getting more and more depressed the further I drove. Later that night, after arriving at the conference center, I went online and learned that Tennessee has the third highest rate of depression in the United States, just after Kentucky and right before Arkansas. And what do those three states have in common? You guessed it. Lots of radio preachers telling their listeners how sinful and awful the world is.
Lest you think I’m kidding, let me assure you I am not. I believe bad theology has a demoralizing effect on human happiness. It’s like the old saying among computer programmers—garbage in, garbage out. When people are fed a steady diet of toxic religion, their hearts and mind metastasize, eventually destroying their capacity for happiness.
These past several weeks we’ve been talking about what it means to be spiritual. We’ve been contrasting spirituality with religion, and I want to suggest that religion is usually the culmination of someone’s spiritual experience. Someone has a profound spiritual experience, they start telling others about it, others say, “Yes, that has happened to me, too.” They meet to talk about it, rituals are created to recreate their initial spiritual experience, then rules are set up impose some order on the group, and before you know it, there are radio preachers.
I have a pastor friend named Jim Dant who has a one-minute definition of religion. “An individual has a perceived experience of the power or presence of God. They find others who have had a similar perceived experience of the power or presence of God. These persons gather to share and celebrate their similar perceived experiences of the power or presence of God. They decide to write down their perceived experiences of the power or presence of God. And all is fine….UNTIL….they decide everyone else in the world must have the same perceived experience of the power or presence of God.
What began as a profound, life-giving experience becomes a calcified, joy-sapping, life-extinguishing slog. But it doesn’t have to be that way. It is entirely possible to live optimistically in this world, to view the world not as ugly and antagonistic and awful, but as beautiful and cooperative and hopeful. In fact, that’s the only way we’re going to make it.
I confess that my commitment to Quaker pacifism has been sorely tested the past several weeks. The other day, I caught myself praying Vladimir Putin would fall over dead. I was nice about it. I told God he didn’t have to suffer any pain, just a quick aneurysm, perhaps while giving a televised speech, so it would give pause to those tempted to behave as he has behaved. To my credit, I felt bad as soon as I prayed it. But it would solve a few problems, wouldn’t it?
Still, I know how these things work. If God did that to Vladimir Putin, then someone else would come along who would annoy me, and I’d ask God to kill them too. I would lose any sense of restraint. The other day, I ordered a hamburger and told them “No mustard,” and what do you think the one thing was they put on it? So one day it’s Vladimir Putin, and the next day it’s the teenage boy who screwed up my hamburger.
Here’s what I’ve started doing instead, and this might be rooted in my emerging sense of what it means to be spiritual. While it is true our world seems so savage and primal these days, it is also true that for the first time in my life, nearly all the world has united to exclude a world power from the global economy. This is unprecedented. The united response against Vladimir Putin’s evil might well be a great step forward for humanity. With the confluence of global economic connections and widespread access to media, it is now impossible for tyrants to do in light what they once did in darkness.
The Dutch theologian Erasmus rightly noted, “Give light, and the darkness will disappear of itself.” Give light, and the darkness will disappear of itself. So I’m looking for ways to give light, because that’s what it means to be spiritual, indeed what it means to be a follower of Jesus—to give light, not darkness; to bring hope, not despair; to walk in optimism, not cynicism. Can we do that together? Can you help your pastor with that, so he doesn’t end up asking God to assassinate certain people.
Honestly, I don’t know if this optimism will bear fruit, but I would rather live in a spirit of optimism and hope, than a spirit of pessimism and gloom. Wouldn’t you? This is what it means to be spiritual. To see in every circumstance, no matter how dire, the potential and possibility of good, to see among the fabric of doom the threads of decency and hope. Always remember that human history is not just the story of cruelty and evil. It is also the story of courage, kindness, and compassion.
The political scientist and teacher, Howard Zinn, wrote a wonderful book called A People’s History of the United States, an examination of U.S. history from the perspective of the powerless and poor. Zinn has this rare ability to admit and confront America’s shortcomings while remaining optimistic about our experiment in democracy.
He wrote, “What we choose to emphasize in this complex history will determine our lives. If we see only the worst, it destroys our capacity to do something. If we remember those times and places—and there are so many—where people have behaved magnificently, this gives us the energy to act, and at least the possibility of sending this spinning top of a world in a different direction. And if we do act, in however small a way, we don’t have to wait for some grand utopian future. The future is an infinite succession of present moments, and to live now as we think human beings should live, in defiance of all that is bad around us, is itself a marvelous victory.”
I know nothing about Howard Zinn’s religious beliefs, but that is one of the finest summations of spirituality I have ever read―to live now as we think human beings should live, in defiance of all that is bad around us, is itself a marvelous victory. So here is to marvelous victories, and to the optimism and courage that make them possible.