Saturday, May 31, 2008

THE NEW RELIGIOUS SCHIZOPRENIA

We’re all familiar with a certain chasm that makes a mockery of organized religion. I’m referring to the chasm between the church’s ethical ideas and its real-world practices. No matter what religion you’re talking about, this chasm appears to be as wide as the Pacific. But perhaps the most commonly used example is the gulf between the pacifism, egalitarianism, anti-materialism, and tolerance of the Gospels and the hard-right ranting of the evangelists and politicians who purport to speak in Jesus’ name. That gulf alone is responsible for converting thousands, if not millions, to atheism. And I have no doubt that similar hypocrisy in the non-Christian world is responsible for setting millions of others against organized religion specifically, and spirituality generality.

Recently, though, I have come to notice a second form of religious schizophrenia. I wouldn’t exactly call it hypocrisy-based, but I find it nearly as troubling as the chasm described above.

I was reminded of this newer type of religious chasm when I attended a meeting of my new religious community – the one that formed when my old Temple decided to jettison the two clergymen who accounted for at least 90% of its spirituality. The new community has had a number of meetings to date, and at several of these meetings, we have held something akin to a “service.” The group chanted Hebrew melodies, and in many of these melodies, we gave thanks to God. In that sense, the services have been like other gatherings of religious Jews throughout the world who come together in song/prayer. Some songs praise the Shabbat. Others, praise the Land of Israel. But most commonly, we sing in praise of God and give thanks for the world that we all love so much (at least those of us who choose, morning after morning after morning, not to take our own lives; there must be some reason why we opt for life, and that stems from the manifest beauty of life itself).

At this last meeting, however, we did more than simply sing or pray. We also discussed. In particular, we discussed the draft report of the Vision Committee, which set forth ten principles of a vision for our new community. The draft report was, for the most part, a very nice set of principles that all liberal Jews should embrace. It was certainly an improvement over the de facto vision of the temple from which I fled last December. But there was one thing in the report that troubled me. Nowhere in the ten principles did the vision committee mention the word God. In fact, nowhere did the committee mention any name at all for the divine. The closest thing I saw to a relevant reference was the statement that we aspire to find “a spiritual path that connects us to the sacred.”

For some people, there’s no question that the word “sacred” evokes divinity. For others, however, it evokes any place, concept, or event that seems to transcend in beauty and majesty the normal vicissitudes of life. Thus, for example, there are plenty of atheist American Jews who find Jerusalem “sacred,” plenty of Bostonions who find Fenway Park sacred, and plenty of patriots who find the Gettysburg battleground sacred. The same could surely be said for concepts (like love, peace, or justice) or events (like funerals, weddings, or even 90th birthday parties for a beloved parent). We are allowed to hold sacred any object of beauty regardless of whether we affirm the existence of a supreme being, or “ultimate Being,” or any other conception of divinity. So, to me, I’d have to say that nowhere in the vision statement was there included a reference to God or the divine, even implicitly. And when I asked about this, the drafters of the vision acknowledged that this was no oversight; the omission was intentional. Specifically, the vision committee did not wish to offend people for whom the name “God” has become disrespectful to those who wish to honor the memories of those who perished in the Holocaust. If there were a supernatural deity, I was told, how could “He” have allowed six million to die premature and horrible deaths?

I won’t restate the entire conversation that followed, but I must mention that my suggested fix – leaving out the term “God” and inserting instead the more compound term “God-wrestling” – met with resistance as well. Even after I pointed out that my own Spinozistic deity is hardly “supernatural” and surely did not “will” the Holocaust, my suggestion that we mention God-wrestling in the vision statement continued to meet with some resistance. I had already known that merely invoking the concept of divinity has become anathema to the minds of many Jews. What I hadn’t known is that merely invoking that concept has become anathema to the minds of some religious Jews as well. Now that, my friends, is schizophrenic.

Schizophrenic, but not hypocritical. There is no hypocrisy in regularly attending services where you chant Hebrew melodies that praise a God which you yourself don’t believe in. Personally, I’ve been doing that for years; in fact, I’ve been doing that for decades. I no more worship the Cosmic Santa Claus that lies at the heart of Jewish liturgical music than I worship Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer. But when I chant those melodies, at least there exists some conception of God that I can praise, “with all my heart, all my soul, and all my might.” And that’s what keeps me able to enjoy services.

What I found so notable at the community meeting was the fact that there exist members of the community who regularly attend Jewish worship services and are offended by the very use of the word God. More and more often, I encounter people who believe that all right-minded people should be engaged in a struggle to remove that word from our collective vocabulary, except as a historical anachronism. From such a perspective, “God-worshippers” will hopefully become marginalized, much like members of the “Flat-Earth Society” are today. I’ve seen this perspective expressed in such books as Richard Dawkins’ “The God Delusion” and Christopher Hitchens’ “God Is Not Great.” But I wouldn’t expect to see Dawkins or Hitchens taking over the Vision Committee of a synagogue in which praying to God is one of the staple activities. I still can’t quite believe what I witnessed in my own “religious” community.

Clearly, if there is a God, “He” had better change his Marketing Director … and fast. I have no doubt that the current marketing plan is working well with the fundamentalist communities. But like I said, those communities have their issues with an older form of religious schizophrenia – the hypocritical kind. If I had a choice, I’d choose the new split-personality in a heartbeat. Hopefully, though, we won’t have to choose either. We can all figure out a way to broaden people’s conceptions of God – in other words, to make people more tolerant of the idea that God can mean many things to many people, and not all of them are morally responsible for the Holocaust.

For me, you can live without God, but you can’t live without the sacred. And if I must reach out to “the sacred” in order to grasp her, I’d rather do it armed with an idea of divinity than without one.

4 comments:

YoungMan said...

Hey Danny,

He finally left the chuch......only several months too late.

Gosh maybe you two can start a new universal congregation...Temple Trinity Pfleger Wright Spin-El :)-

Daniel Spiro said...

Youngman,

I was saddened when he left. Then again, if I can leave, so can he.

The funny thing is that when I left my shul, the next thing I did is go to a mosque and prayed there with a friend. I doubt Barack can afford to do that -- thanks to all the anti-Muslim bigotry in this country. More on that when Moses the Heretic comes out.

The E O said...

Your use of the term “schizophrenia” in this context is unhelpful. This serious, incurable disorder, which affects about 1% of the population, has many and varied symptoms but ‘two identities’ is not one of them. You do sufferers a great disservice by misrepresenting their symptoms.

A good place to find more information is http://www.schizophrenia.com/index.php

Daniel Spiro said...

E.O.,

As one who has studied psychology avocationally for years, I'm aware of the medical disorder known as schizophrenia. It has also been my understanding, however, the term is accepted in the English language as connoting "split personality." In other words, like many other English words, it has multiple meanings.

I think it is pretty well established among literate people that there is a difference between the old split-personality usage of the term and the usage that medical clinicians give to the term. I certainly hope that none of my readers conclude from my blogpost that people diagnosed by physicians with schizophrenia suffer from split personalities. It was not my intent to convey that misimpression.