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Getting Real


Reading from Ronald L. Burr, “Selfless Ideals,” pp. 145-146, 148.

This sounds good to me:

Belief in supernatural miracles sucks dry the implicit wonder, the veiled Nirvana, of the world as it is. Better to go with Schleiermacher: “To me, all is miracle.” To join Ousspensky “in search of the miraculous” is doubly pathetic: first, you will miss the real wonder here in the real, natural world. Remember the question of the disciples to Jesus: “When will the end come, and when will the repose of the dead be?” He answered them, “What you expect has already come, but you do not recognize it. The Kingdom of God is spread abroad upon the earth and men do not see it.”

Second, you will be wasting your time, waiting for Godot, aiming at a Quixotic quest because there is no miraculous supernatural.

On the other hand, there is a thrill to the chase, even if it is a wild goose chase. A delusion such as Pentecostalism or the New Age Movement may be quite exciting, but one ought to know better. Best to slake that thirst in admitted fantasy: literature, film, comic books.

As for the supposed state of being more enlightened than “this” being imaginary, a snare and a delusion, there is the very real danger among religious people of pernicious self-blindness. The person who thinks he has been sanctified can no longer be honest with himself. He will still act cruelly, selfishly, arrogantly, maybe more so than before. Only he will disguise and dignify and euphemize his motives. Bigotry becomes “zeal for the truth.”

The sanctified person cannot see that absolute truth corrupts absolutely. There is no absolute truth, there is only the absolutizing of relative truth. There is only the idolatrous elevation of the human word to the status of the Word of God.

The sanctified person can screw you without missing a beat because he is doing God’s will, and God’s goodness is defined as including arbitrary acts of judgment, which the sanctified person thinks he is being righteous in emulating.

Spare me the sanctified folks! Give me the admittedly mediocre, even the honest sinners. I don’t mean to glorify the wicked, but at least you know where you stand with them. They are real. To paraphrase Stokely Carmichael, the sinner may be a snake, but the saint is a snake in the grass. There is no miraculous righteousness available by a miracle of sanctification or of enlightenment. There is only the hubris of those who imagine themselves to have attained it.

Religions get their customers by a typical advertising gimmick: they oversimplify things, boiling all your troubles down to one capital-P Problem. Then they can offer their capital-S Solution. Like consolidating all your bills. Many are taken in by this ploy. Sooner or later they find out it doesn’t work that way.

There is one group of Christian books and teachers who promise a simple solution: “Jesus is the answer.” Then there is a second set that caters to the same audience, but a few years later on. These books and teachers wait till the enthusiastic new saints have become frustrated and disappointed with the empty promises of sanctification. In the short run, in the first glow of enthusiasm one’s problems seem to have vanished, but as time goes by, sanctification loses its luster, and one is only human after all. And then you discover the books and teachers who deliver the bright good news that Christians are poor slobs like everybody else! You needn’t blame yourself for failing God or blame God for failing you. Whew! What a relief to be able to admit it, and to get real. What a relief it seems to stop kidding yourself and seek specific solutions to your problems. To stop putting them off in the name of sanctification, which was supposed to wipe them away but didn’t and couldn’t.

Bonhoeffer came to see that salvation was part of the problem, not part of the solution. And what he came up with, a “religionless Christianity,” was something like the Zen approach: Letters & Papers from Prison, pp. 222-223.

And yet I begin to wonder if this renunciation of the miraculous and the supernatural is itself a case of dignifying an ulterior motive by the use of religious camouflage. Here is a scene from Woody Allen’s Manhattan (pp. 264-265).

If we follow the more modest Zen approach of skepticism toward claims of enlightenment and sanctification, are we just being too easy on ourselves? Basically, I don’t think so, and here’s why. If we are no more than human, i.e., not angels, neither are we less than human, i.e., not beasts to be blown about by every lust and instinct.

Religions tell us that if we don’t delude ourselves with promises of sanctification, miraculous righteousness, we will descend in the other direction. Unless you pretend to be a saint you must act like a beast? As if you have no excuse not to be Lex Luthor unless you imagine you are Superman! I’m saying you’re just plain old Perry White. “Don’t call me chief!” Moral error lies in both directions, up as well as down. Because in both cases your actions will stem from self-deception. Get real.

The founder of est, a McDonald’s version of Zen, used to ask his seminar customers, after the weekend intensive was over, “Did you get it?’ To those who said, disappointedly, “No, I didn’t” Ehrhardt would say, “Then you did get it, because there was nothing to get.” Is he right?

Robert M. Price

August 2, 1998




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