Signals Crossed

This morning I happened to spot a billboard with a public service message, urging parents not to subject their vulnerable children to the unedifying sight of them bickering. The little ones are sponges: they soak up everything, and everything makes its mark, even if they don’t know what to do yet with the input. It will come to rest deep in the subconscious, never fear. And who knows what effect it will have there? Who knows what deep-seated damage certain traumatic sights may cause, damage the cause of which may never be found? The billboard featured a cute little face, wide-eyed, obviously looking at something it did not know what to make of. But taking it in.

The billboard was well designed. And its message was important. But another message occurred to me. I thought of the mixed signals a child receives when different parents issue conflicting demands. A steady diet of that stuff can set up a state of irresolvable cognitive dissonance, and the only apparent path ahead is schizophrenia. One must be ready to catch balls all over outfield at the same time. One must be, mentally, everywhere at once. And that way lies madness. Remember, Schizophrenia means “split personality” in the sense of fractured personality, not multiple personality, which is another whole kettle of fried fish. This concern is not far removed from the overt message of the signboard.

But my mind went a step further. I thought of the damage wrought in the mind, even in the character, of the tender religious believer who tries his best to absorb the contradictory messages sent him by the faith into which he is indoctrinated. God is love, and he sends people of Hell to be tortured eternally in unimaginably horrific ways. God is truth, and if you look for truth too hard and come up with your own conclusions, there’s Hell, literally, to pay. God wants us to grow spiritually and morally, but the constant threats of damnation intimidate us into remaining stalled at the most primitive stage of moral development: childish “reward and punishment.” The signs of the Holy Spirit are love, joy, peace, patience, longsuffering, etc., and when we see these manifested in the life of an unbeliever or a member of another faith, they must be Satanic counterfeits, which means their appearance in my life doesn’t necessarily mean a thing.

What would it mean to “trust” such a God? “Though he slay me, yet will I trust him,” moaned Job. Yeah? Trust him to what? What’s left? Ever see the old John Birch tract, You Can Trust the Communists—to Be Communists? I guess that’s what it means in the gospel chorus: “Trust and obey, for there’s no other way to be happy in Jesus than to trust and obey.”

What inferences might one be able to draw as to what God would do in any given situation? You might think he’d have had an interest in averting the torture of his chosen people in the Nazi concentration camps. But apparently not. Could one ever even remotely hope to discern his will? Not if he persists in moving in such damn strange ways. And we are constantly told that he does, since otherwise we’d have to blame him for things, e.g., neglecting to prevent evils which we would be quite culpable for allowing.

Ever wonder how apparently sincere religious people, doing their level best to be pious, somehow wind up riding roughshod over “sinners”? Whence the hatred for homosexuals one sees emblazoned on ultra-fundamentalist picket signs on TV? The true believers are caught in the trap of religio-moral schizophrenia: They believe in a loving God, whose character, however, is perfectly compatible with torturing sinners in Hell. Well, brother, if your moral criterion is “What Would Jehovah Do?” no wonder you’re cruel. And no wonder you don’t notice the contradiction: your theology tells you, like that stupid late-seventies song says, “you’ve got to be cruel to be kind.”

The schizophrenic commitment to so-called Truth shows the colors of its madness in religious apologetics. Invisible to the Christian debater, the pathetic mind-games he plays are transparent to anyone else. He says he believes in truth, but it is all deductive. Worse, it is all spin on behalf of a list of beliefs previously embraced for emotional reasons, now defended with spurious “intellectual” arguments that never caused his conversion in the first place. How phony it all is, and how sleazy! How corrosive of the simple search for truth—on which one can only feign to embark if one thinks one already has it in the bag, the truth like a deer splayed over the hood of the pick-up truck. The apologist wants to “win souls,” or at least arguments, “by any means necessary.” This again corrupts the conscience right out of the starting gate. It is all the result of conflicting demands from one’s religious authorities, whether the Bible itself, which speaks with so many voices it ought to be named Legion, or of the sanctimonious buffoons who interpret it from the pulpit. They are so many ventriloquists using the Bible as a talking dummy.

Did I mention that when I saw that billboard, I was on my way to church? I did not, I do not, go to church like the sheeplike Eloi heeding the underground summons of the Morlocks, to come to a dinner in which they themselves will serve as the main course. I did not approach church like Dorothy, the Straw Man, the Tin Man, and Democrat Lion, seeking boons from the great and powerful Oz. No, I can only go because Toto has already pulled aside the once-concealing curtain from the mountebank Professor Marvel. I go not because I do not yet realize it is all a special effects show. Quite the contrary, I go to the Episcopal Church because I know it is all special effects. I go to church for the same reason I watch The Wizard of Oz: to be swept away again in the mystic fantasy epic, and to gain some lessons from it about the mind, the heart, and courage. I suspend disbelief to let it enchant me for an hour, with some lasting effects thereafter.

I am no idolater, bowing before what I know is a sham, a false god. No, I know there are no real Gods, that if there is to be divinity, it must be ours, and part of that divinity is the play, the drama, the epics and the poetry we have created. I come to partake of what Tillich called “the broken myth.” It is broken like an idol which we may yet revere as a monument to once-living human belief. It is broken like the hull of a nut so we may enjoy its inner fruit. Church is the mausoleum, as the Mad Prophet proclaimed, of the Dead God, and as we stand there commiserating, we know a secret joy in the fact that we must have been gods ourselves to do the deed.

Robert M. Price
September 2006


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