Battling Rhetoric: When Did Faith Become a Dirty Word?

Although the posts on this auxiliary blog are usually devoted either to education or religion, this post will address more than either. My concerns address a cultural (human) behavior that affects religion, not a religious behavior that stands alone.

The behavior under review is the tendency for humans to move between intense experiential informality (I feel very strongly about this; I'm going to find out more and tell everyone!) and rigorous formality (I know I'm right because I've met these criteria), the latter often accompanied by an up-tick in the use of rhetoric to denote belonging (Moreover, I say all the right things).

Regarding religion specifically, Rodney Stark summarizes the work of researchers regarding sects and churches: "When [groups] move towards less tension with their sociocultural environment, they are church movements (although a group may remain a sect during a long period of movement in this churchlike direction). When groups move towards [higher tension with outsiders], they are sect movements" (123-124, Stark's emphasis).

Keep in mind that Stark is not criticizing the alteration of sect to church (or vice versa); he perceives it as normal and human. Human nature being what it is, it is inevitable for an organization to lose some of it fanaticism over time while also gaining a level of  bureaucracy and formalized rhetoric that (may) contradict the original soul of the organization's mission. (Oddly enough, a church with lesser tension towards the "outside world" will often adopt more demanding/formalized rhetoric in an effort to bolster insider allegiance.)

The cycle doesn't end there. Businesses, religions, and non-profits often undergo a kind of "shake-up" or "reformation" or "rebranding" (depending on one's perspective) in order to prevent the organization and bureaucracy from stagnating and the formalized rhetoric from taking over. 

Both Jesus and Paul the Apostle are aware of the problem of a message being lost amid formalized behaviors or rhetoric. Neither condemns structured religion, which they both appear to perceive as inevitable and necessary. Yet both of them warn that the formalization of doctrine into rhetorical absolutes can send the cycle out of control.
John the Baptist--If he's not what you think,
that's kind of the point.

Jesus states, "But whereunto shall I liken this generation? It is like unto children sitting in the markets, and calling unto their fellows . . . We have piped unto you, and ye have not danced; we have mourned unto you, and ye have not lamented/For John [the Baptist] came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, He hath a devil/ The Son of man came eating and drinking, and they say, Behold a man gluttonous, and a winebibber, a friend of publicans and sinners. But wisdom is justified of her children" (Matthew 11:16-19).

Keep this quote in mind; I'll be returning to it.

Rather than demanding adherence to ritualized rhetoric (we pipe-you dance; we mourn-you lament), Jesus and Paul preach a simple doctrine of love of God through Jesus Christ.

To the questioning lawyer, Jesus states, "Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind/This is the first and great commandment/ And the second is like unto it, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself/ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets" (Mark 29:31).

When he's not tearing his hair out over the nutty behaviors of his converts, Paul reiterates the above  message over and over again. In 1 Corinthians 3, in an effort to calm the prideful behavior of the congregation (imagine high school cliques, only worse), he reminds them that it is largely unimportant who converted them, whether Paul or another missionary, Apollos:  "For other foundation can no man lay than that is laid, which is Jesus Christ" (verse 11).

Paul is attempting to create a community of loving saints, a temple as he describes them (later, he will compare the saints to a physical body), based on the good news of Jesus Christ. Ultimately, in the end, whatever their differences, they all depend on the saving grace of Jesus Christ.

In Romans, Paul tackles the problem of piling up rules and regulations (who's in, who's out, who's following the rules, who's not). His specific context--debating the law of Moses--grows beyond the argument's beginning. He is critiquing (not criticizing) the concept of propitiation as it appears in many cultures: the idea that threatening gods or God will punish humans in the absence of obedience.

This obsession with appeasement leads, Paul argues, to being "carnally-minded," to seeing the world entirely in terms of sin and the errors of the flesh: "For sin shall not have dominion over you: for ye are not under the law, but under grace." (Romans 6:14).

Paul argues that propitiation had its place; like John the Apostle, he maintains that Christ, as the ultimate propitiation, removes the necessity of constant debt, doubt, and fear: "Being justified freely by his grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus" (Romans 3:24). The "good news" is that mortals no longer need to fear constant judgment or revenge by an angry deity.

In typical Paul fashion, Paul then ponders, Okay, yes, but that doesn't mean everyone should run around behaving badly. After all, if you are Christ's--as he tells the Corinthians (1 Corinthians 3:23)--it would behove you to behave like Christ.

Nevertheless, ultimately, Paul's message is about the good news. Back in Romans:
Nay, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him that loved us. For I am persuaded that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature, shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord (Romans 9:37-39).
In other words:
If ye [believe in God and know of his goodness] ye shall always rejoice, and be filled with the love of God, and always retain a remission of your sins; and ye [will] grow in the knowledge of the glory of him that created you, or in the knowledge of that which is just and true . . . ye will not have a mind to injure one another" (Mosiah 4: 12-13). 
Paul, perhaps naively, appears to believe that a honest love of God and thankfulness for the sacrifice of Jesus Christ will lead to decent and kindly behavior. He is echoing Jesus Christ, who preaches the same but somewhat less naively since He anticipates the (very human) difficulty of turning the other cheek, hungering after righteousness, and forgiving one's enemies.

"With men it is impossible, but not with God: for with God all things are possible," Jesus states in Mark 10 after teasingly scaring the snot out of the Rich Young Man (who wasn't satisfied with simply being a good person, yet behaved as if Jesus was going to challenge him to nothing more difficult than checking out a really good Hallmark movie). 

It also bothers Jesus less (than it bothers Paul) when people utterly fail to live up to the goal of loving out of loyalty to a larger belief rather than obedience to a group of rules. 

Paul's troubled reaction is understandable. People don't always live up to the goal of naturally desiring to be kind, no more than businesses always make a profit, organizations always achieve their goals, people in workplaces always get along, and governments always make the best decisions.  

And no one but God and Jesus Christ (and maybe Cesar Millan with dogs) has ever had the entire capacity to say, "Okay, well, start over. And don't get so mad when people are imperfect." 

The Prodigal Son might screw up again. The father doesn't care. He'll still kill the fatted calf. He'll still be happy. He still wants everyone to be happy. That's the point. 

And yeah, I respect that, but honestly, who wouldn't behave more like the Elder Son and get a little ticked?

Human nature being what it is, the challenge to love God (or create a successful business or educate everybody or help the poor or save the environment) can't help but get confused with the end results of those missions.

Loving God, for example, should result in people being kind and moral; a successful business should result in people getting rich; educating people should result in (presumably) smarter decision-making; helping the poor should result in everybody in the world leading a yuppie lifestyle (I jest); saving the environment should result in cleaner air and water.

When people aren't kind and moral, when they don't get their own 401K, when they don't vote "properly," when they don't volunteer for United Way, when they don't start saving their plastic bags . . . it's easy to skip forward to "Let's make them!" (Or, in the case of Enron, "Let's take the money!")

The thinking goes that if the results are enforced, then those people will love God, know how to lead co-workers, appreciate education, want to help the poor (or be helped), and wish to save the planet.

Whether governments, groups, entities, institutions, and work places have the right to establish policies and rules which ensure decent, civilized behavior is a topic for another time. Arguably, it will happen anyway (like traffic laws).

The problem occurs when chasing the results fails to produce the mindset (or appears to fail to produce the mindset) that would have (hopefully) set those results in motion. This failure is inevitable--as Jesus and Paul knew. Jesus is entirely unimpressed by rigorous efforts to define inner righteousness by external performance. And Paul spends far more time in his letters begging his converts to leave each other alone (ohmygosh does that thing you're so upset over really matter?) than this master of theology clearly wanted to spend.

It is one thing to require that people in a given organization remember to clean up after themselves. It is another to require people to feel an inner commitment or, for that matter, become "good" in an entirely unseeable way.

Trying to back-create mindsets appears to occurs (most often) when a culture (from a religion to a workplace) no longer has external conformable markers, ways to test its adherents' belonging--that is, when a culture is no longer homogeneous enough for its members to "know" that someone else really loves God (or money or education or the poor or the environment).

My Concerns
The best solution, I maintain, is to accept the new situation (lack of consistent markers) and find out a person's moral beliefs, positions, and behavior from that person.

Unfortunately, often people begin to rely on rhetoric instead. And the rhetoric is almost always political.

What I mean by this is not that political names are (necessarily) invoked. Rather the rhetoric is used to confirm party allegiance. Plant one's flag! Declare one's position! Say the words that indicate belonging!

Eventually, declaring one's position (dancing on cue; mourning on cue: see Matthew 11) becomes more important than the moral purpose.

Actually, to be fair, the two positions (moral purpose versus rhetorical declarations) are always battling each other, the one hedging out occasionally over the other (then retreating). The ship rocks from side to side. In the meantime, has anyone been lost?

I occupy a situation where I don't think I've gone overboard, but I'm not so sure the other people in the boat around me think the same (about me). Whenever I refuse to use rhetorical markers, I feel out of sync (and I'm no rebel; rebellion for the sake of rebellion bores me). 

Which is why I don't discuss politics, religion, or the news with practically anybody.

The connection to faith (see the title of the post) is this: the rhetoric of party politics is almost always the rhetoric of absolutes: absolute knowledge, absolute surety, absolute trust. But the rhetoric of party politics doesn't necessarily advance human endeavors or understanding. As a good libertarian, for example, I prefer to ask, "What is the purpose of government?" I believe that a honest discussion based on that question can result in moral comprehension, which is deeper than rhetoric. In order to ask that question, a degree of faith--unknowingness--is required.

Unfortunately, unknowingness makes people uncomfortable. I'm continually bombarded with the demand that I stake my flag through a "knowing" declaration: "This is what the good group says is true! If you don't think that, you are obviously one of the . . . "
commies, tea partiers, Trump mouthpieces, Obama fans, liberals, racists, fascists, elitists, pinkos, left-wingers, right-wingers, hippies, brainwashed masses . . .
Take your pick. Fill in the blank.

This type of thing--defining who the bad people are, creating a rhetoric that claims moral superiority based on form rather than substance; linking people's language choices ("climate change" versus "global warming") to their state of deservedness--creeps into all institutions, including religions. Lifestyle is mistaken for Godly (political) approval; declarations of what one opposes become the equivalent of belief; the means to heaven (utopia) develop into ends unto themselves.

I see this tendency in my own church as much as I see it everywhere else; it is very natural. I also, luckily, have seen a retreat from that tendency as citizens, members, and leaders ponder issues, extol the need for personal understanding, and, religiously speaking, declare the love of God. As Jesus and Paul state again and again and again, the goal is not rules for the sake of proving allegiance; the goal is love of God with the outcome of demonstrating one's allegiance. That is, if one has a positive belief (in something), then with patience (and an enormous amount of goodwill), positives may follow.

But no threat of failure or institutionalized rhetoric in the world can make it so--no matter how well-stated or well-enforced.

In Matthew, Jesus delivers the parable of the ten virgins. Those five who came prepared with filled lamps don't have to wait to join the wedding party while those who didn't must rush off to the marketplace to get the lamps filled up.

Many times, this parable is interpreted as the need to act immediately, to not wait to learn more of the gospel, read the scriptures, go to church--and there's some justification for that interpretation (the parables are never just one thing).

However, in context with the New Testament's subsequent parable (the parable of the talents or coins), the parable of the ten virgins could also be interpreted to mean that collecting rhetoric and formulas in the marketplace--rather than developing an understanding of God over time--is ultimately useless. The groom does not say to the five hurried virgins, "You're late." He says, "I don't know you."

Consider that Matthew also contains the beautiful verses: "Ask, and it shall be given you; seek, and ye shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you. For every one that asketh receiveth; and he that seeketh findeth; and to him that knocketh it shall be opened" (7:7-8).

What if instead of rushing to collect baubles of rhetoric, the five had exercised faith and gone and knocked? If they had confessed, like the father in Mark, "Lord, I believe. Help thou my unbelief" (9:24)? If they had considered, thought, pondered their options first? What if "knowing" isn't something that can be created through use of the word but through an individual journey that starts with trusting God, and continues with questions, mediation, and pondering?

What if God is there to listen?

What if faith--the desire to figure things out in the absence of absolute clarity--is, as Jesus promises the woman in the crowd, the thing that makes us "whole"? What if trying to understand--not think we already know--is the entire point?

What if scientists have had it right all along: life is less about declarations of surety and more about testing the hypothesis?

"Wherefore, there must be faith; and if there must be faith there must also be hope; and if there must be hope there must also be charity" (Moroni 10:20).

* * *

Stark, Rodney and William Sims Bainbridge. "Of Churches, Sects, and Cults: Preliminary Concepts for a Theory of Religious Movements." Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, vol. 18, no. 2, June 1979, pp. 117-131. EBSCOhost.