Sunday, October 25, 2015

Cargo-Cult Christianity: A Sunday Rumination

     We have sacraments, prayers, and rituals. We have vigils, novenas, and adorations. We have relics, statues, and crucifixes. We have parish pantries, and parish clothes closets, and Meals on Wheels. We have barbecues, and pot luck suppers, and commemorative dinners. We have golf outings, open-air services, and blessings of the animals on the feast day of Saint Francis of Assisi.

     For many – far too many – these things are Christianity. They substitute for the real thing, much as the Melanesian cargo-cultists substituted palm-frond airstrips, bamboo control towers, and wooden microphones in the hope that they might attract the Americans and their precious cargo to return.

     The cargo cults were unsuccessful. The Americans and the cargo that had enriched them did not return. A few anthropologists came to visit and take pictures, but that was about all.

     Perhaps cargo-cult Christians will be more successful in attracting grace. I have my doubts.

     Among the very hardest things a man can attempt is to “love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind,” and to “love thy neighbor as thyself.” By nature, each of us stands at the center of his personal universe. We are powerfully inhibited against putting anyone else in that position. Even accepting the existence of a Supreme Being has a hard time defeating that inhibition.

     Yet the two Great Commandments are the beating heart of Christian life. He who accepts Jesus of Nazareth as the Son of God and Redeemer of Mankind must perforce accept His Authority to command us. Everything else Christ ever taught derives from those two strictures, just as He said.

     I wrote a few weeks ago about the proper interpretation of “love” in the Christian theological context. It’s not a particularly tough concept to grasp, just a bit elusive near the edges. “Love” in the Christian ethical context is more least, if I can judge from the behavior of some of my fellow Christians.

     This much should be clear: love of neighbor has nothing to do with the warm-fuzzy / hugs for everybody pap that so many popular flacksters have prattled about. It’s better elucidated by reflecting on the Golden Rule: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.

     If you know yourself sufficiently well, that presents no challenge at all.

     The cargo-cult Christian may be rigorous about the appurtenances of Christianity yet neglect the second Great Commandment. C. S. Lewis gave us a striking example of the extremes of this syndrome in The Screwtape Letters:

     It is, no doubt, impossible to prevent his praying for his mother, but we have means of rendering the prayers innocuous. Make sure that they are always very "spiritual", that he is always concerned with the state of her soul and never with her rheumatism. Two advantages follow. In the first place, his attention will be kept on what he regards as her sins, by which, with a little guidance from you, he can be induced to mean any of her actions which are inconvenient or irritating to himself. Thus you can keep rubbing the wounds of the day a little sorer even while he is on his knees; the operation is not at all difficult and you will find it very entertaining. In the second place, since his ideas about her soul will be very crude and often erroneous, he will, in some degree, be praying for an imaginary person, and it will be your task to make that imaginary person daily less and less like the real mother—the sharp-tongued old lady at the breakfast table. In time, you may get the cleavage so wide that no thought or feeling from his prayers for the imagined mother will ever flow over into his treatment of the real one. I have had patients of my own so well in hand that they could be turned at a moment's notice from impassioned prayer for a wife's or son's "soul" to beating or insulting the real wife or son without a qualm.

     What good would all the prayers, relics, and sacramental attendance in the world be to a “Christian” who behaves in such a fashion? I surely wouldn’t want any relative, friend, or acquaintance of mine to obsess about the state of my soul. Especially if he went from that to willfully abusing me. Would you?

     The second Great Commandment forbids such conduct. The Golden Rule makes the requirement even more explicit. To neglect those prescriptions is to miss the essence of Christian ethical conduct.

     Doubt not that the sacraments, prayers, and other rituals are useful and beneficial. But they are essentially peripheral. A man who had never experienced any of the sacraments, who knew nothing of prayer or the other Christian rites, but who consistently regarded others as his spiritual equals and always treated them as he would want them to treat him would be in far better shape spiritually than a cargo-cult Christian to whom others are merely potential tools or obstructions. Indeed, that latter fellow would be in great danger in the afterlife.

     This couples intimately to my beliefs about proper authority. No man, be he a lay preacher or the Supreme Pontiff, can arrogate the authority of Christ or gainsay His teachings. Christ is The Authority. He gave us our marching orders in the Gospels. All else is explication, which must always be supremely cautious and mindful of the supremacy of the two Great Commandments: “On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.” [Matthew 22:40]

     Imagine a society composed entirely of persons who, for whatever reason, observe the two Great Commandments rigorously, always and everywhere. Imagine that those persons are grateful for the gift of life, but know nothing of Christ. Conceiving of one such person is hard. Depicting a great number of them, gathered into a coherent society, is extraordinarily difficult. I should know; I’ve put a lot of effort into it. Yet such a society would come very near to the Utopia we have been told is impossible to Man. Though its members would not recognize the word “Christian,” they would nevertheless be in better accord with Christ’s preachments than any cargo-cult Christian.

     Would such a society really need anything a cargo-cult Christian could provide?

     Just this morning, in expounding upon the day’s Gospel reading, the celebrant at Mass exhorted us to pray for our needs rather than our desires. I would submit that there is no need in human life greater than continuous awareness of the two Great Commandments – that a Christian life must be illuminated and animated by them. A Christian needs that foundation to support the rest of the faith.

     The sacraments, rituals, etc. are made potent by joining them to the two Great Commandments, explicitly accepted and lived. Otherwise, they would confer little benefit upon us...little more than the Melanesians derived from their palm-frond airstrips, their bamboo control towers, and their wooden microphones.

     May God bless and keep you all.


Unknown said...

An excellent sermon for any religion.

Col. B. Bunny said...

I've enjoyed discussion with kindhearted Christians on a web site founded by a great preacher friend, now deceased. They wished for me to become saved. However, they would quote scripture in a way that just seemed divorced from the task at hand, namely, to reveal the truth of Christ and to connect with to someone else on an emotional level as well as an intellectual one. The story of Jesus visiting a town and meeting with the elders while being surrounded by the townspeople and having a sick person lowered through the roof is a most thought-provoking story and engages in a way that passages of scripture pulled out of a bag and thrust forward do not.

What was significant in that discussion was the dryness of scripture seemingly quoted reflexively as though the bare words would leap off the page and convince me. I mean no disrespect to those friendly people but when you were talking about the cargo cults that experience came to mind. Even when I am not part of the discussion at that site I find it lacking in what might appeal to a curious, friendly person.

The Mormons make it a practice monthly to have a testimony meeting in which individuals talk about their personal experience as a member of that church. They are most interesting and are instructive in a way that a reliance on cold scripture is not.

Reg T said...


" Love thy neighbor" is difficult enough at times under ordinary circumstances, but when it comes to child molesters and - even worse - muslims who are permitted by islam to anally rape infants, "marry" and then rape nine-year-old girls, or enjoy bacha bazi ("boy play") where they are allowed to rape young bacha bereesh ("beardless boys"), it becomes impossible for me.

This is the perfect example of why loving my neighbor would never work with a muslim:

Am I just misunderstanding what "Love thy neighbor" really means?