Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Domesticating Religion & Taming the Divine

My last entry about Shaphat’s Field seemed to be a good argument for the domestication of religion. In other words, take the wildness out, make things palatable to our sensibilities. There are two sides to every coin, however, and I can argue both sides of the coin. Here is an essay that first appeared in The Oasis Newsletter which takes a slightly different view of our dance with the divine.

Genie, Jesus; Bottle, Book

“Myths are public dreams, dreams are private myths.”
– Joseph Campbell

“The way to read a fairy tale is to throw yourself in.”
– W. H. Auden

Myths and fairy tales are stories designed to carry weight. Often they illustrate core truths from the human experience, conveying an unmistakable impact. I can still recall the emotional impact – you might even call it a primal effect – that certain of those stories had upon me when I was a child. I remember hearing my mother read the story of Pandora’s Box, and feeling a sense of utter dismay when Pandora opened that box of troubles. It was a dismay similar to that felt when I heard the story of the Garden of Eden.

Another story that had a profound effect was from The Arabian Nights. It was the story of the fisherman who found an odd bottle in his fishing nets and upon opening the bottle released a powerful genie. You probably remember that in the story, the genie had been imprisoned in the bottle for hundreds of years. He was so angry that he vowed to kill whoever released him. I can remember the terror that I felt while reading that story when I was a boy. There was something about the tale that resonated with me as I saw in my mind the awesome genie who was about to obliterate the poor fisherman. It was such a relief when, by human cunning, he outwitted the genie, tricking him back into the bottle.

Somehow, that story strikes a chord with many people. Often in life one hears the phrase, “You know, once the genie is out of the bottle...” You have probably heard that expression used in many contexts – in business, in politics, in social gatherings, and in religion. It seems to carry a central truth that we know instinctively – keep the terror at bay, keep it out of the picture if possible so you can live a normal, tidy, comfortable life. One place that this attitude is seen most conspicuously is in the practice of religion. We seem to have a need to acknowledge an all-powerful God, but at the same time, we must set definite parameters for that God. We set theological boundaries that we forbid God to cross. We compartmentalize our faith and worship so that it does not spill over and interfere unnecessarily with our lives.

We keep God in a box. We contain the Almighty by our unique and complex human cunning. It seems that those who are more religious and more vocal in their faith are even more adept at keeping God in a box. Church leaders may say, “Our tradition does not recognize thus-and-so.” or, “That is not in keeping with our doctrine," or “Such-and-such is not valid in light of our revealed truth.” The most extreme entrapment of the Omnipotent is to so exalt the scripture that God is seen only in the Bible. We are entirely safe when God is confined to ancient history and within ancient words of a book. We can keep the book closed when we want to, or we can take from it the limited scripture verses that suit our purpose.

We like to feel that we have access to divine power, but we also like to feel that we are in control. Sometimes we may feel that God is too hemmed in – the box is too small. We may have the need to broaden the parameters that have been set for divine expression. We may also know that such a task is a dangerous one. How much space do we really want to give to the divine power? How much is too much before the genie is completely out of the bottle?

At other times, we may find that quite unexpectedly divine power is unleashed into our world, upsetting the tidy rooms and orderly spaces. There is another deep truth at work: we are not really in control. Nevertheless, we know that, like the fisherman in the Arabian Nights story, if we keep our wits about us, maybe we can handle it.


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