Thursday, May 26, 2011

The Opium of the People?

A few months ago, I had a conversation with Juanetta, a homeless woman who occasionally collects money for her shelter outside of our local Target store. She told me of her heartbreak when her son was sentenced to prison, but how God had helped her finally surrender the burden to Him. And she was full of joy, with a smile on her face and words of kindness to everyone who passed by. “God has something wonderful to give us and all we have to do is open up our hearts,” were her parting words to me, and as always when I talk with her, I didn't just feel enriched, I was enriched.

But if Karl Marx had still been alive and leaving Target at the time of our conversation, he might have said that it proved his point:
Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people. The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is the demand for their real happiness. To call on them to give up their illusions about their condition is to call on them to give up a condition that requires illusions. The criticism of religion is, therefore, in embryo, the criticism of that vale of tears of which religion is the halo.
Getting rid of the vale of tears is a noble goal and one that Juanetta and I share. We agree that it is not a good thing when children end up in prison, and that people should give generously to the poor. (She was after all collecting money for her shelter.) But did Marx really think that he could eradicate car accidents, terminal illnesses, poverty, broken marriages, and the rebellion of children by simply demanding that people give up those things? And since he could do precious little about the vale of tears, it seems rather backwards to demand that people give up its "halo."

I don't for a moment concede that faith is an illusion, but Marx correctly observed that it helps people get through difficult times. In fact, I would say that there is a positive correlation between faith and poverty. How does the Bible explain this correlation? James 2:5 says: "Listen, my beloved brethren: did not God choose the poor of this world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom which He promised to those who love Him?" He has set up this world to function according to the survival of the fittest, but He has set up the kingdom of God in such a way that only the humble can receive it. "God is opposed to the proud, but He gives grace to the humble" (James 4:6). And that means the poor and disadvantaged have a distinct advantage.

Like Juanetta said, God has something wonderful to give us, but we have to open our hearts to receive it. And if our hearts are full of other things, we won't. Augustine agreed. "God wants to give us something, but cannot, because our hands are full—there’s nowhere for Him to put it."

In her Magnificat, Mary, the humble young girl with great faith who was chosen by God to carry His Son, said: "[God] has done mighty deeds with His arm; He has scattered those who were proud in the thoughts of their heart. He has brought down rulers from their thrones, and He has exalted those who were humble. He has filled the hungry with good things; and sent away the rich empty-handed" (Luke 52-53). At the end of the Gospels, God exalts another Mary with the honor of being the apostle to the apostles—the first messenger of the resurrection of Jesus. Who was Mary Magdalene, the mystery woman who received the spotlight at such an important moment, but is hardly mentioned elsewhere? Luke 8:1-3 indicates that she may have been wealthy, but that Jesus had cast out of her seven demons. We are not given any details, but we can safely say that this means she had major issues and would have really needed Jesus.

To the early Christians, the order of the postmortem appearances of Jesus was significant, with some non-canonical Gospels claiming the first appearance for whomever they admired most. For example, the Gospel of the Hebrews says that Jesus appeared first to James. The importance of the order is not lost on Paul, who doesn't mention Mary Magdalene in that patriarchal society, and goes through the list and concludes with, "and last of all, as to one untimely born, He appeared to me also. For I am the least of the apostles, and not fit to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God" (1 Corinthians 15:8-9).

Saul of Tarsus was neither poor nor disadvantaged in any way. He was an upwardly mobile, self-righteous Pharisee, who believed that he was doing God's will by destroying the church. But God could still use him. Paul continues: "But by the grace of God I am what I am, and His grace toward me did not prove vain; but I labored even more than all of them, yet not I, but the grace of God with me" (1 Corinthians 15:10, italics added).

And those words highlight what it is that God wants to give us if only we open up our hearts: the grace of God—that is, the power of God through the Holy Spirit. It was the grace of God that changed Paul from a proud, hate-driven man to a humble, hardworking man who called himself the least of the apostles and penned some of the most well-known, eloquent, and powerful verses about the preeminence of love: 1 Corinthians 13. And it is the grace of God that gives Juanetta joy in spite of her circumstances.

But even though Paul was God's chosen instrument for bringing the Gospel to the Gentiles, he continued to struggle with pride, and in 2 Corinthians 12:7-10, he says that he was given a "thorn in the flesh" to keep him from exalting himself. When he asked God to take it away, God replied: "My grace is sufficient for you, for power is perfected in weakness." In other words, as great as Paul was, the power of God was greater in him in his weakness and suffering. Then he was able to come to God with empty hands and an open heart and be filled with the power of Christ.


Ryk said...

I myself do not argue against religious beliefhaving positive consequences, just as I am sure you would not argue that it has negative consequences as well. For every grieving parent consoled by faith there is somewhere a child agonizing because they do not conform to the beliefs their parents indoctrinate them with. Perhaps they are gay or skeptical. Perhaps they have faith in God but not creationism or Mormopnism. Perhaps they do not wish to marry who their parents wish them to. A great many of these children do more than agonize over this they also kill themselves.

There are religious organizations who do good work but there are others that are frauds abusers and bigots.

My argument is not about the relative value of religious belief but that even if religious belief were the most perfect and flawless solution to the worlds ills, that would not make it true.

Anette Acker said...

Hi Ryk,

My argument is not about the relative value of religious belief but that even if religious belief were the most perfect and flawless solution to the worlds ills, that would not make it true.

I'm glad you made that point, because I don't think I made it clear in the post. The question of whether it's true that God exists and offers salvation to the world and the question of how we may receive that salvation are two separate ones. Usually I focus on the reasons why it is true. However, this time I am focusing on the correlation between suffering and/or poverty and salvation.

You may be arguing that if someone like Juanetta has not confirmed that she believes what is true, she shouldn't believe it. But if God were to demand that only the Augustines of the world--those who are capable of thinking philosophically and making sense of complex concepts--could be saved, then the kingdom of God would favor the intelligent and well-educated, just like this world does. That is not what God has chosen to do.

There is a direct route to God, or an immediate experience of His presence. This is what saves our souls. Juanetta has that relationship with God. I think it is appropriate to be somewhat skeptical when a person claims to know God, but the Bible gives a very simple test: the person who knows God should bear good fruit or be Christlike. If that is self-evidently not the case, then that is proof that someone does not know God. This has to be true because knowing God means that His Spirit lives within us.

I agree with you that religious belief can have negative consequences. In fact, it was the religious establishment that crucified Jesus. And I know that many Christians have the same legalistic, judgmental attitude.

However, since the central commands of the Bible are to love God with all our hearts, souls, and minds, and to love our neighbor as ourselves, lovelessness is the worst kind of corruption of Christianity. Anything good can be corrupted.

But again, the question of whether something is good for society and whether it is true are two separate ones. I am convinced that it is both, and I think that loving God with "all our minds" means trying to understand His ways and testing our beliefs to see if they're true. But all of this has to be done with an attitude of humility, which is a prerequisite for uncovering any kind of truth.

Anonymous said...

Hi Sweetie!

You look absolutely beautiful in your new pic, by the way. The black top with the embroidered collar, & the dark, dimly-lit, organic background, a perfect frame for the face of an angel, whose wistful eyes could melt any heart...I wonder how old you are, maybe 35 or 40?

Oh dear!

Anyway, just thought I'd pop by to see how you were. As I've hinted on several occasions, quibbling with you over matters of faith seems an affront to sense, if not to dignity, as you seem, to me at least, so much larger than the barebones of your beliefs. Arguing with someone as grounded as you are, seems self-defeating & a waste of time. No-one, in their right mind, could think your deep spirituality wasn't genuine, & so any misgivings about its literalness (or not) seem hardly to matter.

In that sense, at least for me, despite our different approaches, I feel a strong kinship with you that defies conventional or banal explication.

Not to offer up a discordant note of irony, but what do you mean when you suggest that Jesus' crucifixion was the 'negative' consequence of the prevailing ethos of His time? While I agree entirely, I would've thought that, in light of your acceptance of the truth of Christianity, it would've been anything, but negative.....

Regards to you & yours, Rene.

Anette Acker said...

Hi Rene. I'm doing well and I hope you are too.

Not to offer up a discordant note of irony, but what do you mean when you suggest that Jesus' crucifixion was the 'negative' consequence of the prevailing ethos of His time? While I agree entirely, I would've thought that, in light of your acceptance of the truth of Christianity, it would've been anything, but negative.....

Do you mean this paragraph? "I agree with you that religious belief can have negative consequences. In fact, it was the religious establishment that crucified Jesus. And I know that many Christians have the same legalistic, judgmental attitude."

The Pharisees and other religious leaders were the religious establishment at the time, and they opposed Jesus for a number of reasons, but one of them was that Jesus was willing to associate with sinners. He didn’t do this because He condoned their sins, but because He came to bring healing and set them free from their sins. So when the Pharisees criticized Him for eating with “tax collectors and sinners,” He replied by saying: “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. But go and learn what this means: 'I desire mercy, not sacrifice.' For I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners”(Matthew 9:12-13).

The Pharisees had a “holier than thou” attitude, which is condemned in the Bible. (This expression actually originates from Isaiah 65:5.) Jesus showed love and mercy to sinners, and the Pharisees judged Him for this.

But, again, Jesus didn’t condone the sins. He set the moral standard even higher than the prior standard, but He offers us His grace to enable us to meet it.

My point was that there have always been Christians with the same judgmental, bigoted attitude as the Pharisees had—people who “strain out a gnat and swallow a camel” by forgetting “justice, mercy, and faithfulness” (Matthew 23:23-24). Jesus condemned that attitude more than anything else, and it was religious people with that mentality who had Him crucified.

Anonymous said...

Anette, I understand all that, & I have no doubt your kind of faith is genuine......

Do you recall my mentioning the little angel who goes by the name of 'CompleteInChrist'? She reminds me of a younger you.

Look, all I'm saying (I think)is that the 'set-up', which led to Christ's crucifixion, was meant to be. I don't mean to disparage or belittle your beliefs (I respect you too much for that): I'm simply saying, at least from my perspective, the whole convoluted scenario that underpins your beliefs seems, paradoxically, at once too simple & too complex....

Anyway, my point which, with your custonmary grace, you've sidestepped (umm..., maybe you haven't, I'm thinking now, to myself?), is that to me, at least, the apparent gulf between us is more 'illusory', than real.

By the way, apologies for being such an incorrigible flirt; but if my wife puts up with it, I'm sure you can too.

As you know, perfection, in my view, is unobtainable, just as my admiration for all things womanly will never be stilled....

Well, at least not, until I shuffle this mortal coil......

DoOrDoNot said...

Annette, I tried using your search tool to find posts on the resurrection that you referenced on DagoodS blog, but it wasn't working for me. Could you point me in the right direction?

I enjoy reading your discussion with him and find it informative. When I first read your comments on his recent post, I thought to myself, Annette argues like an attorney, reminiscent of DagoodS' style. You are worthy debate partners. I'm far less eloquent than the two of you so I tend to sit quietly and watch the dialogue unfold.

Anette Acker said...

Hi DoOrDoNot,

Thanks for stopping by and for your kind words. Yes, DagoodS is a great debating partner and so is Vinny, who commented a fair amount while I was discussing the resurrection. He is good about moving the discussion forward in a constructive way.

I just created a label for the resurrection posts, so you should have an easy time accessing them. (But I think the default is that it shows the last post first, so you may want to go down to the bottom.) There are a lot of comments, so it might be somewhat overwhelming--this is why the topic took me about six months!