Tuesday, January 09, 2007

Doing God's Work?

Strange how -- in all the Abrahamite religions -- our sacred texts tell us to struggle withour own impurities, to love and accept others as they are, and to leave judgment to God. Yet so many seem to measure the power of their faith by whom and how stridently they can hate and condemn. As I understand Muslim, Christian and Jewish teaching, we are here to do God's work, and there is to be a strict division of labour:

Our duties are charity, generosity, prayer, educating ourselves and others; and judgment is to be left to God. Isn't that what it says in the noble Qur'an, the Gospels, and the Torah? But if we are indeed to do God's work, perhaps those who take on the duties of judgment see that there are more than enough people to do the human side of the task and have decided to help God more directly with His portion of the labor. The trouble is... when you strive to practice humility and non-judgment, it seems you have to at least act like you're not absolutely sure of any of these things. It looks much easier to be sure of your religious practices when you put judgmental contempt of others at the heart of it.

The paradox on my side of the argument is that being strong in my faith is being able to admit that I really know nothing and am stumbling about in hopes of doing the right thing. On the other side, being “strong in one’s faith” is easily expressed in the “strength” of machismo and combativeness. The appeal of being assertive and confident, strong in the old-fashioned sense of virile assurance is obvious. Pat Robertson and Osama bin-Laden at that rate have an easy sell, just like the old Charles Atlas ads in the comic books… Tired of looking like a wimp? Flex your muscles and be guaranteed a place in heaven! Do humility and charity have a chance against that? They can peddle a faith that looks like Schwartznegger in the role of divine savior. The best I can do looks more like Woody Allen in drag as Mother Theresa.

But the scriptures do counsel introspection, humility, and charity. We’re told that whoever judges or presumes to know whom God will favor is sure to be condemned. And another paradox: Just quoting scripture on the subject seems to presume that I know the final criteria, even when I admit that I can’t.

No wonder it looks so much easier to hate, and to be sure of one’s place in heaven for hating the right people.