From the second section: Sacred Secularity
Essay Ten: The End of Spirituality
Essay Eleven: When I Knew God
Essay Seventeen: Jesus’ Penis
Essay Twenty-One: Imagining
Essay Ten: The End of Spirituality
On the Trail to a Sacred Secularity
We are all tired of the contemporary cliche, “Spiritual but not Religious.” We might be surprised to hear someone say “I’m Religious but not Spiritual” though that may simply be an example of a person who does not connect to the word “spiritual”–they may like the word Religion or religious, or judge “spiritual” as being too closely associated with recently invented religions, shallow anti-intellectualism or fringe movements (and maybe it is). Whatever the semantics, all of this signals game-time for scholars and students of religious history and study. Teams are formed (called schools, seminaries, blogs and the like), ideas are tossed around, each side scores points and sometimes a winner is declared. Books are published, new “spiritual (or religious) stars” arise, until the next challenger steps up to throw out a new, agitating idea. It can all be great fun–a fine distraction. Or a deadly serious distraction.
At least since the un-dramatic moment when I left my ordination at the altar a decade ago, a troubling question has been pinging in my mind: Are we near to the end of this slippery thing called Spirituality as we have known it–or not known it? After this disturbing question downloads, another couple quickly upload: Could some kind of Sacred Secularity take its place, and what would that mean for historic Religions as well as perceptions of personal connections to the Sacred? I’m not convinced that most people, and perhaps especially the Proud Progressives, are ready to “friend,” “like” or thumbs up! this one. The urge to delete the disturbance might be just a little too great.
When I used to teach courses in World Wisdom I would urge students to read the source texts as the primary means of hooking the wisdom of the past. For many this was their first time reading the Qur’an, the Tao, the Dhammapada, the Gita or even the Bible in the context of all the totemic Texts. And this was always directly plugged into meeting people of various faiths and visiting synagogues, mosques, temples and churches. Then and only then could the most “real” questions be asked so the “real” education could emerge. We discussed the stunning fact that most if not all of the so-called Great Spiritual Teachers from Abraham to Lao Tzu to Buddha to Jesus to Mohammad to Zoroaster (and maybe some of their hidden female companions) had their original experience of something called Spirituality in the wild places–forests, mountains, deserts, countrysides, etc. It can be quite a wake-up for some to realize that Religions did not originate by praying in a Holy House or by reading a Sacred Scripture. The origin of something that came to be packaged, stamped and sent out as Spirituality was in Nature–a direct experience of the natural world. How do you package that? How do you send it? For reference see the History of Religion. My own vocation as an Interfaith Chaplain among outsiders and castaways confirmed the seismic impact of going into the wilderness (though it be a steel cave of a jail cell or the concrete forest of street life) to discover what rarely if ever makes an appearance on a Friday evening or Sunday morning. Now there’s something troubling! If anything is “discovered” in marginal ministry it may not simply look like God but the God-awful and God-damned. Hard to get a handle on these things, other than the faces, names, lives of each individual and the wild edges of our packaged and stamped “communities” where the despised and damned simply strive to survive.
A college student taking a course in environmental ethics asked me if I thought the earth was sacred. After a pause, I responded by saying that I could answer “yes” but the rest of the page would be one long footnote. I said that as soon as you name a piece of ground (or book, or person) “sacred” then all else becomes “secular” and I’m really fine with Secularity–in its primary meaning as this present world. I really don’t know how to relate to anything else. In my opinion we are now facing a moment in history when any and all divisive, separatist terms (such as “sacred” or even “spiritual”), concepts, beliefs, books or traditions must be fully justified–if they can be–by extended footnotes. That is, if anything disconnects the human family from itself or its home (the eco from the logy or the ecu from the menical) it should be forcefully detained and interrogated for relevance, cross-examined as an unhelpful obstacle or clear and present danger for destruction to persons, communities or the planet itself. I would present that Religion and Spirituality themselves fall within this arena for open critique, eventual museum display or perhaps immediate shredding. If these are found to be clearcutting the forests of Reason or poisoning the drinking water of billions on the globe (literally or not), decisive action must be taken. In that mobilizing action, collaborative coalitions will arise to lead the way forward without appeal to “higher” authorities. We the People (of the Planet) have to live here, now, and do what must be done, naturally–according to Nature, which includes our nature. We too must meet our “Greater Spirit” (“better angel”) in the wild places (be they mountains or rivers, prisons or streets) even as we learn from our world and preserve it for generations ahead. As Emerson said, we have no need to look over our shoulders to those who faced their God in the past when we can face that Creative Reality fully and fearlessly today.
This is all of course a great threat to the hand-me-downs of our historic religious traditions. Yet we know that religions come and go or at least mutate and evaporate. One is born; another dies. Stronger religions beat out the weak–survival of the faithfully fittest. But could it be that it is time to acknowledge an evolutionary leap in the Ontological Olympics? Could it be argued that “spirituality” as an imagined connection to a Super above, behind and beyond the Natural, has run its course, lost its momentum and meaning, and Religion itself has dropped out of the race to relevance? Could both theists and non-theists at least ask the questions, and have a conversation? Could the discussion lead to decisive, collaborative responses to real needs in our (common) world? Let’s hope so.
Astronomer Carl Sagan wrote, “In its encounter with Nature, science invariably elicits a sense of reverence and awe. The very act of understanding is a celebration of joining, merging, even if on a very modest scale, with the magnificence of the Cosmos. . . .‘Spirit’ comes from the Latin word ‘to breathe.’ What we breathe is air, which is certainly matter, however thin. Despite usage to the contrary, there is no necessary implication in the word ‘spiritual’ that we are talking of anything other than matter. . .or anything outside the realm of science. On occasion, I will feel free to use the word. Science is not only compatible with spirituality; it is a profound source of spirituality. When we recognize our place in an immensity of light-years and in the passage of ages, when we grasp the intricacy, beauty, and subtlety of life, then that soaring feeling, that sense of elation and humility combined, is surely spiritual. . . . The notion that science and spirituality are somehow mutually exclusive does a disservice to both.”
If we choose to juggle and struggle along with this slippery something called Spirituality, it seems to me that Sagan’s sensible and sensate scientific spirituality makes immense sense for us today. In a deeply divided world where people, their lands and the interrelations of the environment are being threatened or destroyed every day we need to explore some common ground–literal dirt, soil, something to stand on. Theists and Non-Theists need to engage it all, to work side by side in the present, natural world, putting aside needless and unhelpful divisive, distractive debates over Super-Nature. Heaven’s golden pavement no longer offers a safe ride and holy books no longer provide much more than torn and yellowed road maps for one tribe to drive over another. We need a GPS that locates our place among many and includes those across borders (physical and mental). We need a Google Earth mentality that spins us around (and reminds us of our axis), forcing us to “get real” and a real perspective of where we live and how small and inter-related we are. We have to ask ourselves and each other: What is the alternative?
As was once said of The Poor, religious communities will always be with us. Religion will always offer something to download and install–with adequate firewalls in place. But Nature is the ultimate and final organic link we have to our own humanity and this present world. All the links are posted and clearly presented for our connecting click. Networking may be the only true work left to us.
What if we seriously considered the practice of a Sacred Secularity, a direct and common experience of what is, what we face as a species among species, from water to air to energy, from economies, to housing, justice, rights and communities? What if? Without a need to fall on our knees beneath something or someone outside Nature we can sink in the soil to plant seeds of secularity, to admit we are a wonderful, even “sacred” (amazingly delightful) mix of mostly water and air and earthy dirt. Could we grow to better “recognize our place in [the] immensity” and discover that what we used to call the Spiritual Path is a pilgrimage closer to home than we ever imagined, a trail laced with breath, bones and blood, with ancient stones, verdant moss, leafy branches, twisted roots and much more? With a deep breath and a courageous sense of adventure, we may open ourselves to the magnificence, the landscapes never seen, alongside our furry, feathered, finned companions who may just lead us beyond religion, beyond spirituality, even beyond words. . . ?
A version of this essay was published on State of Formation, the online forum of the Journal of Inter-religious Dialogue.
Essay Eleven: When I Knew God
The following “testimonial” arose from my reading of Carl Sagan’s The Demon-Haunted World, especially the chapter, “Obsessed with Reality.”
A Freethinker’s Testimony
When I was a young boy approaching my tween and teen years there were some things I knew, I just knew, were real and true. Of course, I knew my parents and sister loved me. I knew I had a home and a bedroom and there would always be food on the table. I knew I lived in a fairly peaceful Northwest town and the ferry horn would always remind me the salty Sound was nearby.
At that young, ripe, imaginative age, there were other worlds to know and explore. I read every book I could find on dinosaurs (and loved Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Lost World long before Jurassic Park) sure that some “terrible lizard” still roamed some remote wilderness. I virtually inhaled anything on U.F.O.s, fully convinced rather horrifying and human-hating extraterrestrial creatures were visiting Earth and may be “among us” (Incident at Exeter, about an alien invasion, haunted me). In fact, I was sure, just sure, that I saw an other-worldly airship out the family room window one dark night. There was a slow moving light in the sky; too low for a plane–I was sure. While hiking and climbing trees in thick, dark and damp Pacific Northwest forests I always kept an eye out for Sasquatch, Bigfoot. I had little doubt the big hairy guy was out there, probably watching me. This was reinforced by all the Saturday Creature Features I watched on Frankenstein, Dracula, Wolfman and, of course, the Creature from the Black Lagoon. Another of my favorite shows was Sons of Hercules and I had endless fun pretending I was a super strong little guy (“they were men as Men should be!”), much more real than Superman, Batman and the rest, though I loved them too. Comic Books helped imprint those images of monsters and mutants on my youthful mind.
I seemed to love anything weird, wild and especially eerie or otherworldly. The Sleeping Prophet was a bestseller and I started buying and reading all books by and about Edgar Cayce and his “miraculous” cures, descriptions of past civilizations and amazing predictions of future events. This led to a fascination with the dark or hidden side of history and humanity. “True Crime” stories fascinated me and I sneaked a few True Confessions magazines into my room to peek through when I wasn’t utterly engrossed in watching Dragnet, The F.B.I., Adam 12 and all the rest on television with the family. There was always something or someone hidden out there in the shadows–crooks, creatures or cosmic boogeymen–and they were not nice at all.
I was already a convert to science fiction, committed to watching any show or movie on space or the latest science show on technological wonders. I enjoyed flipping through my dad’s Popular Science magazines, thrilled by the pictures of the latest fantastic inventions. I loved any good mystery, loved being scared, and loved being comforted afterward by a hot cup of cocoa or a sound night’s sleep (if I wasn’t hearing voices, footsteps or knocking from all those spooks or monsters!). And because I was born on Christmas Day I still had a suspicion there really was a Santa Claus. At least he was, generally, a nice fellow (unlike that nasty Scrooge or Grinch).
For me it was all fiction, fantasy, entertainment. . .yet real, true, wonderful, compelling, even inspiring. The contradictions made it all that much more real and intriguing.
Then one night something entirely different, or so it seemed, happened. As a somewhat shy and withdrawn early teen I was watching my small black and white television, with those alien rabbit ears, in my room of refuge. Glowing blacklight posters covered the walls, along with glossy photos from Nature magazines, Rock stars and school art projects. Clicking the dial, in those days before the genius of “remote control,” searching for Star Trek, Night Gallery, Outer Limits, a good cartoon, crime drama, Disney movie or comedy show, I saw something quite amazing. A thin old man (at least he looked old to me) with longish graying hair was holding a worn black book with a floppy leather cover high up over his head, yelling at a stadium full of silent, attentive people. An announcer told me this was a famous man named Billy Graham and this was his “Crusade” from some sport arena far away. The preacher sounded very sincere, somewhat angry but curiously concerned about something called a “soul.” He looked and sounded radically different than the pastor at church who usually gave dry-as-cereal sermons after I was dismissed to Sunday School. As this “Billy” person yelled on, my heart was, in the words of Wesley, “strangely warmed.” At the “altar call,” when it appeared that thousands of people were coming down to the Evangelist’s feet to “give their lives to Christ who gave his life for them,” I dropped to my pajama knees next to my bed in front of the glowing box and “accepted Jesus into my heart” (whatever that meant), repenting of my awful 12 years of “Sin” (something that made the Preacher and God apparently very unhappy with me). I devoted my life to. . . . I hadn’t a clue, and really didn’t care. I cried and felt very loved, noticed, not alone anymore (my parents were very loving people and never neglected me, but this was inviting an invisible friend and teacher to be constantly present with me, for me). I looked up, over the top of the little t.v., and gazed through tears at the picture someone in the family or at the church gave me: a glossy “photo” of a long-haired man with a bronzed face looking up into a light above him. This was the man called “Jesus” the preacher in the stadium was yelling about. Now I “knew” that he was real, I “knew” he loved me (yes me, Chris!) and I “knew” he would now lead me as a kind older brother, a doting father, a white-robed shepherd, a faithful companion and friend.
Through High School I became a Baptist-Presbyterian-Pentecostal-Evangelical-Campus Crusader and Youth Group Leader. Lots of friends, cute girls and respectful adults who gave me lots of attention, and I just knew God loved me and wanted the whole world to hear what I had to say! Couldn’t beat that! I took every opportunity to “bring others to Chris . . .then Christ” so they might “know God” just like I did. It was all great fun. Well, not all of it. Every believer has “trials and tribulations” to go through–“lessons” from God (because “He loves us”). Girls of course were the one great “stumblingblock” on my “walk with Christ,” the one who never had a girlfriend but didn’t appreciate how I wanted to kiss them and touch their breasts.
All these years later I reflect on my early “knowledge.” With help from Carl Sagan I find myself wondering about my early sense of Wonder; my tendency, even delight, at being time and again bamboozled. As he puts it, “One of the saddest lessons of history is this: If we’ve been bamboozled long enough, we tend to reject any evidence of the bamboozle. We’re no longer interested in finding out the truth.” I knew Jesus, and I knew he was there with me, in me, in my room, watching me, caring about me, displeased with me (over and over, I was so bad you know). I knew he was “in my heart” (still didn’t know what that meant). I knew in exactly the same way I knew there were UFOs piloted by low-flying aliens, knew there was at least one or two Sasquatches, knew there was a Loch Ness Monster and many more monsters, knew Edgar Cayce was a “prophet” and knew Kirk and Spock would survive on that weird and dangerous planet with green monsters and blue trees. I knew America would win in Vietnam, because I knew my country was the greatest, strongest, rightest, most blessed and Christian Nation on earth! I knew it all.
My youthfully morphing (easily shaped) mind was continually bothered, troubled, disturbed and deeply saddened when others didn’t know and believe what I knew and believed–when they didn’t “just believe” and “just know” in the same way. No doubt (yes, pun intended), to “just believe” was identical to “just know.” Faith and knowledge dissolved into one. It was like the transporter on Star Trek–faith transported, sparklingly dissolved into knowledge and back again–the strange, unusual, bizarre, weird and wonderful became accepted, usual, normal for me. When a friend took me to an odd, elderly woman’s house where they were all speaking in “tongues” in a darkened room, the strangeness quickly became not so strange, is was oddly attractive. I had to have it. And voila! I got it! The Holy Ghost was now in me, I had the “full gospel” and now God could speak directly through me in a mindless but heavenly language (never English). There was no going back. I knew God, God knew me, and because I was filled with the Spirit (breath) of the Almighty Creator of the Universe, I knew what God thought, felt and desired for everyone else on the planet and in the universe. And I was only 16!
“Know-it-all”s will, at some crisis point, discover they are not. I suspect Sagan, during his life and beyond, has guided a large number through these crises, through the Cosmos, where we are constantly gaining new knowledge, at least enough to be reminded of our profound ignorance. He perceptively describes the sad and shadowed history of deception, gullibility, irrationality. What he says of people who converse with spirits (such as “mediums” and the like) can be said for all claims to Know. “Seances occur only in darkened rooms, where the ghostly visitors can be seen dimly at best. If we turn up the lights a little, so we have a chance to see what’s going on, the spirits vanish.”
People want to believe so badly, so desperate for assurance of an alternate world and sense of belonging. I wanted to know, to believe, to sense it was all true from science fiction to spirituality, from ghosts to god, from the hairy monster hiding in the trees to the hairy super-human Palestinian Jew hung on one. It all seemed so real. I knew; I just knew.
Then, someone turned up the lights. I looked around and realized I was living in a theater. I walked out. Now, I think I know better because my knowledge is based on years of experience. I have experience with thinking and questioning and living in the light of a brighter, more wondrous and incredibly beautiful world with its mix of disaster, disease and death, delight and daily discovery. The mysteries still remain, but they are mysteries that can be questioned, explored, challenged and changed, revealed, brought to light as we probe and seek to understand. This knowledge is open to change because views and opinions and beliefs change. They must.
Now, I know that what I “knew” was not knowledge but wishful thinking, accepting others’ opinions about the world, myself and the supernatural. I was a fan of fantasy and the fantastic and that lost its charm. Many of the people were good and kind and thoughtful folks. But they too had accepted the beliefs and “knowledge” of others. Hand-me-down knowledge, second-hand truth (what Thomas Paine called “hearsay”), has to be seriously questioned to see if it really fits reality. Wishful thinking, like flying through space with the crew of the Enterprise, may be amusing and fun in the fantasy, but it is wishful and not often fulfilling. Imagination is a great thing–maybe one of those Only Human gifts from evolution–, but imagination has to be taken for what it is and not confused with “truth” or “reality” or “knowledge.” Having worked with mentally ill people for many years, and seeing first hand the effects of deception or delusion, this is serious practical advice!
I understand better now what I believed and why. The difference is that, all these years on, like the young boy turning the dial on that old black and white set in the darkened room on that lonely night, I know–it’s only a t.v., only a show, it’s not real or true. It was once entertaining, even exciting and ecstatic to play along. But it was all fiction. I know that now. I know. I know now that I did not know. But now I know.
Sagan ends his chapter with a warning that won’t surprise alert and attentive people in our time, yet we would all do well to take heed:
“Baloney, bamboozles, careless thinking, flimflam, and wishes disguised as facts are not restricted to parlor magic and ambiguous advice on matters of the heart. Unfortunately, they ripple through mainstream political, social, religious and economic issues in every nation.”
Somehow I know he’s right. As I ask myself, more often now: Don’t you think? I know enough to think. And, I think enough to know, at least some things.
Essay Seventeen: Jesus’ Penis
Warning: No doubt this will be one of the most controversial, offensive essays I have ever written for public view. If you choose to read it, you take responsibility. You have been warned.
“Sex is the best and most powerful means to “prove” the disgusting beast of our nature. The Church has consistently used our natural sexuality as a weapon—to varying degrees in Catholic, Orthodox, Protestant, Conservative and Liberal factions (mainline divorces over the “sanctity of marriage” and alternative “unions” leave even “progressive” lovers of God feeling jilted and unsatisfied). No wonder Whitman was so obnoxiously obscene and offensive in his celebration of the “body electric” and his proclamation that “the soul is not more than the body” (Song of Myself, 48). Oddly and ironically, in-timacy (a close relation which dissipates all fear—though this is not the Latin derivative) is judged disastrous to faith in fear-driven Christianism. We are “fallen” because of a rise—the erection of our humanity emasculates our spirit (and clitoral orgasm shudders—and shutters—the soul). Is this too graphic? If you think so, I give you your own reaction as evidence. The eunuch, the saint, the virgin—each an exemplar of purity and faith in their denial if not dismemberment of God-given but God-cursed sexuality (one could say, with a certain shudder, this is actually a dismemberment of God). Sex is a no-win for the person of faith. The Church is pornography incarnate; selling out the body for the bodiless. Show me one, just one, crucifix where Jesus has a penis (a recent art exhibit with just such a well-endowed figure was, of course, attacked). In our culture, blasphemous as it is to the belief that we are made “in God’s image,” this would be (and is) condemned as pornographic. The power of irrational faith is nowhere as evident” (Life After Faith).
I want to develop this theme a bit more than I had room for in Life After Faith. Did Jesus have a penis? If so (and of course he did), why not show it, depict it, worship it? Why deny it? Why avoid the fact that the “Son of God” had to take a leak and that he may well have “used” that appendage for what it was “meant” for? Maybe this is the one thing Christianists fear most. They fear Jesus’ penis. Why? Because it is the most human part of a man and leads to every kind of major “sin” available to the tempted.
Ask a person of faith what pornography is and they will no doubt say something about de-valuing the “sacredness” of the physical body, of sexuality, of our “god-given blessedness” or some such. They will say it cheapens the “gift of sex” and makes it “recreational” instead of procreational. So, I ask, if we are not to deny our sexuality but celebrate its sacredness and somehow see it as a spiritual act, then why deny that and not celebrate it in the man who is the central god in the flesh for a large body of the world? Did Jesus really have a body and if he did then did he not have a brain, a heart, an arse and a penis? Why be embarrassed by this? One reason: Religion or no religion we are embarrassed by our own sexuality. Second reason: If Jesus had a penis (whether he used it for more than peeing aside for a moment) then he was very, very human, which shakes up the “pure and undefiled” image that makes him different, “unique.” If he had a penis, he was too “common,” “earthy,” “masculine.” A third reason people are uncomfortable with a divine penis: It is the one thing that really makes a man a man–a down to earth human being–so an emasculated god is easier to worship as Other, Other than Human, Not Quite Human, Above and Immaterial and Super-natural. A fourth reason: If Jesus had a penis he might be suspected of using it for something more than pissing on a cactus. Jesus could be suspected of having sex, and the image of God’s Only Son screwing around with Palestinian women is unthinkable!
Here is a strange truth I have pondered for many a year: Sex is the Number One form of Evangelism on the planet. Conversion is best without a condom. Why are there so many Hindus? Sex is “sacred” and free. Why are there so many Muslims? Multiple wives lead to large Muslim families. Why so many Catholics and Evangelicals and Pentecostals? Birth control is taboo and having as many children as possible is encouraged. It grows the “family of faith.” Why so many Mormons? Polygamy in the past and present, and. . .the more children the more vessels for souls awaiting birth. Simple. Of course. Makes sense. Well, in a twisted kind of overpopulated way. So, the history of religion proves it: the penis is the main “tool” for proselytizing through propagating. God’s fundamental means for de-seminating faith is through semen (no wonder we joked in seminary that it was really “semenary”). The seeds of the spirit are passed along primarily through sex, which is not to be pleasurable because that would encourage sex without reproduction and hence without the main purpose: to make more believers. Logical? Of course. Or, not.
God said to the Jews, “Be fruitful and multiply. . .be like the sands (or sperm) of the sea” and JC said to the Christians, “Make (love, uh, that is), disciples of all nations.” The more sex, the more believers covering the land. Which of course means, the more marriages and the more progeny the better and more blessed. Maybe the original Mormons really did have it right. Polygamy leads to polygeny and eternal life through propagation. It’s just so “Pro Life” isn’t it? Think of all those lost baby believers being aborted! Abstinence is the best defense against having sex for pleasure. God no! Wait for marriage (blessed by the church, or mosque, or synagogue, or temple) because once you have that holy paper filed and framed on your bedroom wall, you can have all the unprotected sex you want and manufacture whole busloads of believers, guaranteeing you and your faithful flock will have a mansion in heaven (you’ll need the space!). And, oh heavens, don’t do “the act” for your own pleasure. Pleasure is for God and God gets orgasmic over more and more and more pro-creation! Think of the souls waiting for their own organs so they can make even more organs, forever and ever amen!
And, surely this makes it clear as a cucumber why same-sex marriage is blasphemy! If you aren’t adding new little believers to the planet, By God you are the worst of the worst. Besides, you focus all the attention on your perverted penises and not on the Most Perfect Penis Ever on this Planet! Clear enough?
Is the story of Jesus’ Penis really the greatest story yet untold? Not pornography but born-ography. Gives rise to a stiff conversation, does it not? Why are we so embarrassed about a well-hung holy one? At least the Hindus have the Shiva Linga, representing the phallus of Lord Shiva (they pour milk on the stone for blessing—quite the symbolism). Our Lords, with their lack of a phallus, might just “fail us” with their impotence.
Then again, we could move on to the Vagina of the Virgin.
And, again, if this essay and its subject bother you or make you feel uncomfortable or angry, my question stands: Why?
The reaction to this crucifix in a church in Oklahoma makes my point. Is this offensive?
And snow penises are illegal. . .didn’t you know?!
Part II: God Hates Foreskins (cutting edge thinking)
Nine percent (9%) of men in the U.K. are circumcised. Seventy-five percent (75%) of men in the U.S. are circumcised. In Nigeria, ninety-five percent (95%). We can assume that in Israel and pretty much all Muslim countries the slice is close to one-hundred percent (100%)–see this BBC article.
Jesus was a member of an exclusive tribe that believed the Almighty Lord of the Universe requires a knife be used on a baby boy’s penis. He had his “cut around” to be a “cut above” all other tribes and peoples of the planet (“Salvation is from the Jews” saith the Gospel of John). Now, this bears repeating: the Creator of the Cosmos cares about a small flap of skin on the end of the male sex organ. You prove your faith (at least if you have one of these) and faithful membership by showing the tip of your “member,” as we say.
I raised the issue with my wife in my typical irritating manner: “Honey, if there was a religion that said their God told them to cut off the nipples of every little baby girl, would you support that?” This is not the kind of question that invites discussion. Before she caught herself she answered “No!” When I asked what was the difference in circumcising little boys. . .well, the “discussion” got, shall we say, cut off.
According to the aforementioned BBC article (August, 2012) the rate of circumcision in the U.S. is falling off, while countries like Germany and Norway are attempting to ban the practice altogether. Dutch doctors are saying circumcision does not clearly prevent disease and should be left to the decision of the child later in life. U.S. doctors admit there is “insufficient data” on the health benefits of the cut, but say there is evidence of some benefit. Such a firestorm over such a piece of flesh. Yes, yes, of course, this is cultural and religious and even political, but listen to this “reason” many parents choose the cut: “One of the most common reasons given for the surgery is that a father wants his son to look the same as him, or is afraid his child will be teased if left uncircumcised.”
An Oxford ethicist makes a good point about ancient traditions that just aren’t justified any longer. He says, “As we evolve morally as a species we need to ask, ‘Do they still make sense today?’ Religious traditions should not be exempt from such scrutiny, he argues.” This common sense reasoning infuriates those who feel they are a “cut above” the rest of us who live in the modern world.
If I could find someone willing to discuss this issue (and this chapter) I might ask, “What if a Christian sect decided to tattoo a cross on the forehead of every baby, to make sure they were ‘marked by God’ throughout their life?” Well, here’s what one mohelim (ritual circumcisers) said about the Jewish ceremony, “This is our belief, and this is the root of the Jewish soul,” Rabbi Metzger said. “It is a stamp, a seal on the body of a Jew” (New York Times, August 21, 2012). Yes, it sure is. And, if later in life, say when he’s 16, a boy decides he does not believe in Judaism and chooses another faith or becomes a freethinker, he remains marked, stamped, sealed by religion anyway. Oh well, too bad. This makes me think of the division between the Catholic-Protestant practice of “infant baptism” (bringing a child into the “family of faith”) as opposed to the Baptist-Evangelical belief that a person must be “of age” to choose to be born again. This important life decision to join the family and “follow Christ” is a momentous decision, a matter of the conscious (and maybe informed) will. A baby does not have that option. Those who consider restrictions on circumcisions to be an infringement on “religious freedom” may want to consider the freedom of the child; especially those people who are constantly preaching that a fetus in the womb is a “person with a soul” and “has rights.” Forcing one’s religion on an innocent baby seems medieval or plain barbaric in our age. When that force takes the form of physical scarring (abuse) all people of conscience ought to speak out to limit these kinds of “freedom” (compare “honor killings,” female “circumcision, “ arranged marriages, forced memorization of religious texts by children, and such).
“Circumcision,” “circumcise” and variants appear about 100 times in the Hebrew/Christian Bible (“compassion” receives a mere 80 mentions). “Foreskin” appears about 12 times. When David wished to become Saul’s son-in-law by marrying Michal, the king told David to bring him “a hundred foreskins of the Philistines.” Since, as Saul understood, “the LORD was with David,” the young warrior of Israel promptly marched out, killed one hundred of the enemy, and brought back one hundred foreskins. Imagine what a good time David and his men enjoyed cutting all those and how pleased Michal must have been to be worth so much (this happy story can be found in First Samuel 18, AFV-authorized foreskin version-; and, yes, I know “progressives” say these are “wisdom stories” which of course begs the question: Really?). Is it any wonder that the prophet Jeremiah tried to change the message, spiritualizing this hideous practice with, “Circumcise yourselves to the LORD, remove the foreskin of your hearts” (Jeremiah 4:4) and the early Christians, sliced apart into The Cut and the Uncut, erected a whole new understanding of the mystical community heralded in Paul’s preaching, “In [Christ] also you were circumcised with a spiritual circumcision” (Colossians 2:11).
Sarcastic, am I? Oh yes. Angered, disgusted, amused. And it all comes back to the main issue: God hates (or loves) foreskins. I guess women have to just sit back and watch the whole bloody show (and hope that God never gets the notion to demand female nipplectomies).
What does all this have to do with Jesus’ own “member?” Well, just about everything. The whole idea, this whole mess, disrespects children, denigrates men, sex and humanity itself. We see how people “mutilate” their bodies out of devotion in many cultures and openly or secretly judge the practice as “savage,” “brutal,” “barbaric” while calmly acquiescing to ancient rites and rituals that could be judged just as harshly (and should be). Child abuse is child abuse, no matter how cloaked behind faith, tradition and “God’s word.” What would Jesus say or do? Maybe he would find his “holy” foreskin and miraculously re-attach it. Maybe he wouldn’t care. I think he wouldn’t care. Yet, I can guess as well as anyone. I think Jesus would look down at his own penis and ask himself, and us, if we’re listening, “Does it really matter what I DO with it?”
Note: If you are offended by this essay, I really have to ask: Why did you read it? You had a choice, didn’t you? No one made you read it, or told you that you had to think about this uncomfortable subject. What’s most offensive is that many of the “offended” choose to be.
And, once again, I have to ask the one offended, Are you equally offended by war and injustice, poverty and pollution, by hunger and homelessness? If you are not, I would admit to taking some offense at that.
Essay Twenty-One: Imagining
Imagine this: a natural disaster strikes your community. People are hurt; some die; others stumble into hastily opened shelters in schools, city hall, a local church, wiccan center, synagogue or mosque. The Red Cross (or Crescent) mobilizes. Volunteer fire fighters join with the police to help wherever the greatest need is. Some are rescued, others are buried. Months later, most of the area is back to some level of normalcy and people rebuild.
Imagine this: a tragedy hits your neighborhood. A family loses their home to a fire or foreclosure, a teenager kills herself or a child is hit by a car. Some respond immediately to offer comfort, medical assistance, a place to stay or money. Others arrive with blankets, meals, toys for the children. Time goes on and the neighbors keep a kind eye on that house and those who are now known by name.
Think. Who are these people? Those in need and those who help. Who do you imagine they are? Are they Black, White, Asian or Latino? Are they Chilean or Chinese, Ethiopian or Eskimo, French or American? Are they men or women, young or old, disabled or Republicans or Democrats or Independents or Socialists? Are they Gay or Straight? Are they You? Are they Jewish or Muslim or Christian or Wiccan or Buddhist or Atheist or None of The Above? Do they believe in heaven or hell or read the Bible, the Bhagavad Gita, the Dhammapada, the Tao, the Book of Mormon or the New York Times religiously? Do they vote like you, look like you, believe like you, work the same job you do? Who are these people?
By now I suspect you may be thinking something like: Who Cares? People need help and others step in to help. It doesn’t matter at all what all these differences are. People are suffering and others do their part to assist in many different ways.
Imagine. If there are people in need; if there are important, even critical, things that must be done and done now; if there are major disasters and daily disasters and personal tragedies and tragedies that hit or strike our communities, our nations, our world. . .and the differences that divide people are really irrelevant in the face of all this. . .then what if we moved on from them? What if we did what must be done to make our communities safer and healthier and more just and equal for all, and worked together to do the right thing for ourselves and others? What if we could get passed the judgments and jokes and beliefs that keep people apart to do what disasters make us do?
When the fire or earthquake arrives. When the tornado or tsunami or hurricane comes. When the war or the bombs or the attack is here. When the houses fall with the houses of God and the SUVs and Hummers are crushed along with the old clunkers. When one family loses their child and another loses their grandparent. When a person becomes homeless or gets cancer or develops a mental illness. When every imaginable thing happens. . .what do we do, what do we think, what do we believe or say?
Some say it takes a village. Maybe what it really takes is a disaster, a common suffering, that challenges us to do what we’ve never imagined possible. To act together. To be human, together.
And wouldn’t it be nice if it didn’t take a disaster? Imagine that.
Imagine the unimaginable.