I copied this image, and its text, from a posting that I saw on Facebook this week.
The photo is intended, it seems, as a general commentary on religion, and the message is very clear: religious leaders/authorities/institutions have “fabricated” God and manufactured a belief system to go with it, in order to manipulate people into doing their will. The question with which viewers are left, “Who does that?” invites, I think, the reader to conclude that all religion does that — and, thus, perhaps religion should be left behind, along with the God that it “fabricated”.
On the one hand, the image with its text offers us an important insight that we should pay attention to and never forget: that religion, as it has been developed and practiced among many people and within many institutions, has indeed become manipulative. The theologian James Alison, for example (and, yes, I’m on an Alison kick these days), suggests that what has come to be the traditional interpretation of the Crucifixion of Jesus, as a sacrifice required by God in order to forgive our sins, is a piece of emotional blackmail under a religious guise. It attempts, he suggests, to impose a certain guilt on us by encouraging us to think about Jesus as having been forced to die for our sins. And that guilt is, indeed, intended to manipulate. There are countless other examples within the Christian tradition, certainly, of religious authorities using religion to manipulate people and impose their will. This was, indeed, one of the principal objections voiced by Jesus about the Judaism of his time: that the religious elite were constantly using their position and authority to manipulate others.
Recognizing the power of religion to become a tool of manipulation should make us cautious. And when religion is conceived of primarily as being about beliefs, morals, and behaviors, the possibility of manipulation is rampant. It seems right to me to say clearly and forcefully that authentic religion, we might say true religion, is not manipulative. And where two or three are being manipulated, Christ is not being made manifest — though Christ might well show up to try to subvert the manipulation.
By using the term “authentic religion” or “true religion”, however, I am clearly suggesting that there is religion that is not manipulative, religion that does not correspond to what this image of Dorothy and the Wizard with its accompanying text seeks to convey.
People forget, sometimes, that the world’s religious traditions did not come into being as the result of a conspiracy of elites to gain power and control others. While nearly every religion has suffered corruption at the hands of people who do harbor such ambitions, the kerygma or core of each of the world’s religious traditions is rooted in a real, authentic human experience — an experience so powerful that it opened up the people who had the experience in a way that they had never been opened up before, and convinced them that they had experienced that which we seek to capture in words like God, Sacred, Transcendent, Holy. And, of course, those words are utterly incapable of describing the experience. These experiences were not really about doctrines, beliefs, or morals, but rather, about transformation and the shifting of paradigms. What is clear is that these experiences that gave rise to what would become religious traditions were sufficiently powerful as to utterly change the lives of those involved. The history of all religions is full of examples of people who made tremendous sacrifices in their lives for the sake of what they had experienced.
The difficult task faced by every religious tradition, however, is the task of somehow passing on that original experience or, to be more accurate, the task of inducting people into that experience. In the case of Christianity, for example, the task faced by the first Christians was to somehow induct people who had not personally witnessed the Risen Christ into the experience of the Risen Christ. Everything that the church does is (or should be) about that one goal: inducting people into the experience of the Risen Christ. All of our traditions with respect to prayer and worship are about this very task.
Inevitably, however, the task of inducting subsequent generations into the original experience gets muddied. Sometimes, it gets modified and shifted in appropriate ways to meet new cultures. Often, however, it gets corrupted in various ways as it passes through various cultures and, it must be admitted, through the hands of people who are untransformed and who twist the tradition into a means of power and control — and there we are at manipulation again.
All of this is to say that God, the Sacred, the Holy, the Transcendent — is not invented. Though, people do invent things about God that are more reflections of an untransformed human consciousness than a manifestation of the divine. To jettison religion as nothing more than fabrication with the intent to manipulate would be folly, and would do violence to the original experience that so powerfully moved the founders of our traditions. It would also betray the natural human movement toward the transcendent, present in every human being (I am convinced) but not always manifested in what we would call a religious way. However, to approach religions and their representatives as if they were infallible or without error would also be folly. The various religious traditions must always be self-critical, asking whether a given practice, teaching or belief truly serves to induct people into the original experience and, therefore, into deeper relationship and transformation. If it does not, than it must be questioned. And, often, we are more able to undertake this task of self-criticism when we are challenged by those outside our tradition who wonder whether we have anything real to offer, or if it really is just all made up.