There are all sorts of things wrong with Christianity. Proselytizing is a vicious conspiracy that destroys indigenous cultures. Attempting to prevent the teaching of science in public school is nothing short of criminal. And can we talk about women’s rights and gay rights? But that’s old news, and not worth rehashing. Today I have something more basic in mind.
It seems to me that the taproot from which most of the deficiencies of Christianity have sprouted is that it’s an authority-based religion. The individual believer is, above all, expected to obey.
This was also true of the Judaism from which Christianity sprang. Moses came down from the mountain not with suggestions, not with recommendations on how to live a good life. No, they were commandments. Written in stone, just in case you missed the point.
The book of Leviticus, a contemptible piece of slime that is still in the Bible, though nobody pays much attention to it any more, is full of things that the Lord God ordered the Israelites either to do unfailingly, or not to do on pain of being stoned to death. Charming fellow, the Lord God.
From its beginnings, Christianity proclaimed that there was only one route to eternal life — and the church fathers had the keys to the gate that let you onto the toll road. If you didn’t want to burn in Hell, you had to follow the rules that the church laid down. Follow them meticulously. Once Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire, its supposed authority in matters of the spirit became tangled up with politics, and that only made matters worse. If you didn’t obey, it was both a sin and a crime — and now they had soldiers to toss you into the dungeon if your sin was not on the approved list. (Popes fathering children out of wedlock — not a problem. Disputing the precise nature of the Holy Trinity — bend over and kiss your ass goodbye.)
During the Medieval and Renaissance periods, the official operatives of the Catholic Church enthusiastically burned thousands of people at the stake. These people’s supposed crime was, in simple terms, that they failed to obey the rules laid down by the Pope.
Individual conscience? Even today, good Christians want nothing to do with it. It frightens them. If the pastor tells you what your individual conscience requires of you, that’s okay. That’s safe, because you’re being obedient to the supposedly revealed will of the Lord God. But don’t make the mistake of thinking you can have your own private ideas about important matters of personal or spiritual life. Everybody sings from the same hymn book, and if you don’t like it, there’s the door. Go find a different congregation — we don’t want your kind around here.
This week I’ve been renewing my acquaintance with the Tarot. It’s an odd and quirky set of images and associations, compounded of Jungian archetypes, personal intuition, Medieval mysticism, late-19th-century spiritualism, and new age silliness. The core is fairly well structured, but it’s quite fuzzy around the edges. There’s a large online community of enthusiastic Tarot practitioners and devotees.
What I find fascinating and heartening about the Tarot is that it’s clearly and specifically a do-it-yourself religion. Nobody is in charge. Nobody is saying, “This doctrine is correct, that doctrine is incorrect.” There is no Holy Book, not even the Tarot itself — hundreds of people have redone the Tarot deck, drawing their own images and/or renaming the existing images in ways that may be profoundly insightful, cute and trivial (yes, there’s a Tarot deck with pictures of cats), thoroughly creepy, or just plain tasteless. Even if you start with the classic Rider-Waite-Smith deck — and you could hardly go wrong with it — you’re entirely free to arrive at your own personal meanings of the cards. In fact, you won’t have truly grasped what the Tarot is about until you have discovered and explored your own personal responses to the images.
Some Tarot books talk about God, and some don’t. You can be part of the congregation without signing or pledging any sort of creed.
My local school district has promulgated (at the instigation of some Evangelicals, who wanted to conduct Bible classes) a policy allowing religious activities on school campuses after school hours. I’m about half minded to take the Tarot over to a middle school or high school — or even a grade school — and tell the students, in an age-appropriate manner, about cards like The Devil, The Magician, The Tower, and Death. I would invite them to draw their own cards, of course, and to make up stories.
The Christians would probably claim that the Tarot couldn’t possibly qualify as a religion, because it doesn’t have a creed — that is, a whole set of rules and regulations to which followers are expected to adhere. The school board would then have to decide whether the authoritarian structure was an inherent part of the definition of religion, or whether religion could possibly be a do-it-yourself activity. That would lead to some interesting conversations.
Possibly to a little soul-searching, too? Well, we wouldn’t want to be too optimistic.