Monday, March 5, 2007

Monday with McKenna: You Lenten Bastard!

Jon Stewart explains how "Lenten" becomes a profanity in the mouth of William Donohue—click the graphic and watch the fun

Terry McKenna is back today; but it appears that he's gotten bored of following the latest of the Bushies' cut-and-run routines (the latest being on the treatment under their watch of wounded vets at Walter Reed Army Hospital). So today, he takes up the themes of Lent, Redemption, and Original Sin. Now if you've read any of my writing here about the Church, then you know that my room at the Mephistopheles Motel is already reserved. Now I know that my co-blogger will be right next door. See you in Hell, Terry...

In case you missed it, it’s Lent again. For those of you who are not familiar with the details of the Christian liturgical year, Lent is perhaps the most important season. It begins on Ash Wednesday (this year, February 21st) and ends with the triumphal celebration of Easter (this year on April 8th).

The Lenten season is one of prayer and reflection – and who couldn’t use more of that! (Wouldn’t it benefit all of us if we could get George Bush and Dick Cheney to spend some quality time on their knees praying to God for mercy?) Then there is fasting. Although now out of fashion, fasting has a prominent place in many of the world’s religions. Buddhists fast and so do Hindus; also Jews and Muslims. Among Christians, Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholics still fast today - though for Roman Catholics, fasting is confined to two days of light eating, Ash Wednesday and Good Friday. For Protestants, fasting has all but disappeared, being considered by some a meaningless show that does nothing to promote salvation … or Redemption.

Still, these ancient behaviors are harmless, maybe even beneficial. But then we have the much more troubling concept of Redemption.

The Christian concept of Redemption goes back to the Old Testament story of Adam and Eve in the garden of Eden, but Christians added original sin to the story, something that the Jews never intended – and after all, it is their Bible! From my uninformed position, Jews don’t believe in original sin, and don’t ask to be saved – they do pray, and they believe that if they live according to god’s law, that they are living righteously.

The nature of Original Sin is debated among Christians; what I present is a fairly orthodox version. But however interpreted, the stain of sin came about because of what is, after all, a pretty minor affair. Adam and Eve ate a few pieces of fruit. Yes, “God” forbade it, but so what. Thinking big picture, if killing someone is the equivalent in sin of a felony, then eating a piece of fruit is a surely just a misdemeanor, meriting at most a ticket – with a little luck, a first time offender could get off with just a warning. Yet our petty Old Testament God used this as a pretext to toss Adam and Eve out of his garden. With behaviors like this (the God of the Old Testament shows ready anger, and lots of jealousy) it's hard to imagine how the notion of an almighty, all knowing or all loving God ever developed. Certainly not from the Hebrew Bible. Of course, the Adam and Eve story is just part of an extended creation myth, and whoever wrote the story (and no… the Bible tales weren't dictated by God) had to somehow get rid of Eden by the end of the story; thus Eden was placed behind an angel with a flaming sword (to keep onlookers out?) And it had to be, for if Eden were supposed still to be accessible to man, generations of European gentlemen would have spent as much effort to find Eden as they did in trying to find the equally mythic fountain of youth.

As myth, the Garden of Eden story exists for two reason, the first is to remind us to obey God; the second is to warn us about human frailty. It’s a great story, and like any great story, can withstand all manner of retelling, from comic book and cartoon versions, to 19th century illustrations by Gustave Dore, to contemporary advertisements using Adam an Eve as stand-ins for all of us.

Still, this fetching story carries the chilling baggage of original sin. Here is the standard interpretation (from the Catechism of the Catholic Church):

By his sin Adam, as the first man, lost the original holiness and justice he had received from God, not only for himself but for all human beings.

Adam and Eve transmitted to their descendants human nature wounded by their own first sin and hence deprived of original holiness and justice; this deprivation is called "original sin".

As a result of original sin, human nature is weakened in its powers, subject to ignorance, suffering and the domination of death, and inclined to sin (this inclination is called "concupiscence").

Wow. So man is pretty much lost from the start. (And it begs the question, if God were truly all knowing, why did he even devise such a test as the one with forbidden fruit?)

In any case, let’s suppose we inherit sin. Inherited sin doesn’t sound all that bad, if we can remedy it with a little water (Baptism). But then what about the Crucifixion story. Why did Jesus Christ die for our sins? The answer is because of the stain of the sin of the first man (see above). This is a dangerous concept on two levels. The first is the still troubling notion of inherited sin. Inherited sin and its opposite, inherited merit, are ancient notions that have bedeviled man since the dawn of history. It is only in the last few decades of the 20th century that western society has rid itself of the idea of inherited merit (it is a prominent theme of many a 19th century novel). The concept of inherited sin remains with us to this day. Think of the so called honor killing that plague the middle east and south Asia. What else is an honor killing but a means to expunge the shame of shared and thus inherited sin? In a typical case, a girl’s sexual indiscretion (or even her rape) looms so large that a family feels it must kill a daughter or the family will be collectively stained with her guilt. By the way, folks like George Bush hold much of their place in society though notions of inherited family merit – with any luck, his presidency will put that notion to bed forever.

Worse than inherited sin, is the idea that we needed Christ’s execution to rid us of the stain of sin. (By the way, what was Jesus Christ in the scheme of things except another rich man’s son – God’s son?). If so, then what of all the pain and suffering in Christ’s own time? Think of the slaves, beggars, widows and abandoned children who suffered while the son of God was gallivanting with his crew – was their suffering not enough to atone for their sins? At very least? And then what about the rest of us? (In our own era, were all those un-baptized Jews in the death camps stained by some sin for which they needed Christ’s death to make good?)

Of course it's nonsense. Christ suffered at most a day and a half of pain – and given the impact of “shock” he may have been numb by the time they nailed him up – yet his suffering is supposed to have meant more than any of millions of cancer victims, or the victims of war, or of the pain of childbirth?

So let’s discard the Crucifixion story along with the rest of our religious baggage. We merit our own rewards and punishments. And if there is a kind and gentle God – we can hope for his mercy. The rest is just sound and fury and you know what Shakespeare says about that, “it is a tale told by an idiot, signifying nothing.”

Atheist, former Roman Catholic, cancer survivor, and former Saturday Night Live player, Julia Sweeney does a marvelous take on religion. If you can get to a chance to hear her perform her one woman show, she’s worth it.

—T. McKenna

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