Okay, that’s a shameless teaser. But I do have a serious point. Modern spirituality focuses on self-actualization and deemphasizes sin. But if anything, we’ve become more self-absorbed not less. Why is that?
This shift in focus occurred over the past half century in part because religion has so often used rhetoric about sin to point fingers and control people. Someone who’s never heard of Christianity could be forgiven for reading the gospels and thinking Christians are followers of the Pharisees.
And part of it is that admitting our mistakes has a big disincentive: people can use it against us while hiding their own faults.
But the biggest reason that spirituality focused on sin is so unpopular is that almost everyone believes they’re more moral than most people. Even psychologists who study the self-serving bias can’t escape its gravity.
The problem with the self-serving bias is that people who are abusive, including those who commit atrocities, don’t just fail to understand that what they do is wrong—they actually think they’re doing good. Even the Nazis were, in their minds, on a moral quest to defeat evil and create utopia. And atrocities such as slavery, crusades, inquisitions, and the cover-up of widespread sexual abuse of children and adults all had religious justifications.
Religion as self-justification
Religion is at its best when it’s used to question if we’re doing the right thing. But religion is at its worst when it’s used to justify what we’re doing.
You’ll notice that I shifted the terms from spirituality to religion. Spirituality is religion without the institution. But it’s a mistake to think the individual can solve the problem of religious atrocities by building her or his own Tower of Babel. That only recreates the problem at a micro level.
Everyone feels like right and wrong are real, but our capacity for self-deception is too great for us to decide things for ourselves. We all need accountability and self-doubt. We need other people.
If I feel the need to justify myself, then I’m doing something wrong. If I feel the need to point a finger at someone else, then I’m doing something wrong.
I’ve noticed that when someone does something that I’m not also guilty of, I may feel upset about the victim’s pain and I may feel an obligation to help. But I don’t feel self-righteous or defensive. If I do feel self-righteous or defensive, then I have to stop and remind myself that it’s because I’m guilty of the same thing.
We live in a culture that focuses on your best self, and your rights. Rights are important. If I don’t respect your rights, why should you respect mine? So, equal responsibility is essential for equal rights. And personal responsibility is essential to being the best person one can be. But instead, we complain about having to wear a mask, even though it protects the vulnerable from disease. We commit violence when political reality doesn’t match our ideals. And we blame our opponents as the cause of it all.
U2 has a song called Grace, the last track from 2000’s album All That You Can’t Leave Behind. Grace “travels outside of karma.”
What does that mean?
Karma means you reap what you sow. In Hinduism and Buddhism, you are reborn over and over until you get it right. And it takes forever. Maybe it never happens.
But grace says it never will happen. No one is perfect. No one can be perfect. So it’s not human beings who build a stairway to heaven, it’s God who comes down to earth.
I’ve been a lapsed Catholic for 24 years, and an atheist until I shifted toward agnostic theism recently. But I could never stop thinking about my religious upbringing. Still can’t.
Which leads me to a question. A lot of people think Jesus said “don’t judge.” But actually, he said, “Don’t judge unless you want to be judged because your judgments will be used against you.”
If God is goodness itself, then we can never measure up. That’s why Christians believe that God, not people, makes up the difference. But there is no difference between us and our neighbors. There’s no gap to bridge. Instead, there’s already a bridge to our neighbors that we burn when we make a pretense of moral superiority.
My question is this: If Christianity is true, then what if on judgment day God says, “We both know you’re not on my level. I’m not worried about that. But we’re going to watch two films. The first film shows every claim to moral superiority you’ve made, every finger you’ve pointed at others. The second film shows how you’ve actually treated other people. Your judgment will be how you feel after being held accountable.”
How does that make you feel? It scares the hell out of me.