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Where does the conversation about religion begin?

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Before we can discuss faith or even approach denomination, any examination of belief has to start with a certain foundation. Whether we are talking to "missionaries" who knocked on our door or a good friend over a cup of coffee, the first thing we have to agree on is what theologians call "the nature of God." If we cannot agree about that, we are not likely to agree about much else.

Typically, Christians will start with phrases like "unconditional love," "all-powerful," or some other superlative that describes God as being well above the human level--perhaps incomprehensibly above our level. Some cynics describe any conversation about God as being similar to fleas having a conversation about the dog, as I have written before. But it is important to hash out some guidelines about what we believe, and not assume agreement. If we do that, disagreements will arise later and they will be more severe.

If we describe God as unconditionally loving, we must begin to rule out some of the time-honored conventions that are presently very comfortable in the Church. Many people never think to look at the story of Sodom and Gomorrah, or Noah's Ark, as anything offensive to the concept of a loving God. We have spent so many years with cute little toy animals "two by two" that we do not really think about the deaths of so many innocents embedded in the story that God was sorry that he had made the world and decided to wipe it out.

Likewise, the ideas of eternal damnation and torture forever because the human failings of one short lifetime on earth are repugnant to Christianity, even though they are talked about all the time. The threat of God's deliberate infliction of eternal torment is used in every denomination without thought of the implications it carries about God's nature. We must face these bad habits, re-think them, and then dispense with them.

If there is one useful thing about all the talk of Ancient Aliens, as in the television program, it is this: we can begin to separate out what may have been the actions of extraterrestrial peoples whose actions and motivations seem emphatically human, far from our concepts of God. Stories of Greek gods pursuing human women, often against their will, and stories of large-scale catastrophes inflicted by Heaven cannot be ascribed logically to a loving God. This may seem upsetting at first, but it really helps us to resolve a very old theological conflict:

Is a thing good because God commands it, or does God command only things that are good?

If we are ordered to abandon our own sense of right and wrong--the Law that God wrote in our hearts, as St. Paul says--and accept something that we can understand as bad simply because we are told that it comes from God, then ipso facto, it does not come from God. This is where the self-serving, lustful rapist-prophets like Warren Jeffs get away with crimes by using God's name to justify their all-too-human failings. But we have to be strong in trusting ourselves and our ability to distinguish right from wrong, and if a Sunday comes around presenting one of the odious Bible stories that portray God as inflicting suffering and sorrow on human beings, we should speak up.

Eventually the Old Testament needs to be disentangled from Christianity because it portrays another religion--Judaism at a certain point in its development--and that religion cannot be reconciled with mainstream Christianity. It cannot now be reconciled with contemporary Judaism, either: Judaism has evolved beyond the Book of Leviticus, but ironically evangelical fundamentalism is still professing literalism--something that cannot be accomplished intellectually.

I thought about all this as I was watching the latest in reality-show religion: "Breaking the Faith," about the young, runaway Fundamentalist Mormons who have now made it to Salt Lake City and are colliding with the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The FLDS members have no vision of what their lives will be like now, in that the women have not yet shed their bizarre clothing and considered any new ideas. As I see it, it is actually fortunate for them that the Utah Mormons are so stable, compared to the directionless flailing of the group in the program "Breaking Amish."

Once the Amish group got away from their community they threw themselves into completely undisciplined living--drinking to excess, using horrible gutter language and showing little or no respect for each other. I am hoping that the Mormons in Salt Lake City will offer the FLDS refugees something to cling to, which they ought to if the stories are true about how respectable and family-oriented the LDS Church is.

But the FLDS group has to devise a vision of what their lives will be like. Do they look forward to founding another community, wearing their ugly clothing and living a life very much like the life they left? Well, that's just what Jeffs did--he came up with what he thought was a new, improved version of the LDS Church and took his little flock off to Colorado City to build a compound. I don't suppose this group of escapees will do that, though--I think that we will see them evolve towards a normal lifestyle as they acquire confidence.

To that end it seems that the group is going to have trouble with this, particularly the young women, who seem almost incapable of thought processes (and frighteningly, not because they are not intelligent). They are so accustomed to being told what to think and do, how to look and what to say, what they can eat and drink, that it seems very difficult for them to do much besides remind each other what the rules are. A couple of the young woman are assuming the role of reminding everybody of The Rules; others are trying to move forward.

But you cannot move forward, or engage in a dialog, unless you think through what you now want from faith. As normal adults discuss beliefs, they must begin with God, not with denominations. I wonder if we will see this, either in our lives or in the religious reality shows.

Meanwhile, talk is flying in conservative circles about the late Nelson Mandela. The gist of it is that he was an evil person, a terrorist and not a freedom fighter. They are perpetrating a lie that President Ronald Reagan was against apartheid even though Reagan placed Mandela on the terrorist watch list. This is the "Palinization" of history that is all the Republican Party has left.

But while we talk about the violence in South Africa--and what little part the black South Africans actually had in it--we must consider our own situation. As I asked some time ago, would you like a revolution in the style of the Sixties, or in the style of the French or the Russians? The fast-growing fascism in the United States will bring about rebellion, and if the corporate types who own and operate Congress do not know when they have gone too far, there will be serious conflict in our streets. So do you want nonviolence or confrontation? Make no mistake--the preppers are not going to march on the National Guard. That isn't going to happen--they are hiding out and they will stay there until they decide that it is over, whatever they think "it" is. They have no impetus to leave their beer supply, hitch their combat pants over their bellies and leave their shelters for the great outdoors! The rest of the people of America are not far from an unorganized march on Washington that will have far-reaching consequences, though. What those consequences will be for our elected officials is pretty much dependent on what they do or do not accomplish in the next few weeks.

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