A missionary-minded friend sent me a link to an evangelical Christian book discussing the Marxist dictum: “Religion is the sob of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world … the opium of the people.” I cracked the book and had some ideas of my own.
To me the title of this book–Opium or Truth?–begs an important question. In what way is opium not truth? Regarding Marxism, I agree with Karl Popper, who called it a modern humanitarian religion (which the Bolsheviks and their ilk practised the way the Holy Inquisition practised Christianity). So Marxism is just another kind of opium, subject to the same accidents and afflictions that attend the brands it aims to displace in the marketplace of ideas.
I think the Daodejing is a better book for understanding the world, from the perspective that Life (or God) has given me, than is the Bible. That does not mean that I resent people reading the Bible (or similar books), only that I don’t personally find in it the deep meaning that they do. I thought I found that meaning, for many years, but I kept searching the world and experiencing new things–and at some point I realized that the Bible is not the only or even the best guide for my life.
My religion is not primarily about books or beliefs, in the end. Books and beliefs for me are just tools, means to enable a kind of existence that is bigger than they are, that includes more things. I need some connection to people, people who don’t live on the other side of the world (or in an office building I can never visit in Salt Lake City). I need some connection to the non-human environment around me that I can believe in (as I cannot believe in the gods I meet in the Old and New Testaments, the way these are commonly interpreted). I need friends, nature, and service.
The Bible does not offer me any of that. In fact, it seems to take that away, when churches founded around it want to spend all their time talking about the Bible, instead of living what I see as a holy life. I understand Jesus differently today than I once did. I think his message was likely a bit different from what many people seem to think. He did not write anything. He did not command people to write. He came to fulfil the Law: so why are we still reading it? The Old Testament is done, gone, a curio–no different to Christ, in my mind, than the Epic of Gilgamesh. The New Testament is not really much better: somewhere in the midst of miracle tales, sectarian rants, and pseudo-philosophical speculation (not to mention the straight-up insanity known as the Book of Revelation: that is some strong opium there, maybe LSD), the basic Christian message of universal love and political renunciation (“my kingdom is not of this world”) gets buried and lost, so lost that hardly anyone finds it (especially not the people who spend their entire lives bloviating about the secret meaning of the impossible riddles we find in Isaiah, Daniel, Ezekiel, or the Book of Revelation).
I know you love the Bible. It allows you to build a coherent life, one in which you get some kind of regular access to whatever it is that you need to be a good person (relating well to God, to yourself, and to the rest of us). That is great. Not all of us can have that the same way. I don’t want to take your life away and replace it with mine. I am not sure that reading the Daodejing would improve your life. I don’t know precisely what it is that you need to live well. I leave the negotiation of that problem to you and God (without any definitive idea myself of what that means: deity is a mystery for me, a mystery that people don’t understand–especially not when they think it is clearly visible in some book like the Bible). I rejoice when you are happy in your religion. I am sad when you are sad. I am here to help you in any way I can. But I cannot share your faith anymore than I can share your mind or body. We are not the same–similar though we might be, much as we might share (in terms of inheritance, of culture, of history and experience).
If I were to identify myself as a practising Christian, a thing which could happen, I would not make the Bible central to my Christianity. What appeals to me in Christianity is not the Bible, but the renunciation of attachment–to the world and its ideas, including all the worldly ideas in the Bible (which is a very worldly book, in my experience, one that includes reading many books). I could see myself becoming some kind of Orthodox (probably not Catholic) hermit, monk, or recluse–retiring from life to pray, sing, and grow a nice garden someplace remote, with a cave or cell I might inhabit peacefully (with or without a Bible: I don’t particularly care). At this point in my life, this option is not really a good one. I have a family to look after, and the Christian traditions that surround me are not really friendly to contemplative approaches that eschew theology. Instead, everyone wants to debate the Bible, to establish orthodoxy, to get the sacraments right, to make the kingdom of heaven come down to earth so that we can all see it the same way, in the same things. I really dislike this vision of religion, of Christianity. It is not my religion. It really never was, not even when I was a good Mormon. I did not want to impose faith on people; I was not interested in convincing or converting folks against their will. I just wanted to understand myself better, myself and the mystery I know as God. That is all I have ever wanted. I am still pursuing my quest; I have just left behind the conviction that it must lead me to active affiliation with religion that is not mine–with life whose integrity I cannot know and embody for myself.
We don’t all react the same way to the same opium. When the truth sets us free, we don’t all use our freedom the same way, to do the same things. This too is part of the mystery we call God.
This meditation originally appeared on my personal blog. –JGM