Experiential religion in an ideological world

I want to start with two passages from the Christian scriptures; the first is from the Gospel of Matthew:

..the King will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, O blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.’ Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see thee hungry and feed thee, or thirsty and give thee drink? And when did we see thee a stranger and welcome thee, or naked and clothe thee? And when did we see thee sick or in prison and visit thee?’ And the King will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me.’ Then he will say to those at his left hand, ‘Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not clothe me, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’ Then they also will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see thee hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not minister to thee?’ Then he will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it not to one of the least of these, you did it not to me.’ And they will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”

The second is from the Epistle of James:

If any one thinks he is religious, and does not bridle his tongue but deceives his heart, this man’s religion is vain. Religion that is pure and undefiled before God and the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world.

What does it profit, my brethren, if a man says he has faith but has not works? Can his faith save him? If a brother or sister is ill-clad and in lack of daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and filled,” without giving them the things needed for the body, what does it profit? So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.

Both of these passages (and granted, there are others that might arguably contradict this) indicate that the practice of Christian religion is rooted in doing the right things, rather than saying (or perhaps even thinking or believing) the right things. These passages say that what pleases God and what legitimizes one’s faith is to give your time and energy to the marginalized and afflicted of the world. Of course my, along with most American Christians’, experience of what defines Christianity is much different. Christianity is, and has been for much of its history, a set of theological positions and moral precepts that one is to adhere to – it’s not about what you do for the “least of these,” but whether you believe the “right” things.

It’s not that some conservative Christian groups, especially Catholics, don’t preach solidarity with the “least of these” (except LGBTQ people, of course), but it’s secondary. Growing up, I rarely heard anything about actively doing anything for, nonetheless with, the “least of these” – there was the occasional side note about doing a canned food drive for some food bank, but that was about it. The emphasis was believing the “right” things, usually in relation to sexual morality – premarital sex, abortion, homosexuality, and pornography. There were theological positions that were important as well, but they were generally more forgivable than thinking positively about, or god-forbid partaking, any of the things I previously mentioned.

When I converted to Catholicism, it was all about right belief (orthodoxy) – I studied the doctrines and dogmas of the Catholic Church (and later, the application of those doctrines and dogmas to the sometimes conflicting theology of Eastern Christianity), and that was what was essential to entering the Church. In practice, that was most pronounced on sexual morality. Premarital sex, contraception, abortion, gay sex, and pornography are always mortal sins (well, there is some nuance there, but that’s not crucial to the point) for Catholics, but failing to failing to help and identify with the “least of these” or even being flat out hostile to the “least of these” are not mortal sins. Yes, having consensual sex outside of heterosexual marriage will land you in hell, but being outright hostile to those Jesus demanded charity toward will not. Even though social justice is a big part of Catholic rhetoric, there is never the threat of hell, or excommunication, or denial of communion over being a condescending prick to the “least of these” – but all of the above are threatened, or even followed through on, for those who practice or support the previously mentioned activities. You never see a Catholic politician who supports gutting food stamps being remotely threatened with excommunication or the rich guy who doesn’t do shit for those less fortunate (or the racist uncle) get told by his priest that he must publicly denounce and change his lifestyle or be denied communion. Ever. Because, you know, that might be what Jesus of Nazareth would do.

Now, I’ve been told by my conservative Catholic friends a truth that I completely acknowledge – that Catholicism as a set of positions and precepts is not what Catholicism really is. Catholicism is universal with 2,000 years of history – it’s complex. It’s incarnational – it’s about being diverse parts of a unified body. And, I acknowledge that. However, religion, at the end of the day, is experiential and not theoretical. What Catholicism is theoretically doesn’t affect my life. What it was in another century or what it is in another place doesn’t affect my life. I live in 20th-21st Century America, and in that time and place, Catholicism is largely a set of theological positions and moral precepts to adhere to. And, Christianity as a whole, in my context, isn’t about “the least of these.” In my context, “standing up” for one’s faith isn’t about radically changing your life to “do unto the least of these,” it’s about passionately asserting one’s belief that Jesus is God and Jesus (i.e. God) doesn’t want your genitals to be touched outside of heterosexual marriage, and continuing to passionately assert those beliefs against all facts in the face of “persecution” (read: criticism). I could sit here all day and think about what Christianity “really is” or “should be” – but reality is what is. And that is what Christianity is in my context. And quite frankly, I want nothing to do with it.

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