It started with the simplest of things, a parent defending a child he loved. The parent was Paul Haggis, Hollywood screenwriter, director and producer, and the injustice was his church’s support for Proposition 8, a 2008 effort to ban marriage equality in California.
Haggis, a 35 year member of the Church of Scientology, was not the first to leave. L. Ron Hubbard’s own son fled, on the run until he took his own life. But Haggis was a big Hollywood name in a cult that viewed Hollywood stars as a path to legitimacy, and others would soon follow, including the actress Leah Remini. A cult that once successfully infiltrated the US government and still keeps people in prison conditions in their SeaOrg, destroying lives in this country, has found itself on the defensive, with one book, documentary and television series after another chronicling the abuse and the insanity.
The internet has helped, and even that uncontrolled vigilante mob called Anonymous, capable of doing so much harm, has targeted Scientology. While Hubbard’s successor has used legal bullies and harassing suits to intimidate those who would let the alien out of the bag in the past, you can’t sue someone you can’t find.
Yeah, I said the alien. We now know that after many, many years and tens, maybe hundreds of thousands of dollars in their pay-as-you-go faith, Scientologists who attain the level of Operating Thetan III, also called simply OT III, are taken into a room and told about Xenu, the intergalactic dictator 75 million years ago who brought billions of his people to Earth in spaceships that looked like old DC-8 aircraft, placed them around volcanoes, and murdered them with hydrogen bombs.
I mean, glass houses and all that, but our own crazy stuff started at least three thousand years ago and many of us today are less interested in the historicity of ancient myth, focusing instead on what the story of our faith says about how the divine operates in the world. But L. Ron Hubbard, well he made no secret out of the fact that he was going to found a religion to get rich, and everyone knows he wrote science fiction. You have to wonder why more Scientologists, having attained OT III, don’t just walk away.
It isn’t because they believe this nonsense. We know from the defectors that they find the secrets of OT III completely ridiculous realize that they’ve been taken in by the long con. But that was never the deal-breaker that caused them to leave.
So why do they stay? Why is it better to live in a lie? How hard is it to admit you’ve been scammed?
Except they aren’t the only one’s who live in a false consciousness, to borrow a phrase from the Marxists. We do it every single day. Because when you’ve been taken in by the long con, admitting it to yourself and to others is humiliating. Who are you, really, if you can be duped by any old con man with a grin and a gleam in his eye. All too often, those who realize they’ve been conned dig in even deeper, divorcing themselves from reality and replacing humiliation with rage, attacking anyone who points out the obvious.
One of the long cons we live in is this: we have been told that life is a zero-sum game, that more for them means less for me.
It is true that some resources are finite, that there is only so much arable land, and less and less of that as desertification and rising seas take hold, but there is more than enough land to support the human population and respect God’s amazing creation if we would just use a little common sense, a little kindness… not to mention dealing with the speculators who hoard and drive up food prices.
Fossil fuels are a finite resource, at least in the sense that we won’t be around as a species long enough to see today’s peat turned into coal, and rare metals are by definition rare, but the sun is gonna shine and the wind is gonna blow, so energy need not be a finite resource.
The entire framing of life as a to-the-death competition is primitive and destructive. It drives toxic politics, world wars and genocide, white nationalism, the slow-rolling genocide that has afflicted our country for centuries. Founded on fear, on our existential angst, this way of winner-take-all false consciousness is the point of entry for every flim-flam artist leading the masses.
Healthcare for all does not means less healthcare, because healthcare is only zero sum when we let our greed get in the way of gospel, and quality education in poor school districts does not mean lower quality in rich districts, because knowledge is not zero-sum.
And you don’t run out of love.
I know there are reductionists that want to take everything good and beautiful out of life, who describe human love as biological impulse, sometimes gone awry, survival of the species, nothing more. On the other side, you have those who deny evolution entirely, demanding that we be created from scratch by a human god, threatened because if we evolved from lower life forms, where is the bright line that sets humans with souls apart from other animals without, say the ones we eat. If monkeys have souls, well, that’s just a terrifying thought.
But this is true: elephants mourn for their dead.
And human hearts love in ways that defy procreative logic. Love isn’t just about making babies. Elkanah loved Hannah before she ever conceived.
For a more contemporary example, take the case of C.S. Lewis, one of the last century’s greatest Christian authors, and Joy Davidman.
Like T.S. Eliot, another literary great of the last century known by his initials, Lewis was an atheist turned Christian. He was an Oxford don and close friends with J.R.R. Tolkien. I think both men would be astounded at the sheer volume of film and television their literary works have inspired. In addition to his fiction, Lewis wrote powerful works of faith, including “Mere Christianity,” a classic based on radio talks he did during the Second World War.
But Lewis had never met a woman, and he was attracted to women, who he felt was his equal. Then he met Joy. Like Lewis, like Eliot, Joy Davidman was an atheist convert to Christianity, remarkable really given that she was both Jewish and Communist.
Davidman first met Lewis when working on her book “Smoke on the Mountain” about the ten commandments, with Lewis contributing the forward. They corresponded for awhile in that age before Skype and Facetime, then, coming out of a bad marriage and with two sons in tow, she returned to England hoping to stay. When the visa ran out, Lewis married her in a civil ceremony, though it was a marriage for immigration purposes only. But a funny thing happened. He fell in love. When Davidman broke her leg and was diagnosed with cancer, he married her again, a religious ceremony this time, in her hospital room. She would go into remission for a time, platonic love becoming romantic love, before she died three years later.
Lewis was wrecked. His “A Grief Observed,” first published under a pseudonym, is the powerful story of a believer wrestling with the goodness of God in the face of devastating loss.
Some would reduce this love, this coming together of minds, this growing of affection, to biological impulse, the fruit of a mechanistic universe and natural selection, wiring functioning long after it was needed, for Lewis and Davidman were well past their childbearing years, for some of you who have fallen in love late in life.
I’m not buying. I’m okay with monkey souls and elephant grief. I don’t need our species to be more God-like than others, and while I experience the holy in the story of Jesus, I’m okay with the idea that the holy is experienced by others, other tribes, other species. I don’t know. Okay, maybe not by aliens with hydrogen bombs. I do know this: love is real, and it can give us the power to do amazing things, can drive us to create and to sacrifice, to run into a burning building, and that ain’t about survival of the species.
Human love, romantic love, parental love, the love of friends, the being-for-the-other, being-for-not-self that is love is our reflection of that divine mystery we name as God, for divine being-for-not-self is surely the reason there is something instead of nothing.
We need other people to become human, and I mean that in many more ways than biologically. Theologian John Zizioulis gave his hugely influential work defining both the divine and the human the title “Being as Communion.” Those crazy hippies in Haight-Ashbury in 1967 with their “Human Be-In” were practicing being-for-the-other with their powerful sense of community, their message of peace.
We as church are called to “be-for-the-not-self” by being for Christ and being for one another. This is love, love that you don’t throw away easily.
Being-for-the-other is so central to the kingdom proclamation, so core to Christ’s message, that sin would come to be understood not as disobedience to a strict system of exchange between the divine and the human, blessing received in exchange for stroking the ego of a co-dependent god, the system that worked under the Law, but instead to be understood as inwardness.
Sin is inwardness, incurvatus in se. The groundwork for this understanding was laid as early as St. Augustine was still being developed and articulated by Luther, by Bonhoeffer, is still being articulated by pastors in a a thousand pulpits this morning, for sin is a “heart turned in upon itself and thus open neither to the revelation of God nor to the encounter with the neighbor.”
Me first is sin. America first is sin for national sin is a nation turned in upon itself and thus open neither to the revelation of God nor to the encounter with the neighbor. We are all on the same planet. Who is my neighbor? Who isn’t?
This is the truth of our faith, this is the lesson of love, not whether his followers experienced Jesus as still alive, and certainly not some transformation of bread into flesh and Welch’s grape juice into blood, because, yuck!
Jesus lived for the not-self, for the mysterious divine he named Abba and for the mysterious divine he found in others, that he told us we would experience in others. He told us again and again in his teaching to do that, to see him in others, to live for not-self, to be a source of love.
Tchaikovsky, that great composer hounded and persecuted to suicide… you’re going to tell me that what happens to us when we hear that music is just chemistry? Your going to tell me love is just hormones surging through the bloodstream? You’re going to tell me that existence is all random error and statistical fluke.
Reduce this: I’m not buying you zero-sum reductionist justification for fear, greed, and violence.
Yes, we are finite, and that is sufficient a source of anxiety. But we are not in a cosmic episode of survivor. Life is not a zero-sum game. Love is not a zero sum game. You can’t buy the secrets of the universe at any price and the crusade for your own greatness always leads to you being diminished, because you are choosing to play by zero-sum rules.
Look around and see love in every form. Then, love in every form.