Saturday, December 17, 2005

The Hell Myth

This week I found myself in a conversation with a man of the cloth, and we got to talking about the fundamentalists and the mega-churches and the scary, scary versions of religion that seem to be so popular these days. I asked this gentlemen why he thinks the rule-obsessed, Rapture-fixated, fundamentalist versions of religion appeal to people, because myself, I just don't understand it. Why would anyone want to buy into that view of the universe? It's so dreary and disempowering.

"They've got hell," he answered. "It's a powerful motivator, hell-avoidance. Most of us don't believe in hell, which leaves us at a disadvantage in getting our message out. We've just got love and peace and justice. It's not as compelling as hell."

Ok, I guess I can understand that. Fear is a powerful motivator. However, I pointed out that my personal idea of hell is a world where you're bad, your body is bad, your sexuality is bad, and your brain is especially bad and NOT TO BE USED. Where people suffer horribly from poverty and war and the destruction of natural systems that sustain life. Isn't that hell on earth? Why can't the tolerant religious folk preach just as effectively using that as their foil?

In our city, five of the mainline Protestant churches in one part of town are considering selling most of their property and building one shared, ecumenical complex with multiple worship spaces, offices, classrooms, youth facilities - everything they all might want. They all currently have big, old church buildings that they struggle to maintain with small congregations (this being one of the most un-churched cities in the country). They figure, as progressive Protestants, they have more in common across their denominational lines than they do with the conservatives within their ranks. They can create their own little religious haven where gay people are welcome, women are equal to men, God isn't a vindictive old man, other religions are cool, war and oppression are bad, Mother Nature is our friend, and there IS NO HELL except that which we create here on earth. As far as they know, this is the first such effort in the country. Nobody knows if it will work out. I wish them luck, though.

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