AROUND THE KITCHEN TABLE
By Lloyd Ratzlaff
I grew up in a rural, ethnic, poverty-ridden fundamentalism that succeeded in cajoling me into premature responsibilities. It offered many anathemas, and few graces, for the inevitable eruptions of my repressed spirit, sex and art. I was born hungry for the world, and culturally deprived — not necessarily incapacious, but forever slow, tardy.
My formative years were dominated by God the Father, Christ the only begotten Son, and an inscrutable Spirit who was said to bring the other Two into our world from their heavenly home. Church was not so much a mother as a righteous bitch, threatening us with hellfire to keep us on track to heaven. We were fed stories of the “atonement” in which God’s Son had satisfied his bloodthirsty Father (no forgiveness without bloodshed), to guarantee our salvation in the future, provided we believed it right; then one day we’d go to heaven with personalities intact and bodies made new.
But fundamentalism is no mere aberration of Bible-thumping revivalists. It’s a grim, grimy window that obscures the vision of a devoted and otherwise alert Catholic who says, “When the pope speaks, I stop thinking,” and a gifted graduate student who rejects ideas out of hand because “they go against my born-again beliefs.” Fundamentalism elects governments, runs schools, stunts development and too often imagines itself a righteous remnant against the stinking mass of humanity, half-wishing for Armaggedon — let’s everybody die so we chosen few can go to heaven.
Fundamentalism literalizes symbols and fears iconoclasm. Sin becomes a matter of offending the deity, and salvation a make-belief that the deity has been appeased. Splits remain unhealed — between love and justice, forgiveness and punishment, law and grace — and ethics a repression of impulses with an accompanying self-congratulatory self-righteousness. Fundamentalism is the kingdom of literal egos with their literal god — and the rest be damned.
Such ills and complexes of unfeminine religion made me live in fear of God, Man, Woman, Nature, and Devil, and throttled my capacity to love and be loved, though my scriptures promised that “perfect love casts out fear.” Forgiveness seemed a grudging probation without power to transform life, leading mainly to a pseudo-spirituality where (to alter the old proverb) an ounce of pretension was worth a pound of manure.
I never knew what to do with this deep flaw in a God who
accept his own creation without first punishing a scapegoat. He was so
holy, it was said, that he couldn’t look on sin, and his need to
punish had to be satisfied. I couldn’t recognize this horrible
sickness in a god who should have been left to die, and kept him alive
with my fear and servility. It seemed my teachers and pastors did the
same; we all nursed a deity who was bent on killing us, and were infected
with his self-righteousness, though claiming salvation by grace alone
(and “not by works, lest anyone should boast”).
OBSCURED VISION — “. . . fundamentalism is no mere aberration of Bible-thumping revivalists. It’s a grim, grimy window that obscures the vision . . .” (Photo by Leigh Weber)
Fundamentalism’s falsity lay in its resistance both to temporal process (hence to genuine re-birth), and to the eternal potential that welcomes, and becomes, the formal flux we are. Jehovah and Jesus kept me egocentrically preoccupied with the future of my ego, and religion a collective idolatry of their images, suppressing my actual experience beneath doctrines claiming security amid fear, and salvation despite sin.
Pursuit of pleasure and palliation of pain (so many p-words — like prophet, priest, professor, and politician) are motivations strong enough to deceive us all. Everyone wants to go to heaven, wants to avoid hell or escape from it. The enterprise can be rationalized by theology itself, submerging even further the implicit egoism, while also adding the “dignity” of religious justification. But despite fundamentalism’s posturings, it’s driven by the very fear it professes to dispel.
It’s a Wizard of Oz story. The child, scarecrow, cowardly lion and tin man believe the Wizard has some potion to get them home to Kansas. He terrifies them with smoke and mirrors, and the real magic has nothing to do with the wizard, but with waking up from the dream, thus dissolving the lostness, cowardice, heartlessness and terror.
I thank my tradition for this: it gave me a taste for the sublime (and hardly any taste for professional wrestling), and it was constriction that impelled me into the spaces where I work and play with people of other faiths (or of no particular faith) without wanting to hurt or convert anyone.
Meister Eckhart, who must have been one of history’s great non-fundamentalists, said: “I pray God to rid me of God.”
And an anonymous Christian mystic said this concerning heaven: “Heaven ghostly, is as high down as up, and up as down: behind as before, before as behind, on one side as another. Insomuch, that whoso had a true desire for to be at heaven, then that same time he were in heaven ghostly. Be wary that thou conceive not bodily, that which is meant ghostly, although it be spoken bodily in bodily words as be these, up or down, in or out, behind or before. This thought may be better felt than seen; for it is full blind and full dark to them that have but little while looked thereupon.”
Ratzlaff is the author of two books of literary non-fiction, The Crow Who Tampered With Time and Backwater Mystic Blues. Formerly a minister, counsellor and university instructor, he now makes his living as a writer in Saskatoon.