Every religion has a few elephants in the pews that it would rather not discuss. Certain subjects lead to divisive discussions, or worse, embarrassments. No one likes to be reminded of positions they are forced to take if they are not to be considered heretics, to be shunned like a mad dog, or worse to be burned at the stake, traitors to the cause of their faith. Here is a sampling of some of the landmines religion hopes we by step.
What are we to make of rituals that we must all undertake, especially converts? What one faith tradition finds repulsive, like circumcision, another religious group regards as fundamental. What happens to those who refuse or miss those initiation rigors? Are they eternally condemned? The saint Christians love to quote, Augustine, believed that all unbaptized babies went to Hell. This brings us to the next topic.
Its presence and its structure, ever since being introduced by Christianity, has consumed all religions. All religions have had to come up with a place and time where sinners are punished. If they are not, what is the point of leading a righteous life? We all have knowledge and memories sharp enough to argue that the wicked often live a life of pleasure, while the righteous struggle. Life, we are repeatedly told by preachers, is not a Sisyphean struggle tilted towards failure rather than success. If you suffer colossal pain, are experiencing a prolonged death, feel your life is filled only agony but no ecstasy, fret not. You will be compensated in an afterlife. Just don’t ask more questions. We are mere insects caught in a spider’s web: the more we seek to get out, the less likely we are to extricate ourselves.
On the very top of the pyramid there is God, of course. A significant gap exists between Him and everyone else. But who among mortals gets to be His favorite? In some religions, there are prophets, or in the case of some branches of Christianity, a Son. Then there is a major prophet, who will never be equaled, such as Mohammed and Moses. Then there is a priestly element. In the Jewish faith there are three categories (priests, Levites, and Israelites); in the Hindu faith, there is an upper-class and a lower class, and many groups in between. There is the inequality preserved in religion between men and women, which in the #MeToo era no one wants to discuss. In almost all faiths, there are those who fall below the boundaries of the triangle. They are pagans, heretics, atheists, and all those adhering to another tradition other than their own. (I will leave the topic of the hierarchy of holy space – different areas inhabiting different levels of sanctity - for another time.)
Has the Messiah come? Is He coming? Will our acts quicken his (re)emergence? What will life look like after he does arrive? All these are questions that religions should respond to. The problem is that each traditional faith has a myriad and conflicting answers. The differing opinions may cause a civil war, as they have in the past. Theologians discuss these problems under the term eschatology. Others call them “end of the days,” and the plebeians would rather avoid the issues they raise altogether. Better to skirt the problem. It will work it out, after the resurrection (either inaugurated by a Messiah, or not) we will have the opportunity to figure it all out.
The power of sacrifice is a strong one, and it has taken many forms. In ancient Greek culture, humans brought sacrifices to keep the gods far away. If the deities were well fed, perhaps they will allow humans to pursue their lives without divine interference. But, not satisfied with screams that should have deafened the Heavens, sacrifices became substitutes for (primarily) males wishing to harm themselves. Sacrifices tended to be irrevocable; once they were announced, or the is animal chosen, the commitment has to be fulfilled. While human sacrifices have been abandoned, there are still animal sacrifices that rankle those who view wildlife and domesticated creatures as having feelings. Then there are flour and flower offerings that many find irksome, if only because they would serve humans better if placed in the kitchen.
The list of taboo subjects - they each represent a separate kamikaze attack we scramble to avoid - can be expanded, but what is the point? Religion provides answers that may never be questioned. Doctrinal issues are never resolved, even after science and facts prove their silliness.