© 2016 by Charles D. Jones

Prison Religion

March 25, 2017

I received a question recently as I was leaving the law library at Bastrop Federal Satellite Camp. The question was about the Biblical story of Noah and whether he took with him into the ark 2 animals of every kind or just pairs of 7 clean animals, a pair of unclean animals, and pairs of 7 birds. I knew it was a trick question, but I still wanted to give a thoughtful answer.

 

I tried to explain that the number of animals made no difference because the Biblical story of Noah was actually 2 stories written hundreds of years apart by 2 different writers, based on different concepts of God, with different language styles, perspectives, and teaching 2 different lessons. The 2 stories were combined much later by a 3rd prophet and/or scribe. It's the same reason that we have 2 Biblical creation stories. It was my best answer, and with that, I should have left, but nooooo. Instead I had to add that I doubted that either account was literal, but were still beautiful metaphors for forgiveness and for death and resurrection.

 

I could tell immediately that I had crossed the theological demilitarized zone because my answer allowed for way too much uncertainty. Another inmate had to clean up the mess created by my exegetical mudslide. When I returned 15 minutes later, he was still explaining exactly how this all literally happened in that big smelly boat long ago. I know this, but sometimes I forget that prison religion prefers answers, even bad answers, over uncertainty.

 

Reality confirms, though, that when we are trying to grasp the fullness of God, we swim in an ocean of uncertainty as big and deep as what floated Noah's boat. When God gets too big, we simply create God in our image-- matter or energy that we reduce until we can explain and understand it. We tend to put God in a cell, or if not too dangerous, in a satellite camp that allows some movement, but is still mostly confining. We avoid questions whose answers might conflict with our worldview; or when answers don't come easily, we create them, then guard them, and ultimately worship them. To paraphrase Rabbi Harold Kirshner, I wonder if God ever says, "I wish people would stop quoting what I said when they thought the world was flat and listen to what I have to say now!"

 

In my experience, the most dangerous religion is the one which must have all the answers. It's also second rate, because we're at our best when we are humble and curious. I've often heard that the opposite of faith is doubt. I don't believe that. I think the opposite of faith is certainty. Where doubt can lead us to God, certainty leads us nowhere. Certainty eliminates any need for mystery. It makes the infinite finite. Certainty keeps us right where we are--comfortable, compliant, complacent. Certainty is the ultimate growth inhibitor. It's the shaky foundation of a prison religion which lacks the courage to challenge its positions.

 

Of that I'm certain. Well, maybe not totally certain.

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