Religion is predictable.
From a series of conversations over on Violet’s blog….
We see worship of the sun, stars, rivers, or other natural elements, morphing into a pantheon of deities. These pantheons expanded as time went on and religious observance became more and more ostentatious and refined. New gods were added on a regular basis. The members of the divine pantheon had very human attributes, lives, and adventures.
With the excuse of promoting “morality”, these gods “commanded” particular observances and restricted particular practices, with a strict and clearly-defined give-and-take relationship. Weather patterns and seers and fortune-telling was a means of ascertaining the immediate opinion of whatever god was most applicable to the situation. Infighting and pitting one deity against another was common.
Religions also near-universally emphasize the differences between people. The holy is better than the unholy; the priest is better than the layman; men are better than women. It is used to place the religious in positions of power, to strengthen existing cultural mores, to keep people in their place.
In order to keep people in their place, there is an extremely specific system of rewards and punishments. Your value is directly determined by your adherence, past and future, to the code of the religion. Whether rewards are given in this life, or in a reincarnated life, or in an afterlife, they are directly proportional to the “good” you do. Trust-without-question in the teachings of the religious authorities is considered to be a “good” deed.
These are the commonalities shared more or less by virtually all religions. Would you agree?
Here’s why I think Christianity—as I understand it—consistently subverts these tropes.
Christianity never even hints at the worship of nature or elements of the natural world. The god presented in the OT and NT is consistently transcendent; there is no slowly-developed move from nature worship up to polytheism and on to monotheism.
In Christianity, the pantheon of deities does not continually expand. Granted, Jesus’s declaration of himself and the Spirit as subsets of the godhead is a sort of increase, but even it subverts the norm. The three members of the Christian godhead are not in conflict, do not have deceptively human lives and adventures in their celestial plane, and don’t represent different facets of nature. Moreover, prescribed religious practice becomes less rigid and ostentatious as time goes by, moving progressively and consistently away from ritual toward a relational approach.
Subverting the “oracle” trope, the Christian god does not provide direction for personal and business practices through the consultation of priests and the examination of dove entrails. There are no patron deities of one type of undertaking or another. And the number of “commandments” shrinks over time, rather than growing as would be expected.
With surprising and pervasive consistency, the core teachings of Christianity work to break down barriers between people, rather than emphasize and strengthen them as is expected of religion. In the OT, the priests were not permitted to own land, thus keeping them from gaining too much power. Religious and political roles were kept distinct to prevent abuses; kings couldn’t be high priests and vice versa. In the OT, laws were instituted to curb the premodern society’s tendency to subjugate and control others, introducing rights for women like protection from rape and sale and divorce, rights for slaves like amnesty and Jubilee and protection from sale or mistreatment, and more. As society developed, the NT stayed ahead of the curve, breaking down social mores and pushing for equal rights and declaring the equality of all people. The NT did away with a separate priesthood altogether (something the Roman Catholics kind of missed, but that’s another issue altogether). It didn’t play into existing cultural prejudices and abuses; it fought them.
As God’s nature was progressively revealed, human goodness was divorced from adherence to ritual. A person’s goodness was asserted to be inherent in their relationship with God and their treatment of other people, not in their observances (again, something the Roman Catholics went wrong with, but again, beside the point). The threat of punishment for sinful actions, a bulwark of religion, was done away with completely for Christians. The set of requirements was removed. While praising faith inasmuch as it pertains to trust in providence, the NT encourages critical reasoning and skepticism….again, a complete reversal of the typical trope. It says Christians will be taught by God, rather than being dependent on religion as a mediator. Totally contrary to what a human religious system would design.
The NT successfully removes performance pride (see the Pharisee and the tax collector) while retaining personal responsibility. Without guilt. This is totally foreign to religion as generated by human beings. Humans use guilt and pride to motivate; the NT says that guilt is gone, that no one has grounds to boast because of the good they do, and that our responsibility to good works comes from our position as representatives of Christ, not a threat of punishment. The human element is excised at every turn.
That’s just the tip of the iceberg, really….but it’s a start.