Saturday Meditation: Questioning religious authority

Questioning man photo

Saturday in the First Week of Lent

By Jane Emery

11 March

O God, by your Word you marvelously carry out the work of reconciliation: Grant that in our Lenten fast we may be devoted to you with all our hearts, and united with one another in prayer and holy love; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

PSALM 119:1-8 ▪ DEUTERONOMY 26:16-19 ▪ MATTHEW 5:43-48

This year Passover and Easter overlap, which encouraged me to ponder one of the most interesting differences between these two major religions—one’s relationship to God. Jews are encouraged to confront, to question, to challenge and to even argue with God. This practice would seem to create a powerful scholarly discourse. Contrast this with the traditional and historical Christian relationship with God which is to obey and not question God’s commandments or God’s will.

As Christians we are like sheep—following our God—and in turn we will be protected. As a child I was always confused by the notion of being a sheep, which symbolized a blind following of a leader or becoming a coward! The notion that one could argue or question religious authority and church doctrine promotes understanding and encourages diverse and unique perspectives. Note how some churches (until recently Roman Catholicism) forbid members to attend services of other denominations even for weddings or funerals.

Today, there are still conservative Christian leaders who instruct their parishioners not to question religious authority or the church’s doctrines. Religious cults are characterized by their insistence upon isolating their members from others which reinforces obedience to the religious authorities. I would assert that one factor in the declining church membership in the U.S. is this practice of requiring obedience. We have numerous friends who now reject Christianity—remembering the ridicule or punishment they received as children because they argued with or disobeyed religious leaders.

Fortunately, the Episcopal Church increasingly has priests (like ours) who encourage questioning, skepticism, even argumentation. Now, mainstream Protestantism appears similar to Judaism—we can both argue with God. During Holy Week we can reflect upon Jesus arguing with God, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?”

Jane Emery and her husband Dick Healy have enjoyed St. Michael’s since 2003 when they moved here from California. They have one daughter in NYC and three daughters in California—where they live in the summer. Jane is an emerita sociology professor at California State University, Northridge.