New on Desk #100 — Social Gospel

Eh, let’s do a follow-up on last week’s spiritualism feature. Why not; it’s my varietee blog newsletter, I can write about whatever I feel like. Even if it’s the centennial of the newsletter itself. Age is just a number, we’ll have a newsletter retrospective closer to the new year’s.

Down from the mountain, bringing stone tablets

So going back to the question of religion. Traditionally religion is not something you choose, because you practice what your community practices. Even conceiving of religion as something as simple and modular as “belief” is wrong, because that disregards the practical way of life such beliefs interact with. In this age of the individual, people are encouraged to shop around, so you’re faced with the terrible existential responsibility of choosing your own religion: your own lifestyle with its associated beliefs and values.

Putting my philosopher hat on, I’m in an excellent position to advice people on religion. Not only do I realize the limits of my own knowledge as per Socrates, but I’ve also studied these matters a little bit. It occurred to me this past week that I actually do have some fairly solid doctrine to drop; the following is for everybody, the materialist neo-atheist besserwissers included:

Social Gospel
Your spiritual process is validated by the fruit it bears: a religious doctrine that encourages your growth as a human being and a contributing member of your family, community, society and the world is a valid one. A doctrine that turns you against the world, such that you leave it lessened by your works, is so much braying horse-puckey.

That’s a fairly actionable little piece of religious wisdom, isn’t it? It is demonstrably not the case that all religious doctrines are equivalent under the harsh light of the social gospel. I don’t necessarily feel any great need to collect disciples and pass them through elaborate gauntlets of religious doctrine myself, but this: if your religion (in the wide sense; your way of life) does not pass the scrutiny of the Social Gospel, please consider dropping it and looking for something better. Even if right now, right here you remain unconvinced by the Social Gospel, I’ll give it fairly good odds that at some later point in your life you’ll realize that spiritual wisdom is not about ME ME ME; it’s about what’s inside your head, in harmony with what’s outside said head.

This is, to be clear, a religious revelation, even if a fairly mild one; insofar as your religious truths claim to be axiomatic, this is as well; insofar as your religious truths claim to be intuitive, this is as well. It is obviously correct, and has, I believe, been affirmed by every religious specialist worth the name in the history of mankind: the vast majority of religious expertise on this planet backs me up when I say that religion that damages the microcosm and the macrocosm is not being practiced correctly. A cynical materialist might explain this with a variation of the ever-relevant natural selection model of bias development — that harmful religions get selected against because they’re practically non-viable — but who cares about that? The important part is that it’s true.

(Existentialist explanation for why the Social Gospel is true: as a human being, your first task after standing up and learning to not pee in the corner, is to explore and figure out what you-the-microcosm and world-the-macrocosm are for. This is a logical necessity, there cannot be things like say choices or will without understanding first, even if said understanding is more of a journey through layers of false consciousness than a sudden absolute revelation of the Truth. The Social Gospel is the minimum standard for what counts as not actually backtracking in this process. A spiritual practice that does not accord with the Social Gospel is not helping you or the world pass the minimum threshold of existing-in-consciousness.)

Affirming the Social Gospel means that some religions are logically wrong, proven to be fatally flawed by their fruit. John Calvin had something fundamentally wrong in his practice, or he would not have dishonorably murdered Michael Servetus ex cathedra; Martin Luther had something fundamentally wrong, or he would not have betrayed the Peasant’s Rebellion and advocated for political pogrom. Such acts are possible to perceive as incompatible with the Social Gospel, using mere human cognition, even as they’re depressingly common among religious authorities.

Other religions are fairly questionable, skirting the edges of error. Like say take Nicene Creed Christianity: it’s fairly obvious that there are socially constructive interpretations of Christianity out there, but isn’t it interesting how, when you gather all the bishops of the world together in one place, their listed pillars of religious truths do not include the Social Gospel in any shape or form. It is literally the case that the indivisible church, speaking in infallibility, does not think it worth a mention that the church and man are to orient towards life instead of death. What defines right religion to these gentlemen is socially affirmed public belief in God and Christ, Trinity and Resurrection, historicity of Jesus… (checking the creed here)… judgment day, intercession of the Holy Spirit in mundane affairs, and the infallibility of the unified church. More or less. But not a word about the Social Gospel.

We could excuse this world religion on the grounds of my totally legitimate divine revelation of the Social Gospel being in error itself, so of course it wouldn’t have come up, but in the spirit of sanity let’s not just yet. We could also speculate that the ecumenic bishops gathered together considered it such an entirely obvious point of agreement that they never felt the need to state the obvious. Or, we could conclude that Nicenean Christianity does not actually affirm the Social Gospel, and is therefore in grievous spiritual error.

That’s how you get the insane “God hates fags!” kind of Christian, to be clear: a person who is willing to privilege a reading of their religious dogma that disregards the Social Gospel. Literally betraying their family and community for an old book. I feel like debating such a person over whether the Social Gospel is true cheapens the intuitive righteousness of the Gospel; why not just note that the Bible guy has no proof whatsoever about the Bible being axiomatically right that I would not have about the Social Gospel being likewise. And mine has human ethics, common sense and the majority of historical spiritual practice on its side. Not much more to be said about this business, I feel; the rest is just people making arbitrary choices about what to believe or not. Can’t help if you want to pick an old book over the undeniable fact that you exist and have the choice to be part of the problem or part of the solution.

(Yes: I am suggesting that religious doctrines that can be demonstrated to be socially diseased are ipso facto illegitimate, with no further debate necessary. That’s what it means for the Social Gospel to be axiomatic; you are only willing to entertain ideas that are not actively harmful to the cosmic fabric as perceived by the human mind. If you happen to make up your mind about the Social Gospel being true, that gives you at least some intellectual basis for judging other spiritual ideas.)

Setting the crazy aside, though, it’s not that difficult to construct a Christian doctrine that respects the Social Gospel. These old creeds and the requirement of maintaining an unitary church (mostly consisting of old farts who already got theirs) cause a massive amount of tap-dancing, affirming the Social Gospel by forcing doctrine to bend its way without ever saying it out loud that you in fact affirm humanity over inhumanity. It’s not that uncommon to see Social Gospel theology in e.g. the Finnish Lutheran Church these days. Such priests are definitely bad Lutherans as far as I understand Luther’s teaching, but there’s some exegetic basis for thinking that it’s being a good Christian to elevate Love over creed and so on. Not Lutheran, but maybe Christian?

Same tends to be the case with most world religions: it’s not that difficult to interpret them in accord with the Social Gospel if one wants to; there’s a lot of bias that way in the general run of ideological history, for all that there’s also some really weird shit in them holy books, too. Even those who would really just want to go totally psycho given the chance will often pay some lip-service to the idea that their religion actually improves the lives of the cult members, and perhaps everybody else as well. Maybe it really just isn’t such a selling-point for your spiritual teaching if you just come out and say that anybody getting into this stuff is likelier to come out as a lesser being than they went in. The Social Gospel sort of forms a baseline requirement for what you can even claim your religion to be, if you want anybody to give it a chance.

Religions are flexible like that, mainly because they only actually hold power by human complicity; every religion is only a human decision away from being all new again, and boy are humans good at pretending that it was always this way. Takes a fairly rigid personality, or an insulated position of privilege, to hold onto a set of wrong beliefs when you could just correct them instead.

As I intimated earlier, it’s not very uncommon for spiritual thinkers to be in accord with the Social Gospel, even if they rarely teach it explicitly. I guess the big picture of the history of religion is that the spiritual practices that originate religious ideas generally attempt to be constructive, even if the religions that crystallize from the living practice and turn into empty credos are more about tribalism in turn. So we get this phenomenon where a Muhammad seems to instruct living a righteous, loving and constructive life, but what gets encapsulated at the heart of the formal religion is “there is only one god and Muhammad is legit his prophet!” A bit of a shift in emphasis there from the existential purpose of spiritual practice (Social Gospel) to the superficial social conformism purpose of affirming subservience to the religious authority.

I guess this is why more primitive religions that arise from a place of weakness place greater emphasis on personal spiritual practice, while the “religions of the book”, always religions of the power structure, are more about affirming belief in abstract points of theology? It seems to depend on who is designing the spirituality, and for whom: a mystic designing something for their own use tries to create something that is constructive and beneficial above all, while a bishop responsible for building and holding a church tries to create a thing of enslavement. Like say, Finnish witchcraft taken as a religion mainly cares about communing with nature and ancestors; it doesn’t care what you profess because it doesn’t have a horse in that race. In the meantime, both Christianity and Islam here stand proudly on the claim that they don’t care what you do, as long as you confess to practically spurious points of doctrine like the Trinity or Muhammad’s prophethood, as if they mattered. And yet, the only way I can see that these points of doctrine matter is that insisting on them is effective in creating hierarchies of spiritual authority that are helpful for maintaining church cohesion and accumulating secular power. Abstract metaphysical doctrine is a tool that turns religion from a way of life into a political party.

Yes, part of my inspiration in writing this was reading some great Evangelical mind affirming that Faith is indeed superior to any human conception of Love, that God defines what is Right, and the right religious lifestyle is total submission to the Will of God. God is all-good only in the sophistric sense that an omnipotent being gets to decide what’s good or not. While admittedly in fairly good concord with what the Bible teaches about the nature of God, that is nevertheless the spiritual doctrine of a lost soul, and the kind of thing that makes sane people keep their distance from the cult. If you can’t even uphold the Social Gospel, the sane person thinks, then what are you but a creature of utter darkness?

The Atheist and the Social Gospel

As I mentioned in passing when delivering the Social Gospel above, it’s not specifically a superstitious religious doctrine. Rather, the Social Gospel is a spiritual axiom, something that is actually relevant for the benighted materialist as well. Even those have spiritual lives, after all; the question of how the “you” relates to the universe exists just the same whether you buy into the dichotomy of God vs no-God as the boxing match of the (last) century. “Spiritual” is just an old-fashioned way of saying “pertaining to the orientation of human consciousness towards the universe”, which is absolutely a question of concern for the hardest of hard atheists.

A highly doctrinally focused religious person used to “struggling with their faith” may relate to my claims of spiritual authority best by considering the Social Gospel as a newly delivered prophetic pronouncement that hopefully resonates with truth and therefore has to be wrestled with. For a more “apatheist” kind of personality it’s perhaps better to take the Social Gospel to be a suggested universal best practice baseline discipline in the field of spirituality: it’s expert advice affirmed by practice in the field to be a good idea. It is the reasonable thing to do in the same way that it is reasonable to wear a helmet in a construction yard. You don’t have to do spiritual practice, but if you do, make sure it conforms to the Social Gospel and doesn’t e.g. suggest that you stop eating healthily to prove your faith or something ridic like that.

In case you’re wondering why it is “best practice” to test your spiritual practice against the Social Gospel, the practical reason is that spiritual thought-patterns that are not constantly tested against such a golden rule have a historical tendency to go… well, kinda cuckoo. Self-destructive thinking is really easy and common, and so is socially irresponsible or even antisocial thinking. Cultish memetic patterns abound among spiritual seekers. So when engaging a spiritual wanderjahr, the responsible person tests appealing practices and philosophies against the simple metric of the Social Gospel: does thinking and living in this way actually improve anything? If you cannot understand and justify it, using your own damn reason, then it is not a path of self-discovery to be followed.

The real-world Social Gospel

If you’re into religious history, then you’ve probably heard the phrase Social Gospel before: it’s the name sometimes used of the “Christian wing” of the political movement of Progressivism in the United States in the early 20th century, a hundred years ago. The movement was apparently always more of a social movement than a theological one, so I can’t really say that this historical movement that shares a name with my mystic insight agreed or didn’t agree with the theological implications I’m suggesting. I would lean more towards the idea that the movement as a whole must have been inspired by something of the kind: why else think and preach that the Christian duty is to build the world, help the needy and bring social justice to the world, if you didn’t think that the Social Gospel is primary over the traditional church teaching that had well-trod theological justifications at the ready for why the poor’s gotta poor. Admirable movement, I’d like to think that we’d have gotten along.

Appropos of nothing, here’s something so depressing it’s funny from that Wikipedia article on the social gospel movement:

The American South had its own version of the Social Gospel, focusing especially on Prohibition. Other reforms included protecting young wage-earning women from the sex trade, outlawing public swearing, boxing, dogfights and similar affronts to their moral sensibilities.

The context here is that the social gospel movement was more of a New England, northern states kind of thing. Somehow it fits all the awful stereotypes about the American south so very, very well that the response to the spiritual challenge of the Social Gospel would be to be Very Concerned about the immoral habits of the working class. Kinda sticks to the eye when the social gospel people are building social service systems, and the Baptist response is to outlaw public swearing. Way to keep it real, Jesus-peeps!

(And yes, I just checked: if you google it, you absolutely will find plenty of American Christian thinkers condemning social gospel Christianity, it seems to be a fairly current bug-bear there as well. The reasoning makes for interesting, if dark, reading. It’d be interesting to truly know how much of it is real ethical nihilism and how much just a keen desire to sanctify the existing political order.)

The historical social gospel movement failed to change Christianity in America; as I understand it (could be wrong, of course), the vast majority of American churches still believe that it is possible for a God to desire a life lived in expectation of death and judgement over a life lived to build life. The bets are still open as to what happens with this thing the Finnish Lutheran church is undergoing in my own country; socially-minded priests seem to be fairly open about preaching social gospel values in public, but there’s a fair bit of conservative resistance to that, too. For all that I feel comfortable claiming an axiomatic status for Social Gospel, that doesn’t seem to be what many people want their religion to be. You do you, I guess, even over an utterly foundational assumption like whether spiritual practice should make people better or worse.

Monday: Coup de Main #67

We continued our fill-in Elfquest adventure arc in Coup on Monday! The PCs are elves and elf-friendly mortals intent on helping elf prince Viusdul Daro find the Oracle of Zagyg, a purported statue/device/item capable of answering any question. It could ostensibly be found in the sanctum of the Mad Archmage, somewhere in his Castle. A good ol’ fetch quest.

The players clearly prize the lives of their characters highly, as the approach towards the Castle has been consistently careful and mapping-oriented; less trying to get to the goal as directly as possible, and more checking out all these Mouths of Madness, cavern entrances that dot the Castle bluff. We’ve found all kinds of pointless animal caves so far.

The elves seem to be well able to hand the random encounter chaff blowing their way, so in that regard things proceed fairly routinely. The general sense we have of the Castle is that as long as you approach with a fair amount of paranoia, nothing too bad is likely to happen. The random goblin and orc parties seemingly patrolling the environs got scared off right quick by elven battle-cries.

The most exciting bits we found in this second session of lurking around the bluff were what seems like a giant’s home cave (good reasons to not go check it out, one would think), and another cave with a very obvious green slime centerpiece. The adventurers were very conscientious about burning the green slime carefully and completely, so no biggie, just 4 HD worth of biological warfare.

All in all, bread and butter dungeoneering. Not being too exciting suits me just fine, and I think the players, veterans all at this point, are also rather psychologically compressible, unlikely to go stir-crazy due to their own choices of careful, deliberate dungeoneering making for calm events. It might take a while to find the Oracle of Zagyg by circling around the circumference like this, but as long as we’re not failing, we’re winning.

Session #68 is scheduled for tomorrow, Monday 29.6., starting around 16:00 UTC. Feel free to stop by if you’re interested in trying the game out or simply seeing what it’s like.

Coup in Sunndi news

I sat down with Sipi, our Sunndi fill-in GM, over Muster stuff, and got a bit of an update on how the campaign is doing. I think they’ve played some since I last heard from them, but mainly we talked about how to follow up on the Tomb of the Iron God that will probably get finished before the year’s out.

My brilliant take on the next thing to do was that we should sit down to play some carefully documented Great Dalmuti hands to determine the political state of the princedom of Dhalmond (whose prince is traditionally titled the Great Dalmuti, of course). Just, find out what the lay of the land is at the palace-town supposed to rule over the princedom. We’ll see what comes of it, but if the group’s into it I might get to conduct something along those lines in the near future.

State of the Productive Facilities

I didn’t get as much done over this week as I did last week, writing-wise; the Black Friday penny-pinching proved a distraction, and I think the sudden onset of winter didn’t help either. But the spirits are generally high, and I had a quite productive sit-down with my artist Sipi about the project, so I’m hopeful about next week being a productive one.

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