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March 31, 2011

An Agnostic in Zwingli's Church

Zwingli and I wouldn’t have gotten along. He was the original hard-ass, humorless theist. Thanks to him, “most frivolous behavior - drinking, prostitution and actually most fun was forbidden or strictly regulated,” according to the tourist guide, Zurich In Your Pocket. (For a more erudite source, see here) The local sculpture of Zwingli has him posed with, of course, Bible and sword.

Within the confines of the austere Grossmunster Kirche (church) is the Chapel of the 12 Apostles, which is the best place for contemplation I have seen since Rothko Chapel in Houston or any of the monasteries I used to frequent. There is a large stone cistern there, shaped like the wide half of an egg turned upside down, hollow, with octagonally chiseled sides. Within is a brass tray filled with water and, sometimes, lighted candles floating. In the chapel are chairs and meditation cushions for the use of visitors. I lit a candle and placed it on the water, thinking of my theistic friends whose faith is but an expression of the truths they see and seek, and a goad to help themselves live better lives. Though I may not agree with their metaphysics, I applaud the lives they lead, for whatever reason they lead them.

Long ago, some friends and I were playing a game of “What One Historical Event would you undo if you could?” I wanted to undo the burning of the Library at Alexandria, but someone else suggested undoing the marriage of “Holy” and “Roman Empire” under Constantine. Neither the Church nor the Empire benefited. Doctrines of the Church could be imposed by law; laws could be given the sanction of the Church and, by implication, God. How do you amend God’s laws? How virtuous is coerced, as opposed to taught, and embraced, virtue?
Today’s “dominionists” and American fundamentalist Tea Partiers, like Zwingli or Catholic Inquisitionists of days past, or like the Taliban, seek to use power to impose their principles, in part because, who wouldn’t want to use the power dropped into their laps by the Fates to advance their highest principles? Who hasn’t said, “If I was President, I would [insert support for cause X here]?” Especially if you might get credit for doing God a favor?

Reminds me of a picture of Moses, as played by Charlton Heston, armed to the teeth with bandoleros and semiautomatic rifles, that appeared on the cover of The Wittenburg Door magazine long years ago. Reminds me also of the martial music playing at the end of the film Passion of the Christ, implying that Jesus is pissed off, and SOMEbody  is gonna pay. Or the Left Behind series of apocalyptic novels, that ends with Jesus opening his mouth and flaying the skin of unbelievers from their bodies. Or the Gnostics, who fashioned themselves as Children of the Light, while all the rest are Children of DARKNESS, and there is a WAR against darkness . . . ad infinitum et spiritu sanctum, amen.

However, this problem is not exclusive to Religion when wed to power. Look at what happened to both business and government when they joined forces: government ceased to be responsive to any but matters of business, because business helped particular government officials keep their jobs; business stopped having to do the R&D to stay competitive, because government made it easier for them to be profitable without being competitive. For a while. Both are now broken. They do not serve the people, or even the principles underlying their existence, they are meant to serve.

I want to know more about the Founders’ ideas of separation of powers. Because this seems essential: not just to our branches of government, but to any entity in which power is concentrated and which has the capacity to augment its power by an alliance with another entity. Power has a tendency to aggregate. Whenever it does so, those with the ability to channel it – whether in their religion, their business, their government (or branch of government) – need to keep it corralled, lest it damage both institutions, the people affected by those institutions, and the principles meant to be served by the use of that power.

In other news, classes have begun at the Goethe Institute, and I am settling in to Freiburg with my new classmates. I must say I am impressed by how much care the Institute takes to make sure each student is in their proper class level. We submit a test before arriving; we engage in a brief conversation with one of the staff as we are registering and getting oriented; then we spend the first three days in the class which they think suits us best. At the end of those three days, the staff meets to discuss whether the fit is right, and whether we need to be moved up or down a level. Classes are active – lots of time is spent out of our seats, moving around, speaking with each other. We constantly are using the language in different ways, so we are getting a lot of practice.

Freiburg is beautiful, and wet: it has been raining for the last two days, off and on. Tomorrow we will take a walking tour of the town that will emphasize practical needs more than history and culture. On Sunday morning we will make our first excursion to the Black Forest.

I was going to buy two things when I arrived: a crock pot, and a bike. I can rent a bike here almost any time I like, there are so many shops and rental businesses. And no one here seems to have ever seen or heard of a crock pot.

I have met students from Poland, Thailand, China, Iraq, Ukraine, Britain, and Venezuela so far. Most students are from Saudi Arabia and Libya, with students from the US being third most numerous. Yes, it will be a very interesting time.

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