Hollywood filmmaker Paul Haggis' recent defection from the church of Scientology, as told in this New Yorker piece, illustrates common reasons why people get in and out of religions in America - and how those reasons often have little to do with the teachings of Jesus. Self help is the central tenant of many of today's spiritual trends, but ours is not a self-help Gospel.
Haggis, an Oscar-winning writer and director, said of Scientology, “What excited me about the technology was that you could actually handle life, and your problems, and not have them handle you.” He added, “I also liked the motto, ‘Scientology makes the able more able.’”
Many people seek a religion for exactly these reasons. Their inner worlds need ordering so that they can achieve the external goals they desire. Most religions offer some sort of path to attaining these goals. Want proof? Look at church websites, yoga websites, self-help books, testimonies, etc. "I was drowning in my own disorder and spirituality/religion X brought me into order and sanity." What we dare not notice is that death takes all no matter the earthly achievement.
After attaining the highest levels of status within the church, Haggis became increasingly disillusioned with its ability to help him manage his own struggles. He also began to question the obvious flaws of the church's leadership, who were supposed to have moved beyond humanity's weaknesses. Being the father of two gay daughters, the failure of the church to oppose California's Proposition 8 was the last straw and Haggis joined the ranks of defectors from Scientology. He has now turned to psychotherapy to achieve his goals.
What Haggis wanted from Scientology is what we all want: mastery. We want to be masters of ourselves and to rise out of commonness. We want power over ourselves and our circumstances. For many Scientologists this is simply the American dream, Hollywood style.
In Luke 22, Jesus proclaims that his self-donation will rewrite history. Right after Jesus explains how he will give his blood to purchase their freedom, the disciples begin to bicker about status. Their actual spirituality is revealed to be just another tool for human ambition. The awkward reality of Jesus is that what he offers is a different definition of success: a cruciform life, death and resurrection into creation 2.0.
Many who leave the Christian church because it hasn't worked for them don't actually differ much from Haggis. The trial the disciples would face was seeing Jesus' "success" in Roman whips and public mockery. It is profitable to use this Lenten season to meditate upon Jesus' Passover success. No servant is above his master. The resurrection completes the picture and vindicates Jesus' suffering. He was saving others while he wasn't saving himself.
Jesus didn't make the able more able, he makes the unable new. Acknowledging our disability and embracing his ability makes for joy even in the cruciform journey.