Principles and Popularity

Last night I had a great conversation with perhaps my favorite sheeb in the world about how religions operate, in a business sense.

Evidently the Pope recently announced that the Catholic church would no longer recognize female bishops, and that they are re-enforcing their boundaries to more specifically and emphatically exclude gay folks. My friend was incredulous that the church would alienate “the modern world” by looking so staunchly backwards, driving hordes of moderate papists to hypocrisy.  No one actually accepts such extreme measures, she reasoned. Right?!

I haven’t read the article she read, so I’ve not checked precisely *how* the Pope intends to “exclude” gays, but the mechanics really aren’t the point. The point is that a huge part of religion is in reinforcing tradition and pushing disciples to decide what’s important.

What made the conversation interesting was that, as a Jew, she was aghast that the church would take action that might alienate followers. “They’re bleeding adherents already!” she reminded me — “aren’t they concerned about numbers?!”

Are Catholics concerned about numbers? Or are they concerned with principle? Catholics have been on the prosperous end of the PR train for awhile now, having converted-or-slain en masse often enough in history that now cementing those last few heathens in Africa represents a mere feather in that tall papal cap.

Indeed, Jews self-classify as “orthodox” or “reform” according to how seriously they take that gospel, and whether it comes from Maimonides or Woody Allen. Catholicism represents the “orthodox” end of that stick, leaving dissenters to choose whichever appropriate reformed sect resonates for them.

In fact, now is the time for religions to regroup and re-establish their boundaries. Is it better to be popular, or to be right? For better or for worse, the Catholic church seems determined to eschew popularity for what it deems right.

And, frankly, I’m into that. Regardless of how similar my feelings are to that particular party line, I appreciate the church’s taking responsibility for providing moral guidance at their own expense.  And now, at the precipice of the paradigm shift to come, isn’t this as good a time as any to regroup and reassess?  To draw a line in the sand and encourage idle disciples to choose a side?

What distinguishes religion from politics, or philosophy, or idle musing is that a religion does not operate like a buffet. While it’s tempting to accept some tenets and reject others, that disregards the point of choosing this (to continue this bad analogy) prix fixe core-belief-plus-necessarily-affiliated-conclusions plate in the first place.

The point is to decide what’s important and then conform, to let your belief in X or Y lead you to the proper conclusions and appropriate behavior. Cherry-picking permits a sort of moral relativism that undermines all meaning in life. How can we know what’s real if we don’t acknowledge any boundaries or rules?

Perhaps this absolutist standpoint reveals why, at 26, I’m still struggling with what I believe. I’m still looking for something that speaks directly enough to my core that I’m willing to sublimate the rest of my premises and hand my rational, conclusion-drawing mind over to _that_.

I appreciate that the church has taken this opportunity to formally reject the incentive to blur lines; to inject relativity into what should follow a sort of moral imperative. Whatever Christianity is or is not, it’s critical to any moral — rather than business, or mere philosophy — making authority to police a baseline. “Feel free to reform,” the church is saying, “but fyi here’s what’s important to us.”

It’s refreshing, frankly, to hear the Pope lay it out like that, frank and straight-forward-like, so we can digest church tenets in a sophisticated way, and then freely accept or reject.

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2 Comments

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2 responses to “Principles and Popularity

  1. I’d just like to clarify your use of the term “orthodox”—the word literally means from the Greek “right spoken word.” Although in formal nomenclature it has come to mean something akin to correct belief (and thus related dogma) the spoken word traditionally for Christian religions is the liturgy. So more than just a “correct dogma” the Christian religion proclaims as orthodox that which relates towards proper worship.

    Belief is important because Truth is important. Capital T truth! But ultimately a lot of people can believe Truth but really go no further; as the old saying goes, the Devil really has no problem with Truth because he knows what is true already. So while knowing the Truth and pursuing the truth is an activity of intrinsic value and worthy of human activity, it is not a “final activity” in and of itself. That’s a great insight from science: yes scientists pursue truth and knowledge for its own sake but it does ultimately serve a larger purpose.

    Which gets back to my point on the true meaning of orthodoxy. Ultimately, the question comes down to less of what we believe, and more importantly, how we worship, what (or who) is our cult, that which is worthy of the sacred time and space in our society and in our lives. It is hard to conceive of a society without some sort of cult (perhaps it is possible: but can anyone conceive of a life where SOMETHING isn’t at the center? something that is like a cult?) It is for this reason, then, that I think the Hebrew and Christian Decalogue places the injunction against idolatry right at the top: the human person will worship something if not Someone. That choice is inescapable.

    I enjoyed your thoughts.

  2. Kat

    I really appreciate that clarification and your always-thoughtful comments in general.

    The distinction between the ends and the means — pursuit of Truth versus using that Truth once found — does really speak to what makes this stuff important.

    Bc all of this came from a conversation with a Jewish friend, I was thinking of “orthodoxy” along exactly those dogmatic lines. But I think a big difference between the Christian and Jewish approaches — probably just as a function of simple *numbers* — is that Jews have divided along the Orthodox/reform lines to acknowledge modernity generally, while Christians divided at specific times, e.g. Protestantism permitting divorce, with related specific dogmas.

    So a lot of what’s interesting is that I think reform Judaism operates to embrace the flock uninterested in taking the sabbath off but still, emphatically, interested in affiliating as Jews. There analagous “inclusive” Christian mentality kicked in only recently, perhaps as a response to declining numbers turned off by the still-present dogma even in “reformed” sects.

    Or, again, maybe my history is off (am updating out of pocket; no internet available for checking facts!). Maybe the Protestants of olde functioned exactly as modern Unitarians do, and it’s only vast numbers and time that have cemented dogma in places — sects — that tried once to exclude it.

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