Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Religious Questions

A couple of three interesting religious questions this go 'round. Ken asks,

"Why do I feel like Christianity is legitimate when I'm alone and read the bible but when I get around other Christians and see how they interact with the biblical word I make doubting Thomas look like a piker?"
and BPinMD asks,
"What is it that enables a person to become comfortable in the belief that a particular deity is the only true deity, when others are making the same claims about a different deity?"
Let me try to give one discussion that touches on both (I'd be very interested in comments from others on this one...Kerry? Hanno? Quaker Dave?).

Let's start by drawing distinctions between a couple of things. There's a difference between the institutional organization around a religion and the doctrine. There's also a difference between the lived experience of a person of faith and rational or faith-based certainty about abstract metaphysical truths.

Folks like Ken, [and my friend, I'm putting words in your mouth, not to mention your soul (should such a thing exist) here, so please correct me if I'm wrong on this...] have a lived experience where the words of the Bible resonate deeply with your core notions of decency, humanity, and authentic care for the well-being of yourself and those in the world with you. You have an image of what the world could be like and in the story of the life of Jesus and the Old Testament prophets (surely, some more than others), you see deeply meaningful lessons and beautifully crafted sentiments that are not only consistent with the way you think one ought to live, but form a part of the guiding principles by which you do live your life. Then you see folks who claim great adherence to these same words, but who have pledged their allegiance to the institution that has grown up around the words instead of to the words themselves.

Groups are funny things. I am very fortunate to work in a small academic department of people who genuinely like and respect each other. The combination of respect and small size means that we can function in a personal way, for example, we don't often have meetings. We don't have to, we see each other enough that most things can be taken care of in the normal course of things. If we added a person or two, however, no matter how much the personal attachment and respect remained, the sheer size would force us to establish a more formal structure to accomplish the basic tasks that need doing -- scheduling, curricular decisions, and the like. The larger a group the more formalized it must be to accomplish its goals.

Religions are massive organizations and have therefore developed quite large, intricate organizational infrastructures. This means that there are now two separate goals, (1) the original goals that the organization was created to address, and (2) maintaining sufficient resources to keep the infrastructure functioning. The government needs to collect enough in taxes to pay all its workers and other operational costs before it can begin to think about national security and serving the needs of the common welfare. Similarly, the Church (no matter which church, shul, or temple we are talking about) needs to maintain itself before it can minister to its members. Because of this split focus on both institutional issues (fund-raising, recruitment, promotion within its management hierarchy) and core mission (theological and lived concerns), people who aren't given to thinking deeply about the nature of their church because they have real lives to live are likely to conflate the two functions.

The result of this confusion of doctrine with institution gives rise to confused questions of allegiance. The best metaphor for this is one I will steal from Aspazia's discussion of voting and political party affiliation is sports fans' allegiance to their teams. You root your team on, right or wrong. If there is a bad call in favor of your team, it must be thought not to have been a bad call. Reality, ethics, and other trivialities are sacrificed in the name of "go team." (Here's where BP's question comes into play.) It always amazes me when I teach our class in contemporary moral issues how I will get students every semester who will say things like, "I believe that abortion is immoral because I am a Catholic." That always struck me as backwards, shouldn't you be a Catholic because their doctrines are the ones that you believe in not the other way around? But if you see it as a matter of rooting for the home team, it is explainable -- even if it doesn't make sense. Certain players are your favorites because you a a fan of the team. You may dislike a player immensely when he plays for the rival, but after a trade, he becomes the good guy. The same seems to hold for beliefs.

But sometimes statements regarding the orthodoxy of certain beliefs are made for institutional reasons -- consider Galileo and heliocentrism and the recent Catholic moves to reconsider evolution -- and when these moves are made the fans of the religion will adjust their intellectual loyalties. But folks like Ken who like the players for who they are regardless of what team they play on will see such moves as disheartening. When his favorite player gets traded from the Brewers to the Yankees and suddenly is the toast of the league, it is not cause for celebration that he is finally getting his due, but for bemusement and wondering whether those now singing his praises really understand what makes him such a good ball player.

Musings of an outsider. Take them for what they are worth.

Turning away from this discussion of the Phyllis Steins and onto the one, true religion,
Claude asks, "Why isn't the platypus, the proof of Nature's sense of humour, mentioned in the Comedist Manifesto?"
A very good question, my son. The holiness of the platypus was first pointed out by that Comedist sage Robin Williams who said in his routine taped Live at the Met
"Do you think god gets stoned? I do. Look at the platypus. 'We'll take a beaver and add a duck bill. It's a mammal, but it lays eggs.'"
Does the duck-billed platypus belong in the Comedist Manifesto? Yes, but give me a break, I'm busy. Who's got time for humorous revelations everyday. I'll get to it. Get off my back, man. I've been expanding beyond the section on Comic Genesis and have begun our "Book of Numbers,"
42, pi, the square root of i, 86, 99, e,...