Monday, 7 June 2010
On ancient rules and pointless arguments: a note for my nephew
The unfortunate thing about Facebook is that one can be tantalised by comments on your 'friends' friends' - but not be able to add your own.
And thus one of my nephews commented thus on someone considering conversion to Judaism: "There's a lot about religion that I admire -- the central tenets of the major religions are all pretty admirable, and I try to live by them -- but when one takes them as a whole I feel they get bogged down with ancient rules and pointless arguments..."
Now I know he was trying to be supportive of his friend and engage in a conversation. And I know he has been brought up in a household that disdains 'institutional' religion. More, his attitude is not an uncommon one, even amongst catholics. But gah, where do I even start....
1. 'The central tenets of the major religions are pretty admirable'
Just what central tenets are we talking about here Matthew? I suspect you are talking about morality perhaps?
But before you can get at morality, you have to have a basis for picking one code of practice over another - a basis other than 'I happen to like that one'.
And I would suggest that in fact the three most central tenets of Judaism, Christianity and Islam are as follows. Firstly that there is a God. And secondly that he doesn't just let us flounder and work out things for ourselves, he actually gives us rules to follow. Thirdly, all three religions believe that there are consequences that flow from not following those rules - for Jews, the consequences are generally thought to be in this life (depending on the stream of Judaism); for Christians and Muslims, the consequences lie primarily in our hope of salvation in the next.
In the case of Judaism, those rules are the Law set out in the Old Testament, and which all Jews continue to follow with varying degrees of strictness depending on the particular strand of Judaism they follow. Christians believe God gave the Jews those rules too - but of course they also believe that the New Covenant brought by Jesus means we are no longer bound to the letter of the 613 odd biblical laws, or many latter rules and customs. That doesn't mean of course that Christians have no rules they have to follow - of course they do.
2. Ancient rules
Christians actually believe that Jesus himself instituted quite a number of 'rules'. And Catholics in particular believe that he set up a Church, founded on the Apostles, that continues down today in accordance with the Gospel promise to be with them until the end of time.
St Paul in his epistles repeatedly talks about the faith as something handed down, a tradition to be passed on (and Luke makes a similar point in his account of St Paul's debates with the Thessalonians and Beroeans in Acts 17). It is not simply a matter of picking up a Bible and deciding which bits of it appeal to us, or how to interpret it all by ourselves, rediscovering it from nothing. Rather, it comes to us embedded in the teaching of the Apostles, its implications meditated on, studied and gradually teased out for us down the centuries.
The rules that we follow today, including how we worship, are a mixture of the divine and the human - the divine handed down, the human a matter of pastoral judgments made which can be modified to some degree for the time and place in which we live.
3. Pointless arguments?
And if these rules come to us from God and those he has entrusted the ongoing mission of the Church to, they have consequences, and are crucial to our continued existence! No wonder then, that people down the centuries have thought them worth arguing over.
In the case of the Catholic Church, theological debate, as well as debate over pastoral decisions has been part of the Church from its very beginnings. Fortunately, there have also been mechanisms to resolve those debates present from the very beginning, firstly in the authority given to St Peter and his successors. And secondly in the Councils of the Church, which trace their origins and practices to the Council of Jerusalem described in Acts 15.
Of course it is human nature, as Original Sin attests, to resist authority. So from the earliest times, communities have spun off, rejecting the decisions of the Church. People have attempted to invent their own faiths, rejecting divine authority. But that doesn't make those arguments pointless. Far from it.
Because God exists, and takes a continuing interest in what you and I are doing here and now. And he will make judgments about our acts, including whether or not we make a genuine effort to learn about him and what he is asking of us....
Part II of this series of exchanges can be found here.