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.


Matthew Edwards said...

Isn't Facebook such a wonderful thing? :)

I don't know how much of my attitude I've adopted from Mum and Dad — I certainly don't share their religious beliefs — but you might be on to something there.

My interpretation of Christianity is that when it comes to the effect it has on other people, it basically boils down to "be as nice to everyone else as you possibly can". Certainly there's the the God-related side of things (God exists, loves you, etc), but that's mostly private and not all that visible to the outside world.

Call me a rebellious teen if you want, but I don't feel that I need some higher authority to declare what's right and what's wrong. Certainly there are laws put in place by the government, which I generally follow, but when it comes to morality I don't think it's anyone's business but my own. The consequences of how I behave are quite simply the ways other people treat me.

I'm not familiar enough with modern Judaism to really comment on it much, but I agree that the New Covenant means that the OT rules don't apply to Christians.

When I referred to "ancient rules and pointless arguments", the things I had in mind were more like the debates over gay marriage and the ordination of women. Whenever someone argues against gay marriage, it's either in vague terms (It's not natural! It's not what God wants!) or using out-of-context verses from Genesis and Leviticus. I didn't mean to devalue theological discussion at all.

I await your reply :)

Terra said...

Interesting response, lots to munch on! Yes I’d kind of gathered from the wonders of facebook that you had managed to escape the clutches of fundamentalism (good), even if you have acquired some odd ideas about Christianity somehow along the way...(see below). And I’ll bring myself forward from the ancient I was thinking of (a few thousand years ago) to more contemporary debates!

Actually I tend to agree with you about the way arguments about homosexuality and women’s ordination are generally framed – and I might have a go at trying to put the arguments a bit more compellingly down the track. But before we can do that we need to go back to first principles, and consider some of your other points.

First, while what you describe Christianity as being about – viz being nice to everybody - has a lot of fans at the moment, I personally think that what I’d call the ‘cult of niceness’ is actually a false religion and not true Christianity at all.

There is a blog I occasionally look at called Catholic Pillow Fight, but which I primarily love for its tag line, which is: "When someone asks you 'think about what Jesus would do', remember that a valid option is to freak out and turn over tables".

The point is that while Christians do (or should) subscribe to the ‘Golden Rule’ (which actually first appears in the Old Testament), treating others as they would like to be treated themselves, that isn’t necessarily the same thing as always being nice. Sometimes, for example, we’d all prefer it (at least in the longer run!) if someone had actually just told us the truth, rather leaving us to find it out the hard way or when it is too late to do anything about it. And some of us prefer a good solid debate to exchanging inane niceties!

As an aside, I’d suggest though that reversing the Golden Rule and responding in kind to the way others treat us is how wars start…

Secondly, I don’t agree at all that belief in God is or should be something private and not visible to the outside world. If God truly exists, and if heaven and hell exist, then how we live our lives matters.

The Catholic view is that salvation isn’t something that just happens once, when we are baptized for example, but something we have to continue to work for, and that can be lost at any time, throughout our lives. Our long term goal is achieving the perfection that we call sainthood, or getting to heaven. And our life now is a pilgrimage to that end.

That doesn’t mean our life now should be grim and boring, far from it. Pilgrimages, like road trips, can be fun, filled with joy and good things to find along the way. But they do have an end point that dictates at least to some degree which route we take (though it can be a pretty twisting and turning one, with a few loops and backtracking). Still, that end point provides a ‘public’ framework to guide us as we develop our own personal relationship with God (the private side of things).

So what does that mean in practice? Well firstly joining in the public worship of God. The Catholic view is that the necessity for the Jewish Temple sacrifices ended with Jesus’ death on the Cross and the institution of the sacrifice of the mass at the Last Supper, taking their place. I’m not quite sure how Jews rationalize the destruction of the Temple and the subsequent failure of attempts to rebuild it or reinstitute sacrifices, but I guess its just part of that waiting waiting waiting for the Messiah to turn up thing!

Living as if God exists also has consequences for the code of behaviour and attitude to the world that we adopt.

Going back to that question of how should we behave, the question I’d like to pose to you is how do you decide what is right and wrong, what is permissible and what not? What framework do you draw on?

Matthew Edwards said...

Mmm, Facebook's wonders can be a little stalkerish sometimes, can't they...

I'd be very interested to hear your perspective on some of these modern issues, and I suspect that'd start a good solid debate or two :)

Ok, you've got a good point there: "be nice to everyone" is a bit of an oversimplification, and there is such a thing as being too nice. Certainly, there are times when you have to be cruel to be kind, but like you said, we've had "love thy neighbour as thyself" since Leviticus. Most of the time, Jesus was a pretty nice guy.

Reversing the Golden Rule gives you "an eye for an eye", which is not at all Christ-like...

In my opinion, how we live our lives matters either way. If God exists, He's either going to condemn billions of wonderful non-Christians to eternal torture — which rather goes against His loving, fatherly image — or He'll be reasonable enough to accept people who, although they may not have spent their lives striving to figure out what it is He wants them to do with their lives, were pretty decent nonetheless.

I don't know if this is the way it should be, but from a distance, the only noticeable difference between my religious and non-religious friends is that some of my religious friends are above-averagely kind and caring. It's true that they'll invite their friends to their churches and social groups and so on, and occasionally they'll quietly offer to pray for someone who needs it (if they think it'll be appreciated), but often when I learn that an acquaintance or a friend-of-a-friend is religious, I'd had no idea.

I don't want to be a saint. I may not have worked out what I want to do with my life yet, but I know I'm not perfect and I'm not going to try to be. I basically work on a combination of gut feeling (which I suppose has been pretty strongly influenced by my upbringing) and empathy. I've become pretty sensitive to how other people feel and react, and I'm also really analytical, so whenever I do something that makes someone else feel bad I think about it later and see if I could have somehow responded better. I regularly decide to change some part of my personality, whether by stopping doing a certain thing (e.g. pointing out flaws) or by trying to start something new (e.g. complimenting people's appearance).

I don't think I have a framework as such, other than the basic social norms of my community. In the crudest of terms, something's wrong if it makes other people feel bad. Punching one of the boys on the arm is ok, because we all do that and understand the context and no one minds, but punching, say, one of my sister's friends on the arm is not ok, because she'd be hurt and offended. Teasing someone about a crush is ok, because unless they're sensitive about it they'd understand that it's all in good humour and respond in kind, but teasing someone who's overweight about their weight is generally not ok, because they'd usually be pretty hurt. Does that sort of explain where I'm coming from?