Monday, July 16, 2007

Protestants are from Mars, Catholics are from Venus

Readers are no doubt aware of the encyclical published by the Vatican of Pope Benedict XVI re-affirming not just the pre-eminence of Roman Catholicism but also its status as the sole corporeal representative of Jesus Christ on Earth and declaring that all people who professed to be Christians but belonged to other denominations were in danger of foregoing salvation. Baptists, Lutherans, evangelicals, Seventh Day Adventists, Mormons, Episcopalians, and the many various and sundry others are "wounded" congregations and should return to the one, true church. A rather un-Paulian point of view for the Church that Paul founded, but no matter. What surprised me was the outcry from the other denominations, decrying this affront to ecumenical dialogue and good-faith relations between the disparate sects.

One does not rise to become the high priest of a cult – especially one with a billion adherents or so – by being pragmatic on the matter of its relative truth to other interpretations of its scripture. Pope Benedict XVI may have been doing harm to interfaith relationships, true, but he was hardly acting outside of his job description. Rather, he was fulfilling it. This isn’t exactly a revolutionary or unprecedented gesture; it’s rude and unseemly in this modern age, true.

Or is it? It would seem to me that such action was only to be expected from the man who, as Cardinal Ratzinger, presided over some of the most stringent enforcement of Catholic orthodoxy seen since the Inquisition. The worst aspects of the international situation can be ascribed to rigid adherence to orthodoxy. Fundamentalists, from Salafist jihadis to Orthodox Jews have set a whole swath of this world, from the Mediterranean coast to the Indian Ocean, on fire with bloodshed over ancient tribal and religious disputes. This translates into upsurges in intra-faith oppression as the fundamentalists seek to reassert control over their denominations as the One True Faith.

The United States has not been immune. While we have so far seemed reluctant to engage in schismatic conflict such as Europe experienced during the Protestant Reformation or the Muslim world experiences today, Christian traditionalism seems to be expanding its crusade against religious diversity from being against those who have no faith to those who practice unfamiliar faiths. Last week, for the first time in the history of this nation, a Hindu priest gave the opening prayer in the Senate. His monotheistic prayer was interrupted by Christian protestors.

Now, I’m firmly of the opinion that atheists who think that if they rid us of religion they will be ushering in an age of untold peace and intellectual prosperity are taking one too many hits off the peace pipe, if you catch my meaning. But, really, they have a larger point. At least without organized religion, human beings would have one less thing to get exercised about and kill each other over.

There are lots of good arguments for believing in a god, and there are many people who require, for reasons completely unfathomable to me, a spiritual life that delves into mysteries they can’t ever actually answer. That’s fine and dandy, and they’re probably ultimately issues that will never be resolved in a grand sense. But it’s completely legitimate to take someone who can make all the arguments they want for "a god," but then blithely steps around the matter of the scriptural interpretation they choose to regard as wholly and solely legitimate, and hold their feet to the fire. The larger difficulty of the grand metaphysical question – "God: Why or Why Not?" – obscures the very specific and far more difficult to shrug off question of "But why your specific religion?"

Which brings us full circle to Pope Benedict XVI. He’s simply doing what he should be doing: Telling everyone else that they’re wrong. But then, he shouldn’t be surprised when others say the same thing about his particular scriptural tradition. I have mentioned before that my wife was raised Seventh Day Adventist, a Christian denomination that takes the book of Leviticus very literally: God’s commandments are God’s commandments and you shouldn’t stop following them just because the Messiah appeared. My wife once stated, quite definitively and as though there were simply no question, that Catholics are not Christians. And you know what? That makes sense, based on her scriptural tradition. She was simply doing unto the Pope what the Pope would later do unto her.

But at least she was civil about it, and kept it to herself.

[This essay first appeared on James F. Elliott's blog Often Right, Rarely Correct—Ed.]


  1. The idea of religious ecumenicalism has always puzzled me; the notion seems as... counter-intuitive... as the idea that we could have many different theories of gravity, all of which say different things.

    Of course, viewing religion as merely the embodiment of authoritarianism, the notion makes a little more sense: One can understand declaring fealty to a different lord and master, but the notion of true independence might well be anathema.

    [A]theists who think that if they rid us of religion they will be ushering in an age of untold peace and intellectual prosperity are taking one too many hits off the peace pipe.

    Very few atheists actually think this way, and most of them are literally smoking way too much dope. Most atheists, I think, have opinions more along your lines of one fewer reason to kill each other.

    But at least she was civil about it, and kept it to herself.

    Until you opened your big mouth! '-)

  2. Well said, James and Larry. Of course ALL religions claim to have the truth. ["What is truth?" asked Pilate - and did not stay for an answer.] And the Pope has more historical pretensions behind him than most others for this sort of thing.

    I've just been reading reviews of "The Reign of Fear", by Toby Green - a history of the Inquisition. He argues that the Inquisition was far more cruel and horrific than most people now realise, and that it had a socially blighting effect on Spain and Portugal, where it flourished for three centuries.

    Maybe someone will send Green's book to Pope Benedict for bedtime reading. HIS review of it would be interesting.

  3. anticant,

    I always found it telling that Pope Benedict XVI chose for his papal moniker a name closely associated with the Inquisition.

  4. It is historically inaccurate to say all religions believe they "have" the truth.

    Monotheistic "Abrahamic" religions claim this -- Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.

    Buddhism claims to have verified its truths, as it were, experimentally. The indigenous Chinese religions make similar claims, as I see it.

    The classic "pagan" religions such as those of classic Greece and Rome, Egypt, and Mesopotamia, and pre-modern Hinduism, were not exclusivist. They did not claim that the gods and goddesses of other traditions were false, though sometimes they assimilated different deities to each other (Venus to Aphrodite, Jupiter to Zeus). But their pantheons were infinitely expandable to assimilate the pantheons of other traditions, and they were noted for their toleration of other religions (except for atheism and monotheism, interestingly enough).

    But the spectacle of religions consigning each other's sincere believers to Hell does not occur before the triumph of Christianity and Islam, and had no equivalent in premodern India or China.

  5. Humbition brings up a great point, but as much as I would like to agree with it, there are some passages in the Bhagvad Gita that can be read to justify any act in the name of the strictest sort of monotheism.

    Hinduism isn't considered monotheistic in any sense (a thousand and one gods, million and one names or forms) and the order in which those gods are worshiped changes depending on where you might grow up in India. It's a cultural and traditional difference, not religious. The same goes as far the "one truth" is concerned, I don't think there is anything strictly religious there either, unless you want there to be (i.e. reading the Gita selectively).

    There is conflicting and wrong information in the ancient texts just like there is in the gospels. Most of it just isn't taught or touched on by priests because the Vedas are so much more voluminous than the gospels.

    I've made one too many analogies that I don't like, but I wouldn't say Hinduism is above such inclusive or exclusive ecumenical discussions. It just depends on where you might have grown up in India, I'm sure.

  6. I remain fairly superficially informed about the nature of Hinduism, but many of India's modern-day problems tend to revolve upon sectarian conflict as much as caste or culturally-based disputes. Occasional persecutions of Sikhs and the persistent conflict between Hindus and Muslims come from the top of my head. I think Humbition conflates traditions of tolerance with claims to truth. After all, most tribal cultures, pagan or otherwise (and really, one person's faithful is another person's pagan, no?), perceived victory in battle as proof of their gods' superiority over the others. Perhaps "truth" is, as you said, overly ambiguous. But the larger sentiment, of adherence to the "correct" faith, I think remains.

  7. Surely, if people didn't believe that their faith was the 'correct' one they wouldn't adhere to it?


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