Sunday, February 10, 2013

The Humility of Organized Religion

Just a few weeks ago, in my own personal experience, somebody-- a very cultured and intelligent person-- treated me to that old chestnut: "I have nothing against religion itself. It's organized and institutional religion I can't stand."

This baffles me. What is so sinister about organization? Does that attitude imply that, if you wake up very early and go into the woods to pray in the light of dawn, you do well, but if you arrange to meet with a friend by some particular grove of trees and pray together, you do ill?

Isn't everything about man organized and instititutional, at some level? Why would religion be any different?

Of course, I understand the objections; the principal one being that institutions (famously) tend to lose sight of their original mission, and eventually become dedicated to their own preservation and self-aggrandisment. Nor is the Catholic Church immune from this tendency, as history shows. But I believe that history also shows that the Catholic Church is unique in being the one institution that perpetually survives this tendency. Time and time again, a St. Athanasius of Alexandria, a Pope Gregory the Great, a St. Francis of Assissi, or a St. Ignatius of Loyola appears on the scene to counter the drift from orthodoxy or to help reform the Church in the true sense of that word; re-form, a return to the original form. Nor has the Church, at any given time, ever lost the original mission given to her by Christ. Even in the reign of the wicked Popes, the sacraments dispensed by Catholic priests remained valid, and the Church was incapable of uttering a false authoritative doctrine.

But, putting aside the Catholic Church for moment, it seems to me that it is much better for a man to follow some organized religion than none, and the more organized, the better. (I am not sure of this, I merely offer it as my opinion. Check with your local theologian)

Think first of horrible, criminal tragedies such as the Jonestown Massacre or the Waco Siege. Whatever you may think about the Mormons or the Jehovah's Witnesses or the Hare Krishnas, nobody expects such a thing to happen amongst them. And this is because they are established and organized and (in a particular sense) reputable. They are not entirely beholden to the whims and mood swings of some charismatic nutjob of a leader. And the older a religious organization is-- and I am talking about its actual institutional history, not the fact that it claims to have been secretly practiced in Tibet for thousands of years before being revealed to some insurance salesmen-- the less likely it is to be an outright scam or dangerous cult.

I also think that organized religion tends to demand various characteristics which, all things being equal (which they never are) are virtues. I mean virtues such as obedience, sociability, discipline, tolerance, reverence for tradition, and so forth.

But the merit of institutional religion that strikes me the most (as you might guess from the post title) is the humility that it entails.

"What the heck?" you might indignantly demand. "Every institutional religion on Earth, except maybe the Unitarian Universalists, claims to possess the Truth. What is humble about that?"

My first response would be that I'm not talking about the humility of the institution (whatever it might mean for an institution to be humble), but about the humility of the ordinary believer. Unless you are a member of the Association of Catholic Priests, or maybe Nancy Pelosi or some such person, being a practicing Catholic means you take your beliefs from outside of yourself. Of course, they may (and one would hope that they do) find an echo in your own heart. But it must be a rare Catholic (or adherent of any organized religion) who never struggles with some doctrine or other.

For instance, when I began to practice my faith, I was very hostile to the idea of large-scale immigration. And though I don't think (and again I am not sure) that a practicing Catholic is forbidden to hold this opinion, there is no doubt that the emphasis of the Church is very much upon the welfare and welcome that we owe to immigrants. The point is that, as Chesterton famously wrote, we want a Church that is right where we are wrong, not a Church that is right where we are right.

Is there anything more insane and ridiculous than the emphasis that is placed, in our era, upon originality and intuition? From the time we are children we are taught to "make up our own mind" about things. Of course, there is such a thing as developing your critical faculties, and of course this is important and should be encouraged. But how likely is it that any single individual will be right about any contested subject, let alone every contested subject?

I think that maybe this tendency took root in the Romantic era, where classical standards of taste and judgement were thrown out in favour of the response of the individual, and the mysteries of the heart. Certainly we are all heirs of the Romantic era, myself as much as anybody. I find the polished periods of Alexander Pope or John Dryden to be intolerably wearisome and monotonous. My soul finds refreshment and inspiration in the thought of wilderness and ruins and the uncanny; in the thought of

magic casements, opening on the foam
Of perilous seas, in fairy lands forlorn.

But, unfortunately, the Romantic era also gave us the worship of the Romantic genius, of a Byron or a Wordsworth or a Jean-Jacques Rousseau, a prodigy whose personal insight trumped all tradition and authority. And how disastrous that has been!

Today, as it sometimes seems to me, we won't lend an ear to any would-be savant unless his or her teaching is "counter-intuitive" and "challenging". Novelists and rock musicians and artists are given extensive interviews in the colour supplements and expected to say something cryptic, startling or outrageous. We expect a Picasso to tell us that the drawings of children and the art of primitive peoples are superior to the artistic accomplishments of maturity and advanced civilization. We expect a Harold Pinter, when asked what his plays mean, to say something about "the weasel under the cocktail cabinet". We expect a Jacques Derrida to say-- something nobody can make any sense of at all.

But, even without veering off into those extremes, we still expect that every man, woman and child should come to his own opinions about everything-- about cosmology, convention, costume, cuisine, car crashes, courtship, commerce, college education, Cubism, crisis management, and the can-can. In a universe so old and so vast that the human mind can't even begin to begin to begin to imagine it, and after so many billions of men and women have been born and lived and shuffled off into the darkness having believed such a vast range of different and contradictory things, every acne-afflicted pipsqueak that comes along still feels entitled to step up to the podium, hand out a pamphlet, or make a Powerpoint presentation telling us What It's All About.

I have to admit that I do find this rather endearing. In an previous post, I have reflected on the relish I take in the human tendency to leap into debate and to form schools of thought. But part of the reason I find it endearing is that it is so utterly ridiculous.

We know our tendency to error. We know that we are biased, limited in our knowledge, inclined to reaction and counter-reaction, haunted by personal demons, and so on. We see the mistakes of the great. We know that Napoleon invaded Russia in winter, that Aristotle believed that women have fewer teeth than men, and that Arthur Conan Doyle was taken in by spiritualist charlatans. But somehow we expect to be personally exempt from this flawed judgement.

When it comes to religion, this arrogance becomes only more pronounced. People who would never dream of acting as their own lawyer or doctor are confident that they have-- on their own resources-- answered the riddle of the universe. Every guru that comes along seems to attract a following. So many people seem happy to cobble together a personal Theory of Everything using bits and pieces of Buddhism, Christianity, Jungian pyschology, and Star Wars.

I am timid enough to think that, if God exists and wants us to serve him, He would have told us how. And He would have told us in a way that was pretty hard to miss. He would leave as little as possible to individual interpretation, intellectual capacity, and circumstance. And I find it rather implausible to think that He would have vouchsafed his truth to some obscure sect or to this month's star of the Mind, Body, Spirit shelves.

I believe that this truth would be seen in an institution that has stuck to its message over centuries, and shown a remarkable ability to transcend culture and historical circumstances. And that institution is the Catholic Church.

No matter how difficult it is to overcome our sinful nature and to follow God's will, I think we would have examples of people who had done so successfully. And those are the saints.

Arrogant as I am, I am not arrogant enough to think I can do without guidance, or to be sure that I am being "spiritual" when I am simply being conceited or self-indulgent. For all these reasons, I intend to stick to that unspeakably awful and wicked thing, Organized Religion.

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