At the Root of (Religious) Misunderstanding

I’ve been browsing some of the hot topics over on Patheos, and the conservative Roman Catholics have been pretty active lately.

What I find myself saying under my breath as I read is, “How utterly bizarre!”

It isn’t what they’re saying. It’s all English, and the sentences parse. It’s what comes through the sentences, a completely alien way of thinking about the world.

We could pick any of the “hot button” issues — homosexuality, contraception, marriage — or even the more traditional ethical issues like murder or theft. With these latter issues, it’s harder to see how bizarre they seem to me, and (presumably) I to them, because we both agree that murder and theft are wrong: we just have strangely different ways of coming to that common conclusion. But when it comes to homosexuality or contraception, we end up totally disagreeing on what is right and what is wrong, and that serves to color our underlying mutual misunderstanding in yellow highlighter.

Here’s the fundamental issue: they think they know what God wants. I don’t think I know what God wants, and I really don’t care what other people say God wants.

Let’s take the issue of homosexuality.

Catholics start with the idea that homosexual behavior is a sin. My immediate question is, what is a sin, and why do they think homosexuality is one of those?

They respond, a sin is (in one form or another) an offense against God, and they know this because the Bible says so, and because the Church says so, and because….

Stop right there! I say. Let’s discuss this.

First, this concept that humans can “offend” God by their behavior. Excuse me? How does that work?

Trespass I understand. Yesterday morning, I (unsuccessfully, as it turned out) went after a nest of wasps that had trespassed against me: full-on chemical warfare and a mass murder holocaust — I poisoned them from a safe distance in the sanctity of their own nest, in the cool early morning when they were all still asleep.

I’m not into gratuitous pest control — we needed to remove some juniper bushes (mass vegicide, mind you) for purely aesthetic reasons, and the wasps were simply in the wrong place. I don’t expect wasps to agree with my ideas of “aesthetics,” and the issue isn’t up for debate with them anyway.

Now I’d much rather post signs in some language wasps can understand that say, “Go Away, and Don’t Come Back.” But since I don’t speak “Waspish,” I resorted to brute lethal force. If I did speak Waspish and posted the signs and they ignored me, I’d hardly be offended: I’d just nuke them.

So if you want to tell me that God has certain geographical regions where He’ll strike me dead if He catches me there — hey, I get that, and thanks for the tip. I don’t try to lie down in a field of nettles, and I won’t try to camp out in God’s Country, assuming I know where it is. The concept is very accessible: it’s part of the Law of Life we see all around us. Tread on some other predator’s hunting grounds, and you may get eaten.

Of course, I’d want to see someone struck dead once in a while. People say all kinds of ridiculous shit, and they try to take advantage of other people for the strangest reasons, including no reason at all. Without an occasional divine smiting to lend some weight to your claims, I’ll probably remain mildly cautious and highly skeptical.

But homosexuality is a little different. That’s more about what the wasps do in the privacy of their own nest. I certainly don’t care. Nor do I see bears worrying about the sexual habits of pumas. In fact, the only analog I can see in the natural world to what the Catholics are saying about homosexuality and God, is a human breeding program for farm animals. A rancher gets a gay bull, he gets pissed, and the bull becomes steak in a hurry.

So tell me again, who is this God character? And what’s His relationship to us? Something about the sheep of His pasture? Yikes….

This inevitably leads to some very confusing conversation about how God loves us as His own children, and wants the best for us, and is offended when we don’t do what is best for us.

After I start breathing again, being reassured we aren’t destined for some Divine Barbecue, I still have trouble understanding. I have to wonder why He singled out our particular breed of hairless ape for adoption, for starters. But apart from that, I know that when my own children didn’t do what I thought was best for them — once I got over my selfish pique over my loss of control — I wasn’t offended, I was sad. Perhaps even heartbroken.

Not offended.

That crosses species barriers, too. I’ve had pets that could not be lived with, and with great sorrow on my part, they ended up impounded and (presumably) executed. But the offense had to do with their behavior in my house as it affected me, not with whether they humped their pillow. I could see God getting seriously angry about our fossil fuel use, our nuclear programs, our salinization of the oceans, our industrial soil-deadening agriculture — but homosexuality? That makes no sense.

This line of discussion leads — by the long way or the short way — to some statement along the lines of God’s Ways Are Mysterious. And to that, I’ll nod my head in bemusement and say, “Amen.”

That seems an appropriate point at which to come back to the second question: if God’s Ways are so Mysterious, what makes the Catholics think they know what God wants in the first place?

I’d expect some kind of Bat-Phone, a direct line from God to Humans. I read enough science-fiction and fantasy to accommodate all kinds of different modes of communication, from a golden telephone in the Pope’s inner chambers, to angelic visitations, to oracular trances, to telepathy, to memes circulated through the entire human population, to genetic pre-programming.

So what is it? How does God speak to Man?

And this is where it all falls completely apart for me. The answer is: the Bible, and the Church. Both of which represent Tradition.

I know rather a lot about the Bible, and a bit about the Church, and just a bit about the role of Tradition in society. My response is a) I don’t believe the Bible is anything but a purely human document, and b) I don’t believe the Church is anything but a purely human social structure. Beowulf, and the DMV. In ten thousand years, the Bible will be gone and forgotten, and the Catholic Church will have joined the Temple of Marduk as an historical curiosity.

I believe this represents an impasse. I think I understand the Roman Catholics well enough at this point, and I think I can explain myself well enough that they can understand me.

If I believed that the Bible was the Word of God, and that the Church was His Living Presence on the earth, and that we homo sapiens sapiens just happen to somehow live at the very crux of God’s action in history, then yes, I would doubtless have to concur with their subsequent reasoning about homosexuality. Or perhaps not, but I’d certainly have to go down the very long road of contesting all of their convoluted arguments based around God’s Will and Thomas Aquinas and Latin phrases I would have to look up.

Conversely, I think that if they could imagine, just for the sake of argument, that neither the Church nor the Bible were any more reliable indicators of God’s Will than, say, the National Enquirer, they would have to concede that they have very little else to support their viewpoint on homosexuality. After all, if God really doesn’t care — if they were simply wrong about that, because they trusted untrustworthy sources — do they have anything else to say on the matter?

So this isn’t about trying to justify sin. I’m heterosexual, probably somewhere around a 1.5 on the Kinsey scale, and I personally don’t give a whoop about gay marriage. I’m male, and my wife is well past menopause, so I don’t personally give a whoop about contraception, or abortion.

My objection to the Catholic positions on these issues is that they are unjust. Profoundly, broadly, horribly unjust: and, in the changing world, increasingly insane.

The question that Catholics raise at this point is that if I’ve thrown out the Bible and the Church as arbiters of moral absolutes, what gives me a reason to say that anything is unjust?

My answer — and they may find this compelling or they may not — is the remarkably adaptable Golden Rule.

Justice is a fancy word for the simpler concept of “fairness,” and it turns out that there is a very simple method of achieving fairness when it comes to, say, dividing up what’s left of a pie. It’s called, “I divide, you decide.” I cut what’s left into two pieces, then you get to choose one of the two pieces.

There is no need for the division to be equal. I merely need to divide so I don’t care which part I get. Maybe I divide so that one piece is smaller, but it has all the burnt crust, which I particularly like: so I may end up with the crust I like best, or the bigger piece. I’d be happy with either. It doesn’t matter if you consider it an equal cut: in only matters that I consider it equal. If you think it’s unequal, you’re free to take what you think is the better half.

Ultimately this is an application of the Golden Rule: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” Let your actions be such that you do not care whether you are dishing it out or taking it, and let the other keep you honest by deciding whether you get to dish it out, or take it.

It works just fine for criminal justice, as well, though in that case you have to go further and divide based on an unawareness of whether you will be the criminal or the victim. The criminal hurts the victim. The criminal should not be hurt in return any more than the victim. That’s the real lesson in “eye for eye, tooth for tooth” justice, which is not intended to mandate vengeance, but to limit it.

The issue of homosexuality can be framed this way, then. In country A, being born a homosexual and acting upon it is a crime, to be treated in fashion X; in country B, being born Catholic and acting upon it is a crime, and is treated identically in fashion X. You do not know which country you will end up in. What do you choose for X?

Obviously, you want X to be “ignored,” if you are Catholic. You want freedom of religious practice. You want a “liberal” state that does not prosecute you for this bogus “crime” of Catholicism. It’s a position of privilege you’ve come to enjoy in the United States, and you consider that both normal and enlightened.

The argument that you wish X to be anything else for homosexuals is an argument for injustice.

Unless you can demonstrate the harm.

To date, no one has been able to demonstrate any harm in homosexual behavior. There are some health risks associated with certain sexual practices, but those practices are common to (male) homosexuals and heterosexual couples alike, and simple precautions eliminate the risks. That’s about it for harm.

I think I could make a better case for harm in Catholic behavior, starting with the way its theology and practice has shredded families that suffer the “misfortune” of having a homosexual member.

We are now entering a very dangerous century for humans. At the same time our increasing population is beginning to pop — technically, where the scale of incremental annual growth is significant relative to resource availability — we face a global warming trend that is going to destroy a great deal of our ability to produce food in traditional ways. It would be a fabulous time to start promoting voluntary birth control.

Which the Catholic Church is dead-set against, on the basis of arguments rooted this idea that they know what God wants.

The result is population control the old-fashioned way: starvation, pestilence, and war.

That’s why I say that the positions of the Church are insane. They are rooted in the idea that the Church knows what God wants, but are completely unmoored from natural consequence. Listening to the voice of God while losing contact with the consequences of one’s actions in the real world is pretty much the definition of a psychotic break.

I don’t expect the Catholic Church or any conservative Catholics to find my thoughts either compelling or even interesting; certainly, they aren’t going to change their ways at this point. It will take a cataclysm to force a change.

But in the meantime, I certainly do find their way of thinking about the world to be interestingly bizarre.

This entry was posted in General.

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