If Tom Cruise were to ascend to the position of Chairman of Religious Technology for the Church of Scientology, his coronation would be met with little besides smarmy jokes from chat-show hosts.
Similiter et omnes revereantur Diaconos, ut mandatum Jesu Christi; et Episcopum, ut Jesum Christum, existentem filium Patris; Presbyteros autem, ut concilium Dei et conjunctionem Apostolorum. Sine his Ecclesia non vocatur; de quibus suadeo vos sic habeo.
S. Ignatii Ad Trallianos.
And when this epistle is read among you, cause that it be read also in the church of the Laodiceans.
My oh my, that 24/7 “who will be the next Pope?” coverage. I found it excruciating, though I’m forced to concede that a great deal was at stake. The fate of one billion Catholics (roughly 10% of whom understand the rudiments of Catholic doctrine, with 50% of that 10% either serving as clergy or teaching at that university the Domino’s Pizza guy founded) hung in the balance. Would we get a progressive Pope, a cool Pope, a totally with-it Pope? The kind of Pope who wore a leather jacket, rode a motorcycle, played drums in a band, and gave life advice to D.J. tanner? Given how many thousands of words and kilobytes of webspace they squeezed out of an issue over which we lay readers had as much say as the selection of the next WWE champion, Time and its middlebrow newsmag competitors ought to have paid royalties to the curia.
When the smoke and fairy dust and transubstantiated wafer + wine finally cleared, Pope Francis emerged to what I assume was raucous acclaim. Here, the narrative went, was something completely different: an Argentine, a Jesuit, and a man who, in selecting the name Francis, decided to give a shout-out to the much-beloved proto-hippie saint from Assisi. Of course, he’s also a full-blooded Italian descendant of immigrant parents, 76 years old (John Paul II, by comparison, was a sprightly lad of 58), and an unwavering opponent of legal rights for homosexuals. The more things change…
And that brings me to my first point: Why on earth would anyone expect the RCC to appoint a youthful, hopey-changey type to lead an organization that is thousands of years old and staffed by a bureaucracy laden with more gray eminences than either the Ivy League or the Supreme Court of the United States? Would these extremely decrepit men, who have knelt and prayed their way to the peak of their profession, throw out the baby with the bathwater in order to curry favor with liberal Catholics in countries where people are leaving the faith in droves? More to the point, after years of reciting memorized phrases and recapitulating the arguments of the Doctors of the Church, is a break from convention even a possibility for them? To put it in the sort of nonsensical Chestertonian phrasing that Church semi-apologists such as Andrew Sullivan (and my goodness, what a difficult road to travel that path of cognitive dissonance must be!) seem to enjoy, the great miracle of the True Church is not that it can evolve to meet the times, but that it can’t. In that respect, it is indeed miraculous to me, as a lapsed post-confirmation Catholic who hasn’t done his Easter Duty or so much as mouthed a prayer in years, that the Church survives in any capacity at all.
I once believed, as the historian Eamon Duffy still does, that the RCC’s religious calendar provided an extremely comforting way of organizing the seasons as one prepares for his or her inevitable death, but that no longer makes sense to me. This has nothing to do with belief or its opposite, a thorny subject that I’ll discuss below, and everything to do with the positions of men like Pope Francis vis-à-vis the legal rights of women and homosexuals. Unlike the nation to which I’m attached by an accident of birth, the RCC is an institution I can leave with no consequences. Perhaps I could remain a member of such an anachronistic and prejudiced body, reforming it from within until it resembles the RCC I’ve always dreamed of. But what would be the point of that? Ours is a free market for religion where doctrinally incompetent get-rich-quick schemers like Joel Osteen hold themselves out as gr8 men (gr9 men, even!); in such conditions, shouldn’t I simply become a higher law unto myself? After all, I’ve got a few favorite passages from the New Testament, and that’s probably as much as the linebacker-sized founder of the Potter’s House had when he launched his operation. While I have no desire to censor or otherwise inhibit the RCC’s message as disseminated by its magisterium, I have no desire to associate myself with it, either.
Now to the point that occasioned the writing of this piece: As I watched the mainstream media cover this spectacle with the sort of gravitas that ought only to be reserved for First Responder funerals and vigils for individuals who have suffered horrific abuses, it occurred to me that, were, say, Tom Cruise to ascend to the position of Chairman of Religious Technology for the Church of Scientology, his coronation would be met with little besides smarmy jokes from chat-show hosts. Because, you see, Scientology is just a silly, made-up cult. It’s ridiculous for the same reasons that my students find the Church of Latter-Day Saints and other creations of New York’s “Burned-Over” District to be so ridiculous: since the miracles alleged to have occurred there are of a recent vintage, and thus subject to some form of scientific verification, surely they can’t be true! Meanwhile, because the somewhat less miraculous things that happen in the Bible (and they’re way less miraculous than the bizarro sci-fi theology articulated by L. Ron Hubbard; the anonymous author of Q Gospel had a lot going for him, but he didn’t spend first two decades of his adult life banging out shitty pulp fiction) happened a long time ago, they’re the real deal. If Christianity weren’t true, why would people still believe it?
When it comes to discussing religion, we often encounter the following two difficulties:
- For reasons that escape me, learned men like Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens, men who have far better things to do with their time, have sold millions of books by merely channeling and updating Thomas Paine’s facile critique of religion. The insufferable Bill Maher scored a box-office hit doing the same thing. Attacking the Bible or the Koran because such works are pure fiction isn’t shooting fish in a barrel–it’s lobbing grenades into a black hole. Where does “you’re stupid if you’re a believer” get us?
- Meanwhile, people in the the mainline Christian denominations are fond of ridiculing the LDS, Scientologists, Jonestown cultists, and Westboro Baptists for their preposterous belief systems. But ask yourself this: what separates a “real” religion from a “fake” one? How is the shopper in the marketplace of religion to make his decision? Is a religion that allows a man to have thousands of wives any more or less, uh, “religious” than a religion that forbids him from having more than one? And if you concede that you’re just piecing together some kind of unsystematic feel-good mumbo-jumbo that suits your needs, is a coherent theological framework really necessary? Most people, when probed about their beliefs, are prone to express some combination of magical thinking (“God wanted me to have that parking space!”) and blind faith (“Homosexuality is wrong because it’s in the Bible and the Constitution!”).
Nevertheless, belief is a strange and apparently quite powerful thing. The legendary video game Planescape: Torment made the issue of belief central to the resolution of its involuted, brain-twisting plot:
If there is anything I have learned in my travels across the Planes, it is that many things may change the nature of a man. Whether regret, or love, or revenge or fear – whatever you believe can change the nature of a man, can. I’ve seen belief move cities, make men stave off death, and turn an evil hag’s heart half-circle. This entire Fortress has been constructed from belief. Belief damned a woman, whose heart clung to the hope that another loved her when he did not. Once, it made a man seek immortality and achieve it. And it has made a posturing spirit think it is something more than a part of me.
Putting aside its ability to move cities and turn an evil hag’s heart half-circle, belief is also an excellent way to stifle the sort of rational argumentation that should form the basis of modern discourse. “Snake” Thompson, an early mentor of L. Ron Hubbard, was fond of saying, “if it’s not true for you, it’s not true.” One of my students, when asked if his atrocious essay was okay, remarked that “it’s okay by me.” If ever stopped for a speeding ticket, I intend to argue that what matters is that I believed I wasn’t speeding. Get the picture?
The conventional wisdom is that religion and politics oughtn’t be discussed in polite conversation. A corollary of this should be that papal elections are never again covered in overwrought and intimate detail by CNN, MSNBC, and the BBC. But, hey, that’s just what I believe. Take it or leave it, bro.