Thursday, July 12, 2007

Today's religious issues

On Tuesday the pope issued a statement confirming that in his view, the Roman Catholic Church is the true church of Christ, while the Orthodox churches are defective for not recognizing papal authority, and the Protestant churches are a step down from that, lacking as they do a sacramental clergy.

As Atrios at Eschaton remarked, it's not exactly astonishing that the man in charge of this vast, prestigious and traditional institution would have this opinion. Otherwise, he'd be unlikely to be a member. Chester Scoville at The Vanity Press opines that ecumenism, along with other nostalgic efforts at a vaguely defined "unity," is overrated, even if the past efforts to reduce active hostility have been worthwhile.

Reading about this papal statement, which doesn't exactly impress me as very significant, made me think about how the religious issues of any given time are not handled very well in journalistic and even scholarly discussions.

For instance, a historically Christian intellectual culture tends to emphasize theological doctrines (teachings about God, and his relationship to the universe and humanity) as expressing the essential nature of any religion or religious faction. But how much do people really care about the essential teachings of their own faith? Some ideas really are fundamental. I can't see why anyone who doesn't believe Jesus Christ is the savior of the world would even want to be called a Christian. But what about the Procession of the Holy Spirit? It's in some of the earliest "creeds" or statements of faith. Do you know anyone who understands what this means, much less why it is as important to believe as, say, the resurrection of the dead and the last judgment? Why should different ideas about this Procession have separated Rome and the Orthodox churches for over a thousand years?

I think the big issues of religion today, or at least Christianity (but maybe not just Christianity) are things hardly discussed by the gospels or the creed writers from 325 AD on. Here they are:
  • Marriage, who's allowed to have it and under what conditions
  • Birth control and abortion
  • The status of gays in a Christian community: lepers or leaders?
These issues are the ones that are tearing apart traditional alignments. For instance, the world-wide Anglican communion is on the rocks on the issue of whether same sex unions can be blessed and whether gays can be bishops. The protagonists are the national Anglican churches in the United States, Canada, and Nigeria, while the Archbishop of Canterbury, who leads a national church where most members never go to services, tries to keep things together. It looks to me, though, that there isn't much middle ground between Anglicans who want to return to a traditional disapproval of sexual diversity, and those who want the approval of God's church -- the one they belong to -- for their family life, even if Moses condemned it in the laws of Leviticus.

And the Anglican church is hardly the only one in this position.

The religious landscape is always a complicated one with lots of inconsistencies and apparent paradoxes. One Japanese Buddhist leader long ago taught that true Buddhism meant that everyone should be married and no one should be a monk (!). Just looking at the labels or even at the official teachings of the labeled groups doesn't help understanding very much.

Remember when, in North America, getting a divorce was a lifelong disgrace? No? Gather round, children, and I'll tell you a story...

PS: You will note that I didn't list under religious issues people care about the Evolution/Creation as in Genesis debate. Certainly many people do care, but how many of them live outside the United States? Honest question.

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