Thursday, February 07, 2008


I mentioned previously that Nina had written a great post that had gotten me thinking and writing. I'm not done with that yet, but darned if she hasn't done it again here on Ash Wednesday.

Well, I'll take it in reverse order and share some of the things this made me think about, especially in light of the developing conversation in the comments. Why here? Length and manners. I don't want to tie up someone else's comment section with my theologisms. In the end it's not for me to butt in, so I just offer it here for whomever wishes to read it. (Or really yell at me in my own comment section, since that's what it's there for.)

The comments there, by the way, are wonderful. A lot of people are offering their opinions without ruining the thread with a bunch of stupid fights. (That's what this post is for. =P) And around 17 or so, there's this comment.

Willowtree: "Catholicism thrives on guilt and forgiveness, they are so obsessed with sin that they even give you one to start with the moment you are born, how sick is that! Why not make things easier on yourself and just ditch them? It's easier than you think, I did it and I come from a family full of priests and nuns! If you switched to Buddhism your mindset would switch to not committing the transgression in the first place, rather than seeking forgiveness afterwards."

Not to pick on WT, but by design or chance he's hit on a few of the major unspoken assumptions about Christianity (Catholic or otherwise) that are not really founded in fact. Not that there aren't humbugs and legalists in the faith. There are many; but there are also a lot of humbug, legalistic atheists. There are scolds and busybodies who couldn't give a rip about any church at all, but want the authority to mandate how long your showers last and how far your cars can run and what you can buy with your own money. To me, it's obvious that this comes from someplace other than faith.

The natural question then becomes, is the person who chooses a faith doing so from a legalistic personality, and naturally choosing the most legalistic faith out there? If the Church doesn't cause the problem, does it simply cement it in religious attitudes?

It all depends on who's doing the teaching. The Bible is pretty clear about it: "I came that they might have life, and have it more abundantly." (John 10:10). But a church comprised of people can of course miss the best part of the gospels. And even if not, there's a lesson to be learned from the rapid exodus of believers from the more permissive denominations: when a church loses touch with the tough parts of the faith - the sin from which we are redeemed - then their followers, not surprisingly, see no need for a Redeemer and feel no loyalty to Him or His people. We don't like being bound and gagged by laws: "They tie up heavy burdens and lay them on men's shoulders, but they themselves are unwilling to move them with so much as a finger" (Matthew 23:4); but neither are we meant to be utterly lawless - serving our momentary whims and instincts as if we were no more than cats or chickens. Go to your local mall or sit in a coffee shop for an hour and listen to people - heck, watch Judge Judy for a week - and you will gather many examples of the unhappy results of living without any discipline or consequence.

This gets to be complicated. Well, if we obviously need a few rules, but not too many, why bother with a faith? Why not just be a good person? I think it's preferable to being a bad person, but good or bad, I still think faith is the way to go: because of that "sin you start out with," in WT's words. Sick? In the literal sense, yes we are. "It is not the healthy that need a doctor, but the sick." (Matthew 9:12) The Church doesn't assign us a sin when we're born, as if we did something wrong on our way out of the womb; it describes a real problem. We are the sort of creature that commits sin. Original Sin wasn't invented to punish us - or, if it was, then we are the unhappy holders of the patent, not the Catholic Church. Saying "men are sinners" is like saying "cats are felines."

As a result, avoiding transgressions, while a valuable skill, is not one that comes naturally to us - nor does it really repair the fundamental problem, any more than chicken soup and orange juice really cure a cold. You may feel better but you're still not cured. We need virtue that is not naturally in us; something more than the mere absence of sin. If avoiding transgression is all there is to Buddhism, then Buddhists are missing a major part of the picture.

Now, I know next to nothing about Buddhism, but I'm reasonably sure that it's not all there is to it; I'm even willing to guess that it isn't even the main draw - so I have to ask why, given all the various teachings that go into it, that this one was picked as the selling point. It's possible that the answer is right there - it was meant to directly contradict the idea that Catholicism is all about the guilt.

Luckily, this is the opposite of Catholicism. The faith is all about grace, and being freed from guilt. (If one has done wrong, it's good to know that it's not a permanent condition.) In fact, Catholicism and Buddhism agree about not committing the transgression, and also about not obsessing over the ones that have already gone. The difference is that Buddhism (as I understand it) tells us that there's nothing to obsess about, because all is illusion anyway; whereas the Catholic view is "Be of good cheer! Your sins are forgiven." That is why Nina can close her tremendous post thus: "...confession is a terrible, awful, very bad, perfect thing. And by the time you see me again, I will have tried to accomplish it with something like dignity."

The dignity relies on Christ and not us, so I can confidently say "mission accomplished." And that is ultimately the beauty of the faith, as properly practiced.* All the good in it depends on God, who never runs out of it, nor ceases to give grace. We can therefore face terrible times, endure hardship, or even just feel crummy without worrying that He will grow disgusted by us and kick us to the curb.

The alternative here is Nirvana**, an attractive concept - that we can rise above all such illusions and embrace pure, still emptiness. The downside is that this is not actual freedom. There is nothing to be freed from, since slavery (such as that to sin) doesn't actually exist. So in the end, it solves the "problem" by saying that there is no problem at all, and no solution.

This is fine unless sin is real, in which case we're going to need a more concrete approach. Saying so is not a matter of indulging our own grim need to feel badly about ourselves. I'm sure that WT would reject an accusation that his fondness for Buddhism indulges his need not to have to make up his mind - it's clear that he has made it up, and has set his path accordingly. If one really thinks that there is no "there" there (or anywhere) then it's a sensible choice. I will not accuse him of such an indulgence, but fair's fair; I also reject his assumption of loving guilt as a motive for belief in Christ. Rather, I think that there really is sin in me, and Christ is the one who offers the cure for it. From the "all is nothing" point of view it does seem a psychological mumbo-jumbo of hang-ups. ("Why not make things easier on yourself and just ditch them?") Looked at from the other side it's rather meat-and-potatoes, everyday sense. (Yeah, meat and potatoes on Ash Wednesday. Brilliant, 'fly.) There is sin, and also Jesus Christ: thus freedom from sin, through grace.

In any case, the things we think of as "the Church's hang-ups" are often our own, passed on to us by our parents or peers in defiance of good sense and the actual faith. We abandon the ways of our youth, and quite naturally feel better. But we could just as easily leave behind the hang-ups while remaining in the Church. When I decided to start taking my faith seriously in college, it was the beginning of freedom. I didn't have to obsess over sin any more because I had a Redeemer. Again - a child of Buddhists may say in college, "Man, that eightfold path is nothing but a drag; I'm converting! Thank goodness I'm finally free of it. Chuck it all and you'll be glad you did!" Is it really about the teachings, or is it about annoying Mum and Dad?

* I call it practice on purpose - I may sound pretty good but I have a lot more trouble actually living the faith properly. For now, I settle for living it clumsily and braying about insights that are beyond my power to perform. Still, there's Jesus, so I hope for better.

**There's an upper-end furniture and notions store in Red Bank named Nirvana: pricey decor for enlightened incomes. One wonders how they can sell anything. "Embrace nothingness - and YOU NEED THIS LAMP."

No comments: