Friday, April 22, 2005

WHY DO SO MANY RELIGIOUS PEOPLE BEHAVE IN UNHOLY WAYS?

Still stuck on Saturday. Or rather in Saturday, Ian McEwan's condensation of contemporary life into a single day. It is a day commodious enough to include the randomness and terror and fragility that we live with in this millenium, but also spacious enough for satisfactions and opportunities our forebears never imagined. In the novel, Henry Perowne appears to be a man of post-God Europe, and yet his behavior never strays from the highest religious principles. As he goes through his day, we see him acting as a scrupulously faithful husband, and a good son though his mother no longer has the presence of mind to recognize his efforts. He is a doctor of such integrity that he goes out to save the life of a man who has terrorized his family and held a knife to his wife's throat.

In many ways, Henry Perowne begs the question: who are we without God? Are we basically the same mixed bag of bumbling humanity that we are when guided by lofty holy texts, and watched over by a God who never sleeps? Some good, some utterly scurrilous, most of us a complex mix of both. Or without faith to form our consciences and to imbue us with a reason to be good, will we give in entirely to the governing principle of human nature: me first? In many ways, it is unfair to use Perowne as an example because as a fictional character, he is very much tethered to his personal God--the writer who created him. And at times, I found his ethical behavior unconvincing. Would he really leave his wife right after such a traumatic incident to go out and minister to the interloper who threatened everything that is good in their lives? Or is McEwan merely manipulating him to conform to the formative doctrines that he may consider irrelevent?

But for me, the more disturbing question is why the exalted and beautiful texts and beliefs that form the core of the world's great faiths have failed to elevate us beyond our baser nature? And more significantly, why are people who ardently profess faith in various religions frequently uholy, often murderously so? From the Crusades to 9/11 to the clergy sex abuse scandal, we have witnessed people of God who debase every principle they claim to believe. Can a so called secular society, inhabited by confused humans merely trying to do their best be any worse?

In prayer school, we have been studying a Gospel reading that seems to address this subject. It is the story of the woman who enters the house of Simon the leper where Jesus is gathered with several men (presumably Apostles), and annoints Jesus with expensive oil. This earns her a sharp rebuke from the men, who seem to see her as an intruder--and an ignorant one at that. Does the woman have any idea how many poor people could be helped for the price of her wasteful act? But what the men see as a sin against their nascent faith, Jesus views as a stunning and utterly generous act of love, and thus the ultimate good.

I think it has to do with levels of faith. There is the cerebral, prideful level that says, "I possess the truth and you don't, therefore I'm better than you." Carried to its darkest conclusion, it can easily become, "I possess the truth and you don't; therefore my life is of value and yours is not." This is the kind of faith that Jesus repeatedly challenges, and also the kind which is responsible for a religiosity that is often worth than aetheism. It is the prevalence of that inauthentic, loveless faith that has tarnished not only religion, but utimately the concept of the Great Good as well. And for whatever reason, faiths of every variety seems to attract the kind of adherents who see their beliefs as a hammer of judgment and disdain with which to bludgeon so called non-believers. And in their zeal to be right, they fail the one true test of faith. Augustine described it in simple terms that have yet to be exceeded by the most stringent or intellectual analysis:

Love and do what you will.

4 comments:

Diana said...

Oooohhh, this looks like good stuff, but I won't read it yet because I haven't read Saturday. But it's in my pile!

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