Friday, October 29, 2010

The Ideology of Neo-Barbarism

Get your own knuckles at the knuckle tattoo gun.

          I had a visit yesterday from a couple of young women from Jehovah’s Witnesses. They caught me outside walking the dog. There was a group of about 10 of them canvassing our neighborhood. This happens quite often, at least every other month or so. I don’t mind that they do this. I only mind when they won’t take ‘no thanks’ for an answer.
I’m always polite. I had some very good friends in Oklahoma who were Jehovah’s Witnesses. They were pleasant and personable and content to let my Catholic peculiarities simmer away without comment. For some reason they didn’t feel compelled to get all up in my soul with arguments about the stuff they figured I had figured wrong. When they came over to my house, they didn’t bring Bibles and pamphlets and copies of the Watchtower. To my everlasting spiritual joy, they brought beer.
Like many of the others before them, these two young women out canvassing yesterday would not be easily dissuaded by my stated lack of interest in their literature or their interpretation of Scripture. I told them I was a devout Catholic, and that I was extremely unlikely to change my views.
The older of the two told me that she had been raised Catholic and attended Catholic schools. I guess this was to prove to me that I wasn’t as beyond redemption as I thought. She had seen the light, and so, presumably, could I.
The fact that she had been a Catholic once did not surprise me. I have witnessed this before. There is something about fallen-away Catholics that makes them love to out themselves, especially to still practicing Catholics. It’s like some badge of honor to them that they have managed to escape the sticky tentacles of Papism without bursting into flames. Maybe it’s just that they want to start from some shared bond in a traditional Catholic upbringing to move the practicing Catholic toward their newly adopted version of enlightenment.
Their reasons for outing themselves are easier to understand than their reasons for falling away in the first place. These I don’t understand. My first reaction—although I’ve learned not to be so confrontational—is to think, you must not have been paying very close attention in Catholic school, else you would still be a Catholic. If you say something like this out loud you always get a litany of fairly emotional reasons why they left the Church. Some of them are unassailable—I was molested by my pastor is one, or just bringing up the fact of pedophilia in the priesthood and the scandalous cover-up by our bishops. There’s not much I can say about that. I personally don’t believe that these are good reasons not to be Catholic anymore, but I can’t in good faith fault the reasoning of someone who believes otherwise.
I’m not judgmental anymore. I don’t make confrontational statements. Instead I ask, “Don’t you miss the sacraments?”
I know I would. The sacramental life is the center of the Catholic faith. The sacraments encompass ritual, worship, community, and access to the Divine all at once. I can’t imagine a religious existence without them. I think it’s a good question.
When I asked this of the young woman yesterday, she asked in return, “Which ones?”
This was proof to me that she had not been paying attention at all in Catholic school. If the nuns had not been so busy seeing to my spiritual development by rapping my knuckles with a ruler or making me kneel on a broomstick, they might have noticed that some of the girls weren’t getting it when we studied our catechisms. They might have prevented this little lost sheep from bolting out of the fold and wondering aimlessly over the religious landscape until she was snatched up by proselytizing wolves.
“Well all of them,” was my reply, “but especially the Eucharist.”
This is of course the only appropriate response. My new friend, the Jehovah’s Witness, wouldn’t have had to pay especially close attention in Catholic school to know that the Eucharist is central to Catholic worship. The Catechism puts it this way:
The Eucharist is 'the source and summit of the Christian life.’ The other sacraments, and indeed all ecclesiastical ministries and works of the apostolate, are bound up with the Eucharist and are oriented toward it. For in the blessed Eucharist is contained the whole spiritual good of the Church, namely Christ himself, our Pasch. … In brief, the Eucharist is the sum and summary of our faith: ‘Our way of thinking is attuned to the Eucharist, and the Eucharist in turn confirms our way of thinking.’

          I expected the former Catholic Jehovah’s Witness to know this much. I didn’t expect her to be able to articulate it, but I knew she knew it because everything I learned in Catholic school was directed to this distilled essence of our Faith. This is a universal precept of Catholicism. It is not different between one school and another or one parish and another. What is true at St. Ignacius is true at Mary Help of Christians, Sacred Heart, Corpus Christi, St. Mark, St. Clement, and Our Lady of Perpetual Sorrow. There is no escaping it. There is apparently slipping out of it, however, for that is what my young lady did.
          “I encounter Christ every day in prayer and in the Scriptures,” she said.
          The implication was that she encountered her Savior in reading and reflection, and that was for her the same or maybe better than encountering Him in bread and wine. She didn’t miss the Eucharist. She had replaced it with something that worked for her.
          I’ve heard this kind of argument before, too. It is akin to the argument of people who say that they are spiritual but not religious—that they find the creative majesty of God manifest in nature rather than in church. They find the community of believers to be a distraction. Hell, I find a community of believers to be a distraction, but God didn’t give us mountains and valleys and streams and forests to lead us to eternal life. He gave us Church, and you have to get down amongst the warts and boils and farts, the petty banalities and self-centered posturing of the community of believers in order to appreciate the beauty of this plan. You have to overcome the distractions to get at the truth. It’s not supposed to be easy. If it were easy we wouldn’t have required salvation in the first place.
          The same is true of the Eucharist. It’s not an easy tenet to embrace. Even His disciples were moved to declare, “this saying is hard; who can accept it?” when Jesus delivered his discourse on the Bread of Life. What He had just said that was hard for them and caused many of them to leave His company was this: “For my flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me and I in him.” (John 6:55-56)
          This is a hard saying. Accepting it on its face is harder even than wallowing in the miasma of a community of believers. It doesn’t make any sense to us who are able to split atoms, bounce high-definition video signals off satellites, and map the human genome. We’re surely beyond this kind of self-affirming mysticism, this fettering superstition, unsupported as it is by the science we have perfected. Never mind that we are capable of believing all manner of concocted clap-trap, from the law of attraction to a karmic council of ascended masters that includes Mohammad, Buddha, and Mother Theresa, we want our science and our hard facts and a system of beliefs that doesn’t admit of Ecclesiastical Magic like Transubstantiation.   
          The problem for me has always been, once well-meaning believers have rejected the real presence of Christ—body, blood, soul, and divinity—in the Eucharist, they feel compelled to embrace the rest of Scripture piecemeal to justify their own notions of justification. So for example my new Jehovah’s Witness friend believes that Jesus was not crucified, that is hung up on a cross, but nailed rather to a single upright post. She believes that only 144,000 souls are going to be finally admitted into the beatific vision and that, in order to pare all creation down to that miniscule number of the truly saved, God is going to insist that our beliefs be absolutely correct. In other words, unless I believe exactly as the Jehovah’s Witnesses say I must, I have no hope whatsoever of attaining salvation, and damn little chance of making the final 144K even if I do. She also believes that Jesus is a fully created human, perfect and exemplary, but without any divine aspect. Surely Jesus will be first among the 144,000, so there are in effect only 143,999 spaces left on the heavenly roster.
          It seems to me that in order to get to these tenets of belief the faithful Jehovah’s Witness has to ignore an awful lot of sublimely poetic scripture. John 1:1-3 comes immediately to mind:
In [the] beginning the Word was, and the Word was with God, and the Word was a god. This one was in [the] beginning with God. All things came into existence through him, and apart from him not even one thing came into existence.
…along with almost the whole of Chapter 6. Of course they don’t expunge these passages. They just translate them and interpret them differently from the more mainstream Christian sects. The above translation is from the official Jehovah’s Witness translation—the New World Bible. The King James Version has it like this:
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. The same was in the beginning with God. All things were made by him; and without him was not any thing made that was made.
And the New American Version like this:
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came to be through him, and without him nothing came to be.
Small differences perhaps in language, but the simple inclusion of the article “a” and the small case rendering of “god” make it an easy matter for the Jehovah’s Witnesses to reject the Trinity, the divinity of Christ, and the miraculous efficacy of the Eucharist.
          The Jehovah’s Witnesses are not alone in their selective championing of the Bible as the inspired word of God. I once asked a Baptist friend of mine who taught Sunday School how his church interpreted Jesus’ insistence that “unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you.” His reply was that, since it (presumably communion) was not a requirement of salvation, it really didn’t matter what it meant. This is perhaps the most disingenuous reply to a religious question that I have ever received, but I interpreted it to mean that he really didn’t know how to answer my question. Perhaps he thought I was laying some kind of apologetic trap for him that he needed to escape. Escape he did, although I was merely curious in my questioning, and remain to this day even curiouser with respect to his answer.
          I am not a theologian or a Bible scholar, but it seems to me that if you are going to regard scripture as the inspired revelation of God then you have to accept the whole thing and you have to interpret its bits in such a way that they are consistent with the entire document. This goes beyond reconciling the bloodthirsty, jealous, and often capricious ‘I Am’ of the Old Testament with the Paschal Lamb of the New. You also have to understand that, when St. Paul describes Christ as “the image of the invisible God” in Colossians 1, he gives depth to our understanding of Genesis, where we are told that God “formed man out of the clay of the ground and blew into his nostrils the breath of life” to “make man in our image, after our likeness,” and that these passages together inform our understanding of John’s use of the word “Word” to posit Christ as, not just the embodiment, but the very personification of God’s own image of Himself from the very beginning.
          So I guess what I am saying, ultimately, is that I don’t think that, if you understood all this the same way I do, you could possibly leave the Catholic Church to become a Jehovah’s Witness, or anything else for that matter. Not only would you have to give up the Sacraments, but the symmetry and poetry of quite a lot of Holy Scripture would be lost in the translation. (pun fully intended)
          I’m not naive. I understand that my faith is the faith of my parents, and that if it weren’t for them I would be some other variety of believer. This much is true for most of us. Why then do so many of us run around insisting that everyone else change their beliefs to match ours? This is not just true of religion either. It also applies to politics and ideologies. The result never has been and probably never will be a shift toward consensus. Even though as humans we are quite capable of embracing all manner of lunacy where we don’t already have firm foundations in place, we do not easily give up notions we already hold dear. It has gotten to the point, all across the board of possible discourse, where we would rather argue what we believe than accomplish anything. Most evangelists, it seems, would rather beat me over the head with their interpretation of the Bible than to actually pray for my salvation. They would rather win a debate than win a soul.
          This attitude carries over into other aspects of our existence. The approaching elections are a case in point. Attack ads are the norm. No seems capable of advancing considered solutions to the ills that plague us. Most Republicans would rather spout platitudes about balancing the budget than agree to redress the financial rape of the middle class by unregulated robber barons. Most Democrats would rather squander their political capital on favored causes than to actually fix the considerable problems that we face as a nation. Meanwhile nearly every discussion of politics and candidates devolves into a cacophony of accusations and name calling. Incivility and personal attacks are the order of the day, and likely will come to define the age that we live in as one of Neo-Barbarism. We all think we’re right, just ask us.