The medieval cathedrals are a wonderful metaphor of the religion they were built to glorify. They are intricate, beautiful, and overwhelmingly impressive. They move one viscerally, their impact brushing aside mere intellectual observation to grip one deep in the soul.
But when examined closely, both the religion and its towering symbols are fascinating structures. So many clever and elegant solutions to formidable problems, so involved and intricate. The imagination, the inspiration, the sheer effort it took to build them. The nameless thousands who labored, generation after generation.
What caused these things to be created? What force is so powerful, so universal, so enduring, that it can drive people to exhaust their lives in its service, when they can have no hope of seeing its completion? Why do human beings so obviously and so desperately need to have religion?
The answer is clear. We want to understand. We cannot live without at least believing that we understand what it’s all about. Every one of us, in every time and culture, must ask the same primeval questions. Why are we here? Why do bad things happen? What’s important? What will it be like to die? How do I know if I’m doing the right things? Since it was clearly impossible to find out the answers, we make up theories. What else is there to do?
Some theories are better than others. Some particularly thoughtful and creative people come up with very effective and attractive explanations for the mysteries. When they tell others of their ideas, people hope they’re right. They want them to be right, and so they come to believe they are right. So far, so good. People are comforted and guided, and where’s the harm? The harm is when the theory becomes dogma.
Philosophy becomes religion. Interesting ideas become revealed truth. The unconvinced become the heathen, legitimate targets of our fear and hostility. And the faith must be defended. Debates become wars. Official spokesmen define the truth, restrict interpretations, and discourage discussion. The religion becomes frozen, codified, no longer accommodating itself to the needs of every follower. Rituals are established, then enforced. Lives are reduced to endlessly repeating specified gestures, trying to obey countless arbitrary rules, stifling the originality and uniqueness of the individual. Other natural needs are denied and resisted, until at last the religion is refusing us the thing that gave it birth, our need to feel safe in our world.
When a religion becomes so atrophied, some young rebel will eventually speak out against the old ways, and a fresh new religion will break away. At first it will be giddy freedom, full of hope, sure that the gloom has at last been permanently dispelled. But soon new priests arrive and the cycle repeats.
Jesus may be the quintessential symbol of hoary Catholicism, but surely he was more like Martin Luther, struggling against the accepted beliefs of his day, forging new interpretations. Jesus never heard of Catholicism. Clearly, Jesus was a Protestant.
copyright 1992 by Brian K. Crawford