Some time ago a neighbor who is active in her local church asked me why I never attended Sunday services. I paused to frame my answer in such a way as not to suggest that I think every religious believer reflects the power-hungry hypocrisy of the institutional church or believes all the doctrinal teachings which seem to reflect a scientific view four centuries out of date.
Misunderstanding my hesitation, she suggested sympathetically “Is it a spiritual problem, dear?”
I thought at that point that I’d rather try to explain quantum physics to a six-year-old than explain my problem with religion. I mumbled something about the problem of evil, which is indeed the core of my difficulty, but which was philosophical enough to end the conversation, and we moved on to safer ground.
Asked that question by a believer today, I would not be quite so dumbfounded. I would give examples instead to illustrate my problem.
The first might be a recent decree by the Roman Catholic bishops of Germany that Catholics who do not continue to pay a mandated 8% tax to the church will no longer be permitted to receive Holy Communion or to be buried in a Catholic cemetery. In other words, if you can’t – or won’t – pay for it, salvation isn’t on offer. How can the bishops possibly rationalize this as a manifestation Christian charity? Jesus said to his disciples when they asked how one knew who to follow “By their fruits you will know them.” In other words, look at how they live, how they treat their fellow-man, not at what they say.
Truly, truly, I can usually figure out some explanation that makes sense for a point of view even if I don’t agree with it, but this decree is completely outflanking me. If anyone reading this can offer a Christian justification for a decree like this, please, consider adding it as a comment to this post. I promise it will be read with a serious intent to understand (if not with a promise to agree).
To scandalize me further, I have recently discovered that according to the Catechism of the Catholic Church promulgated by the Vatican in 1992, the account of the fall in Genesis refers to a real primeval event that took place at the beginning of the history of man. Since then, “history is marked by the original fault freely committed by our first parents.” In addition, the Catechism decrees that the fall of the angels was also a real event, which is why there are now real devils still led by the arch-devil Satan. Between them, these two events can explain many of our gravest sufferings, including physical disasters like earthquakes and tsunamis, and ultimately of the fact that each of us is destined to die. Death, the church teaches, is a punishment for these original sins. Before that, humans were destined never to die.
Some people – many of whom I count among my friends – can attend church and are not as disoriented or perturbed as I am by decrees such as those of the German bishops or teachings such as those of the Roman Catholic catechism. But I am. I cannot be inspired by hymns and rituals reflecting attitudes and behaviors like these. They don’t help me love my fellow-man. On a good day I am patronizing and isolated. On bad days I’m furious.
So is it a spiritual problem, dear? Yes, but not, I think, what my neighbour meant.