The Other I

September 8, 2015

The heart vs the brain

Filed under: Catholicism and other questions of religion,Just Stuff — theotheri @ 7:18 pm

I’ve not karumphed over my interpretation of religious obedience for many years, but a friend has just reminded me of the kind of advice we were given over 50 years ago as young Maryknoll sisters:

“God doesn’t want your brains, but your love …so don’t get upset after we teach you all this smart missiology and anthropology stuff when the bishop hasn’t opened a book in 40 years!  Just obey the bishop and please God.”  “I bet they don’t think like that now,” she added.

I suspect most American nuns might not think that way now, which is why the Vatican still has so much trouble with them.  Because I know a good number of priests and bishops who certainly still think like that.

This distinction between heart and brain, in other words, between love and intelligence, is bogus power-hungry advice posing as religious humility to keep people in their place.  Isn’t it, after all, the excuse that the Nazis used at the Nuremberg trials to justify the death of 14 million innocent people in the gas chambers of their concentration camps?  “I was merely following orders.”

As human beings, we survive by using both our capacity for love and for intelligence, and they are inseparable.  Does it not take intelligence to care for the sick?  to develop a vaccine for ebola or polio or small pox?  Does it not take intelligence to teach children to read or develop mathematical skills?  Does it not take intelligence to provide balanced meals for the family?  Does it not take intelligence to represent a defendant in court?  Does it not take intelligence to treat the mentally ill?  Does it not take intelligence to respond with compassion to the hundreds of thousands of refugees fleeing from war and starvation in the world today?  Does it not take intelligence to run a farm that produces food for an entire community?

No:  don’t tell me that God doesn’t want my brain.  Do not tell me that I will please God if I do what the bishop or president or even the pope tells me to do – no matter how ignorant or damaged or unloving he has on occasion been known to be.  I know I might be wrong myself.  But I will take responsibility for doing my best to make a judgement based on respect for the life that surrounds me.

I will not willingly denigrate intelligence as merely a form of hubris, or elevate ignorance to the level of unquestioning obedience.

Whew!  I didn’t realize I still felt so strongly about this.  I think I owe it to what I learned from my parents – one who, when I was growing up, I thought was The Brain, and the other whom I thought was The Heart.  But they worked together in socializing their children.  I learned something essential from that.



  1. What I think we don’t realize well enough, Terry, is that we owe whatever freedom of thought, never mind of body, we enjoy to the work done by those intrepid souls we associate with the 18th-century European Enlightenment and to nothing else, no matter what religion is in our ancestry.

    Catholicism was a totalitarian system, like Eastern European Judaism and some of the Muslim and even Buddhist factions. While there are important moral teachings in all those religions, they have tended to be downplayed or even made inaccessible to the ordinary faithful.

    Without an interior revolution in the early 16th century against Roman Catholic oppression and a liberation from without in the late 18th that liberated Eastern Jews from rabbinical oppression as well as from civil oppression, you and I and Noam Chomsky would still be living in a medieval world, as much inside our heads as outside it.

    We should not kid ourselves about the “good things” about religions. Those good things — what Jesus or Elijah or Muhammed might actually have preached — are all too frequently at odds with what those faiths actually propagate. When in control those religions have more in common with Bolshevism, Nazism and all other forms of fascism than they do with the Biblical prophets, Jesus of Nazareth or the Prophet Muhammed.

    Insistence on obedience such as you encountered is mandatory in all those faiths. It goes with thought-control and the lack of freedom to be fully human. They’re political systems primarily, as I see it. They maintain the kind of control they want by enforcing their will on the faithful, making do in their modern forms with whatever power they still have.


    Comment by Thomas J. Hubschman — September 9, 2015 @ 8:09 pm | Reply

    • Yes, Tom, on reflection, I agree. In the past I have given a great deal of credit to the scientific revolution along with the Black Death as the two principle forces that finally broke the back of Roman Catholic tyranny. But without the Enlightenment, there would not have been such a radical alternative, and ultimately the political powers of religion would have remained firmly entrenched.

      I often think lately that the altruism and love one sees as seemingly emanating from religious belief is intrinsic to human nature, and that religious doctrine is merely the rationalization given to behaviors that survive wherever humanity itself has flourish.

      Which inevitably leads me to my next question: what is it about religious belief that so many people find so seemingly essential? is it a need for certainty? for belonging? for meaning? primarily a result of early socialization (as the Jesuits so often say) that few people have the ability to replace with a different coherent set of values by which to live? Are these the needs that enable religions everywhere to maintain a strangle hold on power?

      I know, of course, that you don’t know the answer to these questions any more than I do. But you are someone who I think understands the question, and I always learn something from your thoughts on the issues. I can only say thank you for listening to my babbling.

      On Wed, Sep 9, 2015 at 9:09 PM, The Other I wrote:



      Comment by Terry Sissons — September 13, 2015 @ 2:59 pm | Reply

  2. I think Heinrich (ne Harry) Heine would say it was the protestant revolution than broke the lock the Church had on Christians’ minds, Terry. His heroes are Luther, Moses Mendelsohn (the “Jewish Luther”) and Lessing ( a new name to me until I first saw it in Klemperer’s diaries).

    Luther (not someone I’ve been inclined to embrace before now, my RC indoctrination inclining me to think of him as shallow and self-serving), in this scenario makes free thought possible, giving rise to the scientific revolution and the Enlightenment.

    Religion is a great comfort, I think. It fills a void, literally an emptiness, when our experience ranges beyond what we thought reasonable. It tells us there is an explanation, we just can’t see it. I think a lot of people embrace religion for the same reasons they did 10,000 years ago: it explains devastating natural calamities as well as personal tragedy, promises reward for virtue, etc.

    I subscribe entirely to Chomksy’s idea of the “scope and limits” of the human mind. I just think we can do better than either this kind of primitivism or the reassuring but unconvincing comforts of the major faiths.

    Thanks for your own stimulating thoughts.


    Comment by Thomas J. Hubschman — September 13, 2015 @ 6:32 pm | Reply

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