There’s an old story of the Jesuit missionaries coming to Greenland. They arrive on the island where old Kanuk the Inuit tribesman is doing OK for himself with good liquor from the French traders, a couple of wives, and plenty of girlfriends. The missionaries come and inform him of God and Jesus, further instructing him that neither party is fond of the polygamy, the adultery, the drinking, and so on, and that such behavior has unpleasant consequences. Old Kanuk says, “You mean to tell me that if I don’t do what you say, this God will send me to Hell when I die?” Affirmative, they reply. “But what about my ancestors?” the sharp old man says. “They knew nothing of you or your God. Why would your God punish my ancestors for their behavior if they did not even know what he wants?”
Skilled at argument as well as coercion, the missionaries reply that God makes a special exception for those on Earth who have lived and died without hearing His word. “But now that I’ve heard it,” old Kanuk says, “I’m bound by it?” Yes, now you have it, reply the missionaries.
“Curse you for coming here,” he says, “and ruining my life.”
I would not say that I identify completely with old Kanuk, but there’s a kernel here that is worth a turn at the mortar and pestle to see if it bears good meal. The question of the innocents, all those American, Asian, and South Pacific natives who lived in blithe ignorance of the Bible for so many generations, is a thorny one for the Christian proselytizer. But it’s only the first question of hundreds that the active mind comes up with when it examines at any length the tenets of organized faith.
The pope recently published an encyclical that says, in a nutshell, that all of the non-Roman Catholic faiths are on the wrong track. It is a reiteration of the “one true church” doctrine, the idea of Peter as the first Archbishop of Rome and Jesus’ chosen leader for his earthly ministry. Sorry, all you protestants, but you have officially been declared as having missed the boat. And Jews? Time to get messianic, people.
Another papal “throw down” was the pronouncement that, despite the number of gay men in its ranks, the church cannot regard homosexuality as “normal” and retains its view that it is a type of mental illness. The church “loves” homosexuals but cannot condone their behavior. A gay priest is OK, as long as he never “acts” on his sexuality.
We can see how well that model of repressed sexuality is working. But despite the hundreds of lawsuits and thousands–millions?–of children and others abused at the hands of priests just over the last few decades, the church sticks to its guns, and the priesthood remains a bastion of perversity under a protective veil of religiosity and institutional secrecy.
If it seems I’m picking on Catholics, it is only because I know the faith so well, having felt the sting of a few black metal rulers on my knuckles in my youth. Any religion will do. I don’t even want to get started on the mental gymnastics required for Muslims to believe they are doing God’s work by crashing airliners into the World Trade Center. But they manage, and that’s a problem for me.
So I suppose my point is this: religions are human institutions run by flawed humans for purposes that range widely but do not necessarily reflect the will of God. God may or may not exist–I prefer to think that there is such a creative force, but it’s complicated–but no particular religion I have studied has a valid claim on the moral high road that would provide them the spiritual authority to tell me what to do.
However, curiously, at least on their faces all the religions share some valuable precepts which seem universal to organized faith. Next time, we’ll look at those