My apologies to both of the regular readers here who may have been disappointed not to find any fresh essays here over the past couple of weekends. I started a piece on the theology and civic philosophy of the recently retired pope, but for various reasons I continuously got too distracted to finish it. Either I left some of the books I was basing it on at school, or I couldn’t get a web connection to check some of the facts, or I had to finish something else important first, or I was too tired to be focused, or some other excuse that I’ve offered myself.
The truth is that over the past few weeks I’ve found myself spending a major amount of time on the new “hobby” of my doctoral studies, making new discoveries about how various religious thinkers have interacted and independently reached many of the same conclusions with each other about how their faith should be implemented in political practice. I actually burned out a 3G modem stick downloading materials for such purposes this week, and my habit seems like it’s going to get more intense before it eases off.
I won’t use the words “worse” or “better” here, because I’m not sure if this is necessarily a bad use of my time, but I can’t help by be reminded of the hundreds of hours I spent about 20 years ago teaching myself the infamous Rubik’s Cube, or learning the secrets of “Call to Power,” or doing sudokus, or God knows how many other “mental challenges.” I have to consider most of that time to be wasted in many respects, but I’m actually not sure what I could have been doing with that time that actually would have improved the world significantly more than what I was doing. I wouldn’t have found a cure to cancer. I wouldn’t have eliminated poverty or suffering in the world. I probably wouldn’t have written the next great international best-selling novel. My best guess is that I would have found some other form of relatively meaningless compulsive amusement to pass that time.
In my more devoutly religious days I got into various groves of doing things “for the glory of God” or “to promote His kingdom” that in retrospect had more to do with building skills through compulsive behaviors than actually changing the world much… or changing the world in a significantly better direction. These days there are significant numbers of Americans buying “Left Behind” fantasy literature and basing their value systems and voting patterns on the underlying assumptions of such literature. Or they are occupying their leisure and devoting their surplus energies to causes given to them by members of the National Religious Broadcasters Association. I was being trained as a foot soldier working on increasing those trends, and I might have had a marginal impact in moving things that direction. That’s not something I can be particularly proud of these days, nor something I can get particularly mad at myself for not being better at. But once in a while back then the groove I got into with the various intellectual and mystical experiences involved in that process was particularly satisfying, and getting involved in communal experiences of using our minds in those sorts of ways is one of the most gratifying sorts of experiences I’ve had in life. Building my personal and professional identity on such a basis hasn’t been a bad thing for me, even if there might have been easier ways for me to live my life.
So now I’ve found this new habit to satisfy those urges: working on my doctorate in philosophy of religion. I’m not really sure if it will turn out to be any more “important” than my previous mystical, intellectual or compulsive endeavors, but at least it has a prestigious title attached. That means that there should be better chances of people outside of these specialized little circles of interest taking my ideas seriously, as coming from an “expert”, and I might be able to find more stable and profitable work in sharing such ideas. It might also increase my chances of improving the world, perhaps by reducing people’s self-destructive behaviors and increasing levels of peace and mutual respect. But I can’t really expect much in those terms: people overall will remain both as noble and as repulsive as they’ve always been regardless of what I come up with to say about such matters. Even so, near as I can tell my best chances of having a positive influence on things is through absorbing ideas and producing words to help people explore the reasons we do the things we do, and consider what aspects of each other’s interests we should take seriously.
Right now the issue I am compulsively playing with is finding workable labels for all of the different sorts of people who believe that they should make political decisions based on their religious faith. Some wish to dismiss all such people out of hand as “fanatics”, but that really doesn’t work as a constructive analytical term. Part of the problem is that there are so many different things that people believe they should be doing politically on the basis of their faith: preventing the wrong sorts of sex, preventing abortion, defending the absolute teachings of scripture against being critiqued too disrespectfully, preventing various forms of self-destructive chemical recreation, preventing the public expression of various forms of hatred towards others, standing up for the rights of the poor and a host of sub-topics and other issues. Part of the problem is that considering one’s relationship with God and the transcendental world to be a separate issue from the norms and rules by which humans relate to each other in day-to-day life is a relatively new idea in human history, and not everyone is convinced that it is a good one. Part of the problem is that cynically using religion as a means of exercising political power is an idea that is so engrained into the presuppositions of political science that forming theoretical conclusions about the ideal sincere use of religion in such manners seems rather abstract at best. In spite of all these challenges though, or maybe because of them, this is what I am currently occupying my mind and leisure time with.
At the point I’m at with these things it’s rather difficult to come up with clear, accessible and accurate summaries of the key issues… yet. Finding interesting connections and comparing the various perspectives involved takes time. So for instance what I thought I knew about the various Catholic perspectives on such matters even keeps changing.
What can I say about the current changes in the Vatican? I’ve started to see some references to the pope before last as “John Paul the Great”. It would be interesting if that label were to stick historically. In any case, besides sticking to all of the pre-modern dogmas that make the Catholic Church what it is, our dear late Polish shepherd was particularly occupied with reaching out to non-Catholics and even non-Christians, sincerely apologizing for some of the particularly nasty things that have been done over the centuries in the name of his church, from the Crusades to recent child abuse scandals. No one could doubt his profound humility and good will in these matters, even if they could question his naïve belief that all other Catholics shared his good will, and that maintaining ancient dogmas for their own sake is the best means of spreading that good will.
Then we have former Cardinal Ratzinger / former Pope Benedict. He has said that he plans to keep Benedict as a name while no longer pope, so perhaps we should call him Benny R. here. The emphasis of Benny’s reign seems to have been trying to prove that the Catholic Church is still politically relevant: backpedalling on his predecessor’s apologies, campaigning in vain for some recognition in the EU constitution, pretending that there are secular justifications for the prohibition of condoms and generally maintaining his reputation as the Grand Inquisitor. Being the first pope in over 700 years to actually retire might have been the most constructive thing he ever did.
So now we have Pope Francis. There are some positive signs there and some dubious ones. He comes with a reputation for being sympathetic with the poor, but being even more sympathetic with Benny R’s inquisition. We’ll see which, if either, turns out to be the most important. If he takes a stand against the corruption of the multi-national financial system which causes so much of the world’s poverty in the same sort of way that John Paul took a stand against Communism, there’s room for some positive surprises, even if he doesn’t have the anatomical capacity to deal with the church’s various sex problems. Beyond that it’s obviously too early to say what sort of global leader he will be, or given that he’s another one in his late 70s already, how long he might last.
As for me and the confession of my sins, please forgive me for my more irregular contributions here this month. I hope to maintain some self-discipline in maintaining this hobby as well. I have no intention of continuing to live in such sin, but if I should fail again bear in mind the “good cause” which I have dedicated my energies to, and search your heart for the mercy to grant me some form of indulgence.
Peace be upon you.