The crime of being human
I was 18 when I converted to Catholicism. This is, I think, a common age for conversion: you are on the cusp of adulthood, you think you want nothing more than to be free to make your own choices and live your own. life, but at the same time you do not really have the first idea how to do that. At some level, you crave structure, certainties, rules that you can follow in order to avoid wasting your life. Religion offers that.
That’s not the whole story, however. I had been an atheist for most of my teenage years, but it was never easy atheism. I wanted the world to be full of wonders. I wanted to be part of a great story. I wanted magic and miracles. When I was not busy trying to understand Kant and Sartre, or discussing the existence of God with my Christian friends, I was in the woods communing with the chthonic spirits of the trees or pouring libations of chalices. blood red in a bonfire on the beach. I loved, read and wrote poetry and interpreted my world through a poetic lens; it seemed natural to me that the events were significant and that the world was populated with symbols.
Catholicism has promised to resolve the tension between my rational self and my mystical self. There was a long philosophical and theological tradition which promised to reconcile the claims of faith with the demands of reason. There was so much to learn, and most of it was exciting and new. At the same time, there were haunting Latin hymns, clouds of incense, a bloody chalice, and a frightening mystery at the heart of it all.
It’s interesting, in hindsight. It is said that there is a God shaped hole in every human heart. I now think it is more accurate to say that every human being experiences wonder, curiosity, sadness, confusion, disorientation, desire, desire. We all have things that we deeply want and that we don’t have or cannot have. God is a broad concept, and established religions tend to be complex and varied enough that they can offer anything a particular person desires. Regardless of the shape of the “hole in your heart”, God is a kind of soothing golden liquid that can be poured out to fill it perfectly.
This is not necessarily a bad thing. Humans are finite beings capable of contemplating infinity. We have certain insatiable desires: our curiosity, desire to be loved, need for security, thirst for justice. We are able to obtain these desires in a finite and finite way, but we never have enough of them. These insatiable desires are what motivates us to continue to grow, develop, and improve as individuals and as a species, even when our immediate survival needs are met. Arguably, the ability to project ourselves toward open goals is one of the reasons we’ve been so successful.
But it comes with a downside. If we pursue impossible goals, we risk sticking to an impossible standard. We are able to imagine a world better than any world we can actually build; we can imagine ourselves to be better than what we are capable of being in real life. The pie in the sky can motivate us to climb higher than if we had more modest aspirations, but it can also despair us. Keeping an eye on the prize means we’re often more focused on the insurmountable distance between our reality and our ideals than on the actual progress we’ve made.
One of the essential functions of spirituality is to help us reconcile this tension. Different systems take different approaches, but most require a sustained inner effort coupled with a variation on the virtue of humility. On the one hand, the bar is kept high, on the other hand, the practitioner is expected to face his own limits.
In healthy spiritual practice, the result is balance, realism, and acceptance. You maintain your desire to grow and improve, but you learn to be compassionate with yourself. You continue to work for a just and equitable society, but you let go of your anger and judgment against the rest of the human race.
But there is another way it can go.
Hell hole in the shape of a god
While there are undoubtedly benefits to organized religion (community support, traditional wisdom, collective action), there are also risks. Religious leaders have the opportunity to help their devotees achieve spiritual peace, but they also have the opportunity to profit from people’s desire for self-improvement.
I don’t know much about how this plays out in other religions, but in Christianity it emerges in the tension between two opposing concepts of God. On the one hand, there is a God who represents all the infinite aspirations that human beings will ever be able to achieve. This God inevitably judges all mankind and condemns us all to hell. We can never live up to the expectations of this God because this God is a projection of all the perfections that we seek and that we cannot achieve.
On the other hand, there is God made man, a human God who is subject to weakness and pain and bodily death. This God fully understands the limits of the human condition and is filled with compassion for our weakness. This God promises to forgive us for being limited, finite, and imperfect – and by receiving his forgiveness we are meant to move towards humble self-acceptance.
Christianity makes these two Gods as one and the same (the formula here is not simply Trinitarian – God the Father is sometimes depicted as tender and merciful, God the Son is sometimes depicted with swords sticking out of his mouth). In doing so, it maintains a dualistic structure. The ideal is neither compromised nor called into question: it remains as infinite and unattainable as it has ever been. The real therefore remains in a state of condemnation. However, we are promised that Christ sacrificed Himself as a perfect offering in order to bridge the infinite difference between the two. As a result, our limited and imperfect selves will one day be made perfect and our impossible aspirations will be realized through supernatural and superhuman intervention.
The problem is that because the conviction is not lifted, it can still be invoked as a means of exerting control. While there are variations of Christianity that find ways around this problem, Catholicism and many forms of evangelism use the threat of hell to gain the obedience and conformity of the faithful. Instead of healthy self-acceptance, they offer a model of infinite guilt, infinite debt, and infinite mercy. Which means that although you are not expected to be perfect, you are meant to view your failure to perfect as a “sin” brought on by human disobedience. To the extent that you disobey God (in the form of men who claim the authority to communicate the commandments of God to us mortals), you conjure up the specter of infinite punishment.
The fact that humans are constitutionally incapable of perfection because they are finite beings who exist in a finite-resource world has no place in this scheme. Instead, we are told that we were once perfect and are able to be perfect again – provided that we submit to the authority of those whom God has appointed to oversee this work. Of course, there are always Very Good Reasons why the men chosen by God to counsel us in perfection are not themselves perfect, and in some cases are not even particularly good.
When imperfect men claim the authority of the perfect, the result is always, necessarily, an imbalance. In some cases, the imbalance comes from the side of laxity: people who do not really strive to live up to their ideals are reassured that Christ has already paid their debt and that they can count on the mercy of God. There is a tendency for this kind of mercy to be more easily applied to people who have power, influence, or money with which to buy God’s indulgence of His earthly representatives. In other cases, the imbalance is on the side of austerity: people are pushed beyond their capacities and are then accused of not having done the impossible. This approach is more likely to be taken with people who have little to offer other than their relentless efforts to do whatever their leaders demand of them.
The system is attractive, especially to young people and idealists, because it does not require the difficult spiritual work of facing and accepting one’s own limitations. Even the advice to humility is provisional: one must be humble now in this world to obtain the promised perfections of the other. Yes, sin is fine, but you just have to put up with it for a while. After that, all of your infinite aspirations will magically come true.
The cost, however, is high – and the more confident and idealistic you are when you join, the more likely you are to lose. It’s not even that “men of God” necessarily try to take advantage of it. Of course, some of them are obviously narcissists and Machievellians. But many of them are just ordinary, finite, imperfect human beings trying to do good, but suffering from exactly the same kind of blind spots and prejudices that we all suffer from. But by giving authority to their biases and blind spots, we remove our own wisdom, our own instincts, our own authority over our own lives. We magnify their imperfections, sometimes sacrificing our own virtues to do so.
The result is as in any tragedy: a loss of innocence, the death of something irretrievable and a kind of dark enlightenment. The young girl converted to Catholicism gave herself a lot to try to buy the mercy of God from the men who claimed her body and her life in exchange for their sacraments. Much of this I will never get back.
Yet I have gained something: I now know that I am dust, I will return to dust. The Pope too. Buddha too. Jesus too. Stardust. Fairy powder, maybe. But the dust, uniting for a brief and beautiful moment in an infinite, unfathomable universe, striving towards the stars and never going further than the moon. But doing it, sometimes, on the moon.
Image by Comfreak from Pixabay