Life, as Scott Peck once informed us, is difficult. If I were teaching a writing course, and I wanted to give an example of understatement, that is the observation I would use. What makes life difficult is we demand of life that it have meaning. That is not strong enough. We do not just demand that our lives have meaning. We crave it. We lust for it. We cross continents, climb mountains, swim oceans for it. We search, strive, fight and die for it. A life without meaning is more terrifying to us than the worst torture or most brutal death. A life without meaning is as frightening a prospect as being buried alive. It would be as if we were of no more consequence than a wave on an unpopulated ocean, as if we were stranded on some lifeless planet with no prospect of rescue. The search for meaning fairly defines what it means to be human. If there were no hope for meaning, we might as well not even exist.
But just what is meaning? Answering that question is difficult. In fact answering that question is precisely why Peck’s statement is so obvious. The entire tension of human life is taken up with a search for meaning. It would be so much easier if someone would just hand me a manual, a book that contained all the answers. Here, here are the answers. Just follow the rules in the manual, and your life will have meaning. Sad to say, there is no such manual.
Ah, say some, but there is such a manual. There is such a book, and it has all the answers, and you only need follow that book and you will have meaning, and the name of that book is __________________. Fill in the blank: “the Bible”, “the Torah”, “the Koran”, “the Vedas”, “the Book of Mormon.” There are others, and I apologize to those whose book I have not listed here. There are some remarkable similarities in the contents of these various books, but it is not their content that matters. What matters is that there is such a book, and that it is my book that is the one. My journey is over. The search is done. My worries are gone. My concerns are resolved. Here is the book, and all truth lies within. Believe in the book and you will be saved. Don’t believe in the book, and you will be lost. Worse, you are an unbeliever, a heretic, an infidel. You are the enemy of truth, my enemy.
Why does this happen? Why do people make such rabid commitments to a book? And why does that commitment result in so much hatred and persecution and war? I put it to you that the reason is that the struggle to find meaning is so painful that we are constantly tempted to give up the search, and, since meaninglessness is unacceptable, the only way to give up the search is to declare that we have the answer. It is actually a constant temptation of the mind, a process that I have elsewhere given a fancy name — “eidetic displacement.” We are constantly replacing reality with our image of reality. Why? Because it is so exhausting to keep an open mind. So, at some point and on some level we just say, “That’s it. I see it this way, and I’m not going to think about it anymore.” From that point on, all our judgments are made based on that pre-existing commitment. Our judgments all become pre-judgments. We judge, not by reason, but by prejudice. This is the birth of doctrinal religions, that is, religions based, not on moral conduct, but rather on commitment to a certain set of doctrines. Believe and you are saved; don’t believe and you are lost, which typically means you are condemned to some form of eternal suffering.
Recently, the new pope, Pope Francis, has come under fire by some members of the Roman Catholic Church, because he has put morality over doctrine. He has, for instance, said we should be more concerned with caring for the poor and th elderly than be “obsessed with the transmission of a disjointed multitude of doctrines.” This, say these members, puts Pope Francis on the verge of heresy, and renders him a dangerous revolutionary trying to effect a fundamental change in the Roman Catholic Church. He has even gone so far as to say that we should show respect even to atheists, even, believe it or not, to gays and lesbians!
I am a Catholic. Because I am a Catholic, I am a Christian. Because I am a Christian, I am a Jew. Because I am a Jew, I am a human being, and being a human being means being called outside of myself to a meaning, a signficance beyond myself. I find my meaning in responding to the call of others. If some scholar somewhere has somehow shown that my response to the call of others, my meaning, includes some doctrine, then I will say that, to that extent, and only that extent, I believe it. I have absolutely no idea what is meant by trans-substantiation or the Communion of Saints or the Trinity or a host of other things listed in the canon of Roman Catholic doctrines. I do know that, on the night before he died, Jesus announced one rule, the same rule that defines Judaism and Islam and Mormonism and a long list of other ism’s: Love one another. Be responsible for one another. Take care of one another. If Pope Francis is guilty of defining the Roman Catholic religion as a commitment to that one rule, then I hope and pray that this heresy will sweep the world.