In the last presidential campaign, conservative interviewers routinely asked candidates to “define ‘marriage’.” They were not looking for a definition of a word. That would have been made evident if one of the candidates had asked for a dictionary. They were, rather, masking their real intent, which was to determine whether the candidate was willing to restrict civil rights accorded to those who are married to unions of one man and one woman. So they were really asking whether the government should refuse to allow tax advantages and hospital visitation rights and other such benefits to any couple other than a heterosexual couple. Why these interviewers would not state their intent directly is a valid question. Perhaps it is much more appealing to the public to hide the fact that the interviewers and their supporters wanted to institutionalize discrimination against gays and lesbians. Perhaps they were just trying to be clever. Whatever their motive, they were most certainly not wanting legislation about a dictionary definition. One can only imagine the fun we would have with the legislature if we gave it the task of defining words. It would, I suppose, be a punishable act to refer to mayonnaise as a marriage of eggs and oil.

Clearly, then, all this clamor was not about defining words. Sadly, however, many true believers in whatever set of doctrines were deceived into thinking that it was about a definition, not, however, a definition provided by a legislature but rather a definition provided by a religion. The Archbishop of Milwaukee, for instance, was quoted as saying that the ruling was “a sad day for the sacrament of marriage.” We should, perhaps, forgive the archbishop for his apparent ignorance of the differnece between a religious statement and a legal statement. The court’s ruling in no way affects the Roman Catholic Church’s refusal to grant sacramental status to the marriage of same-sex couples. The Roman Catholic Church remains fully within its right to restrict access to its rituals to gays or lesbians or, for that matter, to any other category of humans against which it feels required to discriminate. So, for instance, it can continue to refuse to deny the sacrament of holy orders, priesthood, to all women simply because they are women. The laws of the United States allow for all of the peculiarities of the various religious cults, unless they interfere with the civil rights of others.

There lies the rub, and there lies one of the truly scary tendencies of some of the comments of those who oppose granting civil marital status to gays and lesbians. What these people are actually trying to do is to institutionalize their relgiious beliefs. Whether intentionally or not, they ignore the distinction between religion and government. They blur the line, or rather they attempt to erase the line, between the rules of government and the rituals of institutional religions. They threaten the very nature of governance in the United States. They pervert the United States’ commitment to the freedom of religion into an institutionalization of their own particular religion. One individual, a noted preacher, even had the nerve to state in public that the freedom of religion in America extended only to the “Christian” religion. One can only assume that, by the word “Christian”, he meant his peculiar version of that religion. Whatever he meant by his words, the inevitable effect of his view would be to destroy the American ideal and, as the consequence, the American way of governance. If such as he had their way, that would be a truly sad day.

The real effect, therefore, of the Supreme Court’s decision on marriage is precisely the opposite of what the opposing factions are decrying. Far from being a sad day for any ritual or any religious belief, it is a ratification of the right of all people to live their lives in accordance with their beliefs and their personal orientations, subject only to the fundamental American requirement that they allow all others that very same right. We hold these truths to be self-evident. We cannot conceive of a world without those rights. We have, no doubt, a long way to go, but at least we have not left the path.

On Being a Christian

     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.