Theological rigor

THEOLOGICAL RIGOR…. The New York Times‘ David Brooks saw “The Book of Mormon” on Broadway, and like nearly everyone else who’s seen the musical, seemed to really enjoy it. The columnist notes that the central theme of the production is that “many religious stories are silly,” and “many religious doctrines are rigid and out of touch,” but “religion itself can do enormous good as long as people take religious teaching metaphorically and not literally” and people “practice their faiths open-mindedly and are tolerant of different beliefs.”

Brooks said he reflected on the musical afterwards, and came to believe “its theme is not quite true.”

Vague, uplifting, nondoctrinal religiosity doesn’t actually last. The religions that grow, succor and motivate people to perform heroic acts of service are usually theologically rigorous, arduous in practice and definite in their convictions about what is True and False.

That’s because people are not gods. No matter how special some individuals may think they are, they don’t have the ability to understand the world on their own, establish rules of good conduct on their own, impose the highest standards of conduct on their own, or avoid the temptations of laziness on their own.

The religions that thrive have exactly what “The Book of Mormon” ridicules: communal theologies, doctrines and codes of conduct rooted in claims of absolute truth.

At this point, Brooks lists a series of benefits of “rigorous theology.” It “provides believers with a map of reality,” it “helps people avoid mindless conformity,” it “delves into mysteries in ways that are beyond most of us,” it builds “character,” etc.

Brooks disapproves of “a no-sharp-edges view of religion that is all creative metaphors and no harsh judgments.”

There’s probably no credible way to address this with the depth it deserves in a blog post, late on a Friday afternoon (on Good Friday, no less), but for the sake of conversation, I think Brooks’ view on theological rigor is overly narrow. Indeed, at times, it borders on insulting.

To make a book-length story short, my gut-level response to Brooks is that he’s looking at one side of a complex coin. He sees theological rigor as a phenomenon that inspires adherents to “perform heroic acts,” but chooses to ignore the same dynamic that inspires followers to commit horrific and inhumane acts in their deity’s name.

Indeed, the column does not make so much as a passing reference to the role of faith and strict religious believers in hatred, discrimination, “honor” killings, wars, and even genocide. The notion that a belief system that provides adherents with “a map of reality” can also lead to the Crusades, the Inquisition, and witch trials never seems to enter Brooks’ mind.

The point of Brooks’ argument seems to be that he has no use for mamby-pamby faiths that focus on quaint niceties like unity and common decency. Give the columnist that old time religion, thank you very much. After all, those who can offer “absolute truth” are more likely to “thrive.” (Someone should remind me of the last time they heard about Unitarians or Humanists who were driven to commit horrific crimes against humanity because of their belief system.)

But here’s an alternative vision: rules of good conduct are not dependent on theological constructs, as any undergraduate Ethics 101 class should make clear. People are fully capable of imposing high standards of conduct on themselves without superstition, fantasy, or fear of divine punishment.

And more importantly, individuals need not think of themselves as gods “to understand the world on their own”; they can rely on reason and sound judgment. Intellectual rigor, evidence-based evaluations, and scientific constructs are not just another belief system — and despite rumors of their demise, they’re managing to hold on, and in some cases, “thrive.”