In spiritual matters, the West talks, the East walks. Of course, that’s a gross simplification, but it is to some extent true enough.
For instance: The thing that impresses me most about the official morality of the Roman Catholic Church is how the theology of it — the theoretical basis for its morality — is this vast and imposing Gothic cathedral constructed of incredibly elaborate logic and reasoning. The Cathedral is set for all to see on the top of a large hill. And people do see it — at least now and then — and they are often duly impressed, even intimidated, by what they see.
But who lives there? Who actually lives in a Cathedral? I know plenty of people worship in them, but I don’t know of many people who actually live in them.
I think that is too often the case with official Roman Catholic morality — it is an ideal. Even when it somehow impresses us, awes us, it remains an ideal. We might venerate the ideal, but we do not live it.
But how many Zen masters do you know of who are that merely idealistic?
I had occasion to wonder about all of that yesterday — after reading a post by the always acidic PZ Meyers.
If, when it comes to criticisms of religion, you are accustomed to the 5% or 10% acid solutions that you might find, say, on this blog; or even if you are accustomed to the 30% acid solutions that you might find in the writings of Richard Dawkins, then it is still possible you might have no concept whatsoever of the fuming concentrations PZ Meyers is capable of.
Yesterday, I read one of the mildest posts I’ve ever seen PZ Meyers write about religion. And I will quote from that post in a moment. It is so mild only an exceptionally thin-skinned person would be offended by it. Yet, please don’t visit his blog expecting that weak level of acidity to be the norm.
The background here is that Meyers got hold of a lavishly reasoned blog post by a Roman Catholic theologian, Ronald L. Conte, Jr., on the question of whether “unnatural sexual acts” are “moral to use as foreplay” prior to intercourse? In answer to the question, Conte states:
The expression ‘that use which is against nature’ refers to unnatural sexual acts, such as oral sex, anal sex, or manual sex. Saint Augustine condemns such acts unequivocally. He even states that such unnatural sexual acts are even more damnable (i.e. even more serious mortal sins) when these take place within marriage. For God is even more offended by a sexual mortal sin that takes place within the Sacrament of Marriage, since this offense is not only against nature, but also against a Holy Sacrament.
Now, I have in the past seen Meyers take a passage like that one and rip apart its logic, prior to turning like a hellcat on the author himself. But yesterday, Meyers was gentle in his response:
Dang. Well, at least Augustine didn’t explicitly forbid rubber wetsuits, fuzzy handcuffs, vibrating crucifixes, octopus, ceiling-mounted swings, clamps, chocolate pudding, flavored lubricants, Wonder Woman costumes, rubber chickens, exotic headware, whipped cream, video cameras, Silly String, roller skates, trampolines, nitrous oxide, balloon animals, feather boas, ball gags, or bungee cords, or I might be going to hell.
So, I had a laugh, and that probably should have been the end of it. But it was about then I was possessed to visit Conte’s blog. Now, it has been decades since I read much theology, and I had forgotten how elaborate, intricate — almost ornate — it can be. Still, it was for awhile interesting enough.
Yet, I don’t think I can sustain such an interest. Conte’s theology seems to me speculative, ridiculous, and irrelevant: As an example, consider his remarks here:
The two consenting adults argument is rejected by Catholicism, not only on sexual ethics, but also on ethics in general, because sin is first and foremost an offense against God. You can sin against God without apparent harm to another person. But from the point of view of faith, sin does do harm to self and neighbor, even if that harm is not readily apparent.
I think such notions are largely groundless. Any college sophomore could come up with something just as speculative. At best, those notions seem to me ideals. But even at that, they would be someone else’s ideals. That is, it is not an ideal of mine to, say, take it on faith that “Sexual Act A” harms both me and my neighbor despite there is not a shred of evidence that is the case.
Yet, if you accept Conte’s argument that he is fairly representing the mainstream thinking of the Roman Catholic Church, then you can easily enough see how such thinking might lead to the Church asserting that, say, gay marriage harms both gay married couples and their straight neighbors even though there is not a shred of evidence suggesting that is the case.
Someone who was so inclined could easily write a book responding to that one paragraph. But to me, the bottom line might be that Conte’s theology — at least what very little of it I’ve read — quite often seems as poorly grounded in logic and evidence as when a kid says, “Let’s pretend…”. The difference might be, the kid knows on some level that he’s merely pretending x is the case. But does Conte know he’s pretending x is the case? Does the Church know? Does the flock know? And does it really matter that anyone knows?
Roman Catholic morality, as represented — or possibly misrepresented here — by a tiny sampling, seems to be an ideal. Granted it is supported by elaborate reasoning, but it is still an ideal. And, as I’ve tried to point out, such ideals are like cathedrals: However much we might venerate them, most of us don’t live in them.
“The West talks, the East walks.” Oversimplified as that is, I fear it will be true to a surprising degree so long as the West relies on unrealized theologians while the East relies on realized masters.