I’ve been corresponding with a type of male who seems to be created by the teaching practices of Jesuits: smart, lively, and totally defiant. (Having an engineer father also has something to do with it.) He says (and please forgive the self-serving elements of this quote which expose his thinking -- he’s inclined to flattery as behavior control): “but you are far too articulate and eccentric and knowledgeable to be sitting in a little house in Valier. I have no idea how accurate you are, but that doesn't matter. What matters is that you are perfectly capable of making people think about what has become dogma to so many.
“Perhaps dogma once ruled your life, and that's why you are now so adept at pointing out and destroying the cherished illusions of so many??”
The context of the discussion is that he’s trying to understand Blackfeet “theology” for the purposes of a book he’s writing. This is a conscientious pursuit, though he’s using me as a source for reasons of his own. He’s not really thinking about my Div School credentials or my fifty years on and off the rez or my participation in Blackfeet ceremonies. He’s talking “theology” in the Jesuit understanding and I’m talking “worldview” in an experiential understanding, which no U of Chicago Div School prof liked much when I was there.
The assumptions I see are these:
1. That good thinking means you have to go to some big center where “things are happening,” like a campus or a city.
2. That thinking for oneself is the result of reaction to dogma.
3. That it means “pointing out and destroying the cherished illusions of others.”
4. That I do this as a reaction to an early dependence on and devotion to dogma.
I don’t see any of these assumptions as justified. The message of mine that triggered them was a comparison of his disillusion with Indians at tribal colleges with my own disillusion with seminary and, to some extent, U of Chicago Divinity School. It wasn’t their fault, I was trying to say. If one has exaggeratedly high expectations of transcendence, exaltation, and certified worthiness, the whole enterprise is doomed anyway. They are what they are and cannot be different for our sake. Anyway, I think both institutions were victims of bad organizational design. But then, the sources of those bad designs WERE dogmatic (i.e. “big powerful males are the best leaders”).
What broke our hearts was not weak theology. It was bad behavior: professors and experts who slept with students, maybe took advantage of them in other ways like claiming their work, drank, smoked, used drugs, broke their word, never showed up for appointments, did a lousy job of teaching, and were just all-around mediocre. I found some major exceptions at the U of Chicago, but my correspondent found few to none. And the students: needy, addicted, soft, narcissistic, and, again, mediocre. WE weren’t like that. We came to this place NOT to be like that!
I say a good religion is one that promotes good behavior. I don’t care if the Pope is lime green and wears roller skates instead of those fancy red loafers, so long as he does the right thing. (He seems to grasp this a little more firmly all the time.) I think John-Paul showed the wisdom of good behavior even as his close friend Ratzinger defended the dogma, which was his job at the time. Dogma is meant for the clarification of the institution and not as a guide to good behavior. Dogma about behavior is almost always bound to provoke rebellion, esp. in “young elk” who want their own space and turf.
But my standards about behavior may not be the same as the standards of others, esp. the tendency to measure behavior in terms of prosperous consequences. At least if you define “prosperous” as accumulation of goods or being important in a major population center. I would define good consequences of behavior as what creates healthy individuals and societies -- healthy meaning surviving, but also meaning a kind of life that supports joy.
An example: I’m beginning to feel strongly (and I’m not alone) that religion (or lack of it or the evasion of religion) has badly let us down in terms of family and children. What sort of religion allows priests to prey on children? A religion that exalts celibacy, maybe? A religion that exalts male dominance, maybe? Exclusion of the female? Worldviews creep into dogma.
What sort of religion so distorts marriage (cult polygamy) that no one knows which children are whose and children are wives before they are ready? Clearly the function of sex is twisted into the privilege and goal of something called “spiritual marriage” which is not marriage at all, but the production of dominated women for the advantage of men. (See above about priests.) Boys in this cult society, opposite to China, are discarded. (Any Chinese willing to adopt them the way we adopt discarded Chinese girls?) But isn’t the larger society just a diluted version of this?
There’s no use saying one is NOT religious when you’re talking about worldview. Everyone has a world-view, and the media-supported secular pop culture is probably the most dominant one in America. This “non-religion” supports uncommitted relationships based on ephemeral “love” so that people split before they’ve ever gotten to know each other, over small matters as are daily noted in Dear Abby, leaving children as detritis -- inconvenient, neglected, hungering for food as well as nurturing, unsure of their place in the world, impossible to educate. They aren’t even very good cannon fodder for our “religion-based” wars. Dogma is institutionalized world view.
Rule number one for a “good” religion: it supports adult bonding that creates functioning new adults. Not necessarily two-by-two marriage, because even polygamous societies (like pre-contact Blackfeet) took responsibility for children: partly because everyone looked out for all children, partly because of uncleship (since fathers weren’t necessarily identified), partly through adoptions, and partly because of a pretty harsh insistence on faithfulness -- but only for women -- the practice of nose-amputation as punishment. (Sometimes punishment-based religions go so far that they are worse than the behavior they are supposed to abate. Hear that, Taliban?)
Then there is a society-as-a-whole dimension that brings up a behavior issue not directly related to children, but indirectly even more vital: the protection of the environment. The evidence is mounting that our carelessness with waste, with pollution, with harmful substances freely sprayed everywhere and put in food, means that those whose genetics make them vulnerable are already suffering from chronic disease, that traditionally inhabited parts of the world are now uninhabitable, and that human beings may soon submit to the same die-offs as frogs, bees and bats. A new religion, as many see environmentalism or Green Politics, has arisen to address this.
I expect us to be saved by the kind of people who defy the Jesuits (and some would say the Jesuits were themselves this kind of people) “smart, lively, and totally defiant.” And I don’t see why old ladies in small towns can’t be “articulate and eccentric and knowledgeable” as a kind of community ministry. “What matters is that you are perfectly capable of making people think about what has become dogma to so many.” Right. And you, too, my friend!
Here are Peter and I in 1978, sitting on the steps at Fleck House where we lived. He was everything a seminarian was supposed to be: young, male, well-behaved, scholarly. Now he's the minister in a large, prosperous church, successful and well-loved.