Friday, April 10, 2009

Believing In a Religion of Ideas

Religion needs to make room for ideas

If someone were to have taken a poll regarding the things that pissed Catholics off the most in 1999, Dogma would have likely topped the list.

Likewise, if someone had taken a poll regarding the things best regarded by disaffected Catholics in that same year, Dogma probably would have topped that list, too. Dogma could have topped the same list in any year.

Dogma was the fourth chapter in Kevin Smith's "View Askew-niverse" in which a series of madcap films were loosely tied together by two characters, Jay (Jason Mewes) and Silent Bob (writer/director/Hollywood's version of Mick Foley, Kevin Smith).

Dogma found the two characters cast as prophets in Bethany Sloan's (Linda Fiorentino) mission to prevent two exiled angels (Ben Affleck and Matt Damon) from undoing existence.

At issue is a New Jersey Cardinal's (the legendary George Carlin) plan to invoke plenary indulgence -- a promise that anyone who walks through the doorway of a Catholic Church will be absolved of all their sins -- to get people excited about Catholicism.

(The now-legendary Buddy Christ is also a creation of the marketing-savvy Cardinal Ignatius Glick.)

Along the way Sloane encounters Rufus (Chris Rock), the black 13th apostle (left out of the bible because he's a black man) and Persephone (Salma Hayek), who impart on her the importance of having ideas over having beliefs.

"You can change an idea," Rufus explains. "Changing a belief is trickier. People kill for them, people die for them."

Lines cut from the film explain Rufus -- actually, Smith's -- point more fully. "Life should malleable and progressive; working from idea to idea permits that. Beliefs anchor you to certain points and limit growth; new ideas can't generate. Life becomes stagnant."

Smith offers a dichotomy between belief and ideas. Beliefs, he argues, are pig-headed and stubborn. Ideas are the realm of the open-minded and flexible.

To a certain extent, Smith has a point, and to a certain extent is right. Religion needs to become much more open to new ideas -- right now, the Catholic Church needs to open itself up to some not-so-new ideas about birth control and AIDS.

Religion doesn't have a history of getting along well with new ideas. The Catholic Church's reaction to Martin Luther and the religious warfare that would spread across Europe -- particularly the Holy Roman Empire -- attest to this fact. This inflexibility is one of the things that allows fundamentalist atheist ideologues like Richard Dawkins and Bill Maher to continue painting all religion as dangerous and anti-progressive.

But Smith also needs to remember that good ideas, once accepted by the faithful, will inevitably become beliefs. Belief is the central principle of religion. Adapting positive ideas -- such as the pursuit of social justice via charity and compassion -- into beliefs doesn't denigrate them. They remain positive and progressive at their very core.

Religions -- especially Catholicism -- need to find ways to expand their beliefs in non-dogmatic ways through the adoption of good ideas. These ideas are often evident based simply on their own merit. They don't need religious doctrine to back them up -- or at least shouldn't.

That is the promise offered by Sloane -- who, at the film's end, is pregnant with the second coming of Jesus Christ -- when she answers Rufus' question about whether or not she believes by saying "I have a good idea."

Many Christians remain distressed with the continuing secularization of society, and decreasing numbers of practicing faithful.

Distress does no one any good. What the religious faithful need is to offer religions more open to new ideas, more flexible, and more able to meet the needs -- spiritual, intellectual, and otherwise -- of those who are turning away from religion.

The religious faithful need to learn to believe in a religion of ideas.


  1. Ironically, it was the Jesuits in my old Alma Mater who were the most supportive of diverse ideas within the classroom. They went as far as to accuse the clergy in Vatican as those who lived in an ivory tower, ignorant of the realities of the world.

    Even they thought the church was badly in need of reformation.

    In restrospect, if there had been more people like my old professors in the RCC, then maybe I wouldn't have left.

  2. I hardly agree with everything the man ever thought or did, but I do admire the way Pierre Trudeau thought.

    He was also educated as a Jesuit. I very much admire their order, just as I admire my own.


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