Monday, August 27, 2012

Gray Areas

Why Can't Religion Handle "Gray Areas"

Sometimes issues can be cleanly, absolutely divided into good and bad. Most of us know that those days are very rare. I only hold one absolute premise, that it is good for people to do things together. We can build decisions on that premise using flexible, human judgments, without the use of an abacus.

Thomas and his book
But our religious organizations are more strict, bound together by byzantine logical systems - rules, orders, hierarchies of rights and wrongs. These are thought to be tools that simplify ethical decisions. Aquinas' 13th century Summa Theologiae standardized what a lucky few priests learned in university, and the Council of Trent in the 16th century standardized instruction for all priests (essentially creating seminaries). These two events shaped Christianity from the middle ages until the 20th century.

Aquinas and Trent used strict logical systems (partially inherited from Aristotle). These strict logical systems defined theological study as well as religious practice until WWII, existentialist philosophy, the rise of international travel and public literacy led to Vatican II and the death of 3,000 page moral handbooks. More and more, morality was seen less as a standardized list of "If...Then...", and more as a general guide that left relevant decision making to people in their context.

This is a hard transition. Rule are easy, standard, and clear, from the point of view of the establishment. From the point of view of the participant, rules are cold, relentless, an needlessly complex. It takes a deft pastor to minister to the variety of needs and contexts in the community. Professional ethicists, like those in place at catholic hospitals, have a very rough time witnessing the tragic situations of living, complicated patients while ruling according to rules that are distant and arcane.  

Rules remove compassion, which is the cornerstone of religion, and replace it with systems of control and power. To be compassionate is to give up illusions of control and share in another's suffering - to realize that I, too, can be hungry, thirsty, complicated, abused, powerless. (more on this soon, with Nouwen).

Romans treat rules differently than Americans
Context matters, too. Because of our wildly different approach to civic life, rules that make sense in Rome often seem radical in the US. That's because people in Rome don't stop at traffic lights, but we do. So in Rome people consider rules to be distant ideals that we work to achieve, but often fall short of, while in the US we consider rules to be minimum standards that we must achieve. Even the international Code of Canon Law is applied very differently worldwide, often with lots of room for "gray areas".

I'm not saying that what is considered wrong in the US is not wrong in Rome. I mean that "right" and "wrong" - the moral binary - is not a good measure of our lives together.

A better measure is our Goals. We share our goals. We work together to achieve our goals. Our gray areas disappear into collective progress to our goals.

Consider abortion, for example. One might say that life begins at conception, and any form of abortion after that time is gravely wrong. Ethical guidebooks then give a series of "If...Then...":  If preserving the health of the mother is the primary goal, and abortion is an unintended consequence, it is not gravely wrong. But science contradicts with a number of other gray areas: life does not start like a switch, it develops gradually from non-human parts. Like Theseus' Ship, at no single point can you accurately determine the beginning of human life.

When we consider abortion from the point of view of compassion instead of control, working together towards common goals, we realize that we live in a world of gray areas. We all have complicated circumstances, we all experience suffering, trauma, and regret. We are never living up to our full potential in regards to our shared goals. Instead of offering judgment by memorized medieval morals, we should seek to offer comfort and loving community.

Can religious organizations do that?

1 comment:

  1. I especially enjoyed the observation about how different cultures treat rules. I had never considered that before, but I think it provides an important lens through which to see theology in Rome.