Loose Thoughts on Loose Identities of Faith (Catholic and Muslim)

*I noticed I was a bit crass sometimes. Oop. >_> Also, I’ve put a little summary of the essence of this post at the top because it’s a million years long.

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Skim Points

+ Catholicism (and Islam) are fundamentally idealist. The standard is always perfection, and the expectation is that you will never meet it but it doesn’t matter.
+ Catholicism and Islam are just not cultural identities even if people sometimes misrepresent them as such. They both make claims of objective moral truths.
+ When you don’t know the answer, don’t just toss the question aside without seeking one; it’s either laziness, indifference, or fear.
+ If you find a contradiction between something you consider an objective reality and your religion (assuming it presents objective truth) you should seek further; for us Catholics, reason informs faith.
+ Not committing at all because you don’t know the answer might be honest–but it can also just be fear of being wrong; it is harder than we realize to separate the two and smart people are good at rationalizing! c:
+ If following your moral code is easy-breezy, it might be a good idea to take a closer look.
+ Never set cherry picking as the standard.
+ In a religion of universal objective moral truth, the old should inform the new and the new should inform the old.
+ Catholics/Muslims: Try to speak the truth and know what you’re talking about, but don’t be a raging jerk. That’s definitely helped to grow the reactionary movement.
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Alternatively Titled: Yes, Super-Zealots Were Shitty But Misleading “Non-Belief Wrapped In A Tolerance Shaped Bow” Belief Is Still Not Good.

by R. van Liempt.

 
There’s an issue today in the loose identity of faith. And it’s caused a fair bit of confusion. Anyone can say they’re a Catholic and it could mean a number of things. It could mean “my family is Catholic.” It could mean “I like the culture of Catholicism.” It could mean “I was baptized once but have zero beliefs in line with Catholic teaching.” I understand that happens out of a combination of convenience and misunderstanding–but I’ll take a page from my husband’s book and just say flatly it’s wrong.

It’s not just happening in Catholicism but in Islam as well. I’m specifically referring to Islam here because I came to consider this topic after reading a very thoughtful article called “Practicing Islam in Short Shorts” by Thanaa El-Naggar.

I will first and foremost say that I agree entirely with the sentiment of the article that promotes compassion and unity. It very perfectly describes the struggle of a segment of the Muslim population in trying to find their place. After such a long history of fuddyduddy, judgmental traditionalist-types enforcing rules like bobbleheads–going through the movements without understanding the core values that they represent–the article is a natural oasis to those who don’t believe in “a monolithic practice of Islam,” an “inflexible, fossilized way of life.”

But nonetheless, it has really brought something I consider a real issue to mind. And it is the very real misunderstanding of what it means to identify in our faith.

Both of these religions claim, as an article of faith, to teach objective truth/reality. If you don’t agree with the core beliefs, no matter how Catholic your family, friends, or community are, you shouldn’t identify as one. It would be like saying “I’m a feminist” and not believing in equal rights for women…? (Nevermind that there is a lot of confusion about what that one means too.) It’s misrepresentation. In her article, El-Naggar essentially says that she doesn’t always do a lot of things that Muslims are supposed to do–but she feels Muslim and tries to do what she can. And I don’t take any issues with this. No one can (and certainly no one should) deny that the author feels Muslim and feels connected to the faith. But that is not what I am concerned with; I am concerned with the reality of the situation. Basically, what does it mean to identify in a faith?

Identifying in a faith DOES NOT mean accepting each and every aspect that is commonly and culturally associated with the faith. For example, mantillas (headcoverings) are not mandated in the Catholic faith. However, they are a point of discipline and piety. And if we acknowledge that we’re Catholics and that our goal is always the ideal–is there really something wrong in saying that we Catholic women should wear a mantilla? The word should there does not mean must but it means it ought to be the ideal standard. Naturally, we can see how the difference between discipline and the call to piety can get muddled and confused with religious mandate through the ages and get mixed up in cultural/societal pressure.

But what identifying in a faith DOES mean is accepting the core tenets that the religion itself specifically identifies as articles of faith. So for example, a Catholic must absolutely at least believe in all of the Nicene Creed. If they accept those parts, they should also be against prostitution because we believe in chastity–only having sexual relations in the context of marriage as defined by God (and by the church for execution purposes). If a Catholic does not believe in these things, identifying as a Catholic would be at best misguided–and at worst, totally and utterly inaccurate and misleading. But, as I said in the beginning, this is a problem today.

I feel like this speaks for itself.

I feel like this speaks for itself.

There are a number of ways people identify to a faith today. There’s one movement today (and to be fair, we’ve always had these “heresies”) that says, “Well most of it’s good, but this one part here needs to change because we’re modern and better now.”

But that doesn’t make sense to me. Especially with regards to all the controversial parts–they have pretty strong theological backing. The word “catholic” even means universal. Not “for our times” but universal. It would be a total contradiction that parts of the religion that have been established or informed by the core are wrong and need to change. Because what sort of objective truth changes with the times? Nobody ever (well most people who do this anyway) takes issue with the reasoning used to reach the conclusions or the core ideas/axioms that are used to reach the conclusions. The issue is always some dismissive hand-wave of “this is the modern era” that’s backwards! But doesn’t follow reason. And God is reason, so unless we want to think of our God as arbitrary (which I don’t think either religion claims to do), it should always make sense. After all, was slavery any less bad when we didn’t all think so? The amount of people believing a thing doesn’t make any difference to that thing being good or bad. And being old or new should have nothing to do with it either. In fact, the old should illuminate new and the new should illuminate the old. If you have an issue with it, it would almost make more sense to drop it altogether. But naturally, I am not advocating that; instead, I am urging more earnest truth-seeking.

For both Catholics and Muslims, there’s a submission to the greater good–submitting to God (Goodness). “Islam” literally means “voluntary submission to God.” How can one be loosely Muslim? You’re either submitting or not. If you only partially submit, chances are that the times where you do submit aren’t really submission to God. When you already agree with the teaching or it agrees in your heart…are you submitting to God or yourself? That doesn’t mean your whole religion needs to be an uphill battle where nothing should ever come natively to you or feel good or be easy–but I firmly believe that there is something for everyone to struggle with our quest to be good. Nobody is born with a perfect will.

Then there’s another group that says “Well God gave us an infallible truth that men wrote down poorly.” The problem with this is that the people who say this are frequently liable to impose modern ideals over it. Essentially, I can accept that maybe fallible people have administered the truth incorrectly. For Catholicism, the living church, there are guards against that. In that respect, I am not sure how Islam works. But again, isn’t it proud to say that the only places that those things are clearly wrong are in places where it doesn’t intuitively match my own compass or is inconvenient to me and/or my friends?

The place I see this most applied is in regards to the hadith (sayings of Mohammed). Actually, I consider this to be similar (not the same) to Protestantism in some sense for us–as Catholics consider the church teaching as just as valid but Protestants believe in sola scriptura. Despite the fact that a very large segment of scholars say pretty adamantly that the hadith is important–even if there is disagreement on which collection is better, a lot of modern Muslims like to disregard the hadith. Honestly, I can’t say that they’re totally wrong. But a combination of experiences with some of these people and limited conversations with scholars and amateur-scholars leads me to think so at least. But I digress. In El-Naggar’s article, she talks about how her mother said that non-Muslim children can go to heaven–and she this taught her that there was something more to Islam and God than what her teachers were teaching her…But this doesn’t actually go against the theology of Islam either? There seems to be an assumption of contradiction there that I didn’t find? What really seems to be the case though is that her initial teachers were bobbleheading (strictly imposing rules without explanations) at her. And that much, I think El-Naggar and I can agree on.

I guess what I’m saying is, the problem appears to me to be a combination of not putting in enough effort and/or doing what’s convenient out of indifference or fear. One that I did and do practice even today. When something you don’t agree with comes up–you just say, “Okay I won’t follow that one. But these ones I like are good!” It’s not just the cherrypicking that is the issue, but setting that as the standard. (Which I addressed in my last post.) When I came to the church, I disagreed with it on everything from abortion, to euthanasia, to women priests. But I was compelled (by pride admittedly) to look into it. And I found answers that helped me understand that worked for me. To be honest, if I didn’t and I found those answers to be so erroneous that my understanding of reality was in total conflict with something so fundamentally Catholic…I would just not have converted.

“So my options are either be an Atheist or be a full-on Catholic?”
Well first off, deism and theism exist. I think they’re incredibly incomplete…but they exist. At the very least, you would be more accurately describing yourself. But secondly, I am a Catholic. This means that I really believe in the truth contained in my religion–my worldview. I say it not to push you away from your faith but to strengthen it. I would not push you to seek if I didn’t have faith to begin with. And if you’re going into it with the mindset that you’re right and won’t learn anything…Doesn’t it already say something to you about your faith and your identity of it?

I’m not saying you can never be inconsistent. Everybody is a hypocrite to some degree. I’m not saying you can never mess up. Everybody is a failure (haha, a carry-over from my last post). But there are two approaches to messing up in the faith:

(A) The first approach says “Here are the things my religion says are good for sure. I acknowledge that these are the good things because I follow the religion. So, (for example) lying is bad. Oops, I lied to my mom because I didn’t want to get in trouble for breaking the window. That was bad. I did a bad thing. I’m sorry, I’m going to try not to do the bad thing. Maybe I didn’t apologize…that was bad too.”

(B) The second approach says “Yeah I don’t always do the thing that my religion says. What’s more important though is that I’m a good, respectful person. I screw up but so does everybody sometimes. We shouldn’t judge others.”

Even if there’s truth on the surface, the second one isn’t very good because it changes the way you frame things in your head. It lets you be lazy. Yes, being a compassionate good person is the core of the religion. Without acknowledging that, we turn into people who’re just checking off boxes for the sake of checking off boxes. And yes, judging others in some sense is wrong. But today it seems to be conflated with the idea of just saying what we think is right. (Hypocritically, I might add.) But you have to ask at what point does your religion come into play when you take this approach? I know that Islam makes at least some pretty solid claims about what it is to be a good person. And being Catholic sure as hell does. We should expect that sometimes, those things will not come naturally to us. And that sometimes, those things will seem archaic. Or sometimes even too progressive maybe, if you’re a certain type of person. (I doubt you’re reading this blog.)

Good isn’t in reason or emotion–it’s in the will. The Catholic ideal is more than doing what makes sense–more than being reasonable. It is about being charitable. For what a terrible place the world would be if we only gave when we received or it was deserved. But that isn’t easy. And it’s certainly not as natural in the same way as “you should give to the poor whenever you can” is. Most people can respond to that easily with “sure, why not?” I’m not downplaying the good of that–but it isn’t the ideal.

The problem with approach two is that religion has nothing to do with it. The person has the right idea in loving the sinner–but subtly, even if unintentionally, accepts the sin too. Because “it’s hard to tell people what to do.” Where is the commitment to improve? Where is the submission to God’s will? If all you’ve gotten out of Islam is “Don’t kill” “Don’t lie” “Don’t cheat” “Don’t rape” then you haven’t gotten much out of it at all. Does anyone actually think atheists are not monsters who have suddenly begun raping and eating people as soon as they abandon God. And they haven’t stopped giving to charities. Or just being…regular, decent people? Our religions are fundamentally idealist because we set GOOD as the standard. And we have to be clear that we really believe that and that is our goal.

I’d like to say that you can be a good person and but a bad Catholic. But I can’t actually say that as a Catholic. Because charity, sacrifice, humility, using one’s will to be good in spite of emotional or intellectual obstacles…these things are integral to being a good Catholic. If you’re a good person, I think you have to be using these principles of God (Goodness) in your life–even if you don’t acknowledge that the principles exist or where they come from. So can you be a good Catholic and sin? Yes. Can you be a good person and not a practicing Catholic. Yes (conditionally). But that doesn’t mean that I can say you shouldn’t be a Catholic–set Goodness as your ideal. For us Catholics–being a good person and being a good Catholic should be synonymous. And at the end of the day, Catholic or not, everybody who believes in goodness feels obligated to speak the truth about it. The fact that there are some assholes saying true things and not doing them doesn’t mean that everybody who says the thing is wrong are also an asshole. It makes it hard to listen, but that’s the reality.

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