David Brooks created quite a stir on Good Friday with his opinion piece in the New York Times, “Creed or Chaos.” http://www.nytimes.com/2011/04/22/opinion/22brooks.html
The article is based upon his experience seeing the musical curiously titled “The Book of Mormon”.
The central theme of the play he suggests is that
religion itself can do enormous good as long as people take religious teaching metaphorically and not literally; as long as people understand that all religions ultimately preach love and service underneath their superficial particulars; as long as people practice their faiths open-mindedly and are tolerant of different beliefs.
For Brooks this conviction rings hollow. He argues that
Vague, uplifting, nondoctrinal religiosity doesn’t actually last. The religions that grow, succor and motivate people to perform heroic acts of service are usually theologically rigorous, arduous in practice and definite in their convictions about what is True and False.
We flawed human beings need
doctrines and codes of conduct rooted in claims of absolute truth.
Rigorous theology provides believers with a map of reality. These maps may seem dry and schematic — most maps do compared with reality — but they contain the accumulated wisdom of thousands of co-believers who through the centuries have faced similar journeys and trials.
We need these realities because
Rigorous theology helps people avoid mindless conformity. Without timeless rules, we all have a tendency to be swept up in the temper of the moment. But tough-minded theologies are countercultural. They insist on principles and practices that provide an antidote to mere fashion.
Rigorous codes of conduct allow people to build their character.
For Brooks “a no-sharp-edges view of religion” is simply not up to the task of keeping its adherents on the straight and narrow.
As proof Brooks sights his experience in Africa.
I was once in an AIDS-ravaged village in southern Africa. The vague humanism of the outside do-gooders didn’t do much to get people to alter their risky behavior. The blunt theological talk of the church ladies — right and wrong, salvation and damnation — seemed to have a better effect.
Children need discipline. They need rules and regulations to keep them safe. It is important to establish boundaries for children. Clear parameters for acceptable behaviour help children grown into healthy mature adults.
But, is it appropriate or healthy to treat the adult residents of “an AIDS-ravaged village in southern Africa” as if they were children? Is spoon-fed “right and wrong, salvation and damnation” a life-giving approach to religion even if it does seem to create a tidier world for a time?
Mr. Brooks mocks a religion “that is all creative metaphors and no harsh judgments.” But, Africa provides a troubling example of the virtues of “harsh judgments.
Is Mr. Brooks concerned about the fact that the African continent continues to be afflicted by thousands of deaths due to tribal conflicts? Is the ethnic identity that views the world in black and white terms really life-giving in the long-term?
If I am forced to choose between the gentler religions of “creative metaphors,” or religions that are “so doctrinaire and so socially conservative that they would make Pat Robertson’s hair stand on end,” I think I will align myself with the metaphors.
The “blunt theological talk of the church ladies,” may have short-term appeal. But, experience suggests that it is more likely to lead to dishonesty and denial, than true life and freedom.
Jesus came to set Christians free from the legalism to which Mr. Brooks would have us enslaved. Jesus seemed willing to trust that, there is an inherent beauty and truth that resides at the centre of every human being created in the image of God.
The prophecy of the great Hebrew prophet Jeremiah has been fulfilled,
31 The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah. 32It will not be like the covenant that I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt—a covenant that they broke, though I was their husband,* says the Lord. 33But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. 34No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, ‘Know the Lord’, for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the Lord; for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more. (Jeremiah 31:31-35)
I do not feel inclined to rush back to the old covenant simply because life at times is untidy and frightening. I value too highly the dignity of freedom, even the freedom of AIDS-ravaged villagers in Africa.