Saturday, January 1, 2011

touching on the Christian legacy, inter alia

ethical solutions, inc

Happy new year to all my darling fans.

Now I mustn't forget my promise about a quotation, so this time, a double dose:

I've just read Geoffrey Robertson's The case of the pope, gifted to me for Christmas. Robertson does his usual thorough job, and is very convincing on the inadequacies of Canon Law, and the abysmal record of the current pontiff in his previous role as Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. The overall impression I get is of a profoundly insular, arrogant organisation, convinced of its moral superiority, and convinced that its 'house rules', aka Canon Law, is superior to all secular laws in dealing with every aspect of 'sin'. The result, of course, has been disastrous for thousands of children in every country the RCC has made inroads into. And there's no real sign of change in spite of the pressure being applied.

I'll review the book in more detail later perhaps. For now, I'm going to be a bit churlishly critical - I love a bit o' churlishness, especially during the festive season. In a section titled 'Reflections' at the end of the book, Robertson makes this statement, after arguing at length on the Vatican's abuses of human rights:
It should not be necessary to invoke human rights law against a great church, especially one whose founder laid down the Judeo-Christian ethics that have contributed considerably to the principles of that law.
Now, I suspect that this praise of Judeo-Christian ethics was a concessional bone thrown at the RCC after nearly 200 pages of relentless, but judicious, attack. But I must object to it on two counts. First, Robertson refers to the church's founder, by whom he clearly means the character known as Jesus. Now, the idea that Jesus founded the RCC is quite preposterous. Even if we assume that the name refers to a historically real character - a big assumption - there is no evidence from the gospels [and the gospels are all we have] that he intended to found a 'church' as such, and certainly not a church anything like the RCC. The RCC is, and has been since the beginning, a profoundly authoritarian, ritual obsessed, secretive organisation. There are certain consistent qualities of Jesus that emerge from the gospels - an impatience with ritual, a preference for substance over form, an anti-authoritarian tendency, an open simplicity of style and a preference for the company of the poor, the dispossessed and the powerless - notably women and children. His attack on the pharisees for being more concerned with dress and form than substantial teachings, for being essentially out of touch with ordinary people, gives a pretty clear indication of what he would've thought of the RCC, which raises the question of whether the RCC is or ever has been a Christian organisation.
The second point is the familiar one - that our modern ethics were 'laid down' by Jesus, as recorded in the gospels. I find it extremely difficult to comprehend how anybody reading the gospels carefully and with an open mind can find a foundation for modern ethics therein. The sayings of Jesus are not, in my opinion, particularly 'ethically rich', and the parables are often obscure and sometimes very dubious in their message. The golden rule, for example, is found in dozens of religious traditions, indicating that it transcends religion as a common-sense formula for social living. The peacemakers are, or should be, blessed, and the meek shall inherit the earth. This is wishful thinking - admirable enough, but hardly the basis of an ethical system. Love your enemies [a piece of preaching that Jesus didn't always practice himself] is merely a paradoxical remark that undermines the concepts love/hate and friends/enemies. The remark 'let he who is without sin cast the first stone' is a useful corrective against moral dudgeon, but it's hardly original [and in any case was a later insertion]. Altogether, all we have in the gospels are a few general remarks, mostly unobjectional and generally kindly, but not particularly earth-shattering. Had they never been published or bruited about, I strongly doubt that our modern ethical thinking and the laws based on it would have been any different.

My point is that Christianity continues to be over-rated from an ethical perspective, even by non-believers. We have always done better, in thinking about ethics, to leave religion out of it, as the Graeco-Romans did. It is to that tradition, more than any, that we owe the upholding of ethical standards in law.

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