A few months back, the attempt by Pope Francis and like-minded Catholics to have the Church adopt a more open stance on gays and remarried couples was ferociously rebuked by conservatives within that venerable organisation, and was variously described as “irredeemable,” “giving in to the secular agenda,” “a betrayal,” “disastrous,” and “one of the worst official documents in church history.”
Conservative critics take issue with what they perceive as Francis’ challenge to codified Church doctrine on the family. For them, church doctrine is a representation of God’s timeless will, handed down to us through infallible church leaders. God, they declare, doesn’t change his mind with the times. I think it is safe to say that few people espousing this view of a timeless, unchanging Church and God have a very detailed knowledge of the history of their religion.
Religion is and has always been a far cry from the monolithic and eternally fixed tradition imagined by Pope Francis’ opponents (as well as by some of religion’s pessimistic critics.) Indeed, just as ‘Republicans’ today are very different than the members of that same party a century ago, so the God and the Church of modern Catholics look very different than they did at many points in the past. Things once held as unchallengeable doctrines of the faith have been summarily abandoned, and stories which were cherished have been forgotten.
The most infamous example, of course, is the Church’s persecution of scientists like Copernicus and Galileo for espousing the heliocentric model of the universe, which the Congregation of the Index described as “false and altogether opposed to the Holy Scripture.” Some clergymen even feared that the heliocentric model was an existential threat to the Church’s credibility, worrying that the un-mooring of the Earth from the center of the universe would be the beginning of the end for the faith. But un-moored it was – and which Christian today loses sleep over it?
Similarly, the Church taught for centuries that people were created fully formed on the sixth day, and angrily resisted Darwin’s theory of natural selection. But they have now officially accepted evolution, making them perhaps the most influential Christian group to have done so.
Christianity’s roots bear very little resemblance to the faith practiced by most Christians today. The growing academic consensus (advanced by people like Bart D. Ehrman and Reza Aslan) is that Jesus was an apocalyptic prophet – a fire and brimstone preacher who warned that the end of the world was imminent. The first Christians consequently believed that Armageddon was coming within their lifetimes. But after several generations, when it didn’t come, they stopped believing it. (At least, most of them.) Biblical passages like the ending of John were written in to explain why Jesus’ predictions hadn’t come true, and the faith moved on.
Few people conceive of Jesus’ story as a likely candidate for a Sly Stallone action movie, but in the first millennium CE, one popular mystery play told the story of Jesus’ three days in Hell. In the play, Jesus descends, Schwarzenegger-like, to chew falafel and kick demonic ass (and he’s all out of falafel), emerging triumphantly three days later to save all of humanity. The play has been out of the popular imagination for so long that it would probably offend the sensibilities of most Christians today.
Who goes to hell? Medieval clergy, artists and writers were obsessed with this theme – and the image of hell as an ever-looming punishment was a vivid one for centuries of believers. But the Church doesn’t seem to have a clear answer to this question today – remarks by the Pope apparently imply that everyone, including atheists, can go to heaven if they lead good lives. It’s a far cry from when Dante put even the luminaries of other faiths in the upper circles of Hell (and the prophets, like Mohammed, in the deepest ones.) Purgatory, a long venerated concept, is now also out of favor.
God himself undergoes radical personality changes in the Bible. At the beginning of the Old Testament, God is rash, immature, and violent. He promises Noah never to inflict an atrocity like the great flood on humanity ever again, then backtracks a few chapters later when he firebombs the people of Sodom and Gomorrah. He orders the mass slaughter and enslavement of dozens of different nations who stand in the way of the Israelites. As psychologist Steven Pinker points out in his study of violence “The Better Angels of Our Nature”, in the Bible “Yahweh tortures and massacres people by the hundreds of thousands for trivial disobedience or for no reason at all.” Then, suddenly, he stops – and virtually no Christian or Jew today espouses his formerly genocidal views.
Despite Jesus naming “love your neighbour” as one of the most important commandments, over the centuries the Church supported torture, the execution of witches and heretics, holy war and wars of religion, slavery, mass slaughter, colonialism, and the persecution of gays, Jews and other minorities. Transformations of Church doctrines on these questions tended to follow, not precede, transformations in public opinion, as we are seeing today with the Church’s stance on homosexuals.
During the Holocaust, the Catholic Church (and many if not most other Christian groups) participated in rather than refuted one of the greatest failures of human sympathy in history, as David Hyman documents in his landmark study “The Abandonment of the Jews.” Despite Christianity supposedly being a religion that offers “succor to the helpless,” most Christians did little or nothing to help Jewish refugees and Holocaust victims, even as the details of the full extent of Nazi atrocities became clear. The Vatican’s silence on the matter was particularly shameful (though some revisionist historians, like Gordon Thomas, claim the Church did more than is regularly recognized.)
Even the views of many modern Christians are in some sense a construction, built partly upon the Bible but more significantly upon one’s background. Can anyone really take seriously the view, common among Republicans like Paul Ryan, that Jesus would have supported slashing welfare and cutting taxes on the rich? (Hard to believe in light of statements like “It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to get into heaven,” or “Whenever you failed to care for the least of my brothers, so you failed to care for me.”) Or that Jesus would’ve been an ardent 2nd amendment supporter? (“Those who live by the sword die by the sword.”) Or that he would have stood outside of abortion clinics shrieking at young women? (“Let he who has not sinned cast the first stone.”) Or even that he would have approved of the histrionics of church-goers in evangelical churches? (“And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and on the street corners so that they may be seen by men.”)
I began this article by asking if God could change his mind. But of course, what we have seen here hasn’t been God changing his mind about people’s affairs – it has been people changing their minds about God. Herein lies the remarkable thing about religion, the engine of all this change we have been discussing. Religion is not, nor has it ever been, a monolith, set in stone and permanently unalterable. Much of religion is interpretation – an interaction of one’s situation with a received body of religious ideas, practices and tradittions. The act of interpretation itself doesn’t necessarily debase or demean the original texts or sayings of the great prophets and leaders – in fact, people have always found meanings that are relevant to them and their social and cultural context in religious texts.
Admittedly, to non-believers like me, these interpretations may sometimes sound like a stretch, even disingenuous. In producing a film about Muslims living in the West for the past year, I have heard countless counter-intuitive interpretations of Koranic passages which seem to call for violence. A gay Muslim man told me that the story of Lot (usually invoked to condemn homosexuality) is actually about male rape; a devout Algerian woman told me how passages which seem to condone spousal violence actually counsel against it; and one man went so far as to claim that the reason God required so many witnesses to allow someone to be executed by stoning is because the Almighty doesn’t really want anyone to be stoned.
Yet I do not doubt that each of these believers genuinely thought what they were saying to be the truth. The fact is that most religious believers around the world do not follow their religious texts to the letter, adopting instead interpretations which mesh more easily with the values of their times. For a religious tradition to stay vibrant and relevant, it needs to adapt to new eras with its believers. If people have realized over time that an all-loving God must have a place in his heart for slaves, heretics and atheists, surely it can only follow that he must hold the same love for gays and remarried couples.
Some skeptics say (and some believers fear) that if the doctrines and beliefs of believers have changed over time, then this change is proof that religious beliefs are utterly baseless, being merely the whims and superstitions of each passing generation. To them, I would submit scholar Robert Wright’s argument (in his book “The Evolution of God”) that this need not be the case. Just as religious people in the past have been wrong about biology and astronomy, so too have they been wrong about God. Likewise, as new evidence and discussion has brought us closer to the truth in science, so has it brought believers closer to the truth about God.
As a recent Vatican study has shown, most Catholics today are “cafeteria Catholics” – they identify as Catholic, but ignore its doctrines on birth control and other areas. The Church’s current teachings are not relevant to large numbers of Catholics today. As it has done so often in the past, the Church needs to change its mind. It needs to embrace the Christian message of love as including gay people and remarried divorcees – or at least embrace a new language about them, which is often the first step towards more substantive change. If it doesn’t, the path it is on may well lead to morbidity and stagnation.