In Favor of a “Demanding” Religion
Undemanding religions decline. Such is the consequence of an argument that John Lamont — a professor of philosophy at the University of Notre Dame Australia — made in a recent article for the journal, First Things.
Religions with somewhat arduous rules dissuade “free riders” — those seeking the benefits of membership without cost. Additionally, traditions with visible activities that have no apparent justification other than faith help adherents to see fellow believers in the act of believing, thus reinforcing religious behavior.
Human nature, of course, has a strong strain of bargain hunting, and the structure of religious organizations is such that the people with the most authority to define dogma and policies — active laity and the ordained — have the highest amount of effort against which to negotiate. It’s easy for this time consuming ritual or that strenuous restriction to seem a justifiable object of compromise.
For examples, seemingly inconsequential as well as profound and painful, one need only reflect on casual conversations among Catholics. Why must the Body species of the Eucharist be made of wheat? Isn’t the proscription against meat on Fridays arbitrary? Wouldn’t we solve much of our priest shortage (and assorted other difficulties) if we allowed the men who run our parishes to marry? Wouldn’t we attract more adherents if we weren’t so restrictive when it comes to modern facts of life like divorce and vocal about controversial issues, such as abortion? And what’s so wrong with assisted suicide, anyway?
None of these questions are inappropriate, and the traditional answers are not necessarily forever and infallibly correct. The purpose of religion, after all, is to seek after Truth, not card-carrying members, and Truth is always subject to better understanding. But as a Church whittles away at the characteristics by which it is defined, it presents less evidence to the world that it has a unique, and uniquely relevant, perspective on something universal.
Eventually, its spiritual benefits do not promise much more reward than can be claimed with a sigh during sunset, membership in a social club, and an extra dollar at the checkout window when a fast-food chain offers an opportunity for drive-thru charity. More precisely, the cost of membership in an organized religion, however watered down it may at that point be, comes to outweigh whatever good-feeling it can facilitate above and beyond personal outlook.
Before you despair that religion might require arbitrary sacrifices of time and comfort purely for the purpose of creating characteristic costs of membership, a clarification and a reminder are in order. The clarification is that, correctly viewed, the costs are very often benefits, as well. This is true in the sense that learning to savor the Catholic Mass can produce deep joy and regular spiritual nourishment. It’s also true in the sense that changing the family diet on Lenten Fridays makes possible a cornucopia of traditions.
The reminder is that arduous rules are only half of the calculation that makes a religion “demanding” enough to survive human nature and social pressure. The other half is the exhortation to visible participation, and that can be fully enjoyable. Church community dinners are not only a chance to stay out of the kitchen every now and then. After-Mass coffee and pastry gatherings are not just a source of free donuts.
Moreover, religiously themed events should not fall on the list of things that one could do if time weren’t so tight and money weren’t such an issue. If Newport’s various music festivals were to slip away because of sparse attendance, the state would lose some feathers from its cap, and many Rhode Islanders would have fewer activities in which they intend to indulge… someday.
By contrast, similar events with Catholic themes enrich not just the local culture, but the Church, as well. The Portsmouth Institute’s now annual conference on the campus of the Portsmouth Abbey School, for example, doesn’t only increase understanding of Catholic subjects and offer a taste of that area of life in which religion, scholarship, art, and monasticism meet. It also makes a clear and public statement that those subjects are worth understanding and that area of life is worth tasting.
As the topic comes around into the light of voluntary, edifying, enjoyable activities, it becomes apparent that the “demanding” regimen of a religion isn’t so much an imposition from authority figures as an effort that believers desire to make. For our faith to persist and to expand, its strength must be proven in the demands that we make of ourselves.