Pope Stops Theological Innovation

PopeOn Monday, The Onion reported, Resigning Pope No Longer Has Strength To Lead Church Backward. The article says, “According to the 85-year-old pontiff, after considerable prayer and reflection on his physical stamina and mental acuity, he concluded that his declining faculties left him unable to helm the Church’s ambitious regressive agenda and guide the faith’s one billion global followers on their steady march away from modernity and cultural advancement.”

I know, I know: after posting Fuck the Mother Fucker, you think I have it out for the Catholic Church. But that isn’t it at all. I really like the Catholic Church. In a play I wrote, I even put a sex scene in the baptismal font. So you can forget all thought of that. I like the rituals and churches and robes and all that stuff.

But The Onion is onto an important theological issue. Should our theology be constrained by dogma? I don’t mean just in moral terms, but that is the biggest problem from a cultural standpoint; I mean in a theological sense. There really are theological innovations. For example, monotheism was an advancement over thinking there were endless gods controlling each part of the world as we found it. And today, we really should be past thinking that there is some God in the sky who really cares that we only stick penises in vaginas.

It is unfortunately the case that most religions are actively involved in keeping our spiritual thinking as primitive as it was hundreds or thousands of years ago when the religion was created. For all the ridiculousness of something like Scientology, at least it is a new idea. Unfortunately, we can’t say the same for most Christian offshoots. Mormonism, for example, just takes the Christian mythology and moves it horizontally.

My biggest question about most modern religions is how they can possibly answer people’s spiritual questions. Clearly, Jainism is malleable enough to allow one to really search. But Christianity? It just seems to be a system designed to stop people for thinking. I remember as a little kid being extremely frustrated that my church explained the existence of God as being “begotten not made.” For whom do such answers help in the least?

Note: I’m come to think of the universe as being begotten not made. But there is a big difference: my mind is wrapped around the absurdity of that statement. It is part of my deep appreciation for the unknowable nature of existence. I would never tell someone who was struggling with the concept that the universe was begotten not made. That kind of thing just stops thinking. And so do most religions.

I am, however, hopeful that the new pope will be at least a tiny bit more liberal than the last. Regardless, I know this: eventually the Catholic Church will accept homosexuality just as it now accepts shellfish eating. The twenty-first century awaits the arrival of all of the Abrahamic religions!

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About Frank Moraes

Frank Moraes is a freelance writer and editor online and in print. He is educated as a scientist with a PhD in Atmospheric Physics. He has worked in climate science, remote sensing, throughout the computer industry, and as a college physics instructor. Find out more at About Frank Moraes.

4 thoughts on “Pope Stops Theological Innovation

  1. Why do you say "monotheism was an advancement over thinking there were endless gods?" I’m not criticizing; I’m just curious. Simply as an administrative efficiency improvement, theologically speaking? (I understand that’s one reason Rome adopted Christianity, as worshippers of multiple deities are slightly harder to control.)

    Certainly Catholicism made huge strides over Zoroastrianism and early Judaism’s tendencies to have followers waver and hedge their bets with a few different deities (the Old Testament is quite crabby about this) by incorporating polytheism into their theology by virtue of saints. I always enjoyed that concept — saints aren’t gods, exactly, but they can (through "intercession") get your prayers at the top of God’s inbox.

    One thing a new Pope might do is bring back saint worship (it’s never technically left, but who today prays to Saint Boniface, patron of brewers?) He could update it with new saints or by re-purposing archaic ones for modern concerns. Maybe there could be a patron saint for car trouble, for your kids’ grades, for job searching or back pain? (I could use one for blood pressure, these days, along with some voodoo to fuck up my landlord.)

    Morally, I’ve long found Hindu theology the least appalling — that all gods (and all life, really) are part of the same larger thing. And reincarnation is theoretically preferable to "one-and-done," eternal punishment/reward, depending on what status you have with Big Sky Man the instant you die. (I can be a dick all my life and deathbed convert, but a good person who was cheating on her husband in a parked car when a truck hit the car is damned forever.)

    Unfortunately we see how reincarnation is used by rich Hindus to justify extreme poverty (it’s not my fault, they were bad in a previous life) so that doesn’t work in reality (although I understand many poor Indians reject this and claim that older, more rural and less priesthood-controlled religious traditions are different.)

    And I’ve never "gotten" Buddhism — it probably makes some psychological sense to reject all desire (which is not far from Scientology’s techniques for jettisoning the emotional power of painful memories.) But what is life except the acceptance that pain comes with happiness? All things we enjoy cause pain in the end. You fall out of love with things and people, people die, or you die. If I croak before I can finish typing this sentence, I’m rather gladder, on the whole, that I enjoyed things and people than if I didn’t.

    Sorry for the rant — I watched a killer (literally) documentary on Oregon’s assisted-suicide law, called "How To Die In Oregon." It was so strong, and the people in it so flawed and silly and human and courageous, that it’s really messing up my head right now. (The movie is unabashedly in favor of people getting fatal prescriptions for drugs they can use if they choose — which most don’t, but take comfort knowing the choice is available — and I just can’t see how any sane person who’s ever seen someone suffering could be against this.)

    You hit a certain age, you face health problems, and you wonder — is there more I could have done/been? Did I fuck it up? Since we all fuck it up, more-or-less, I start thinking if my existence was a net positive or negative on others (not whether or not I pleased some emotionally needy sky-god like "Star Trek"’s "Q".) Aside from Hinduism, I’m not aware of a religion that gives us the ability to assess our lives in this way (and, again, the way Hinduism justifies cruelty to the poor among the rich renders that belief system fairly worthless, for the purposes I’m interested in.)

    If you don’t have a response to this screed, cool. But if that’s the case, don’t post it! It’s rather embarrassing.

  2. @JMF – One of the great strengths of Catholicism has been its collection of saints. It has allowed the church to go into areas and turn local deities into Saints, because, as you note, there are a hell of a lot of them.

    I knew when I wrote that about monotheism that there might be some push back. Fundamentally, I think it is an innovation simply because of the trend. However, I think I can justify it by noting that it makes religion more systematized. With a god for every purpose, you are forever coming up with new gods. Having one God allows us, I think, to move on to the next stage which is effectively having no God. It seems to mean that a truly modern theology would move from God to Universe.

    Both Hinduism and Buddhism work better in a modern theological framework. For example, there is some thought that though we may not be reincarnated, we may exist in many different universes–infinitely many! And Hinduism seems to be clued into the idea of all existence being a larger entity. So while I may think of monotheism as a good thing 2000-3000 years ago, it is holding us back now.

    I think you have kind of a limited view of Buddhism. Of course, I’m not a Buddhist, I just really like koans. But one thing I do get from it is that regardless of what I do, I really am doing what I should be doing. The idea that I should be more successful in our society is to have a very limited grasp on ontology. Just the same, we are what we are, and I wish I were making a little more money.

    I don’t know what you have to be embarrassed about. That was not as much of a rant as you think it was.

  3. Thanks for responding and not calling my rant a rant — which is what is was. Or maybe what my partner just calls "verbal vomiting," unleashing more words than one intended. Always a risk with these e-things, and amazingly some people manage to make fools of themselves in 125 characters or less.

    I’m still unconvinced on monotheism over polytheism (or the reverse), I see potential pluses and pitfalls in both.

    Incidentally, as you mentioned Catholicism’s ability to match sainthood with local customs/traditions (saints/rites in Italy are not the same as in Haiti), I’ve read a bit on Minnesota history and the Catholic colonists were much more successful at co-existing with natives than Protestant ones. The early French trappers/priests, especially. (Almost every place name in Minnesota is either native or French, which amuses many of us when dingbats propose "English only" laws.)

    Yet the result (conquest, really) is eventually the same. Natives boiled alive by Spanish missionaries in California probably didn’t care much about who did the boiling. Natives in Minnesota lived longer with Europeans than in most other places, but ended up wiped out just as clinically — the largest mass execution in US history happened here, of Dakota insurgents resisting land grabs. A local brewery commemorated the mass hanging with souvenir plates advertising their product — quite a collector’s item among Minnesota brew geeks, these days.

    (To see a large image, which most collectors do not wish to show, go here:


    Then scroll down just five screens or so to the "Standard Brewing Company" plate, with officers enjoying emptied kegs while civilians enjoy a good-ol’-lynching in the background. Worth the look, it’s an amazing artifact.)

    Point being — well, I don’t really have a point. Our world, its people and ways, never cease to amaze me. Are there instances where different approaches to religion ended up not fucking over but merely melding with local cultures? Hawaii, maybe, where the colonial power lost interest after WWII? Some others? I’d love to live 100 more years just to begin to learn history . . .

  4. @JMF – That’s pretty amazing. I’m tempted to write about it. The xenophobia of the past is so easy to see. Actually, I see a lot of the same stuff going on with Muslims. A lot of conservatives are convinced that that they just hate us and so we are right to kill them all. Actually, it is worse than that. Just look at how popular drone strikes are among liberals.

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