The Burden of Belief

“Somewhere, and I can’t find where, I read about an Eskimo hunter who asked the local missionary priest, ‘If I did not know about God and sin, would I go to hell?’ ‘No,’ said the priest, ‘not if you did not know.’ ‘Then why,’ asked the Eskimo earnestly, ‘did you tell me?’” – Annie Dillard, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek (p.123)
Catholics are asked to believe in a series of dogmas, and are told that failing to do so is an offense against God. I’ve never understood that. If you never hear about the virginal conception of Christ, that’s fine. If you do hear about it and don’t believe it, you’re in trouble. So why ask anyone to believe it? I don’t think my life would have been any less fulfilling if I had never heard about the “Immaculate Conception,” or the “Assumption of the Virgin Mary,” and I doubt I’m a better person for having heard about them. So what’s the point? It’s an entirely needless burden. I’ve been told I’m not “Catholic” because I think those dogmas are rather silly, but I’ve never been given a satisfying answer to question of why anyone should believe them at all.

The Immaculate Conception is an interesting case. A lot of the greatest theologians of the Middle Ages denied it: St. Bernard of Clairvaux, St. Peter Damian, Peter the Lombard, Alexander of Hales, St. Bonaventure, St. Albert the Great, and St. Thomas Aquinas, to name a few. If they were allowed to deny it, why should Catholics be required to believe it today?

The answer, of course, is that at the time it had not been proclaimed as an “infallible” dogma. It’s not about believing the truth, obviously, because it was no less true in the Middle Ages than it is today. It’s about obedience to authority, pure and simple.

My parents, though devout, churchgoing Catholics, did not raise me to have a dogmatic faith, or to be preoccupied with “believing the right things.” Even though I only ever went to Catholic elementary and secondary schools, I didn’t know what the Immaculate Conception actually was until I started studying religion in a secular university. I hadn’t even heard about the Assumption until around the same time. When I look back at some of the things I used to think about, I can see that I didn't believe a lot of things that I was "supposed" to. So I can’t say that I was ever really burdened by belief. But now, as a teacher, I sometimes have students who find believing to be a massive burden. And I would love to tell them that it doesn’t actually matter, because it doesn’t. I can’t do that, of course, but I can show them a living faith has nothing to do with believing some particular event to have taken place two thousand years ago.

For a lot of people, though, religion is about two things: beliefs and morals. It's an impoverished notion of religion to be sure, but it persists. A lot of people can't question it because they've internalised the idea that questioning it is a sin. Sad.

Next week: Exploring the question of whether or not it is necessary to understand something in order to believe it. It's going to be pretty deep.


Blogger Talmida said...

I've always thought that the Mary dogmas were created in order to somehow justify treating women as second-class creations even though the Gospels didn't. How could the mother of our Lord be a filthy cesspit of a temptress like all the other females?

At times, the catholic church is less Christian than it is Roman. The male-dominated hierarchy created an essentially inhuman woman to be Jesus' mother so that they could continue to blame women for original sin and paint themselves as mere dupes, seduced by the evil female. *hee hee hee*

As a catholic I can intellectually believe that God could have produced the miracles necessary for the Marian doctrines, but I don't actually think He did. God seems to be much fonder of real women than the Roman church is.

I also find (especially in teaching my daughters about the faith) that it is possible to be consciously schizophrenic about religion. I have chosen to remain in the catholic church and worship there, so I choose to accept certain things as "true" in the church's view, even if they are not Truth in my own experience.

For example, believing in the Virgin birth becomes much easier when you discover that Virgin back then could mean something different than it does now. (to say nothing of the mistranslation)

Despite what some say, the Church does change. But the Gospels do not. I was taught to look to the Gospels and be a Christian - to follow Christ - and to do that we worshipped in the Catholic church. If the Church clashed with the Gospels, following Jesus was more important than following Rome.

It seems to me that some people have not distinguished between worshipping IN the Roman church and worshipping that church itself.

This is encouraged by Rome, of course, which gives lip service to Jesus' rejection of the Pharisees while creating an essentially pharisaic body of law and "tradition" to justify their non-Christ-like behaviour in the face of a very simple message.

Sorry, this has become quite the rant! LOL But I think that as soon as you move away from the Scriptures, and into doctrines developed by the church, it is impossible to deny the influence of Roman culture of human patriarchy, power, and wealth -- things that Jesus was not very big on.

11:44 a.m.  
Blogger PrickliestPear said...


You've made a lot of valid points. As far as the virgin birth goes, the fact that it doesn't appear in an extant text until some 80 years after it supposedly happened has to give us pause.

John P. Meier wrote, "Granted this phenomenon of stories of wondrous birth or childhood, composed to celebrate ancient heroes, pagan and Jewish alike, one must approach with caution the Infancy Narratives found in Chapters 1-2 of both Matthew and Luke... One can maintain the theoretical possibility of miracles while being wary of individual claims, especially when such claims occur in a type of literature (i.e., infancy narratives of the ancient Mediterranean world) where angelic annunciations and miraculous births were stock motifs. One can take such motifs seriously – inquiring after their religious message – without necessarily taking them literally." (A Marginal Jew 1.208-209)

I think originally it was just meant to show that Jesus was a special individual, so he had to have a special birth. But Catholic teaching about Mary has gone way overboard, turning her into some kind of fetish object.

Mother Angelica was quoted in Newsweek article (available here) about the proposed "Co-Redemptrix" dogma as saying, "If we refuse to define [the Marian dogmas], I think trial and persecution and tragedy will follow."

What would it say about Mary if that were true? They believe that she somehow protects the world, but would withdraw this protection if she wasn't honoured with a certain title?

Andre Gide said, "It is better to be hated for what you are than to be loved for what you are not."

I couldn't help but think of Mary when I read that.

10:07 p.m.  
Blogger Talmida said...

Pear, that Mother Angelica thing is bizarre!

I think Mary is more Goddess than co-Redemptrix myself, but that's on the basis of people making her that, through prayer and veneration.

In a way, Mary is really the people's God. We naturally turn to our mothers for comfort, and she fills the role perfectly. With God pictured as the father and Jesus the male human, we lose the female face of God, and for weal or woe, Mary has taken on that role. I used to quite dislike marian veneration, but as I got older (and had children) I realized how much mothering I myself needed from God. Putting a female face on that somehow fit better.

Does that make any sense?

11:29 p.m.  
Blogger PrickliestPear said...


I see what you're saying, and I think you're right that Mary fills a void created by the excess of male imagery used to describe God.

But there is one problem I have with that. Mary, as much as she may be thought of as a "Goddess," is always going to be subordinate to the male deity, precisely because she is a historical figure, and a merely human one at that.

I don't have a problem with other people venerating Mary if that's what they want to do. It's not my cup of tea, and devotional religion strikes me as somewhat masturbatory, but if it works for them, who am I to tell them to stop?

What I do have a problem with is being told that I have to believe something that makes absolutely no sense, and for no reason other than the fact that church leaders say it's necessary.

I also have a problem with the whole co-Redemptrix crowd (even if theirs is a lost cause), not because I would feel obligated to believe it if it was defined as an infallible dogma (I most certainly would not), but because these people already believe it -- they just want to impose their idiosyncratic beliefs on everyone else. That's a very ugly kind of religion.

I don't understand why believing in dogmas -- any dogmas -- could ever be necessary. But I see very often that it puts a tremendous burden on people, and makes them afraid to think about certain things, as if their mind was on a leash. Whatever benefits dogmatic religion might have (if any) seem to me to be far outweighed by the negative consequences.

1:16 a.m.  

Post a Comment

<< Home

Creative Commons Licence
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Licence.