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.