Creed or Chaos?

Very good opinion piece by David Brooks in the New York Times.  He uses the new musical, “The Book of Mormon,” as his backdrop. This notion of speeding away from anything that distinguishes us or makes us peculiar or diminishes the rigors of the Faith will in the end result in nothing but decline and a faith that has little real impact on the world, particularly for the cause of Christ. 

A couple paragraphs:

The only problem with “The Book of Mormon” (you realize when thinking
about it later) is that its theme is not quite true. Vague, uplifting,
nondoctrinal religiosity doesn’t actually last. The religions that grow,
succor and motivate people to perform heroic acts of service are
usually theologically rigorous, arduous in practice and definite in
their convictions about what is True and False.

That’s because people are not gods. No matter how special some
individuals may think they are, they don’t have the ability to
understand the world on their own, establish rules of good conduct on
their own, impose the highest standards of conduct on their own, or
avoid the temptations of laziness on their own.

The religions that thrive have exactly what “The Book of Mormon”
ridicules: communal theologies, doctrines and codes of conduct rooted in
claims of absolute truth.

Rigorous theology provides believers with a map of reality. These maps
may seem dry and schematic — most maps do compared with reality — but
they contain the accumulated wisdom of thousands of co-believers who
through the centuries have faced similar journeys and trials.

Rigorous theology allows believers to examine the world intellectually
as well as emotionally. Many people want to understand the eternal logic
of the universe, using reason and logic to wrestle with concrete
assertions and teachings.

Op-Ed Columnist

Creed or Chaos

Source, NYT

Brooks has it right. That which is enduring, rigorous, and tried is what will in the end appeal to those who wish to understand themselves better, their world better, and the significance of their part of all creation.

The jolts keep coming and the audience I was part of rose up at the end
with a raucous standing ovation of the sort I’ve rarely seen. There are
four musical numbers that are truly fantastic, and the rest of the show
is clever, fast and surprisingly warm. The play is about Mormon
missionaries who find themselves in an AIDS-ravaged, warlord-dominated
region in Uganda. It ridicules Mormonism but not the Mormons, who are
loopy but ultimately admirable.

The central theme of “The Book of Mormon” is that many religious stories
are silly — the idea that God would plant golden plates in upstate New
York. Many religious doctrines are rigid and out of touch.

But religion itself can do enormous good as long as people take
religious teaching metaphorically and not literally; as long as people
understand that all religions ultimately preach love and service
underneath their superficial particulars; as long as people practice
their faiths open-mindedly and are tolerant of different beliefs.

This warm theme infuses the play with humanity and compassion. It also
plays very well to an educated American audience. Many Americans have
always admired the style of belief that is spiritual but not doctrinal,
pluralistic and not exclusive, which offers tools for serving the
greater good but is not marred by intolerant theological judgments.

The only problem with “The Book of Mormon” (you realize when thinking
about it later) is that its theme is not quite true. Vague, uplifting,
nondoctrinal religiosity doesn’t actually last. The religions that grow,
succor and motivate people to perform heroic acts of service are
usually theologically rigorous, arduous in practice and definite in
their convictions about what is True and False.

That’s because people are not gods. No matter how special some
individuals may think they are, they don’t have the ability to
understand the world on their own, establish rules of good conduct on
their own, impose the highest standards of conduct on their own, or
avoid the temptations of laziness on their own.

The religions that thrive have exactly what “The Book of Mormon”
ridicules: communal theologies, doctrines and codes of conduct rooted in
claims of absolute truth.

Rigorous theology provides believers with a map of reality. These maps
may seem dry and schematic — most maps do compared with reality — but
they contain the accumulated wisdom of thousands of co-believers who
through the centuries have faced similar journeys and trials.

Rigorous theology allows believers to examine the world intellectually
as well as emotionally. Many people want to understand the eternal logic
of the universe, using reason and logic to wrestle with concrete
assertions and teachings.

Rigorous theology helps people avoid mindless conformity. Without
timeless rules, we all have a tendency to be swept up in the temper of
the moment. But tough-minded theologies are countercultural. They insist
on principles and practices that provide an antidote to mere fashion.

Rigorous theology delves into mysteries in ways that are beyond most of
us. For example, in her essay, “Creed or Chaos,” Dorothy Sayers argues
that Christianity’s advantage is that it gives value to evil and
suffering. Christianity asserts that “perfection is attained through the
active and positive effort to wrench real good out of a real evil.”
This is a complicated thought most of us could not come up with (let
alone unpack) outside of a rigorous theological tradition.

Rigorous codes of conduct allow people to build their character. Changes
in behavior change the mind, so small acts of ritual reinforce networks
in the brain. A Mormon denying herself coffee may seem like a silly
thing, but regular acts of discipline can lay the foundation for
extraordinary acts of self-control when it counts the most.

“The Book of Mormon” is not anti-religious. It just endorses a
no-sharp-edges view of religion that is all creative metaphors and no
harsh judgments. The Africans in the play embrace this kind of religion.
And in the context of a hilarious musical, that’s fine.

But it’s worth remembering that the religions that thrive in real-life
Africa are not as nice and naïve as the religion in the play. The
religions thriving in real-life Africa are often so doctrinaire and so
socially conservative that they would make Pat Robertson’s hair stand on
end.

I was once in an AIDS-ravaged village in southern Africa. The vague
humanism of the outside do-gooders didn’t do much to get people to alter
their risky behavior. The blunt theological talk of the church ladies —
right and wrong, salvation and damnation — seemed to have a better
effect.

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