Monday, February 09, 2009

Religion and Truth

Rod Dreher, author of Crunchy Cons, wrote a very moving and, to me, troubling essay in today's USA TODAY. The basic idea is that too much truth when it comes to religion is a bad thing.

At issue is Rod’s journalistic examination of the sex abuse scandals that rocked the Catholic Church. It drove him out of Catholicism and into Eastern Orthodoxy. “After I left Rome,” Rod writes, “I made a deliberate decision not to investigate scandal in the Orthodox Church of American (OCA), my new communion.” To his credit Rod says the decision bothered him, but he needed a safe haven and would have one even at the cost of truth.

This is what I found so troubling. If the only way I can remain loyal to a community is by turning a blind eye to evil and falsehood, then I cannot help but question my need for that community.

I assume that power corrupts, and absolute religious power corrupts not only absolutely but existentially. So I steer clear of any religious institution that demands such power for itself. I want a religion that frees me from slavery not one that enslaves me. If the institution is corrupt it is also corrupting, so why would I want to belong to it? Why would I endanger my family by belonging to it?

Rod argues that while it might seem a good thing that the Catholic sex scandal was brought to light, “it’s not such a clear-cut issue.” He fears that by shining light on religion we lose the magic. Just so! Magic isn’t real. When a magician tries to con you into believing what he is doing isn’t simply entertainment but revelation demanding absolute loyalty, it is vital that light be shined on the scam.

But not all religions are like this. True, as Rod says, no institution is perfect nor should we expect it to be, but the more transparent an institution is the less damage it can do. And I am not limiting my concern to religious institutions as Rod does in his fine essay. I think all religious teachings can benefit from daylight: historical and scholarly exploration. If religion is sleight-of-hand and only viable in the half-light of half-truths then I want nothing to do with it.

Rod asks a very important question, “How much reality must we choose to ignore for the greater good of our own souls, and society?” My answer is simple: none. If my religion cannot stand up to reality, who needs it? If my faith doesn’t help me engage reality but rather demands that I ignore reality, who needs it? A religion that ignores reality is just escapist fantasy, no different than watching TV or reading a good novel. And, as many atheists will insist, that is what religion is. But I think there are exceptions.

While I do not believe it is possible to package the truth, I do believe it is possible to point us toward it. That is what religion should do, both theologically and institutionally. If a religion has to lie in order to survive, it is time for that religion to die.


Jordan said...

Shalom Rav,

Thanks for this post. You wrote the following
just a week ago:

"If anyone thinks I have any credibility, please think again. Just to safe, think one more time. I have no credibility. I want no credibility. I need no credibility. I am trying to be funny. I am constantly inventing the facts, and putting words in people's mouths. I make it clear I am doing this so as to let you know where the kernel of fact is in my posts. If once in a while I make a good point it is, more often then not, an accident."

I'll (perhaps naively) choose to believe that you wrote the current post not because you were "trying to be funny," and that you neither want nor need credibility rings hollow to me. But of course, I could be wrong.

Perhaps for clarity for pinheads like me maybe a disclaimer eg., "just trying to be funny," or "I'm trying to be serious here," before each post would be helpful.

But seriously folks, my patience was rewarded (as it has been in the past), and I thank you for not "trying to be funny," on this one. "Trying to be funny," not so ironically too often sounds frustrated
bordering on angry.


AaronHerschel said...

"A religion that ignores reality is just escapist fantasy, no different than watching TV or reading a good novel."

Sigh. You know you don't mean this. No art, televisual or literary, can fairly be described as escapist fantasy. Art, if it's any "good" at all, ignites the imagination to illuminate reality. Which is perhaps what religion does as well.

And with that in mind, I think Jordan is on to something here. Writers, even satirists, are bound by truth. But not, I think, by fact. The credibility of a caricature, for example, does not lie in its realism, but in its outrageous, exaggerated abstraction. Which leaves artists, and audiences, with a strange problem: how can we know which unreal visions are true? Which dreams have passed through the Gate of Ivory, and which through the Gates of Horn? And, as Borges asked, which gate is which?

Karen said...

Truth is a much broader brush stroke than fact. And, if people had a "true" personal relationship with God -- not one born out of a weekly religious meeting or literal interpretation of biblical/spiritual texts, but one born out of personal observation, meditation, prayer, intuition, and deeper examination of biblical/spiritual texts -- they would know the truth for themselves. And they need to be open to the possibility that their truth may look completely different than the truth constantly fed to us through mainstream religions, media, etc.

dtedac said...

Dear Rabbi Rami:

I read your latest blog entry about the Crunchy Con article and I wanted to discuss it a bit if I can.

As are most Catholics, I'm disturbed and disgusted by the repeated sexual abuse stories. The power and the glory, if you will, has gone to too many heads and has corrupted many in the church hierarchy. I can understand Rod Dreher and his exit from Rome. I sympathize. His willingness to ignore problems in the OCA for whatever reason is understandable too, but I've been there and it's better to be realistic about things than to be side-swiped by abuse of power. I just hope he doesn't get whalloped by an Orthodox scandal.

I call myself an "open" Catholic, willing to leave open the doors that the hierarchy closes. I would truly prefer a church with no clericalism, no triumphalism and no super-legalism. These "isms" have done more damage to more people than anything else. My dream may come true some day, one way or another, but I am not holding my breath.

I remain in the Church because for every revelation of abuse of sexuality or power, I see individual lay persons, nuns, brothers or priests who do good and really do love God and their neighbor. I also take some enjoyment in seeing some members of the clergy rail against their fellow members who are guilty of abuse. Hey, there are even some bishops who are humble and have their head on straight (there aren't as many now after JP2 put in conservative yes men, however.)

For every abusive priest like Fr. Maciel of the Legionaries of Christ, you have a Fr. Keating or Basil Pennington who help thousands to meditate. For every Pius IX or Pius XII who abuse power, you have some humble popes like John XXIII or John Paul 1 (an underrated Pope with too little time who said that God is Father but above all Mother).

Well, you get the idea. Those people are the ones I look to for guidance and spiritual meaning, not our current leader B16. I will admit it: I find Catholic faith community that helps me grow and provides community for me, that has priests who are real people and not demi-gods, and I ignore our hierarchy for the most part. Am I a bad and selfish Catholic? No, I don't think so, because I use my brain and I know that true Catholic spirituality is expressed in so many more ways than the current BS legalism.

I say all of this as an explanation for why I am still in the Church. If I had no hope that anyone in the church was worth listening to, if I had no hope that there are voices of truth in the church, I would go too. You said in an earlier e-mail to me that you're glad I didn't abandon my faith because there was a lot of spiritual good there. I may abandon faith in the church hierarchy, but I will stick with the essence of the faith and with a community that makes sense to me. God bless you.

David Costa

Patti said...

Open question:
Are truth and reality the same?

AaronHerschel said...


Perhaps "reality" is what we mean by "truth:" which is why, in a mental universe structured by language, which is artifice, we always end up building metaphors. This, anyway, is how I read the Babel story. Reality topples metaphor, mocking even our best attempts to tether truth to words.

Maggid Jim said...

There is a major difference between truth and fact. Science addresses fact; religion addresses truth. The two are not competitive but complementary methods for understanding and predicting our world.

I just wrote an exposition on this matter, which can be found at

Kol tuv!

Jordan said...

Shalom All,

Aaron Herschel asked: "how can we know which unreal visions are true? Which dreams have passed through the Gate of Ivory, and which through the Gates of Horn? And, as Borges asked, which gate is which?"

By having an "anchor at infinity," (or something akin this as I don't recall the exact quote), as Mr. Camus once wrote. "The rest is commentary," as Hillel wrote, Now we all must go and study (a Hillel paraphrase), to which I'll add and then do something with what we learn.


AaronHerschel said...


I'm fascinated by Camus, though I've only read the Myth of Sisyphus. In the interest of commentary, how would you interpret the "anchor at infinity?"

Jordan said...

Shalom Aaron Herschel,

The "Anchor at infinity" is that place from which all encompassing Reality and Meaning flow. This ought not be confused with egocentric, and limited human perceptions and opinions, which of course are included in Reality and Meaning.

Vague to be sure maybe even "new agey", but the best I can do "on one foot!"


Peter M. Schogol said...

I was present when a certain UU minister of national note was found dating a parishioner of the opposite sex while the minister was still married. This caused a parish-wide scandal resulting in a vote of confidence eventually supporting said minister. The spouse slinked away (slunk?) and the matter disappeared from the annals of UU lore.

It appears that sex scandals are not limited to religions that emphasize magic over rationality. Of course, one errant UU minister isn't equivalent to diocese-wide pederasty, but covering up, papering over, or excusing sexual misconduct however extensive is -- to my mind -- inexcusable.

AaronHerschel said...


I've been thinking about the anchor at infinity, and I wonder if there's a danger there of mistaking the anchor for the space it occupies.