Thursday, February 28, 2008

Cui Bono/Who Benefits?

I’m always looking for some foolproof way to analyze theological issues. Most people focus on the dichotomy “True or False:”

The world was created in six days. True or False?
Jesus is the only begotten Son of God. True or False?
A dog has Buddha nature. True or False? (Or “Mu” for you Buddhists out there.)

Assessing theological claims in this way is useless. You either end up with the vapid and vacuous, “Well it may be true for you, but it isn’t true for me;” or with the equally unhelpful and silly, “All beliefs are equally valid.”

If truth is relative to the believer, and all beliefs are equally true because they are equally unverifiable, then truth is just opinion backed by passion and, maybe, bombs and bullets.

I would like something a bit more useful than this, and I may have found it in the Latin phrase “cui bono,” who benefits. Rather than asking if a claim is true or false, ask who benefits from promoting it and believing in it. For example:

The Jews are the Chosen People. Cui bono? The Jews.
Only Born Again Christians go to heaven. Cui bono? Born again Christians.
The Qur’an is the only uncorrupted revelation from God. Cui bono? Muslims.

But so what? Just because some one or some group benefits from a particular theological claim doesn’t make the claim false. Fair enough, but neither does it make it true. True and false are irrelevant if you take the CUI BONO approach to theology.

My thinking is this: Jews are never going to say that the Senegalese people are God’s Chosen; Evangelical Christians are never going to say that Muslims can get into heaven; and Muslims are never going to say the Gospels are the uncorrupted word of God. In other words, all theological claims are self-serving, and than makes them suspect.

If a theology serves the theologian, then it is nothing more than apologetics or propaganda. I am not impressed when a political candidate tells me her plan is the best plan; what else would she say? I am impressed when she can show me what is right and valuable in the other person’s plan, and how she can take those good ideas and build on them to create something even better. This doesn’t happen in politics, and it certainly doesn’t happen in religion. Why? Because religion and politics are winner-takes-all games. There is no room for real cooperation.

So if you ever hear a claim that benefits more than the claimant, (the teachings of Krishnamurti, for example, or Ramana Maharshi) then you may have heard something of value. Until then, stay skeptical, and keep asking, CUI BONO?


Patrick said...

Thank you, Rabbi. You are a true joy to read. Many of your posts have me thinking in the shower rather than singing. And I love to sing. God bless.

Jeff said...

Simply outstanding. Thank you!

Jack J Ratajski said...

My thoughts are quite similiar.

I grew up with nuns, so you can denote what a teological debate ethics class became, when an octogenarian penguin would try to convince an agnostic, like myself, of the ethical superiority of christian moral for the scarce reason of being christian.

Theological relativism...cui bono?