Saturday, July 8, 2017

Sympathy for the pharisee

Dear Hannah,

I have a theory (and it happens to be the theory of the Catholic church) that Christendom would be different if people would just ask questions about the the Bible.  For centuries this had been the rationale for keeping the public from reading it.  The clergy took one look at the average man and then considered that nobody knew Latin or Hebrew or Greek and then hid the Bible in plain sight and that was the end of it.  The argument about the unintelligibility of the words was second to the argument about the imbecility of man.  And the imbecility of man it turns out was less threatening to the church than his genius.  That's why the Catholics have a catechism.

Everyone who reads Christian history knows, for instance, that the rise of Protestantism wasn't the rise of Protestantism, but the rise of a thousand tyrannical cults. We know this because the Protestants believed it themselves.  There was little unity except in opposition to the pope; and the Protestantism you practiced in England could be violently persecuted by the Protestants in Holland.   A change in location meant a change in doctrine; and a change in doctrine meant a change in laws.  A passage was read one way and you ended up with Switzerland.  A passage was read another way and instead you ended up with Germany.  Or maybe you could say Germany resulted in the reading of it one way, and Switzerland in the reading of it in another.  The constipation of Swiss cheese gave birth to Ulrich Zwingli.  The indigestion of sauerkraut gave birth to Martin Luther.

The diversity of our doctrines reminds me of the passage where the Pharisee brings his offering to the temple and thanks God he isn't like other men.  Robbers, evildoers, adulterers -- and then apparently thumb-pointing, in the middle of his prayer, at the person praying next to him -- or even like this tax collector.  For centuries we called the man a cad without asking what he was saying.  For him to be made great was for the other man to be made terrible.  Either way both of them were innocent.  His judgment on the matter would lead anyone of sense to not pass any judgment.  You either judge the Pharisee for thinking himself better than the other man or you laugh at him for being a Calvinist.  Most of us have taken the first route but it's just as easy to take him the second.

A total irresponsibility for your actions means that you aren't great.  It means (like Paul suggests in Romans 9) that in terms of character you're an accident.  It means that you could have been one way and something beyond you made you another, and if somebody else is worse than you then by golly it isn't his fault.  You may blame this (if you have to) on parents or country or wealth or on God, and in my opinion this excuses the Pharisee's pride entirely.  This is why the Catholics didn't want me to read the Bible.  It leads me to justify things they had been historically condemning.  Then I look around the world at all the women people marry; all the faces I never wanted to wake up to, all the attitude I might have had to put up with, all the terrible children I might have ended up breeding and all the messes I might have had to live in and all the arguments I might have had and all the cheating I might have had to do; and it's tempting, at that point, to laugh at the men who pick badly.  It's easy to say they have bad taste and have a little fun at their expense.  But when we consider the matter closely a lot of men get the women they're born for, and unless you have money you're probably going to get the woman your face deserves.  And so I wake up in the morning and I look at your mother, and I thank God like the Pharisee for making me handsome.

Your father,

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