Who’s Got the Keys?

Having grown up Protestant, I assumed that was normal. Adults, who have the benefit of years of negotiating with other adults in ways that may seem unsavory to children, have the definite advantage here. Children believe what their parents tell them, and should the matter come down to eternal life or everlasting damnation, you sure want them to have your back. Sunday’s New Jersey Star-Ledger has a perspective piece by Tom Moran, whose parents raised him Catholic. Catholics and Protestants are Christians divided by a common religion. As I have studied the teachings of each over the years, it has sometimes felt impossible to fit the two together in any meaningful way. They both think Jesus is cool, but beyond that, the disagreements almost immediately begin. Moran notes that in the US fewer than one in four adults identifies as Catholic although one in three was raised in that tradition. His article goes on to outline how Catholicism has frequently aligned itself with law at the sacrifice of compassion. Sounds like religion to me.

Religionists place great, perhaps even eternal, stock in being right. The Catholic Church has traditionally considered itself expert in issues of reproduction, a conceit that is only more bold when it is regulated by celibate men. And the source can’t really be the Bible since there are plenty of places where the good book is a little naughty. The biblical understanding of reproduction was a conclusively unscientific postulate. When microscopes, not telescopes, revealed what was going on at the microscopic level, theology should’ve blushed and excused itself from the room. Instead, the church proclaimed that it knew better than any bespectacled intellectual; after all, unwavering tradition must count for something. This bears the imprint of a system with little left but theological bluster. And it’s losing its thinking members.

Moran interviewed Newark Archbishop John Myers, a man concerned with the sanctity of marriage and who has a questionable record of reporting abuses, for his story. As Moran pointed out, Myers has not been the outspoken advocate of the poor, but he does back the candidate with sacred underwear. I’m not sure when the last time was that the good Archbishop took a drive around Newark. It is hardly a little piece of heaven on earth. Even waiting for a train in the station can fill a customer with a sense of despair. God’s will, apparently, is somewhat more narrowly focused on what consenting adults do behind closed doors. The level of disjunction is enough to throw the Popemobile out of alignment. Of course, I write all this from the sidelines. I was raised Protestant, and no matter what the Mormons or the Catholics say, I was taught from my youngest years that they’re just plain wrong.

Those are some big keys…

Five Century Hypothesis

More than likely it is simply an oddity of history, but roughly every five hundred years a new major religion appears.  The newcomers sometimes grow into a serious concern for conservatives in the older traditions, but at other times they are simply ignored until the two (or more) come into inevitable contact.  Peering far back into history, the roots of the earliest religions of lasting durability are sometimes lost.  For a very rough starting point, we can consider Hinduism.  With roots going back to about 1500 BCE in the “Pre-Classical” era of the religion, Hinduism developed independently of the monotheistic traditions that would appear in the western half of Asia.  Although some would credit Judaism with equal (or even greater) antiquity, we get an idea that some of the basic thought that would coalesce into Judaism seems to have, very roughly, begun around 1000 BCE.  About five centuries later, Buddhism appeared.  At the turn of the era, Christianity had emerged from Judaism.  About five centuries later, Islam appeared.  Countless other religions, of course, existed concurrently with these early exemplars, but each of these has grown into a major world religion. 

Around about 1000 of the Common Era, Christianity began to fragment.  The first major, official split was between Orthodoxy and Catholicism. Christianity’s penchant for fragmentation would eventually lead to Protestantism—a religious form quite distinct in many ways from traditional Christianity—and that happened roughly five centuries later.  The most obvious split took place around 1500 with the Reformation, but it was also around that time that Sikhism appeared.  The new religions of the common era often involve irreconcilable differences within an established religion. In the western world we tend to overlook Sikhism, but in sheer numbers it is one of the largest religious traditions. And of course, there are many, many others.

As with any over-simplified scheme that tries to make sense of history, I am certain that no historian will be convinced. To me it seems obvious. Once every five centuries or so, some new religion will be born and will flourish. Perhaps it is already among us. We are about due. Like the evolution of new species, some new religions are poorly adapted to survival: one thinks of Branch Davidians or Heaven’s Gate, or Jonestown. Others, however, quietly thrive until someone looks around and says, “Where did Mormonism come from anyway?” Some will argue that it is just another sect of Christianity. Those who study its theology will realize that its conceptual world is vastly different. But anyone with a long enough calendar can see that it began about five centuries after Sikhism and the Protestant Reformation occurred. And anyone with two cents can sense its enormous bankroll—no surer sign of a religion’s viability can be offered.