As I was having a tasty dimsum lunch with some friends from the office, one, John, mentioned that the TV news was so agonizingly irritating those days. At the time, it was the nonstop live coverage of the Pope John Paul II’s funeral. A few weeks back, it was the courtroom, press room, and bedside battling of the Terry Schiavo case. The first was dead and the second was just about. Couldn’t the world news move on?
At that point, James, one of my more sensitive companions, looked up and around, and mentioned that if there was something certain draw a bolt or three of vengeful lightning, it was the lack of sympathy around the table.
Two thousand people died on Nias island, near Sumatra, during the earthquake a week back, the day after Easter, John pointed out. Tens of thousands more were in dire straits, from that disaster and the one that hit the day after Christmas. That was where his sympathies lay.
This discussion didn’t go much further, though we all did agree that the news stories were unlikely to change in the coming week as well. There’s the papal election to look forward to.
What did go a bit further a day or two after was a discussion on our beliefs. Ash and I were in our work area as John dropped by, and the subject of religion came up.
John, an Englishman who also grew up some years in America, Australia, Belgium, and Canada, described himself as agnostic. He didn’t reject any belief or religion, correctly pointing out that atheists have to believe in religion first before disavowing it. He just hasn’t answered for himself the question of the existence an all-encompassing benign force.
I said that for myself, I chose to believe that that force does exist, that it makes sense for me for that force to exist.
Ash, an American of Egyptian descent, and a Muslim, was not always comfortable discussing religion. As the saying goes, you’re sure to offend someone.
I myself find it fascinating and enriching, especially with those not of my background, nationality, or belief.
John added that if there was one religion he does find attractive, it is Buddhism. He admires the simplicity and individuality of the concept of oneness, of accepting your place within the myriad facets of the universe and seeking balance and perfection. He went on and said that he never found Christianity as he knew it to be at all attractive. The churches he grew up with as a child all seemed so dark, cold, imposing, and uncomforting.
A church in Bergen, Norway
This was not the first such description I’ve had of the typical European churches. I have a friend who spent some time in Bergen, Norway. His words and images of plain stone, black iron, and ravens in the graveyard hardly overflow with warmth.
One of the temples in Ayuthaya, Thailand
I can compare those to the monuments to Buddha I’ve seen in Ayuthaya, Thailand. The vision of graceful structures reaching for the heavens, at once so solidly rooted to the ground while part of the sky, is for me a complete architectural expression of spirituality, devotion, and life. Ayuthaya was once a city filled with such monuments. I can only imagine those others I still hope to see, Borubodur in Indonesia and Ankor Wat in Cambodia.
I do hope to see the Vatican someday too, of course.
And that brings us to the second point. The Roman Catholic institution is quite singular among the major religions of the world today, in terms of history, scope, and structure. This is taken as a matter of course in the Philippines, where the presence and influence of the Roman Catholic Church abounds.
The country has no legal divorce, and is said to be one of only two such countries in the world. Men and women may put marriage asunder in other places, but not in the Philippines. And that was an ideal upheld by most of the people, an ideal natural and just. I myself may not completely agree, but it was something that was certainly willing to live with.
To people of other countries that I’ve talked to, that a marriage contract cannot be dissolved is a thing almost alien and unimaginable. The way it was described to me, a marital relationship is nurtured and sustained alongside the ever-present option that it may be ended.
That this particular subject can be so absorbing simply stresses the reality that with their overarching presence, Christian institutions, Roman Catholicism foremost among them, can easily seem so distant from Christian ideals. A recent example is the distance between the finely-attired princes of the church gathered in Vatican City and the desperate, huddled survivors on Nias, Indonesia. This problem isn’t limited to Christianity, of course, as the current reputation of Islam in the non-Islamic parts of the world can attest.
With the potential disparity between an institution’s interpretations of an ideal from an individual’s, I can understand why a person would choose a faith that gives more emphasis to the individual. Faith, after all, does begin there. I met a Swede who did convert to Buddhism. I have friends who have opted to leave Roman Catholicism for Protestantism.
There are also those who had never really considered themselves as part of any religious institution and up till the present have not chosen any particular faith at all. Instead, like John and a few others I’ve met, profess to believe in and abide by a set of values.
I do call myself a Roman Catholic, though I admittedly do not believe in or perform all the required doctrines and rituals. And though I do have my own personal disagreements with certain things in the Roman Catholic institution, I don’t feel any need to give up believing in it, either for a more straightforward form of Christianity, another religion, or for a set of simple values.
This may seem to be a fairly naïve belief, considering that, like many people from the Philippines, I was born into this institution. I was raised and schooled on it and in it. I’d like to think that now, after discussing this with others with different beliefs, that I have some awareness of the available options. I know I can just take the institution and all it entails as a gift, or I can opt to trade it in for something simpler, or something else entirely.
I already do agree with the basic values that the Roman Catholic institution is founded upon. I think they’re fairly close to the values professed by my friends with a different or even no particular religion.
While I do appreciate the comparatively simpler nature of other faiths, I choose to see the Roman Catholic institution as more than a gift. I see it as a true treasure steeped with history, philosophy, literature, and, at least according to the type of Catholicism I was instructed and believe in, free will.
Of course, the institution, throughout its history, was not always represented ideally, intelligently, or even morally. The Protestant Reformation did start form the excesses and abuses of the Catholic Church. In the Philippines, a recent example was when a Catholic bishop named the accidental death of thirty-odd children as God’s punishment for government-sponsored family planning education. That particular pronouncement would not have been called enlightened even in the time of the Reformation.
Ideals interpreted through human limitations unfortunately won’t always be ideal. But through its history, the Catholic Church has itself reformed, grown, adjusted, and accommodate. The ideals can shine through. At its best, the institution itself can be a breathtaking and brilliant monument.