Sunday 19 January 2014

Death, Dogma and The Nazis

On Christmas Day 2011 at about six o’clock in the evening, my mother and I held my unconscious father as he took his last breaths. He passed away after a week of lying unfed and unconscious. He was 84. I had never seen anyone die in front of me before, let alone someone in my arms, let alone my own father. It was a life-changing moment and in that moment, I had an epiphany.


For the entirety of his life, my father remained a committed Catholic. When people in their droves abandoned the church in the 1970s and 80s, my father hung in there and persisted in his attendance at Mass and his observance of the various Catholic rituals that pepper the liturgical year. Against the current of the time, he continued in his faith according to its Catholic traditions despite his four sons and many of his friends abandoning church allegiance and a Catholic worldview. Yet he continued to assist his local parish in their accounting procedures and to be a regular reader of the lesson at Mass. He prayed, he participated in the Eucharist, he worshipped weekly, he enacted his faith to the best of his ability over the course of his life.

I held my father's hand
Yet at his death, there was no observable sign of the church nor any observable symbols of religion. There was no priest, there were no nuns, no religious, no praying, no singing, no hymns, no rosaries, no incense, no Bible, no ostensible sign of the church at all. There was just my mother and me. His wife and companion of 63 years, and his third son, a gay man and his partner, another gay man who held his feet at the foot of the bed. To any objective observer or passer-by, there was no sign of religion in that room. No-one could have looked in and mistaken what was happening for any kind of religious ritual or ceremony. Further, all the beliefs about religious or faith issues were not present, neither in my father nor in me. Not a single church rule or rubric, not a single Biblical debate entered my mind. 

But there was love in that room. Love held him tight. Love caressed him. Love’s tears fell upon him. Love was spoken. Love let him go to end his suffering. If love was light, then the room would have been suffused in a beautiful gentle sunset light. Powerful, deep, profound love that enveloped him and us.

During my over 30 years as a Christian, I have heard every conceivable debate over what’s right and what’s wrong, what is correct thinking and what is not, what is truth and what is heresy, what is acceptable behaviour and what is unacceptable so that now, in my 54th year, and with the memory of that room and that moment seared into my mind forever, I have come to a very different conclusion about so-called orthodoxy and doctrine, what the Christian life is, and more generally, what life is all about. For, when it comes down to it, we all leave this world inevitably, sometimes peacefully and beautifully, but as often as not, painfully, messily and in an undignified manner. What matters at that moment is all important.

What matters at that moment is not what your beliefs are but your life. What matters is whether you’ve lived and loved and grown. And it’s the same for everybody, Christian and non-Christian alike. Have you lived, loved and grown?


In the Christian world, we have centralised beliefs to the place of apex. And we have done so to the detriment of understanding our humanity. If incarnational Christianity means anything at all, then it focuses on our humanity, what it means to be human, and how this messy and often difficult life all hangs together. What doesn’t matter is a set of precepts that I might have adhered to, some set of beliefs about God, the cosmos, humanity and the church, or God forbid, church governance. Let me spell this out because it links directly to the nub of why I am writing this post.

At my father’s passing, it didn’t matter which side he came down on in his attitudes to:
  •         Infant baptism vs believer’s baptism
  •         Reformation models of Scripture Alone vs Catholic models of Church Tradition as handed down by the teaching Magisterium
  •          Biblical inerrancy vs the presence of Biblical inconsistency
  •          Whether he had had the Sacrament of Reconciliation (Confession)
  •          Whether he had had the sacrament of Confirmation
  •          Whether the Gifts of the Holy Spirit ended in New Testament times vs they are available today
  •          Whether miracles happen today
  •          Whether sex before marriage is a sinful act vs it can be explained in today’s world via modern mechanisms of thought
  •          Whether the Eucharist is best modelled by transubstantiation vs consubstantiation vs it is symbolic/emblematic
  •          Whether the Bible is the Word of God vs it is the Word about God
  •          Whether women should be allowed to be priests vs they should not be allowed to speak in church at all
  •          Whether Jesus is God vs whether he was a God-filled man
  •          Whether God intervenes in this world supernaturally vs we are alone to make of this world what we can with God's grace
  •          Whether suffering is a result of ‘the fall’ vs it is part of the human condition and always would have been
  •          Whether God’s salvific creative act is for everyone and all creation vs it is only for those who say a special prayer to activate it in their lives otherwise they’re not in
  •          Whether Jesus died on the cross for our sins vs he died because of our sins
  •          Whether Jesus physically rose from the grave as a re-animated formerly dead human being vs he was some kind of spirit vs the whole thing was a story to assist in understanding the nature of Jesus as Christ
  •          Whether in a proposed afterlife, we keep our consciousness vs we lose it
  •          Whether heaven or hell exists
  •          Whether Christians can be oppressed by a demon
  •          Whether demons or devils exist


For over thirty years, I have heard various groups within the church all argue these and a hundred other issues out as though they are the crux of what it means to be human and Christian. And each is convinced that they have the truth of it and that others are in error. The truth or error of a particular belief has become the most import thing. It is as though humanity has been high-jacked by the orthodoxy police so that you have to believe certain ‘facts’ before you can be counted as a true Christian. And of course the ones who do the counting are the same ones who set the rules as to which precepts you have to believe.

As I looked at my father’s closed eyes and watched him draw his last four breaths, I had an epiphany. 

None of this stuff matters. 

We waste our lives and our energies and our thoughts and our behaviour on all this. We squander our precious time on all this religious fluff as though this is what God wakes up and thinks about every morning. Yes, it might be interesting academically. But even there, I think there are far more important things we Christians need to be concerning ourselves with regarding the centrality of our faith. But our transposal of the important stuff that Jesus was actually into over to the side, to the periphery, and putting in its place all this doctrine and dogma as though these are the central questions is I think to miss the point entirely.

Look at Jesus. He lived his entire public life breaking social and religious rules and conventions. He actually taught against having this kind of spirituality. He couldn’t be bothered with it at all. His words, recounted in the Gospel of Matthew where he is taking apart the Pharisees, echo down through the ages to today. “Blind guides! You strain your water so you won’t accidentally swallow a gnat, but you swallow a camel! (23: 24).” These words are powerful, pointed, unswerving and non-negotiable. He isn’t remotely interested in religious fastidiousness as a way of life and repudiates such religion as being blind and selfish and part of a spirituality that he deems bankrupt and illegitimate. He rejects any idea that the Realm of God is made up of one set of orthodox precepts that you have to believe or you’re not in. When the Pharisees, the religious show-ponies and pedants of his social sphere, asked him a trick question to see if he had ‘the right answer’ about the greatest commandment, he answered with love at the centre of the response, not some belief or religious precept or ritual. "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the great and foremost commandment. The second is like it, 'You shall love your neighbour as yourself” (Matt. 22: 37-38).

What my father’s death gave me was a profound moment in time where I could put just a few pieces of life’s puzzle together to make some sense of it all. It is that our lives are what counts – whether we have lived, loved and grown, not whether we have recited a sinners’ prayer or gone to Mass or attended synagogue or mosque or believed certain principles. It is our lives. God loves us whether we make his presence conscious in our lives or not. There is nothing that can change that. For those of us who do choose to make God’s presence conscious in our lives, then the whole thing can be summarised as our relationship with God and our relationship with each other. The prophet Micah put it this way, very much on the Jesus side of things. In answering the question: ‘what DOES the Lord require of us as human beings?’ His answer is as simple as it is timeless and beautiful. ‘To do justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God’ (6: 8). That’s it. 

Be just and honest in your dealings with your fellow human beings, love mercy and compassion and look after your neighbour, and love God and be conscious of his Spirit in your life and in the lives of all those around you. How stunningly beautiful. Gamaliel, the famous rabbi who was Jesus’ contemporary answered the same question that Jesus was asked and he gave the same answer, after which he said, “and the rest is commentary”. If you read the Gospels, you will see for yourself that Jesus spells this out time and time again in virtually every teaching and example of his life.

Stanford Prison Experiment
Unswerving commitment to dogma, doctrine and ‘our view of orthodoxy’ has gotten the church and the world into all sorts of difficulties and has impoverished it to its roots. The church has so often completely missed the boat by making central the things that Jesus considered the most unimportant. Where humanity is forgotten, the value and dignity of every person, individuals and groups are depersonalised and violence ensues. Stanley Milgram’s electrification experiment and Philip Zimbardo’s Stanford Prison Experiment both stand testament to the atrocities that good human beings can commit when following orthodox belief blindly and unquestioningly. It explains the My Lai massacre. It explains the Abu Ghraib torture. It explains religious terrorism across the centuries and in our own day.

Unswerving commitment to dogma in the hands of the Christian church saw the Catholic Church in 1415 burn John Hus at the stake over his dissent from understanding the church itself and the Eucharist. Countless thousands died at the hands of the Church which believed it was doing God’s will according to its understanding.

And the Reformers were not blameless either. In 1541, perhaps the most famous reformer of them all next to Luther, John Calvin, returned to Geneva and set up a harsh and austere theocracy that brooked no dissent. He co-opted the secular authorities and interfered in the private lives of Geneva’s citizens according to his own understanding of things. And Calvin was no merry-man life of the party kind of guy. He ruthlessly quashed anything remotely joyous and any semblance of gaiety as being hindrances to the work of God. His inability to discuss issues in what we would term a collegial and civil manner saw him in 1553 acquiesce to having Michael Servetus burned at the stake over what looks like a theological rivalry turned murderous. 

 Abu Ghraib Prison Iraq
Make no mistake, blind, unquestioning, unswerving commitment to dogma, whether religious or political, typically becomes aggressive and violent. And it does not have to be physical violence alone that counts as violence. Examples of psychological and emotional violence perpetrated upon people by Christian dogmatic loyalists are numberless. People have been screwed over by dogmatists for centuries with immeasurable turmoil created in lives. Churches still hurt people today; regularly.

Gay people have particularly been at the receiving end of ‘orthodox’ belief about human sexuality and certain Bible verses and Biblical interpretation. As a result, we have been pilloried and persecuted by the church and by societies for centuries. 

Doctrine and dogma will have us as:
  •         Intrinsically disordered
  •         Inclined to moral evil
  •         An abomination
  •         Sinners
  •         Perverts
  •         Degraded
  •         Shameful
  •         Weak-minded
  •         Sick
  •         Deviant
  •         Psycho-pathological

Nigerian president President Goodluck Jonathon
Photograph Matt Dunham/AP The Guardian
I write this blog-post because I see dogma again today turning aggressive and violent. India has recriminalised homosexuality. Russia goes on an aggressive and often vigilante-driven hate of gay people under the embarrassing ignorance of not propagandising children. And Africa has gone further. There are deaths. Nigeria passes a law that sees gay relationships and memberships of clubs or organisations punishable by ten years imprisonment and fourteen years for a marriage. The President, Goodluck Jonathon’s spokesperson, said, “This is a law that is in line with the people's cultural and religious inclination. So it is a law that is a reflection of the beliefs and orientation of Nigerian people … Nigerians are pleased with it." 

Roger Jean-Claude Mbede from Cameroon was arrested and imprisoned for three years for sending the text message: "I am very much in love with you" to another man. He was permitted to go to hospital for treatment on a hernia recently but his family removed him from the hospital one month ago saying that he was "a curse for them" and that authorities should let him die. Roger died on or around 10th January 2014.

Political masters using Christianity to deny human rights is an abomination and is an indictment on the church itself for being so ambiguous as to let these men say what they say and behave as they do in Christ's name. Their forebears in South Africa used dogma and doctrine and the Bible to pronounce that apartheid was good and fitting and God’s natural way. The American slavers and those who benefited from their actions likewise used dogma and doctrine and the Bible to enslave tens of thousands of people and to pronounce that it too was good and right and fitting and God’s natural way.

As a Christian, I am no saint. I have all sorts of questions that do not have ready answers. There are things about the Christian life that do not make sense to me. There are elements of orthodoxy from both my Catholic and evangelical roots that I no longer believe. I do have a faith albeit a very human faith. It is honest and enquiring. Doubt is part of it. I do not understand God. I don't think anyone does or can. There are those out there who value orthodoxy above all else who would deem me a heretic. It wouldn’t be the first time I have been called one, as some very loving Christians ascribed that epithet to me when I came out as a gay man. But, it doesn't matter. I am not using the same model as they use. We look though different prisms now. From our records of him, I know what Jesus was like and that he rejected the domination systems of this world where the more powerful lord it over the weaker, that he loved compassion and that he gave what is probably the greatest teaching on treating our fellow human beings that has ever existed. I also know what kind of spirituality he didn’t like. He made it quite plain. And I know that he spoke of God as a relational God whose nature is love. That is enough for me. The rest, to channel Gamaliel, is commentary, and I don’t think it matters.

When my father died in that moment, it was his life that counted, not his set of religious or political beliefs. At that moment, all that fell away. I believe that it will be the same for me and for you too.

The Nazis

There is a light-hearted meme that says the first person to mention the Nazis in a disagreement or argument loses the battle. It is based on the notion that since the Nazis were so extreme, so cruel and calculated as to be inhuman, no modern day comparison can be legitimate. The problem with that scenario is that it exculpates us from similar monstrous behaviour were we to be put into similar conditions as those of the German soldiers of the Third Reich. If you don’t believe me, Google the two experiments I touched on above. We like to think of the Nazis as being beneath human. Not us. But the Nazis were very human. They were not only not beyond what humans are capable of when belief goes awry and dogma is made king, but they enacted their barbarism through very human thinking, logic, emotion and behaviour. Yes, there was tribalism of the worst kind, a nationalistic fervour that saw the Aryan race as superior to all others but it was this unshakeable belief in this precept that was the driving force behind the Final Solution with all of its violence, dehumanisation and cruelty. 

I end this blog-post which is essentially a warning against a top-down spiritual orthodoxy based on unalterable doctrine and dogma with a clip from Professor Jacob Bronowski. This scientist and polymath intellectual of the twentieth century made a thirteen-part documentary that was first aired in 1973. It was called ‘The Ascent of Man’ and with long unscripted ‘talking head’ sequences but wonderful location shots, it was not expected to do all that well. However, it was ranked 63rd in the top 100 television shows ever made.

In one of the final parts of The Ascent of Man, Professor Bronowski visits Auschwitz where he had lost members of his family. He agreed to go there provided that there would be one camera, one take and one scene with him. He ended up by a pond where the remains of people’s ashes had been pumped; and very likely, those of some of his family members. As he stood there, his daughter tells, his prized crocodile shoes began to sink into the mud surrounding the pond and get covered in water, so Bronowski simply walked out into the pond and standing in the water, gave what is one of the great speeches, and all the more for its unscripted nature, against the violence that is always inherent in dogma and orthodoxy and the need for humanity to continue to keep questioning, to keep searching through science and an enquiring mind. It is very powerful. The words spoken as they are in that particular pond by this particular man should have us wary and skeptical about dogma forever.

So, if you’re going to be a person of faith, any faith, then please, act justly, love mercy and compassion and above all, walk HUMBLY with your God.

 Professor Jacob Bronowski in Auschwitz 
 The Ascent of Man

Pax et Amor - Stuart   

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