In Praise of Tribalism

"If it does not please you to serve the LORD, decide today whom you will serve, the gods your fathers served beyond the River or the gods of the Amorites in whose country you are dwelling. As for me and my household, we will serve the LORD."

But the people answered, "Far be it from us to forsake the LORD for the service of other gods.

For it was the LORD, our God, who brought us and our fathers up out of the land of Egypt, out of a state of slavery. He performed those great miracles before our very eyes and protected us along our entire journey and among all the peoples through whom we passed.

At our approach the LORD drove out (all the peoples, including) the Amorites who dwelt in the land. Therefore we also will serve the LORD, for he is our God."

Joshua 24:15-18 (NAB translation)

Prior to beginning to write this blog, I was going through a bit of spiritual crisis with regard to Catholicism, which seems to happen with me periodically.  I was depressed by the sexual abuse scandal revelations in Europe, and the lack of response from bishops and the Vatican.  I had an incident at, of all places, a work-place retreat, where I was basically told that I had talked out of turn in expressing my frustrations publicly with the goings-on in Catholicism--that I needed to "defend the shield" in the face of "anti-Catholic forces" (including, presumably, my co-workers).  To the best of my knowledge, I have never been hired to do PR for the Catholic Church, and if I had, I would at least have an expectation that my opinions about the Church's PR strategy would be listened to, which manifestly they are not.

In any event, when all of this was happening, the natural question becomes "am I in the right place?"  Because, of course, it would make sense that I would feel uncomfortable and unstable if the solution is to go to the right place. To me, the only semi-serious alternatives are the Episcopal church and the Orthodox Church, and the Episcopal church is at best a only semi-serious possibility.  Perhaps the problem is Papism, as the more hardcore monks from Mount Athos would say (or perhaps it is the Filioque, which some Orthodox thinker has called, somewhat extravagantly, "the synthesis of all heresies.")

There is a core problem, however, with conversion, and it has to do with something I mentioned in my previous post.  Absent some kind of a burning bush experience, conversion involves weighing various options, balancing the pro and the con and coming to an answer that on some level fits best for you.  And that is everything I don't want out of religion--yet another expression of the Cult of You. 

All things being equal, it is better to stay where you are.  As the passage from Joshua quoted above mentions, by staying with your tribe, you are connected to a store of experiences and wisdom that you don't have to rush out and create for yourself.  Connection to the past is important, if ephemeral. 

Arturo Vasquez's recent post argues that there is no such thing as tradition anymore (or, by extension, tribe) since you can choose whether or not you associate yourself with that tradition.  Conceptually that's true, but I think there is a world of practical difference between picking a tribe and sticking with it (in all of its positive and negative elements) as compared to determining everything for yourself on the fly.  In the continuation of the passage Joshua warns the people that, once they declare for the Lord, they are stuck with all of it, including His rules.  To me, the decision to associate with a tradition should by like the social contract--in theory you can scrap it and start over, but in practice it forms the givens of your world such that you are bound to it.

There is a caveat to this no conversion stuff, and the caveat has to do with the search for the Truth.  The now-Father Justin is a convert to Orthodoxy.  Justin came to a place where he became convinced that his current place was untenable--he had to leave the Pentecostal church he grew up in, because he no longer believed it represented the Truth in any kind of serious way.  At that point, you have to leave in order to be authentic, and you have no choice but to try to figure out where you need to go.

But I think there is a massive divide between "I know this is not the Truth" and "I have doubts/concerns/issues about parts of this."  Doubts, concerns, and issues are part of the human experience on this side of Heaven.  If the presence of doubt means you must flee where you are, you will be forever chasing your tail.  The uncounted generations of my ancestors that were Catholic undoubtedly had doubts, concerns, and issues as well.

Ultimately, then, I would leave the Catholic Church only if I became affirmatively convinced that the Pope is not who he says he is, or that the Filioque really is the synthesis of all heresies.  Until then, I will stick with my tribe.


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