We All Might Be Wrong
Despite the fact that this is my third post in a week about the Synod on the Family, I find that I am not all that engaged in what is going on in Rome. I don't really care one way or the other. Part of that is that I am skeptical anything of substance coming out of this Synod, but my ennui is much deeper than that. It's taken me a while to figure out what has been turning me off to the Synod, but I think I have figured it out. And, like all good insights, it came to me in an unexpected place--listening to the radio driving home yesterday.
When I get bored with the stations on my satellite radio in the car, I often find myself turning to EWTN radio. It's kind of like picking at a scab--I know I shouldn't do it, but I can't help myself. Anyway, the topic was pornography, and they had a bishop on talking about some document he had recently written about the topic. I am sure this will come as no surprise, but the bishop took the position that pornography viewing is a crisis, that it is addictive, that it will destroy your life, etc. At the end of his talk, he said (and I am paraphrasing here) "people who watch pornography need to understand they will appear before God some day. How will you look Him in the face if you have seen porn?"
Now, I happen to think this point of view regarding pornography is insane. While God may care how certain types of porn are made and what content is in certain porn (abuse, exploitation, denigration of women, etc.), I firmly believe that God doesn't care that we occasionally look at pictures of people having sex. And, other than evidence regarding young children being exposed to sexual material, I am aware of no legitimate medical or scientific evidence that pornography is inherently dangerous. Frankly, I resent the fact that I spent a significant portion of my life worried and ashamed of looking at porn, worry and shame that was a result of attitudes like that of the bishop. I believe it was, on every level, a waste of my time and mental energy, and I would have been happier without these complexes.
But, you know what? Maybe I'm wrong. Maybe God has a big problem with viewing pornography. Maybe God will recoil from me due to the fact that I have looked at other folks having sex. There are things I can say ("if You didn't want us to look at it, why did You make it so interesting and weird?"), but maybe I'm totally screwed. I accept that this is a possibility, because I am under no illusions that I know the mind of God with any clarity.
But, here's the thing. . . I don't think the bishop does, either.
The bishop is relying on a body of thought, which incorporates a set of assumptions and principles that come from a variety of sources--Scripture, interpretations of Scripture, philosophical ideas, empirical observations. My conclusions are based on a slightly different set of assumptions and principles, and so I come to a different conclusion. There are lots of reasons why one might find the bishop's view more compelling than mine, and that's fine. But the key is that neither of us can say for certain what God thinks about pornography. We do not, and cannot, know the mind of God, and it is the highest form of narcissism and arrogance to think we can. All we can do is give our best guess.
The bishop, of course, would disagree. He doesn't believe that he is articulating a good view of the issue of pornography, or even the best view--he believes that he is articulating the correct view of the question. He believes that the superstructure of the Catholic faith provides certainty about the correctness of its position--and thus, by extension, his position--on the question. Catholicism assures him that he is not wrong. Indeed, for many folks, a great deal of the point of Catholicism is that it provides certain answers to complex questions. The certainty is more important than the actual answers themselves.
I know this to be true, because it was true for me. In my teens and 20s, a major attraction of Catholicism was the sense that it provided a system of reliable, self-consistent answers to complex and difficult questions, whether theological, philosophical, or moral. To use a video game analogy, I looked at Catholicism as if you were playing a game with a strategy guide in your hand--all of the difficult and frustrating work of looking for hidden items and cracking difficult puzzles was done for you. And, just like a video game strategy guide, you could trust the guide because it came from the people (or Person) who made the game. So, it must be right. It doesn't really matter what the puzzles are in the game, because whatever they are, you have the answers. It's all about the certainty that the strategy guide provides.
More than anything else, the biggest change in my view of the religion over the last 5 to 10 years is that I now longer think that you can live life with a strategy guide on your lap. You can get all sorts of useful advice on living life and finding God, but there is no book or system that is going to give you all the answers you need in a tidy package that you can always rely on. It is not that I have lost the certainty I once had in Catholicism; it's that I don't think this kind of certainty actually exists.
And all of this is why I am frustrated with the Synod. The Synod is not really about divorced and remarried couples, or co-habitation, or LGBT relationships. It's also not about, as some have claimed, the politics of those things. This Synod is really about the politics of certainty.
On the one hand, you have a faction of the Church that has distilled the Catholic faith, in all of its beauty and wonder, into an unthinking assertion of its own correctness, as a kind of talisman or fetish to ward off the darkness that is lurking behind every corner. For them, certainty is more important than any particular position or outcome. On the other hand, you have a faction of people who want desperately to do right by the People of God and react to the world the People find themselves in, but are forced to go through such elaborate contortions to maintain the appearances of conforming to the past that the practical impact of their efforts are diminished to nothingness. All of their good intentions are less important than reassuring everyone that their certainties are not going to be troubled. Even Pope Francis, who gives sermons about the "God of surprises," has shown no indication that he is willing to move beyond the politics of certainty.
As the prophet Micah told us, 2500 years ago, "what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?" (Micah 6:8). Walking humbly with God means acknowledging that we may be wrong about what God wants of us. Walking humbly with God means understanding that all of our statements about God, whether made by some random dude with a blog or by the highest and most learned gatherings of church leaders, can only be our best, good faith attempt to discern God's will. We never have the final and definitive word, and we should never delude ourselves into thinking we do.
I wish we could see some of that from the Synod.