Thursday, 12 March 2009

Doing the (un)Desirable

One of the myths about Christianity (and any religion that has rules) is that its behaviour codes limit the pleasure of its practitioners. That is, that Christians forgo happiness for some other reason (usually, according to the legend, to get into heaven, where they will be happiest of all). This sort of thinking is unfortunately advocated by such mechanisms as Pascal's Wager (if you don't know who Pascal is, don't worry about it).

Another version of this myth is that Christianity limits some happinesses (sexual pleasures, drunkenness, etc) and offers others (community, networking, comfort in the face of death, sense of purpose, etc). In a sense this is seen as a sort of "If you give up such-and-such, we'll offer you this" deal. Membership rules still inhibit happiness, but some this-world sociological or psychological benefit is given in return for that membership. This sort of thinking is advocated by Durkheimian analysis (if you don't know who Durkheim is, don't worry about it).

Now, from a non-Christian perspective, either of these could be true. I am not going to say anything to make a non-Christian believe that these are false. Rather, I am simply going to illustrate how Christianity does not see itself as offering either option, but rather a third (and better) one. That is, a religion's perspective on rules is radically different from an outsider's perspective.

To a Christian (or, at least, to some Christians), the rules are most certainly there to test our obedience. God has put down these rules, and if we break them, we've "failed" the obedience test. But let's think about this. We knew from the outset that we'd fail. God knew from the outset that we'd fail. No one in the whole of Christianity has ever claimed otherwise. So obviously there is a lot more to these rules that simply testing. We aren't getting into heaven based on our obedience, so that rules-as-entrance-exam story can be promptly defenestrated.

To a Christian (or, at least, to some Christians), the rules are most certainly there to keep our community intact. I don't think we deny the fact that these rules have to do with social normativity and conformity. Oh, no one phrases it like that. But in Philippians, Paul asks us to "strive side by side," to "do everything without murmuring and arguing," to be "of the same mind" and love with "the same love." We frequently say that if the congregation (and especially the elder committee) doesn't follow the rules, the church falls apart. The rules are clearly there to keep the community together, unified. Social normativity or conformity: these are good things, in moderation, and I don't think any Christian who's really thought it through would argue that the rules aren't there to keep us from falling into chaos.


But that, again, is not the whole story. If the rules were so repressive of pleasure as people sometimes seem to think, people--and therefore communities--would erupt far more often than they do. Communism fell for this reason; Westernized colonies frequently experience bouts of spirit possession, witch attacks, and other rebellions against the normalized, scientific doctrine imposed on them. That these eruptions only rarely occur in Christianity indicates something in particular: it indicates that the rules are not universally repressive.


To a Christian (or, at least, to some Christians), the rules are there to help us be happier. They are not fundamentally tickets into heaven. They are not fundamentally prerequisites to church membership. They are rather guideposts to earthly happiness. We are not to get drunk (that isn't abstain entirely; that's not get inebriated) because God knows better than we do that drunkenness leads to unhappiness. We are not to engage in pre-marital sex because God knows better than we do that these relationships will hurt us in the long-run, as we play havoc with our chemical emotions through acts of intimacy with people who we are uncommitted to. We are to refrain from arguing because it will prevent us from exercising our pride, and we are to avoid pride because it pride makes us pig-headed and therefore stupid. We are to watch our anger because anger is poisonous--and I'll note that this is physiologically true, in that adreneline destroys our bodies and the physiological mechanisms of anger give us minor short-term advantages and major long-term damage.

The idea is that we do not know what is good for us; we learn from mistakes, but sometimes these mistakes can be so destructive that it's very hard to repair the damage by the time you've learned the lesson. God, knowing those mistakes that are most common to the most people, has encoded warnings against these mistakes in rules. Now, because He's God and we need to trust Him, it's wrong for us to disobey these rules. Many of the effects of these mistakes damage others or the church (because a hurting person is a dangerous person), and so most certainly these rules enforce certain norms and protect the church. But these both stem from the fact that, fundamentally, these rules are to prevent each person from hurting his or her own self.

Have you ever known that something will make you happy in the long run, but right now you really don't want to do it? For me it's exercise. I am happy once I'm exercising, and I'm very happy after I've exercised. But before I start, I really don't want to do it. For others this may be dieting or giving up alcohol or quitting smoking. The short-term pleasure is far easier to account for than long-term pleasure.

That's what the rules are like. It may look unappealing at first: limits on sex, limits on alcohol, limits on gambling, limits on swearing, limits on anger, limits on arguing, limits on pride, limits on selfishness. This is only because we are looking entirely at the short-term pleasures of a buzz or a quick orgasm or a nicotine kick. These pleasures, if improperly handled, will destroy us. That is what the rules are for: to control these pleasures.

Now, if you're a non-Christian this whole spiel may not convince you that the rules given by Christianity are the right ones; that's not my aim. What I hope I have successfully done is indicate how believers understand these rules, and why believers think it's valuable to follow them. Hopefully, it will give you a new perspective on the role of rules (unless you already understood all of this).

1 comment:

Kay said...

As someone who used to be a practicing Roman Catholic, I really appreciate this post. Everything about Christianity is so misunderstood, misinterpreted, and misjudged.

Something else I wanted to add:

It's unfortunate that so many misunderstand the necessity of self-discipline. I can't believe I'm quoting George Bush right now, but when he says there should be limits to freedom, I whole-heartedly agree. Now, his context may be different from mine, but the phrase itself as I interpret it is as such:

Yes, we are all individuals. But it goes without saying that we are also individuals who are a part of society, and interconnected with those who surround us. We cannot just simply choose to do what we like or else, like you said, there would be chaos; and I've always believed that the Catholic church has rules that they reinforce precisely for this reason.

Anyway, not to be a downer, but non-believers who scorn rule-following seem to forget that they scorn the idea of God ANYWAY. So of course they'd scorn the rules. They'd scorn anything associated with divinity, much less following the rules as written by the Divine.

It's 3:30am and my mind is faltering, so I'm not sure where I wanted to go with that thought. I think they were just fleeting ideas that I wanted to share, even though they may not link together very well. In any case, there it is. I'm going to bed now.

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