Last month the Roman Church elected a new Bishop of Rome. I know, I know. We call him the Pope these days, but I’m still a little bitter that Valentinus didn’t win the election back in the 2nd century. Oh how different the Western world might have been if there’d been a gnostic on the throne… Sigh. Okay, getting past that little history geek idiosyncrasy of mine and back to my point… I admit that I watched, for the sense of pageantry and history if nothing else. And I also admit to being moved by the first words of Pope Francis I, partly for the obvious humility (and almost shock) he displayed at being raised to such a position of prominence and celebrity after a life among the poor of Buenos Aires, but also because of the reaction that marked the change, in front of our (technological) eyes, of Jorge Mario Bergoglio into an instant media personality.
The crowd in St. Peter’s Square was like that of a Rock n’ Roll audience- if you ignore the preponderance of black and white habits and clerical collars- and despite the fact that, as one friend posted on the Facebook, “it’s not the return of the Beatles” – with the heavy implication that to truly warrant that sort of reaction the two absent Fab Fourians would have had to have returned from the dead- and not as zombies either (although Zombie Lennon and Zombie Harrison might well lay down some interesting jams). The excitement and anticipation that gave way to tears and screams when Francis I finally appeared was something to behold, even for this non-religious cynic. It was evidence (and hard evidence is required in the irreligious circles in which I tend to travel) that organized, institutionalized religion is still a big ol’ factor in the world.
Despite the advent of Science, the openness of philosophical and spiritual discourse (at least in some places in the world) and increasing exposure to atheistic writers and dialogue, the institutional Christian religions of the world still retain a firm toe-hold in the practices and imaginations and, seemingly, day-to-day lives of enough people that this story took up the first half of the CTV National news that night, and then more time at the end of the half hour as ‘experts’ weighed in on the event and its importance.
Another admission? I was pretty surprised. While religion, faith and beliefs have been my particular
obsession study for longer than seems possible, I have become pretty much singularly focused on the stories that are expressions of those things, stories that come from human imaginations and so reflect the best- and sometimes worst- aspects of the human experience. The ritual, doctrinal/dogmatic and experiential aspects of religion interest me somewhat less- I’m all about the stories, Baby (as it says on the tagline “Made of the Myth”). But whoa back.
There was something pretty powerful happening on that there television screen, and the emotion in the Square was palpable- even at a technological remove. People never cease to amaze me. I really can’t understand that level of involvement and personal investment in the institution of a church (Roman or otherwise), but watching that day I was a little sad for myself, that I don’t have that connection with a belief system and its trappings and traditions (a feeling that does hit periodically- when there are Christmas hymns being sung in a candlelit cathedral with snow outside and gentle light though stained glass windows, for example).
Personal revelations aside, what surprised me even more than the outpouring in favour of the whole pope and circumstance, was the amount of vitriolic anti-pope, anti-church, anti-Christian postings on various social media time-wasters that I’ve been
wasting time with monitoring with academic interest. Wow. It eludes me how can people can, on the one hand, post inspirational stories about loving and respecting one another and then respond with such viciousness at the sight of others expressing genuine emotions as an historical event touched them deeply.
Why the hate? There are reasons, of course. Good reasons, some of them (institutionalized pedophilia is a biggie). The issues lie, I’m afraid, at the root of the institutionalization of any belief system- once it becomes a ‘system’ it has codified such things as hierarchies and rules and pro- and pre-scriptions. And those things lead to people looking for power and ascendency within the system. Any ideological system faces the same challenges- political, religious and philosophical- because people continue to look for ascendency and power that can be gained through money, social position or political power (putative or realized).
The stories that lead to the development of belief systems are not, generally, inherently good or bad (exceptions prove the rule, of course). They are reflective of the time in which they were first used to answer questions. That the myths are then used- or misused- to support the seemingly unsupportable is
tragic pisses me off regrettable, but are we somehow ‘blaming the victim’ when we disagree (often rightfully) with the trappings of an institution and include its myths within that censure? Any story can be interpreted to help confirm any agenda- if the ones doing the interpreting try hard enough to make the story stretch to accommodate.
I refuse to blame the stories themselves for what people have done in their name. Not all stories have an altruistic or even positive origin, but most of the ones I see out there come from a place that seeks answers and communion with other people (or beings) outside of themselves. We connect through our stories, and to use them for selfish, self-serving, power-mongering, political purposes generally ends up resulting in our collective detriment. Unfortunately the most selfish purposes are the ones that gain ascendency, most of the time. And with power, inevitably, comes abuse of power.
The blatant, repugnant, constant abuses of power that we see in the media don’t mean that we can’t stop for a moment and appreciate the beauty, fleeting and seemingly superficial as it may be, of some elements of those institutions of power, while still calling them out on the abuses that they perpetrate. But as we take the perpetrators to task we have to remember that most of the adherents of one faith or another believe sincerely/innocently/naively, or for reasons having to do with culture or environment, or because of private insights that have shaped their individual personality and reactions to the world around them.
We take for granted that to believe or disbelieve is a matter of choice. This is, arguably, the case in the cultural context of North America in the 21st century (although there are certainly places even here where this is decidedly NOT an accurate assessment). That choice is not, in some environments, a realistic option or even anything that requires thought or reflection, continues to be lost on many detractors who see faith- in institutions or gods or stories- as ‘irrational’ or ‘deluded’. Faith can be blind, and sometimes destructive, but hatred is always blind and leads us down roads of destruction and intolerance it is best not to travel. Can there not be a balancing of the two extremes? In the myths of the Ancient Near East, balance was everything as people negotiated an existence between the dichotomy of chaos and order (rather than good and evil). We still have things to learn from their stories, and those groups/cultures that came later but picked up on the same concepts.
That same day I saw this link in a news feed.
‘New’ stories, or interpretations of old stories, are always being discovered. That one made it into an interworld news link makes me optimistic that we haven’t become so cynical and superficial that there isn’t room for interest in rediscovering the myths that seek to inform about the human condition. The world remains a big, mysterious place, and our stories help to make sense of it. In the coming months we will begin to see the development of the myth of Francis I, and I, for one, will try to separate that story from the corruption of the larger institution, just in case Jorge has something to positive to tell us, about being human and living in the world.