Right Rite, Right or Wrong.

August 18, 2014

Had I not been born a Jew, I would have made a good Roman Catholic. Dwight Eisenhower said of Dartmouth College “this is what a college should look like.” This is true of the Vatican’s rite: it’s what a religion should look like.

Granted, a millennium and more of entrenched dogma that seemed like a good idea when first promulgated but subsequently staggered under its own contradictory weight is heavy baggage – but baggage common to most faiths. The Holy See has an excess of it because it has been more aggressive in recording the strictures of its faith than others: no fewer than 37 universities, including the Pontifical colleges in Vatican City, offer degrees in canon law, that body of doctrine in comparison to which the Internal Revenue Code looks like See Spot Run. The Hindu faith is older than the Roman one, but the Indian swamis never bureaucratized their beliefs and so, thousands of years later, are not caught in their contradictions.

Still, the ins and outs of any particular faith are irrelevant for our purposes, assuming they all allow for belief in a higher power and propound the idea of treating others as we would ourselves. With those basics in place, the details are unimportant because it is highly unlikely that any specific religion knows much of anything about God. This strips importance from the details of belief; what harm or benefit is there in preferring one myth to another? A man once asked Rabbi Hillel to teach him the Torah while standing on one foot. The Rabbi stood on one foot and told him: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. The rest is just details.”

Absent the details (like whether God really spoke to Moses from a burning bush, or guided the magi via galactic GPS), and assuming the fungibility of a belief in God and a moral commandment to treat others as we would ourselves, the difference in religions boils down to the appearance of ritual. So what value is there in organized religion, Catholic or otherwise (on a personal level – setting aside charitable works)? This: comfort and guidance. It gives voice to faith, and provides for the expression in ancient, beautiful forms of thoughts and hopes which would otherwise be private. In public acts of faith there is comfort: comfort in tradition, comfort in community, comfort in ritual, comfort in a public affirmation of personal belief. This is worthwhile, and the Roman religion excels at these: it has beautiful, elegant trappings. Its rituals are nearly unequalled for splendor and ceremony, which elevate their moral content.

Perhaps the Jews understand this appeal especially well. In 1994, the Dalai Lama visited Israel and asked a rabbi: “What it is that unites Jewish people the world over — what the kernel of the doctrine is that unites all Jews?” The rabbi told him: “When it comes to doctrine, there is hardly any uniformity. What unites all faithful Jews are the rituals. Come Friday, all Jewish homes, from Siberia to Ethiopia, hold Sabbath in the same manner. We have been doing this for thousands of years, since the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem.”