David Brooks, the Last Puritan Columnist, loved “The Book of Mormon,” but then had guilty second thoughts about its message that religions have weird doctrines but can do “enormous good as long as people take religious teaching metaphorically and not literally; as
long as people understand that all religions ultimately preach love and
service underneath their superficial particulars; as long as people
practice their faiths open-mindedly and are tolerant of different
beliefs.” Harking back to Dean Kelley’s old diagnosis of the ills of liberal Protestantism, Why the Conservative Churches Are Growing, Brooks takes after this kind of Golden Rule religion.
Vague, uplifting, nondoctrinal religiosity doesn’t actually last. The
religions that grow, succor and motivate people to perform heroic acts
of service are usually theologically rigorous, arduous in practice and
definite in their convictions about what is True and False.
That’s because people are not gods. No matter how special some
individuals may think they are, they don’t have the ability to
understand the world on their own, establish rules of good conduct on
their own, impose the highest standards of conduct on their own, or
avoid the temptations of laziness on their own.
The religions that thrive have exactly what “The Book of Mormon”
ridicules: communal theologies, doctrines and codes of conduct rooted in
claims of absolute truth.
Is this right? Is the key to the survival of religion what Brooks calls “rigorous theology”?
Last evening my wife and I went to see Of Gods and Men, the remarkable film that tells the true story of eight Trappist monks who decide to stay in their monastery in an Algerian village in the Atlas Mountains even though they are likely to be killed–and are killed–by Islamist guerrillas. Certainly the monks work hard and pray regularly. They also read the Koran, provide their Muslim neighbors with medical care, and participate in the life of the larger community. In turn, the villagers, devout Muslims that they are, consider the monks as holy sustainers of their world–as one woman says, the “branch” on which “we birds” sit.
Historically, communities have dealt with religious differences much more the way the monks and the villagers do than in the manner of the guerrillas. The latter are the theological rigorists who come and go, depending on social, political, and economic circumstances. No doubt, they will always be with us. But it is not their rigid theologies that have sustained religious traditions throughout the ages. That has had much more to do with, yes, the love and service that, underneath the doctrinal particulars that may or may not be superficial, they all do tend to preach.