Tuesday, July 14, 2015

No wonder Tolstoy became a vegetarian! Will Pope Francis become one?

Last night, I started reading Tolstoy's Confession.  He writes in this highly praised translated version:
My loss of faith happened in me as it happened then and does now among people with our kind of upbringing.  In the majority of cases I think it happens like this: people live as all other people do, and they all live on the basis of principles which not only have nothing in common with Christian teaching but also for the most part are in opposition to it; Christian teaching plays no part in life; one never comes across it in one's relations with others and one never has to deal with it in one's own life; Christian teaching is professed somewhere out there, far from life and independently of it.
I was like, damn that is so right!  My loss of faith began that way, the difference being that it was "Hindu" in place of Christian and "Hinduism" in place of Christianity.

Tolstoy then goes for the jugular:
Then as now the open declaration and profession of Orthodoxy were found for the most part in stupid, cruel, and immoral people who think themselves very important.  Intelligence, honesty, uprightness, goodness of heart, and morality were found for the most part in people declaring themselves to be unbelievers.
Ouch!  It does not surprise me anymore that Tolstoy was excommunicated from the church.
I began to read a great deal and to think very early on, so my rejection of Christian teaching became a conscious one very early on.  From the age of sixteen I stopped saying my prayers and of my own volition stopped going to church and fasting. 
Right from a young age, I had a very difficult time reconciling the wonderful ideals that the religion advocated with the reality of every day life lived by the believers.  I am immensely happy to find that I am walking along the trails that Tolstoy (and others) have cleared for me:

Religions and religious leaders have always had profound ideals for all of us.  But, we humans seem to intentionally choose to ignore them.  Thus, Christians have plundered and killed as much as Buddhists have plundered and killed, even though the founders of both the faiths championed peace and love.

In his latest op-ed, the philosopher Peter Singer tackles one of those aspects of Christian--specifically Roman Catholic--teachings: "man's dominion."  Singer writes:
Mainstream Christian thinking about animals is rooted in the Book of Genesis,where God is said to have granted man dominion over all the animals. St. Thomas Aquinas interpreted that verse as implying that it simply does not matter how man behaves toward animals; the only reason why we should not inflict whatever cruelties we like on animals is that doing so may lead to cruelty to humans.
A few Christian thinkers have sought to reinterpret “dominion” as “stewardship,” suggesting that God entrusted humanity to care for his creation. But it remained a minority view, favored by environmentalists and animal protectionists, and Aquinas’s interpretation remained the prevailing Catholic doctrine until the late twentieth century.
Tolstoy wrote that "Christian teaching is professed somewhere out there, far from life and independently of it."  Singer points out that what that teaching is has been interpreted in many ways.  The latest interpretation is from the current Pope:
Francis has now come down decisively against the mainstream view, saying that Christians “have at times incorrectly interpreted the Scriptures,” and insisting that “we must forcefully reject the notion that our being created in God’s image and given dominion over the earth justifies absolute domination over other creatures.” Our “dominion” over the universe, he declares, should be understood “in the sense of responsible stewardship.”
Against the background of nearly 2,000 years of Catholic thinking about “man’s dominion,” this is a revolutionary change.
How did Tolstoy deal with his own views?  Were they always the same?  Did they change?
I continued to live only professing my belief in progress.  "Everything is evolving and I am evolving, and why I am evolving together with everyone else will be made clear."  That was how I then had to formulate my faith.
In this evolving faith, Francis has gone one more step, Singer writes:
Now, in Laudatio Si, Francis quotes the passage in the Gospel of Luke, in which Jesus says of the birds that “not one of them is forgotten before God.” Francis then asks: “How then can we possibly mistreat them or cause them harm?” It is a good question, because we do mistreat them, and on a massive scale.
Most Roman Catholics participate in this mistreatment, a few by raising chickens, ducks, and turkeys in ways that maximize profit by reducing animal welfare, and the majority by buying the products of factory farms. If Pope Francis can change that, he will, in my view, have done more good than any other pope in recent history.
This summer of deep reading is turning out to be wonderfully rewarding.  Life is beautiful, indeed!


Mike Hoth said...

The hypocrisy of the religious is certainly a shame, and one I find myself attempting to defend on occasion as a deeply religious man. I've found that the easiest defense is to remind my debate partners that hypocrisy is an all-encompassing human trait, and religious law is simply the easiest set of regulations of break.

Tolstoy, from my interpretation of the book you are currently reading, is doing his best to find an answer to this problem by discovering what the purpose of his existence is. By understanding what he must do, independent of outside laws and people's viewpoints, he would find a singular drive that would both create and enforce his reason to live.

Ramesh said...

In the name of organised religion, certainly appalling horrors have been inflicted. No doubt. But to deny the good that religion has done , both in a personal way and in an organised way, is also unacceptable. We are not perfect - we make mistakes, we sometimes are hypocritical; all of that is true. Each person, whether explicitly or implicitly, is finding his or her own "right way too live". While I respect your view that religion plays no part in this journey, I certainly, and I expect Mike and Anne too, profoundly disagree.

Pope Francis and animal cruelty is a side issue. He is already doing an admirable job in reforming the Church in a number of ways.The world is not going to turn vegetarian and there's no point in trying to attempt this. It is similar to trying to outlaw guns in your country. The moral argument is obvious and yet your country will never do this. That doesn't make Americnas, or your President, immoral.

Boy ; Am I glad that you have finished The Death of Ivan Ilyich !

Anne in Salem said...

Beautiful piece of music, beautifully performed, but an absolutely wrong choice for Good Friday. At least in Catholic churches, there is no music on Good Friday.

I completely disagree with Tolstoy and approve of Ramesh's choice of the word profoundly. Being Christian is not out there or detached from my life, it is central to everything I do. Honest work, faithful friend, dedicated mother - my faith is integral to all of it. "Christian teaching plays no part in life." Hogwash. It is in the way we treat every worker on the farm, in the way I teach my children to treat animals, in the way I relate to every person I meet. Do unto others is a foundation of life. Absolutely there are hypocrites among Christians. There are hypocrites in every group. There are doctors who eat unhealthfully, and policemen who steal. It is wrong to condemn the whole lot for the wrong actions or attitudes of the minority.

Relative to dominion over animals, Pope Francis is correct. Animals are God's creatures and should be cared for as such. Stewardship is an accurate term. I don't see the pope's comments as revolutionary. Using the term revolutionary implies that Catholics are wholesale torturers of animals, hell-bent on causing maximum suffering, and need to be reined in and dragged, kicking and screaming, into a new attitude. I know of no Christians who think animals should be abused or tortured, and I think most ignore or are ignorant of the treatment of animals at factory farms.

I do believe in man's dominion over animals. Animals are God's creatures, yes, but they have no soul and, as such, are in a different category from humans. Dominion over and stewardship do not have to be mutually exclusive. One could view animals as tools - take care of them, and they serve you longer and better.

Sriram Khé said...

Hey, I am glad that you folks turned out for this post; looks like you were scared away by the "D" word in the other posts ;) I will call you chicken for that, but then Anne will remind me that they are in a different category from humans ... muahahaha ;)

Whatever works for you in your approach to figuring out the meaning of your existence. Or, even if you don't care about a meaning of your existence. Or, even if you think that your respective religious narratives have provided you with all the meaning that you ever need.

This post is, as you three very well know from posts of the past, a continuation of a long journey in which I am trying to figure out life for myself.

But, I will engage you about the points you raise. For instance, about hypocrisy. If religions are the narratives that provide meanings for your individual existence, then following a religion is not the same as following the traffic rules or eating healthily. If it is the religion that gives meaning to your existence, then deviations from that mean that you have lost that meaning of your existence according to your own religion. Thus, it is not merely hypocrisy when Buddhist monks lead the charge to make lives miserable for the Bengali Muslims who have lived in Burma for generations. It is a serious existential crisis for those monks. When the religious vote to support wars that kill lives with souls (and lives without souls) then they should examine for themselves their own existence in a religion whose meaning is based on thou shall not harm others. It is not about whether or not religions have done good or bad, but this post--and the purpose of any religion--is to make meaning of our existence.

And, yes, Tolstoy is (and I am too) delving into understanding what he should do and how he should live and make meaning of his life. More on this in tomorrow's post.

Anne, yes, but then this performance was in England, the home of Henry VIII who sought meaning in his life via a son that his wives couldn't produce for him ;)

Anne in Salem said...

If it is the religion that gives meaning to your existence, then deviations from that mean that you have lost that meaning of your existence according to your own religion.

This is an erroneous statement. The religion gives meaning to life, but the religion never deviates. The practitioners of the religion deviate, act hypocritically, vote to go to war and commit atrocities, but the religion does not. The faith does not make those choices. The tenets of the religion do not change. Christianity is now, always has been and always will be based on the two great commandments, one of which is love your neighbor as yourself (the basis of commandments 4 - 10). That law, that belief, that dogma has never changed despite actions to the contrary of some of its believers.

When Christians act contrary to the religion, I am saddened, but I have not lost the meaning of my existence. My faith is not dependent on any current person so the actions of other people do not shake or degrade my beliefs.