Religion and the Church

Of considerable interest is the struggle within the Church of Rome during the nineteenth century regarding the notion of the Infallibility of the Pope in matters of faith. The issue was of major importance in the First Vatican Council in 1868 when Pope Pius IX introduced the notion for adoption and it was met with considerable opposition by a number of influential Bishops — led, interestingly enough, by Lord Acton who was not a Bishop and had no vote but who was very active behind the scenes seeking to strengthen the opposition. He was convinced that the doctrine was in direct opposition to the New Testament which is the fundamental text of the Christian religion. Acton eventually failed in what became a heated political battle. Several Bishops who opposed the doctrine were excommunicated by the Pope and the only reason Acton, a devout Catholic, was not, presumably, was because he was a powerful man with powerful friends back in England.

In any event, Dostoevsky, himself a deeply religious man, was vehemently opposed to the doctrine of Infallibility as well — as he was opposed to the Church of Rome in general which he was convinced was established as a Church on Earth that stood in direct opposition to the fundamental Christian doctrine as set forth in the Gospels. Of special interest to Dostoevsky — who mentions this in both The Brothers Karamazov and Demons, two of his five major novels — was the passage in St. Matthew 4: 8-11 recounting the three temptations of Christ (repeated almost Verbatim in Luke 4 1-13), but especially the third temptation:

8 Again, the devil took Him to a very high mountain and showed Him all the kingdoms of the world and their glory; 9 and he said to Him, “All these things I will give You, if You fall down and worship me.” 10 Then Jesus said to him, “Go, Satan! For it is written, ‘YOU SHALL WORSHIP THELORD YOUR GOD, AND SERVE HIM ONLY.’” 11 Then the devil left Him; and behold, angels came and began to minister to Him.

As Dostoevsky read the three temptations of Christ, which he regarded as divinely inspired (they couldn’t possibly have been invented by humans; they are far too wise) this was a direct admonition from Christ to reject things of this earth and live a life of sacrifice and love. But the Roman Church, according to Dostoevsky, sought earthly power in direct opposition to the words of Christ. In fact, he puts his own convictions in the mouth of his character Shatov in Demons:

“. . .Rome proclaimed a Christ who had succumbed to the third temptation of the devil and, having announced to the whole world that Christ cannot stand on earth without an earthly kingdom, Catholicism thereby proclaimed the Antichrist, thus ruining the whole Western world. “

Lest the reader think that a great author such as Dostoevsky would never put his own words in the mouth of one of his characters, we have the words of the man himself in the pages of his 1877 Diary:

“Roman Catholicism, which has long ago sold Christ for earthly rule; which has compelled mankind to turn away from itself, and which was thus the prime cause of Europe’s materialism and atheism, — that Catholicism has naturally generated socialism.”

Years before the Vatican Council  the Catholic poet Dante had been critical of what he called “The Donation of Constantine” in which the recognition of the Christian Church by the Roman Emperor Constantine lead directly to the earthly power of the Church (and divisiveness within the Church, according to Edward  Gibbon) and the corruption which he pillories in his Inferno — filled as it is with Bishops and Popes, who have succumbed to temptation.

In any event, the issue for both of these thinkers was the embracing on the part of the Church of earthly power. For Dostoevsky this was in direct conflict with the teachings of Christ and an acceptance of the lures of the devil himself. For Dante it was the beginning of a long and terrible period of struggle within the church between the promises of Heaven and the lures of earthly treasure.

What is of interest here is the radical difference, in the minds of these three deeply religious thinkers, Acton, Dante, and Dostoevsky, between the teachings of the New Testament and the doctrines of the Roman Church. We know, as a matter of fact, that when William Tyndale first translated the Bible into English 1526, thereby making the sacred text available to all who could read, the Church sought to confiscate and burn copies of the book.  They saw it as a direct threat to their power and authority in matters of religion, which was already being questioned by Luther who had posted his 95 theses in 1517.

The point is that this struggle allows us to see clearly the rift between religion, properly understood, and religion as embodied in earthly institutions that led to such things as purges, excommunications, and Inquisitions — not to mention the forced denial by Galileo of his mathematical discoveries. And we should also bear in mind the many atrocities committed by Protestant Churches in their attempt to establish themselves as power-brokers in the game of earthly power.

Many who have turned against what they regard as “religion” really have a quarrel with the institutions that have been founded and supported by human beings in the name of what they take to be the true meaning of religion. The two are not the same as these men saw so clearly. They wrote and spoke against this false identification because they saw that what human beings do for the best of reasons, at times, turns out to be antithetical to the very principles and fundamental beliefs of the causes they espouse. We could do worse than to take a page from their book — or their books — and keep this difference in mind.


11 thoughts on “Religion and the Church

  1. Hugh, very important distinctions over time and today. Church membership is on the decline, yet I do think many of the departed are still religious. I am one of those folks. My greatest pet peeve is bigotry from the pulpit, so it bothers me to see the bible used as a weapon, missing the over arching good messages. I think it may bother others, as well. Keith

    • Indeed, the problem has been exacerbated in our age of mega-churches serving coffee and with TVs to entertain when the service becomes boring — and the private jets for the preachers. But it’s all part of the same problem: people not knowing how, or being willing, to make the sacrifices demanded of them. Go to church one hour a week and the rest of the time do as you wish!

  2. My friend … you are far above my head on this one. I am one who became thoroughly disgusted with ‘religion’ many, many moons ago. Early experiences taught me that I can never fit into any religion, and I later figured out that I didn’t want to anyway. Which is not to say I don’t believe in God, for I do. I converse with Him regularly, he answers me, and we have a good relationship. But I eschew the man-made rites and rituals that accompany religion, and the prejudices that I have found built into every religion I have ever studied. I’m not sure which of your categories that puts me in, or perhaps I am simply a strange person who fits into neither. Either way … I have lived my life trying to do the right thing, and at this point, that is all I can do. An interesting aside … years ago, a friend told me that she could no longer be my friend if I refused to convert to Christianity. It is things like this that make me think most religion is not very kind.

    • You speak to the very point I am trying to make: it’s the Church you have a quarrel with, not religion! I need to make my points clearer, apparently. Folks seem to have misread my post on Quixote as well. I need to revisit that one also!

      • Nonononono … it is not you … in this case it is me. If I lived next door to you, we could sit out on your deck with our morning coffee, and have some rollicking conversations … I would learn much from you. As it is, I guess I am not clear on the difference between a church and the religion it purports to represent. Any church. Any religion. I am just much more savvy about other things, having mostly written off all churches and religions for myself early in life. I respect others’ religious beliefs as long as they do not infringe on the rights of others, but … doing what somebody tells me is right is not the same as doing what I find in my heart to be right, if that makes any sense. I trust my heart more than the words of most people. I am rambling. I shall shut up now. 🙂

      • The church is an organized body, at times very political but always social, with an agenda that involves the dissemination of religious dogma. Religion is simply the dogma itself, the doctrine that seeks to reveal to us how we are to go about becoming better persons and why we are not the center of the world, but merely a small part of it. I think you know these things.
        And, never shut up!!!

  3. Yes, perhaps I do … but even the dogma and doctrine raise more questions than answers in my mind. I think we all … well, most of us … have a conscience and know what is right, or at least what is wrong, in our minds, without needing somebody or something to tell us. But … that is a complex discussion best saved for another day, for it is nearly 3:00 a.m. and … I am in need of sleep. 🙂

    • The conscience (or “super ego” according to Freud) is a function of repression in our youth — being told what NOT to do by our parents and teachers. As this ceases to be a factor in a permissive society, fewer and fewer people actually have a conscience — a reaction to doing the wrong thing. This is a problem that I have worried about for sometime.

      • That certainly is thought-provoking, and you make a good point! Especially in this day when many parents seem not to see their role as one of a teacher, but rather of a friend. Rather than tell the child not to stick the spoon handle into the electrical outlet, they use the method of distracting the child with some other activity. Which works fine for that particular moment, but in the long run, the child still does not know that it is NOT okay to stick the spoon handle in the outlet. And then there are the ones who simply cannot make time to be a parent at all.

        But as to your point about what happens when the child grows and no longer has the parental guidance, being in a more permissive society … you make a good point and one that I shall have to ponder on, for I have never thought about it that way. On the surface, one might say that religion is the thing that keeps that person’s conscience intact, and I might agree except that more and more it seems religions are teaching hate and bigotry. Or am I confusing religion with the church again? As always, you make me think, my friend! Thank you … 🙂

      • I don’t think there is a religion on earth that preaches hatred and bigotry. It’s the people who claim to embrace the religion and in their misguided attempt to apply its teachings get things backwards — they manipulate the teachings of their church to support their own basic desires!

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