Monday, June 02, 2008

Small Minds

    Keep away from people who try to belittle your ambitions. Small people always do that, but the really great make you feel that you, too, can become great. --Mark Twain

I had occasion to reflect on that favorite quotation by one of my favorite authors this past weekend, as I listened to a speaker who mistakenly assumed himself to be in a roomful of Lutherans, make what I have come to think of as The Obligatory Slam against the Catholic Church. Readers of these chronicles will know that I work for a Lutheran organization, which this past weekend had its big annual hootenanny. My co-workers are all great people, and reasonably tolerant of the token Catholic in their midst. But of course it would be too much to expect that progressive attitude to infect all members of their denomination.

Here's the set-up: The keynote speaker intimated to the audience that he was grateful that his parents, in their youth, had decided to leave the Catholic Church and become Lutherans. The implication being that had they not done so, he might today be -- gasp! -- a horrible, benighted Catholic and not an enlightened and superior Lutheran.

Well, golly. It so happens that my parents were Catholic, too, and did not move to another religion, and they were not especially horrible people. And it so happens that I have decided -- consciously -- to remain affiliated with the Catholic Church, and I don't consider myself especially horrible, either. I'm at least sensitive enough not to elevate myself by running down others. Much.

The keynote speaker being a minister, I imagine he must have read the Gospel of Luke. But perhaps he missed the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector.

In case you missed it too, it's in Luke 18, beginning at verse 9:

He then addressed this parable to those who were convinced of their own righteousness and despised everyone else.

"Two people went up to the temple area to pray; one was a Pharisee and the other was a tax collector.

The Pharisee took up his position and spoke this prayer to himself, 'O God, I thank you that I am not like the rest of humanity--greedy, dishonest, adulterous--or even like this tax collector.

I fast twice a week, and I pay tithes on my whole income.'

But the tax collector stood off at a distance and would not even raise his eyes to heaven but beat his breast and prayed, 'O God, be merciful to me a sinner.'

I tell you, the latter went home justified, not the former; for everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and the one who humbles himself will be exalted."

Ironic, no?

Ironic, too, that after making his Obligatory Slam against the Catholic Church, the speaker then went on to tell us how difficult it was for him to be in the minority in his largely Catholic community. Do tell! I know I felt pretty lonely and oppressed at that moment, too, as probably a minority of one!

As my anger at his insensitive and stupid comments faded -- a little -- I began to reflect on other occasions when I have endured The Obligatory Slam against the Catholic Church at Lutheran gatherings, and I began to wonder about the phenomenon. Of course, to elevate oneself by tearing down someone else is human nature; I suspect that's why Jesus felt obliged to warn his followers about it. And I have no doubt that there are plenty of Catholic gatherings in which Protestantism is denigrated. (In my earshot, it's always "Protestantism," not a specific denomination or body.) But I am curious as to why a denomination that prides itself on having moved "beyond" Catholicism (for instance, they like to term theirs a "mature" theology, by which of course they mean that Catholic theology is immature, that is, not as sophisticated -- good -- as theirs), a denomination that believes its nominal founder re-formed a defective church, seems to find it necessary to keep reaching backward across 500 years and take a swipe at its ancestor.

A feeling of inadequacy, perhaps? A feeling of guilt, perhaps? Even after half a millennium?

I am reminded of the feeling I get upon reading certain atheist authors' essays. Now, I have nothing against atheists. In fact, I consider atheism a pretty reasonable point of view. (I need not share a point of view to consider it reasonable. It is both blessing and curse.) Someone's inability to believe in that which cannot be proven hardly seems something to revile. Indeed, I have often said that I doubt that God has anything against atheists either.

But a good many atheist authors whom I've read are in fact anti-theist...and I don't cotton much to that. If you can't make yourself believe in a Deity, fine. But let it go. This business of deriding people who do believe, and making it a personal mission to tear down their beliefs, is inappropriate. (Interesting to note that some atheist authors decry religion on the ground that it stifles thought and expression...which is not necessarily untrue, but I find it ironic that so many atheists seek to do exactly the same thing by belittling those who believe: it is an obvious attempt to stifle the expression of those who hold a different point of view.)

Well, I feel much the same about these slams against my church. There is a whiff of insecurity about them, a certain scent of fear. and often a fair amount of ax-grinding as well. For they're invariably directed not again "other" religions, but quite specifically against the Catholic faith. I've yet to hear anyone of them express gratitude that his parents left the Episcopal Church, or the Congregational Church, or the Greek Orthodox Church; I've yet to hear one of them grouse about problems she had with unsympathetic Jewish leaders, causing her to leave the Jewish faith. I've yet to hear any of them bemoan the fact that other Lutheran bodies don't ordain women. It is always the Catholic Church they feel obliged to lash out against, and usually superfluously. The keynote speaker this past weekend made no point other than that he was glad to be a Lutheran. Well, good. He should be. That's all he really needed to say, no? The rest of it was unnecessary, insensitive, stupid, and immature. "O God, I thank you that I am not like the rest of humanity."

I realize that the Mark Twain quotation above isn't quite dead-on -- he refers specifically to small people who belittle others' ambitions -- but the sentiment applies, I think. Small people will attempt to make themselves great by belittling others.

The words attributed to Jesus, on the other hand, are spot on.

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