Growing up Catholic, the greatest hint into the changing nature of religion and law always occurred whenever I heard someone disagree with their local priest or bishop, or even the Pope. This was surprising since the followers of religious or political leaders, or merely the upholders of certain laws or traditions, all eventually try to convince others of their truth by calling on the absolute authority of those same leaders, those religious norms, those long-held traditions, or just to the rule of whatever laws are current. If we are willing to disagree with our laws or our leaders in any way, however, it is not them we are really following.
But such seeming contradictions are everywhere. After Ireland voted in 2015 to legalize gay marriage, a comment I saw online was directed at “progressives” everywhere, and went something like this: “If the vote hadn’t gone your way, you would not be praising the majority’s decision, or the rule of law.” And of course the commenter was right; but he was merely describing himself: clearly horrified by the majority’s decision, he wasn’t about to accept it just because it was now law.
Rather than actually appealing to any rule of law, then, both sides were actually trying to create that law. And this is all we ever do, and this is only a contradiction when we pretend to exist under the stability of any universal rule of law or morality, when we pretend that religious and political history isn’t really just interpretation and reinterpretation, the story of pious or patriotic people nevertheless disagreeing to their dying day, all fighting to change what to them is wrong, but to others is not.
In other words, the laws we pretend were struck into stone centuries ago are really just the laws we are constantly creating and recreating and choosing for ourselves. Given the chance, given the current events, and given the millions of ways in which civic and religious allegiances inevitably give birth to varying interpretations of words a few thousand or a few hundred years old, I don’t know of anyone who wouldn’t end up disagreeing with their Pope, their preacher, their president, their Supreme Court, or even their Bible, in one or a handful of important ways. (And when we pretend to live under universal norms, disagreeing even once is enough to topple the notion of “universal norms” altogether.)
The obvious reality is that we all hold positions we will never waver from, regardless of tradition, current mores, or religious proclamations. It’s understandable that we rarely admit this, since it is always easier to try and convince others of our position by invoking an outside authority, rather than simply admitting it is merely our own preference. If morality or cultural norms were as fixed as many people would have us believe, there would be no reason to continually debate the meanings of various national Constitutions, there would be very little reason for a court system at all, and very little reason for debate of any kind, and certainly no need to camp outside of the Supreme Court, uncertain as to what their decision might be, since whatever the issue is would already have been spelled out ages ago, with perfect clarity. Instead, the very debate we as a free people depend upon is the greatest evidence for how fragile and changeable our laws and our systems are, and must be, if they are ever to work in an equally fragile and changeable world.
And even more: while we would all love to just blindly adhere to laws or religious doctrine, and find comfort and safety in such actions, the changing life and reinterpretation of these laws and doctrines reveal not just the limitations of blind adherence, but also shows the lie in the idea that we blindly adhere to anything at all. What we think we blindly adhere to, we are actually actively choosing.
There is a remarkable tradition in the religious literature of the world of acquiescing to God, of turning our will over to God, of emptying ourselves and letting God take over. And while this is a beautiful notion, even the act of believing that such a thing is possible is a matter of choice, and the consequences of it are our responsibility. At its worst, this a reflection of how many of us would love nothing more than to absolve our ability to choose, especially in a world filled with difficult choices.
On a larger scale, I have heard Christians of one denomination sentence Christians of all other denominations to hell; and when they do so, a kind of sad powerlessness comes over them as they say something like, “It’s not my rule, it’s God, I can’t change that.” Yet it isn’t hard to find that exact same justification and meek helplessness in those throughout history who have persecuted and even killed those of another religion: “This is what God demands: these Jews or Muslims or Christians, these Buddhists or Hindus or Taoists, they are an offense to God, and I have no choice but to do this to them.”
Yet, even adherence to the belief that God wants such things, is a choice. Indeed, if we are going to think the worst about other people, and even do the worst things to them, including every modern version of intolerance, the least we can do in addition is accept responsibility for what we have chosen to think, and chosen to accept as proper action.
This is why it is useless to talk about whether any religion is a religion of peace, or a religion of violence. This is why, after an act of religiously-inspired violence occurs, it is not entirely honest for people to say, “The perpetrators do not represent this religion.” While it may be uncomfortable to admit, the violent versions of our religions are just as “legitimate” and just as sanctioned by interpretation from scripture, as those versions that preach love and compassion. In the face of religious violence, what the majority version of that religion turns out to be has only to do with individual and collective choice in the present moment, and not to any call to a past or a scripture that only illustrate both extremes.
Religion is what we choose to make of it, and if religion is the perfect illustration of reality and of life in the world, then religion itself is constantly breaking. Religion is not a static edifice to hide behind or take comfort in, but is much closer to an embattled citadel, always in danger of sinking, disappearing, or being destroyed. What happens to any religion is up to us.
The desperate question from those who believe in some unchangeable universal morality inevitably comes: How do we then know what is right and what is wrong? This, again, is a matter of collective choice. As I say below, it is irrelevant whether there is a “universal morality” which says rape is wrong; the decision of human communities which says it is wrong, is enough. If other communities decide rape or violence are okay, they will eventually be confronted by those who think otherwise, and they might succeed, or for a time they might not. This hazardous situation, in which what is generally held to be good and right is always close to destruction, is just what life in the world is; as custom fills the gap that reason cannot fill, custom at all times is precarious, and must be checked.
Even if there is a universal morality, it means nothing to simply proclaim it. Prohibitions against murder are eclipsed in age only by the actions of actual murderers, who have never been deterred by some words on a page. If the mere existence of the kind of universal morality many of us would like to cling to had any substance at all, history would not be the bloodbath that it is.
The answer to the kind of violence which horrifies most (but clearly not all) of us, then, is not through simple reference to a transcendent morality handed down to humanity, or even to a secular sense of inherent rights which belong to all human beings. If we believe anything to be wrong, we have to choose and decide that it is wrong, and gather with others who agree, and we have to be prepared to fail. As a writer living in occupied Paris under the Nazis wrote:
[The authors of the Declaration of the Rights of Man wrote that] “Men are born and remain free and equal in rights.” But they didn’t fool themselves. They proclaimed it against destiny, against nature, against all tyrannies. They knew what we were inevitably up against; they knew nature doesn’t care a whit about that justice which is only inside us. But if, at every moment, nature undoes what we do—liberty, equality, fraternity—that is all the more reason to redo it through our will, through our laws, and to set up human order against natural disorder. And be ready to pay the price for these pretensions. The precondition for the great life they dreamed of for themselves and all humanity was really—and this is not so easy—to keep themselves ready for life, but also to keep themselves ready for death.[i]
As I say below, the most important things are the most fragile, and cannot be assumed to exist. They must be made to exist, and then remade again. The safety and the barrier which we would like law and religion to provide us simply do not exist until we cause it to. We are not safe, and we have never been. And it is our job not to assume that law and religion are out of our hands, rather we must protect it with those hands, with our minds, with our effort, with our choices.
[i] Jean Guéhenno, Diary of the Dark Years, tr. David Ball, 23; entry for September 20, 1940.