Sunday, April 03, 2005

[Essay] Did You Read the Fine Print?

I believe that within each person is a desire for simplicity. Unfortunately, not everything in life can be simplified. Taking religion for example. Yes, it’s true, we can summarize the main idea of a religion (Catholicism, for example, can be summed up by believing in God and doing good works), and that’s a technique most people use to get converts started, but it shouldn’t end there. There’s a belief that once we belong to a certain religious institution, we’re already “saved”. But that isn’t necessarily so. From a Christian perspective, the analogy would be a contract with God stating that as long as he’s our God, we’ll go to heaven in the afterlife. Unfortunately, many of us neglect to read the fine print.

Many of the misconceptions about doctrine of various religions probably stems from the fact that its members don’t read (or don’t take the time to read) the fine print. Take Catholicism for example. The common belief is that once we’re baptized, as long as we donate to charity, and go to mass regularly and pray everyday, we’ll be saved. Or the main point raised against Protestants is that if such Christians are saved by faith alone, what compels them to do good deeds? As much as every religion revolves around a central idea, there’s more to it than just that. It’s a good starting point, yes, but it’s not the be-all and end-all of any religion.

Where does one find the fine print? Well, it varies from religion to religion. But a few thing all religions share is that you begin with the text from which your faith was based on. For Christians, it’s the Bible. For Buddhists, it’s the precepts of Buddha. For Muslims, it’s the Qur’an. I can’t speak for the other religions, but as a Christian, how can you really say you’re living your faith when you haven’t even read the Bible in its entire context? I mean many arguments and counter-arguments will be thrown at you, and unless you have a firm foundation on the basics, what reply can you give that will satisfy not just the person you’re talking to but at the very least yourself?

Earlier I brought up some misconceptions about Catholics and Protestants. And it’s by reading the fine print that some of the issues raised above are cleared up. I mean for Catholics, there’s more to it than just attending mass, praying, and obtaining the seven sacraments. Anyone can do that, be it the holiest of men or the kingpin of crime. It’s a good starting point, but it won’t assure you salvation (in the same way that in Islam, a pilgrimage to Mecca won’t guarantee salvation, although it will take you a step closer). You can find in the Bible text that essentially mentions being faithful to God and loving your neighbor. Mass, prayer, and the seven sacraments merely fulfills the former. What about the latter? And Catholicism is one of the largest and longest reigning institutions in the world. There’s also lots of supplementary text that discusses these ideas. And not just that fact but other controversial issues as well, such as birth control, pre-marital sex, homosexuality, etc.

For Protestants, well, it’s the Bible. It also mentions in that very same text that faith without action is well, pretty useless. So claiming that “I’m saved anyway because I believe” won’t get you into heaven if you don’t back it up with good works, not because you have to (which is the case with Catholics), but because it’s proof that you’ve grown, that you’ve matured as a Christian. And of course, there are also your pastors to talk to regarding guidance and interpretation of scripture.

And I’m sure all the other religions have their supplementary text to support their faith. If I were a Buddhist, it’s honestly not enough to say that “I’ll be saved through my own actions and willpower alone.” How does one achieve that? It goes back to reading the fine print and getting more acquainted with your faith.

Of course not everything can be solved by the fine print. I mean a time will inevitably come up when you’ll either disagree with dogma, or don’t find the answers given to be satisfactory. Many people fall prey into giving up their religion entirely just because no viable solution is given. Which to me is faulty logic because one must understand that religion is a tool of the masses, meaning that it targets a huge audience rather than just one person. Any rulings they give are for the majority and cannot address each unique circumstance perfectly. If there’s something that can’t address your need, one must first ask the question whether we did everything to look for an answer when it comes to our religion (for example, there’ve been various treaties on artificial and natural contraception). Then it must be followed up by the question how it affects the majority rather than just the minority (if upturning that ruling would have dire consequences on everyone else and not just you). If there’s still a failing, you could ask what’s been done to change or revise it (as much as we want to believe that religion is a static entity, it really isn’t as new discoveries help enlighten us and interpret text differently). Ultimately, even we find that the religion we belong to is flawed, careful inspection of all the other religions will also show that other religions will similarly be flawed, not necessarily for the same reasons we found our existing religion to be less than satisfactory. I don’t think there’s a “perfect religion”, although I do believe in a perfect deity. But just because we find a religion to be imperfect doesn’t mean we should give up on it. We could study it more and hope for a revision or change. I mean look at our governments, our nation. They’re far from perfect, but we don’t say “let’s give up our national identity because there’s a flaw in our culture”. Or if we start-up a business in less than ideal conditions, we don’t just give up on it. We take steps to rectify it. Sometimes, we don’t have the perfect solution, but rather set it up so that it’s enough to survive and sustain us (I mean a lot of us obviously don’t have the perfect jobs, but we nonetheless keep at it… some might call this a necessary evil).

Our religion comes with strings attached. That’s not to say it’s a bad thing, but we can’t oversimplify it and think that all our duties and responsibilities are over once we “sign up”. I think one’s spirituality is part of the learning process. As we become more mature, we learn more and grow. Our faith should similarly grow. But it’s not something easily attained, but rather we should take the time to learn and explore.

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