Bending Religious Rules

I don’t always follow the rules of what a Catholic is expected to do.

Nov 11, 2017

religion Illustration by Rosy Tahan

When I get into a taxi with a particularly chatty driver, I know that I will be asked two questions: where I am from, and what is my religion. To the latter I say I’m Christian, specifically, Catholic. If the driver is also Christian, we have something in common that takes us beyond just small talk. Bonus if he’s Catholic, for the red light stops turn into a showing of pictures of cute children who often have Biblical names. In all situations, however, I serve as a reminder that Arab Christians exist in a world where their existence is being threatened. It’s a win-win situation, except for my uncomfortable sense of hypocrisy.

I don’t feel Catholic. I don’t pray, I barely take the sacrament and the things I sometimes say about God would make my mother cry. In short, I don’t always follow the rules of what a Catholic is expected to do.

“Hey, join the club!” says John Coughlin, Professor of Religious Studies and Law, and NYU Abu Dhabi’s resident Catholic priest. He’s referring not to the part about making your mother cry, but to our constant failures, as Catholics and as people, to do the right thing — to follow the rules. Obeying religious rules is hard: given nothing but an ancient text and a God-given — or not — intellect, you have to rationalize the intentions of a supernatural being with the help of people just as mortal as you are. How do we know what God really wants us to do?

“In Catholicism, conscience always enjoys primacy,” said Father Coughlin. “Catholicism is not a religion of fundamentalism. It’s a religion in which you interact with the tradition, with the rules, in an intelligent way, based on your experience.”

This isn’t something I expected to hear. Catholicism differs from most other religions and streams of Christianity because we have the central authority figure of the Pope, whose teachings have been cast as doctrine for centuries. In arguments at the dinner table with my parents, “because the Pope said so” is a refrain I often have no comeback to. How is a young, theologically ignorant me, “seduced by sin,” supposed to challenge an 80-year old Bible expert?

Not that this struggle is unique to Catholic Christianity. “It’s tough, because I think our hearts naturally don’t like what the Bible says,” said Sharon Qiu, Class of 2018 and one of the leaders of the Abu Dhabi Christian Fellowship.

In Protestant Christianity, there is no central authority figure.

“One of the concepts that arose from the Protestant Reformation is called Sola Scriptura,” said Qiu. “It’s Latin for ‘scripture alone’. That doesn’t mean we don’t read anything else, but that scripture alone should be our final authority.”

What complicates this stance is that scripture doesn’t always translate easily from first century Palestine to our millennial struggles. “I think as Christians we don’t [interpret] on an individual basis, but with the help of other Christians as well,” said Peter Chen, Class of 2018 and also an ADCF leader. “It gives a lot more validity to a particular interpretation.”

Church groups haven’t always given me a better understanding of the so-called rules. There’s a chicken-and-egg problem: am I choosing a congregation and then submitting to its beliefs? Or, am I choosing a congregation and priest because I’m already aligned with its beliefs — see every post-US-election think piece on echo chambers — and I consequently never have my views challenged? Combine that with a common human distaste for being told to follow rules that contradict your desires, and the growing phenomenon of spiritual-but-not-religious is understandable, whether you identify as such or, like my mom, think it’s a cop-out that gets you extra sleep on Sunday mornings.

Even if you think religion is just spirituality institutionalized, it’s hard to deny how that may be necessary. “Anytime you have a large body of people, you need to have some sense of structure or rules in order for them to be able to relate to each other,” said Father Coughlin. “At the same time, religion is, at least in my view, primarily about spirituality. The rules are always an inadequate attempt to try to express and regulate what the inner spiritual experience is.”

And the rules are not all created equal, Father Coughlin reminds me. “Jesus doesn’t want the rules to destroy the spiritual existence of God. When [the Pharisees] ask him, what is the greatest commandment, Jesus says, What?’”

You can’t go through 18 years of Sunday School without knowing the answer to this one: Love God with your whole mind, your whole heart and so love your neighbor as you love yourself.

“The whole of the law can be reduced to these two ideas,” said Father Coughlin.

Chen and Qiu agreed. “When we think of [verses] that are…more ambiguous, we interpret them with this important commandment in mind,” said Chen.

I’m not sure that resolves the contradictions, but it sure as heaven makes me feel less hypocritical. “Catholicism has a long history, starting from when Peter denied Christ, of not being perfect, in accord with all the rules,” says Father Coughlin. “No one is.”

And no one is. I’m still not big on church attendance, but when I do go to Mass on campus, it soothes me to see my fellow students, and remember those who have confided their doubts to me, and I remember — because our campus really is that small — that their actions over the weekend, like mine, may not have been as stellar as the tradition may ask. But we’re here, and we get to shape the tradition. We’re trying.

So when I get out of the taxi, and the driver says “God bless you,” I absolutely say it back.

Rosy Tahan is a contributing writer. Email her at [email protected]

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