[helpful FB conversation with Mario Rizzo is gratefully acknowledged.]
In case you missed it, Pope Francis has been offering strong opinions on a number of very different contemporary issues and pseudo-issues, among which are how to respond to the threat of global warming and what to do about the gender pay-gap. Apart from the merits of his arguments, one may wonder how he can think himself competent to “(a) evaluate the science (Imagine that! The Church that attacked Galileo is to evaluate science!) (b) decide what an efficient/efficacious response would be (c) decide the tradeoff between economic growth in the developing world and the use of fossil fuels.” (Mario Rizzo, FB post).
Yet this is so typical. I think of it as 'the preacher's dilemma'. Vestiges of the pre-modern world. The religious leader, like the 'high priest' of old, used to be a powerful, even magical, figure. In a perplexing world of mysterious and dangerous forces, from nature and from other human societies, the religious leader provided a blanket of structure to 'explain' and comfort. The will of the gods was an explanation for both the moral and the scientific questions - there was no Humean divide, between facts and values. It was all part of the laws of the universe known fully only to the gods.
The ubiquity of religious belief in the post-modern world indicates that humans have not quite gotten over this. Incredibly they still look to their religious leaders for guidance on everything - including lots of stuff that these leaders have no knowledge of or business having an opinion about. But, their (the religious leaders') livelihood depends on them having such opinions. Hence the dilemma.
The situation calls on them to engage in a pretense of knowledge. This is not necessarily a charade. The successful religious leader in the modern world (priest, rabbi, mullah) must possess the conviction that he/she is, indeed, competent to speak on these diverse matters. But having the conviction does not make it so. And it strains the most basic of virtues that a religious leader is assumed to have, humility.
The truth is that religion struggles for relevance in the modern world – especially in the developed countries. This is less true for fundamentalists who retain the pre-modern belief in the infallibility of the revealed word. But they are, certainly in the developed world, a small minority. A growing number of the world’s population either cleaves to no organized religion or else practices a kind of religion that is very different from its fundamentalist predecessors, appearances to the contrary notwithstanding. The advent to two related phenomena has drastically reformed religion as practiced by many, namely, secularism and pluralism. Secularism, the separation of religious authority from the authority of the state, has meant the loss of the power to compel uniformity of religious practice and belief. And this has led to pluralism, the mushrooming of many different religious doctrines that compete for adherents.
In modern free societies, religious doctrines can be questioned, debated, satirized, without fear of state persecution. So religious practice becomes just one part of one’s identity, and is a matter of personal preference, of choice. One is free to exit. In such an environment, religion arguably plays more of a ‘tribal-like’ role in which familiar rituals, literature, music, idioms, shared histories, etc. provide valued support and comfort, both routinely, and, especially, in times of celebration and grief. The charismatic religious leader can no longer appeal without qualification to the infallible word as a source for his pronouncements and exhortations. These congregations do not believe in simple revelation any more. Instead, he must strive, and mightily he does, to establish the continued relevance of inherited religious teachings. For some communities, some of these teachings will just not fly any more, and so, there is a lot of picking and choosing going on – trying to separate the ever nutritious wheat from the decayed chaff.
As I listen to my rabbis I feel a mixture of empathy and irritation. On the one hand I understand their need appear able to offer valuable insight and advice on all matters – psychology, public policy, foreign affairs, environmental policy and, in my case most alarmingly, economics (all fields in which professional specializations exist and indeed are the hallmark of competence). On the other hand, what they say alarms me for its boldness, ignorance and chutzpah. As Donald Rumsfeld might say, they do not know what they do not know – and apparently do not want to know. With some notable and gratifying exceptions, the few opportunities for frank, mutually respectful discussion with them have not been successful. I have not been let in. The façade has proven impenetrable – in most cases I think unintentionally.
I am not sure how much this matters to my fellow congregants. Those who stay presumably don’t care that much. But many do leave for want of credible inspiration from their leaders – in search of alternatives. There is a ‘market process’ going on driven by ‘product differentiation’. Like all market processes its future course is unpredictable.