David Brooks watched the new Broadway musical “The Book of Mormon” and wonders about what really makes religion work.
The central theme of “The Book of Mormon” is that many religious stories are silly — the idea that God would plant golden plates in upstate New York. Many religious doctrines are rigid and out of touch.
But religion itself can do enormous good as long as people take religious teaching metaphorically and not literally; as long as people understand that all religions ultimately preach love and service underneath their superficial particulars; as long as people practice their faiths open-mindedly and are tolerant of different beliefs.
This warm theme infuses the play with humanity and compassion. It also plays very well to an educated American audience. Many Americans have always admired the style of belief that is spiritual but not doctrinal, pluralistic and not exclusive, which offers tools for serving the greater good but is not marred by intolerant theological judgments.
The only problem with “The Book of Mormon” (you realize when thinking about it later) is that its theme is not quite true. Vague, uplifting, nondoctrinal religiosity doesn’t actually last. The religions that grow, succor and motivate people to perform heroic acts of service are usually theologically rigorous, arduous in practice and definite in their convictions about what is True and False.
Brooks refers to Dorothy Sayers’ essay “Creed or Chaos” and notes
Rigorous theology provides believers with a map of reality. These maps may seem dry and schematic — most maps do compared with reality — but they contain the accumulated wisdom of thousands of co-believers who through the centuries have faced similar journeys and trials.
Rigorous theology allows believers to examine the world intellectually as well as emotionally. Many people want to understand the eternal logic of the universe, using reason and logic to wrestle with concrete assertions and teachings.
Rigorous theology helps people avoid mindless conformity. Without timeless rules, we all have a tendency to be swept up in the temper of the moment. But tough-minded theologies are countercultural. They insist on principles and practices that provide an antidote to mere fashion.
Rigorous theology delves into mysteries in ways that are beyond most of us. For example, in her essay, “Creed or Chaos,” Dorothy Sayers argues that Christianity’s advantage is that it gives value to evil and suffering. Christianity asserts that “perfection is attained through the active and positive effort to wrench real good out of a real evil.” This is a complicated thought most of us could not come up with (let alone unpack) outside of a rigorous theological tradition.
Brooks notes that in the play the Africans embrace the warm, fuzzy-edges religion of the playwrights. But in real life, it appears to what is actually embraced in Africa is much more complext.
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