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LETTER: Religious beliefs influence shared meanings

Thursday, November 13, 2008 | 10:00 a.m. CST

In the article "Actions more important than beliefs” (Nov. 11), is Ms. Steinmetz saying that religions are more properly considered to be merely mental concepts (“mechanical beliefs”)? That somehow religions encourage us to behave in a manner that must be obvious, whether its effects are either “practical tangible results” or “an excuse to hate or exclude”? Such a concept would lead to perceiving that the persecution and death of Jesus Christ had no immediate practical and tangible results (that the average person could acknowledge), and so therefore his death had no universal meaning.

If we consider that only obvious actions (that are immediately comprehensible by everyone) are the measure of a person or a deed, then we reveal a deep seated materialism that cannot conceive of more subtle causative factors. For example; moving an arm to open a door for an elderly woman would not necessarily be universally characterized as “right” (if the person was looking at the purse). Giving an apple to a child is not universally “right” (if it is meant to entice). Kicking a dog is not universally “wrong” (if the dog is rabid).

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Using the quote from "The Grapes of Wrath" as a modern and practical nugget of wisdom capped what I perceived as confusion in the article’s message; “There ain’t no sin and there ain’t no virtue and some of these things that folks do is nice, and some ain’t nice.” Rather than extolling the "virtues" (whoops!) of the words of the dusty sage, we might want to ponder on the innumerable variable operating within each action of every person within the culture, the century, gender, age, status, etc. We might want to consider the motives, since motivation is the core of most (if not all) religions, and any study of religions will show levels of psychological, mental and emotional insight into personal and group behavior that may surpass any study in modern psychology.

Apparent errors occur in the interpretation of scripture, as do apparent beneficial behaviors. However, the true test of error or benefit will be observed later in time. Sometimes it takes centuries to understand and sometimes the opposite of what is "obvious" is the true fruit of the action. Therefore, when a preacher says that Christianity is true, we might take the stance of a Zen master and say “Hmm, that is right!” Because maybe Christianity is true in spirit, and maybe Christianity is false in some literal interpretations. It helps to ponder all aspects involved in all statements.

Interestingly, the dusty sage and the Zen master seem to be saying the same thing, but they are not. Or are they?

 


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Comments

Katy Steinmetz November 13, 2008 | 11:33 a.m.

Dear Julia,

_____If the message seemed confused, my apologies. I didn't mean to suggest that motivations don't matter; in fact, I meant quite the opposite.

_____The point was that motivations and the actions they manifest matter more than veracity of the source from whence they spring. If that person opens a door for an elderly woman not because they were eying her pocketbook, but out of Christian kindness or Jewish respect or atheist politeness, my point was that the action and the positive motivation which inspired it are much more important than whether, historically, any certain person was a messiah or an effective preacher or a man with delusions of grandeur.

_____I always liked Kant's idea that you can't be moral if you're using another person as means to an end. You certainly can't see whether or not that is the case by simply observing an action, but the results of that invisible and impossible test of purpose would mean much more to me than knowing the similarly unverifiable truth or falsity of beliefs which inspire a person to act selflessly.

Katy

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