Gospel & Universe

San Francisco

This page questions whether it's really that easy to separate dogma from altruism.

The Beach of the Dead - Do Unto Others


The Beach of the Dead

Before me stretch the lime shades of my third Margarita

and in front of me lap the blue-green waters of Playa de los Muertos.

I raise my glass, rim-frosted in salt

to all those who are actually doing something

about the miseries of the world,

from the nuns in the mega-slum of Neza-Chalco-Izta

(the Ciudad Perdida or Lost City on the outskirts of Mexico City)

to the doctors in the jungles of the eastern Congo.

General view of Mushaba IDP camp in Katanga province, Democratic Republic of the Congo, DRC. Photo: OCHA/Gemma Cortes. http://www.un.org/apps/news/story.asp?NewsID=44821#.Vm3RlhorK-4

General view of Mushaba IDP camp in Katanga province, Democratic Republic of the Congo, DRC. Photo: OCHA/Gemma Cortes. http://www.un.org/apps/news/story.asp?NewsID=44821#.Vm3RlhorK-4

I know that you could be sitting back

daquiris in hand

on the beaches of Puerto Vallarta or Cancún

or water-skiing over the blue-green waters of Kalamalka

breathing in deep

the deep beauty of the northern pines.

The calcite-rich cyan-to-indigo coloured waters of Lake Kalamalka, B.C. Photo: vernonatriumhotel.ca

The calcite-rich cyan-to-indigo coloured waters of Lake Kalamalka, B.C. Photo: vernonatriumhotel.ca

I know that you could be thinking that the world is made of order and light

and the laughter of children

but instead

you travel into the hills east of Kigali

toward poverty and worlds of darkness.

You dodge the machetes

and clean the same syringe for the fifteenth time

and wonder what miracle might save these people

might multiply like wine this serum

that comes in a bright orange package

(but there simply aren’t enough bright orange packages)

and when you try to sleep at night

what will you do with those memories

of an infected village

of a head cracked open

of a camp two miles long?

How will these memories sit with the other memories

of marshmallows around a campfire

and the crackling of the tinder and the pine needles

on a warm summer night

on the shores of Lake Kalamalka?


To all you warriors, unsung and unarmored

I raise my glass:

May you, and all those like you, inherit the earth.

Image from www.samaritanspurse.ca

Image from www.samaritanspurse.ca

Do Unto Others

While the argument I make in Gospel & Universe is against dogma, it also seems to me that there's a danger in rejecting Christian dogma. Can one reject dogma and yet retain the altruism and philanthropy that comes with this dogma? 

Not that altruistic values can only come with Christianity. Sartre's essay Existentialism is a Humanism argues that the roots of morality lie deeper than theology. In its more advanced stages, evolution itself requires degrees of selflessness. Bees and ants will sacrifice their own lives for the good of the group. Fathers will face wild beasts to protect their children. One of the finest incarnations of our ability to transcend our own thoughts and desires is the image of Mary, Mother of Grace. There's also Arjuna, who in the Bhagavad-Gita puts duty before personal and family interest. In Buddhism, there's the venerated figure of the bodhisattva, who sacrifices his spiritual  freedom — returning again and again to this world of suffering — in order to help those who are trapped in the relentless snare of ambition, lust, self-interest, and ego.

Christianity doesn’t have a monopoly on altruism, yet it's a core teaching. In the gospels, Jesus consistently urges us to look beyond our desires and prejudices. Doing so, we're more likely to get along with others, and to assist and understand those who we might otherwise look down on — especially those who have been rejected and devalued. 

Saint Francis of Assisi and the Jesuits are famous examples of Christians willing to ignore their own needs in order to help others. Yet there are millions of other compassionate believers. 

For instance, I went to a Catholic free school in grade twelve, and part of our curriculum included going to an asylum and helping kids with broken minds and bodies. It was one of the most difficult things I've ever done. It brought me face to face with lives that seemed absolutely meaningless: a three year old smashing his head against the floor. God's Divine Plan was mysteriously absent. Except here was a worker feeding the kid with the battered head, and here were students walking the mentally ill around the yard. 

For instance, my Catholic girlfriend in Geneva went every week to an old folks home, where she talked to people who had no one else to talk to. One week I joined her, wheeling their stiff bodies through the blue sky and green trees of a nearby public garden.

For instance, my Protestant sister and her husband spend a great chunk of their savings going to Cambodia and rescuing girls who have been raped and forced into prostitution. I send money every month to Doctors Without Borders, but I don't go to these places, write individual letters of encouragement, or sit around the dinner table worrying about what more I can do. 

These are some of the devote, and yes, in some ways dogmatic Christians I know personally. All of them are eager to put into practice the golden rule, Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.

My list of altruistic Christians is of course a special list. It didn't, for instance, include the 'Christian' camp counsellor who abused me when I was eleven, or any of the other counsellors who exposed themselves to the other boys there. These counsellors talked about openness, a higher love, brotherly love, and all sorts of eroticized dogma, all of which still makes me angry. I can only imagine how the altar boys in Boston felt, or the First Nation students in the infamous residential schools. It would make Saint Francis vomit.

But my point remains: there’s a deep and priceless vein of altruism in Christianity. This altruism urges service over self-interest, understanding over judgment, peace over violence.

Is it possible to retain this selfless idealism while rejecting dogma? Can we draw on a communal spirit of cooperation and caring, without thinking that we understand God better than those who have different ideas about theology? 



Next: The Baby and the Bathwater 

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