Why Can’t You “Just Believe”? Parsifal vs Therese of Lisieux

Last year, I told a condensed version of my de-conversion story on Rod Dreher’s blog in response to a post he did in which he crowded about how millenials are supposedly flocking to conservative churches with traditional liturgies. One of the other posters asked me why I couldn’t “just believe” rather than over-analyze and over-think the elements of Christianity. Why couldn’t I be satisfied with the simple Biblical tales enshrined in stained glass windows that had sustained the faith of the peasantry for centuries? As I recall, the essence of my reply was that while “just believing” like a little child (see Matthew 18: 3) may be considered a virtue in Christianity, it’s really not a good idea. In fact, I would go as far to say that the notion of “just believing” is one of the worst ideas that the Abrahamic faiths in general have foisted on the world.

The ridiculousness of “just believing” was not lost on pagan critics of Christianity. Fragments from the works of the second century Greek philosopher Celsus (whose anti-Christian writings were suppressed and burnt by the members of church militant) indicate that the most important precept of Christianity appeared to be, “Do not ask questions, just believe” and “Thy faith will save thee.” On a more practical level, “just believing” encourages followers to be ignorant and credulous, especially when it comes to the misconduct of the clergy. In fundamentalist Protestant sects like the Independent Fundamentalist Baptists as the numerous flavors of Calvinism, the “man of god” is prone to utter, “Touch not God’s anointed” to deflect criticism of his behavior, whereas the supposed “ontological change” in the soul of priests justified the “father knows best” attitude among Catholics (the situation is little better in the world of Orthodox Judaism, especially in the Hasidic world where personality cults around important rebbes are the norm, but that’s another story). Paul himself proudly uttered that the “foolishness” of the gospel is a sure sign of its truth and that Christians should scorn the wisdom of the philosophers. When ignorance is seen as a virtue, can it really come as a surprise that so many Christians are dismissive of secular learning?

I will use the example of the title character in Richard Wagner’s opera Parsifal to illustrate what I mean. For a synopsis of Parsifal, see here:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Parsifal

On the surface, Parsifal is a retelling of the various medieval era Arthurian legends that focus on the knight Percival, who is sometimes conflated in later stories with Galahad, the knight so perfect that he ascended into heaven after seeing the Holy Grail. However, while Parsifal freely uses the symbols of Christianity, it’s not a Christian story in any orthodox sense of the word, since the real philosophical underpinnings of the opera are Buddhism and Schopenhauerian ethics as filtered through the mind of Richard Wagner. As an aside, this is why I loathe productions of Parsifal in which Kundry doesn’t die at the end, because it obscures the fact that Kundry is seeking release from the endless cycle of reincarnations that she has been cursed with since she mocked Jesus on the cross hundreds of years prior (i.e., the end of samsara in Buddhist terms).

Anyway, Parsifal starts out the opera as a true “fool” who is so ignorant that he doesn’t even know his own name. He first enters the opera as a result of killing a swan in the protected ground of Montsalvat. Parsifal may be a “holy fool” but at this point in the story, he’s simply a fool whose ignorance leads to wanton destruction. The same is true when he witnesses the sacred office. It’s not until he is enlightened by Kundry’s kiss that he is able to understand Amfortas’ pain and thusly defeat Klingsor and obtain the Holy Spear. Furthermore, Parsifal has to be further enlightened by other adventures (which take place offstage) before he can finally use the Holy Spear to heal Amfortas and perform the sacred office. Simply being a “holy fool” isn’t enough for Parsifal to be a hero; he has to gain life experience in order to gain enlightenment and help himself and others.

Contra the “holy fool enlightened by compassion” is someone like Therese of Lisieux, who like the primordial Parsifal, was bereft of life experience and secular knowledge. If we take her famous “Story of a Soul” at face value (and like all saint’s tales/hagiographies, “Story of a Soul” is highly edited), then Therese Martin emerged from the womb with the intent of being a saint and wrote down a how-to-guide for others to follow in the steps of her “Little Path.” But from a secular perspective, Therese is simply a dull, priggish, bourgeois girl who never allowed herself to grow up, whether in a chronological sense or in an intellectual/emotional sense and preferred to wall herself off in a nunnery rather than deal with the real world. The whole “spiritual childhood” concept represents the worst aspects of the “just believe” mentality, not only in the sense of the blind acceptance of dogma but in the sense of purposely dulling one’s mind to be acceptable to god. Perhaps if Therese had lived twenty or thirty years longer, her views on religious matters might have matured along with her body, but if “Story of a Soul” is any indication, she was permanently stuck in an emotional prison of her own making and growing older wouldn’t have helped her gain anymore insight on life.

Parsifal shows that virtue must be combined with compassion and knowledge in order to be useful. Just being a fool with no qualifiers is, well, just foolish.

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