One of my daughter’s good friends recently came out as … well, I’m not sure what the word is. S/he was born male but feels like a lesbian. That seems a tad more complicated than transgender, but there you have it.
If one felt moved to make a moral pronouncement about that situation, what would one say?
For the evangelicals with whom I used to consort, the answer would be simple.
Or would it?
My thesis in this post is that traditional, sacred-text-based religions make morality more complicated than it really is, and therefore less clear.
I will set the stage with a digression to another field where complications are the order of the day: horology. The highest accomplishment in making a timepiece is to introduce as many complications as possible. Complication in horology is a term of art meaning a feature beyond displaying hours, minutes and seconds.
Patek Philippe claims to have made the three most complicated watches ever. The most complicated of them all is the Calibre 89, a pocket watch weighing in at over 1 kilogram and sporting 33 complications ranging from the date of Easter to the times of sunrise and sunset. It is valued at about $6 million.
In second place is the Super-complication custom-built for banker Henry Graves in 1933. It has 24 complications, including one that displays the current position of the stars over Graves’ New York home. It fetched $11 million at auction in 1999.
These ultra-luxe watches are not just gadget boxes. Their mechanical movements (quartz is for plebeians) are superbly crafted for accuracy. One complication, called a tourbillon, is designed to counter the bias that the force of gravity exerts on the movement, by encasing key components in an assembly that continually rotates, evening out gravitational effects. Of course, horologists did not stop there; there are double-axis tourbillons, triple-axis tourbillons and even flying tourbillons.
All this human genius is just that: human. The natural phenomenon on which these vastly complicated machines report could not be simpler. It is the one-way arrow of time, which lengthens at a constant rate.
The stupendous achievements of horologists remind me of certain religious texts. To come up with an accurate time, one must construct a movement of hundreds of parts: the balance spring to get things started; precisely crafted gears spinning in every direction; escapements to change one form of energy into another; tourbillons to counteract gravitational bias; and who-know-what else. Likewise, religious texts invariably contain many passages on a given topic, some suggesting one conclusion and others “balancing” that by pointing to another. That’s why people can spend hundreds of years arguing about what The Book really says.
There’s a lot that can go wrong for the horologist, and a lot that can go wrong for the exegete.
The Boston Marathon Bombings on April 15 were only the latest example of the peril of entrusting complicated scripture — with some passages spinning clockwise toward peace and others spinning counter-clockwise towards killing infidels — to the brains of people who, shall we say, take far less care making decisions about other people’s lives than Patek Philippe does making watches.
It seems to me that the underlying ideals are a lot less complicated than the Koran or the Bible make them out to be, just as the arrow of time is less complicated than a Calibre 89.
Even Jesus thought it was a good idea to simplify, saying,
So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets.
(Admittedly, Jesus also said that not a single letter of the Old Testament Law was to be set aside, so he was not completely a simplificationist.)
The Dalai Lama said,
We can reject everything else: religion, ideology, all received wisdom. But we cannot escape the necessity of love and compassion…. This, then, is my true religion, my simple faith. In this sense, there is no need for temple or church, for mosque or synagogue, no need for complicated philosophy, doctrine or dogma. Our own heart, our own mind, is the temple. The doctrine is compassion.
So what shall we say about my daughter’s friend? The Bible says lesbian desires are “shameful.” Does it still count as lesbian desire if you’re biologically a man? No? Then what if you’re biologically a man but have had a sex-change operation? And does the righteous course of action depend on whether the desires are inborn? Does it matter that God makes each of the way we are? Or is The Fall, not God, to blame for our perverse tendencies? But how can a just God hold us to account for Adam and Eve’s actions? Can you change sexual orientation through prayer? What if the prayer does not work?
All those complications should make us ask, “Are we making something that is as simple as time, as complicated as a watch?”
The Dalia Lama continued,
Love for others and respect for their rights and dignity, no matter who or what they are: ultimately these are all we need.