Brian Coyne is a freelance writer on religious and spiritual issues, relief editor for the Australian CathNews (http://www/ and an administrator of the CathNews discussion board ( http://www/ Write to him at

Is This the Big Religious Question of Our Time?

Brian Coyne

A friend of mine posted the following comment on the CathNews discussion board on New Year's Day. It caused me to think through one of the core lessons of what our faith is all about. She wrote: "I suppose it's also worth mentioning that Christ also said that the people should follow what the Pharisees taught, not what they actually did. His main beef was with their hypocrisy; not the fact of their leadership."

She raised an interesting point. I am not sure that Jesus was merely upset about their hypocrisy. Hypocrisy is a glaringly obvious fault – in anyone. All people tend to be revolted by it even when the hypocrites have nothing at all to do with religion.

I doubt that the stories of the Pharisees made their way into the sacred texts merely to drive home lessons about hypocrisy. To me the more important lesson to be learned from all the references to the Pharisees was their mindlessness -- what my youngest son today calls "uncle attitudes" -- doing something, believing something or obeying something – mindlessly.

I don't believe this is merely some interesting little debating point but drives to the heart of one of the most distinct differences in "the Way" of living and thinking that Christ was introducing into the world. This lies at the heart of the Catholic notion of the "primacy of conscience".

We don't merely rely on the law because it is the law. The authentic follower of Christ is commanded to think through every thought and behavior they are engaged in for themselves. This is a different thing to arguing that there are no rules or no laws though. Christ is not arguing that. Neither is he arguing that "anything goes" -- you can do or believe whatever you want to believe. He is not an anarchist suggesting there are no laws.

There clearly are laws in life which need to be followed. The heart and point of what Christ is getting at in his teaching regarding the Pharisees is that we need to reason through for ourselves why a law might exist. When we follow that law it is not because it is "the law" but because we have ourselves reasoned through that the law is sensible, just, intelligent, reasonable, etc.

Coming to this realization takes time – sometimes a lifetime. We do not expect children to understand exactly why their parents make all the rules they do. Children often obey simply because mum or dad said so. (When I was a tiny little kid, my family went to live right beside the main East-West railway line across Australia. There was no fence between the hotel my parents owned and this dangerous railway line. My brother and I had just one golden rule: "Don't go near that railway line." I still carry with me at least the psychological scars of the time when I "tested" that law. My father gave me one of the two or three "beltings" of my life. I will never forget them.)

As children mature, their parents take a different approach to the rules. They obey the rules, not simply because Mummy or Daddy say so. They obey because they understand why the rules are sensible, intelligent and reasonable. They learn to reason for themselves -- and eventually they realize their obedience rests on reason. They end up following the law – not because they are slaves to the law, but for exactly the opposite reason. The law doesn't own them. They own the law.

To cut to the chase: I don't believe all these stories about the Pharisees made their way into Scripture merely to entertain us. The writers of the Gospels had an important point to make about the central message that Jesus had taught them, a message that is still relevant today as the world faces the threat of global terrorism.

In a sense the actions of terrorists are the "mindless" actions that Christ was condemning. I am not here talking about biker gang terrorism where someone engages in some unlawful activity merely to assert their independence of the rest of society. I am talking about the terrorism where a person believes they are acting in obedience to some higher moral law that exempts them from conforming to certain laws of civilized behavior. There are instances in all of our lives where we are called to "civil disobedience" -- and, I dare say, if we haven't yet come across them we have probably not yet understood what the Christ message is really all about. It has something to do with loving people, not killing them.

We can't put a good name on bad actions merely because we say we are undertaking them in the name of God or of Allah. That is another example of "mindlessness" – and we see examples of this mindlessness almost every day when we read yet another news story about fanatics in Jerusalem killing the enemy because they "want to get closer to God." The 19 hijackers who launched their suicide missions on September 11, 2001 were, in their own deluded minds, no different. They had much in common with Christian fundamentalists who blow up abortion clinics, ruled not by love but by abstractions.

This is a hard lesson to learn. We do take a lifetime to learn it. And some never learn.