The oath attributed to Hippocrates, ancient Greek founder of the art and science of medicine, has for some centuries been understood to embody the core teaching, “Do no harm.” Although the words are not literally in the original Hippocratic oath, they are surely implied. Often these words echo in my mind, perhaps because my father was a physician, who often told us that too many physicians worked for money, rather than the health of their patients, often performing unnecessary and costly procedures and operations. Our father would often say, “Let nature run its course.” Overall, his medically inspired teaching to his children was: “Do no harm.”
Before applying this principle, we reflect briefly on some of the words of the original Hippocratic oath, as translated by W.H.S. Jones in the Loeb edition, and as reported on Wikipedia online (hence readily available to readers). A few sentences from the original Hippocratic oath:
“I swear by Apollo Physician [Apollo is the Sun god], by Asclepius [god of healing], by Hygieia [literally, goddess named for Health], by Panacea [goddess, meaning “all-cures’], and by all the gods and goddesses, making them my witnesses, that I will carry out, according to my ability and judgment, this oath and this indenture. To hold my teacher in this art equal to my own parents….I will use treatment to help the sick according to my ability and judgment, but never with a view to injury and wrong-doing….I will keep pure and holy both my life and my art. Into whatsoever houses I enter, I will enter to help the sick, and I will abstain from all intentional wrong-doing and harm…”
To do good to the patient, and not to do harm or evil, is the clear intent of the phyisicans’ Hippocratic oath. And to do good and not evil is the most succinct summary of human ethics, clearly developed as such in the dialogues of Plato, in Aristotle’s unsurpassable Nicomachean Ethics, in the Hebrew Scriptures, in the New Testament. When St. Thomas Aquinas seeks to express the core teaching of what he calls the “natural law,” he draws on the same teaching: to do good and to avoid doing evil. That is the summary of the divine and natural imperative for human beings.
In writing these little essays, am I doing good, and avoiding evil? I often ask myself this question. While I write only what is true to the best of my understanding and judgment, I am aware of an existential problem: It could be that in criticizing the churches, the hierarchy, our American way of life, and so on, my words will serve to weaken attachment to these, at a very time when there is so little for many to cling to for some sort of guidance and direction in life. That is a risk I have been taking. If my words cause one to try to dump the Christianity of the churches without having a living spiritual foundation, then they may do that person harm. If the best that one can do is to attend church (or synagogue), keep the customs as taught, share in the rituals, and be a patriotic citizen of his or her country, then that is what a particular person ought to do. If someone cannot bear the criticisms I offer of institutional Christianity and our present American way of life, then he or she may not be able to rise above the flaws and failures; keeping still and minding one’s own business may truly be what is best for that person. Only I would add this warning: beware of the subtle poison of “see no evil, hear no evil…”
The examples of Moses, of the Buddha, of Socrates, and of Jesus are often before my mind’s eye. These four men had more to offer human beings than any others I know in the course of human history. Each one was the carrier of a major spiritual breakthrough to humankind; two of them paid for the truth they spoke and lived by rejection and death at the hands of authorities in their societies. By divine intervention, Moses broke from Egypt, and led the Chosen People to freedom under God. The Buddha, borrowing from the rich Hindu spiritual traditions and practices, suspended beliefs in gods and religious practices for the movement into the abyss of peace and silence beyond all world-immanent content (whether real or imagined). In leading human beings forth into true freedom and enlightenment, both Moses and the Buddha implicitly or explicitly broke from their cultures and traditions. Socrates did not urge an exodus from Athens, but as he claims in Plato’s Apology, he had been sent by the God as a “gad-fly” to sting the Athenian people and wake them up to reality. The Athenian powers that be chose the unexamined life, which is mental death, over questioning one’s life and hence living in uncertain truth. The lover of wisdom Socrates gladly accepted physical death over certain mental-spiritual death of the unexamined life. Sentenced to death by poison, Socrates declares, “Now it is time to go, I to die, you to live; whoever of us has the better fate is unknown to anyone, except to the God.” As for Jesus, as far as we know from the textual evidence, he was and remained a faithful Jew; he attended synagogue, kept the feasts (especially Passover), revered the Law and the prophets. But above all, Jesus was utterly faithful to the God who had spoken to Moses, “I AM WHO AM.” It was this living and true divine Presence, unencrusted by doctrines and rituals, that Jesus presented to those who “listened to his word.” Did Jesus do harm? Only to those who hardened their hearts to the divine Presence active in and through him. To those who listened and responded in openness of heart, Jesus was Christ the liberator, who declared, “Before Abraham was born, I AM.” To those who chose ritualized tradition over ever-seeking God, Jesus was another false Messiah, who had to be silenced: “Crucify him.”
The Christianity of the churches has often become a stumbling block to men and women seeking to live in openness to truth. Those with more enquiring minds open to philosophy, or those who desire to practice meditation drawing from Hindu-Buddhist traditions, have often been criticized, or told to “be quiet,” or even not to read philosophy or to practice “Eastern meditation.” Ironically, the portrait of Pharisaical teaching and practices so denounced in the pages of the New Testament is often presented before our eyes by clergy in the churches: “Do as I say, not as I do.” Some of these clergy who condemn “non-Christian philosophy and religions” are themselves products of mass secular culture, including superficial pop-psychology. And above all, humanity remains humanity, and spiritually dull, power-seeking, and money-loving men and women often push their way to the top of the human heap, assuming leadership roles in the churches. Christian clergy are all-too-often as self-satisfied, as self-important, as spiritually insensitive as the Pharisees caricaturized in the Gospels. Frankly, often enough, the “faithful” in the pews may be in a similar boat. Far too many do not want the hard reality of living in uncertain truth; they prefer to remain more or less asleep in their certain untruths. They fail to ask searching questions, or call clergy to account for their shallowing preaching. In short, for those with enquiring minds and open-spirits, the churches today are all-too-often inhospitable places.
Generally, the Christianity of the churches often adds to the spiritual and mental diseases of our age, rather than help alleviate them. Ours is indeed a sick era in history. (Whether sicker or worse than other eras is not here the question.) Many human beings in our midst are suffering from a spiritual and intellectual wasteland within. From what I have seen of Protestant and Catholic churches, this wasteland is largely ignored, covered up, or increased, rather than treated with appropriate intellectual-spiritual therapy. In other words, as I survey the non-wondrous landscape of Christianity, I see so much damage being done, and insufficient good for our people. But if a truly needy soul is genuinely nourished by attending church, by singing hymns, by listening to stale or insipid preaching, by praying comfortably in public, then I am happy for that person, and would encourage him or her to continue. However, each of us must be radically honest with ourselves, and ask: Am I being nourished, becoming a better human being, by sharing in the religious practices of my church? If the answer is “yes,” that would indicate that one may well continue on that path. And yet, each one should also answer a more probing question: am I doing all that I can to grow spiritually, to be awake and alive during my own lifetime, or am I being spiritually lazy, and depending too much on outer rituals and actions?
If I did not believe that there is better in store for many of my fellow human beings, I would not write as I do. I would not criticize the Catholic hierarchy as I have done if I did not believe that it is often doing far more harm than good, and if I did not believe that “we the people” could do better than be foolishly submissive to a scandalous and morally deficient body of men. One deceives himself or herself by thinking, “the bishops, priests, and deacons are not perfect, but they are not so bad, either.” To those who deceive themselves, I seek to sound a wake-up call. In reality, however, “the cat is already out of the bag,” many men and women content to be silent in recent decades have come to understand what a wasteland is displayed to them in the ordained clergy of the churches. Frankly, it is about time that more in the pews begin to see the corruption that has been present, but often cloaked beneath clerical vestments.
“Do no harm.” I do not wish to harm the “Christian faithful,” or those more or less simple souls who cannot or will not think through problems in the churches. Many Protestants, for example, remain attached to the “holy Bible” in ways that are not mentally healthy. Still, to read the Scriptures attentively and prayerfully is a good and salutary spiritual exercise, and I would not wish them to cease, but rather, to do so more intelligently and honestly, if possible. Many practicing Catholics remain emotionally attached to the hierarchy and the rituals in ways that are not mentally or spiritually healthy; but to share attentively and lovingly in the sacramental life of the Church may give them some comfort, peace, and sense of the holiness of God. I do not wish to harm any human beings, and surely not simpler men and women who are truly doing the best they can to respond to what they believe to be their vocations, their callings, their faith.
And yet, it is good that each of us asks more questions, and not be content with the status quo, especially as the churches are dwindling in numbers, and often lacking in vitality. After all, Christ called the “poor in spirit” to follow him; he did not call the self-satisfied to remain relatively lifeless on their church pews. Furthermore, the conduct of a number of clergy has been so bad, so wicked, and so destructive, that one must speak out, must act, and must not let personal likes and dislikes cloud one’s vision. Some of these clergymen are bad human beings, corrupt in deeds and in their blind hearts. Some are just plain wicked. Do not be deceived. Worst of all, many in the churches today are being given a stone or a scorpion, when they really need spiritual bread: the living Christ, the truth of reality, and not some pretty substitutes.The “faithful” have been foolishly content with moldy bread and contaminated water.
“Do no harm.” The burden on each of us is not to harm others—nor to harm ourselves. When a bishop has let a priest-scoundrel get away with doing evil for years, that bishop has harmed many human beings—even if he tells himself, “I am being compassionate to a wayward brother priest.” How we deceive ourselves. Far better for the scoundrel and for the faithful who have been cheated and deceived if the wickedness had been publicly admitted, publicly addressed, and the evil-doer had been lopped off the tree as the dead branch he really is. Far better for the molesting or thieving priest to do time in prison, where he belongs, than to parade himself in clericals in public, as if he is a good and faithful servant of Christ. For the sake of its own presumed reputation (which is now lost anyway), the hierarchy has sacrificed the spiritual welfare of the people. And meanwhile, the scoundrel priests laugh, thinking, “I got away with it.” And what happens to the Christians in the pew? They are taught a lesson: “the Church we believed to be holy and good is in reality a corrupt and destructive human institution.” Such are the words I hear from many of the faithful who have been scandalized—not so much by the evils done, as by the excuses, the cover-ups, the pretending that nothing was wrong. As I noted above, stop pretending you are holy, Christian clergy; the cat is indeed out of the bag.
By being so blunt, as honest as I can be, am I doing harm? To those who live enshrouded in pretense, my words no doubt sting and arouse anger. So be it. To those who truly want to live good lives, how can the truth do harm? “Their wounds are foul and festering, yet they refuse to come to Me, that I may heal them.”
08 Feb 2019