I wonder what Heather Mac Donald would say about Cicero’s dialogue On the Nature of the Gods. In it, three friends spend an afternoon pondering the ultimate questions of religion. One of them expresses a weirdly postmodern view: We cannot know the nature of the Gods, but a good person knows in his gut the difference between right and wrong, and good people should venerate the religious rites and beliefs of their ancestors and fellows. Hence even agnostics have an important reason to revere religion.
When I go to mass, I am deeply moved by the ritual and symbols of the Catholic faith, the faith of my family through centuries and centuries. I feel a deep reverence for the Virgin Mary — even though I know that the Aramaic word from which “virgin” was translated not only does not imply virginity but in fact arguably implies the opposite. In fact, I revere the Christians symbols even though I see them more as the pagan artifacts of Imperial Rome, signifiers of how thoroughly the Romans obliterated the early church and then bothered to preserve only a few of its trappings. And consider Jesus on the Cross. As a symbol, it often strikes me as a morbid and indeed garish relic of primitive anthropology. Communion itself is based on a metaphor that is explicitly cannibalistic. From the visiting Martian’s point of view, it’s as if you were to base an entire religious on a snuff film that gets played at the start of every church service.
And yet for the past 2,000 years, the Cross has been the central symbol of God’s love for us, the sacrifice of his only son for our sins, a symbol of the infinite grace and goodness of our Lord, of the source of all things in this vast benevolent universe. Because of what the cross meant and means to other Christians, because of its power to inspire charity, and service, and sacrifice, I worship it too. I’m not a particularly religious man, and I know that violent and brutish societies use religion as a veil for all sorts of heinous crimes. But I also think that when a society is healthy, like ours, religion can be a great good thing. Maybe I’m more Roman than Catholic, but I try to be a good Christian. And I hold the veneration of the venerable to be a civic duty — especially for a nation as blessed as ours.