Sunday, September 17, 2006

Beyond Religion 1

Beyond Religion

I have always sought to avoid polemics in these pages, to avoid the pull of the extremes or poles, as it were.  However, sometimes one cannot, and indeed should not, stay silent.  I remember reading somewhere a comment by a professor of religious studies in some American University that there was nothing quite as bad as a bad religion and nothing quite as inspiring as a good one.  I think I understand what he was getting at.  Enough by way of introduction, it’s time to cut to the chase, to use a cliché.

Well Ratzinger, the erstwhile Vatican Rotweiller, has done it again, this time with his papal skull cap on.  He has managed to inflame the whole Islamic world.  Having said that, mind you, this latter world is very easily provoked.  It chooses to be insulted by even mild comments, legitimate criticisms or sincere approbations.

Ratzinger, (before he became Pope Benedict XVI he was known as the prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith,) issued many a right wing, reactionary, if not downright fascist document.  He had an ultraconservative take on Vatican II and would have steered clear of its more conciliatory and open approaches to the modern world.  He had nasty things to say about homosexuals - In his notorious Halloween letter, published in 1986, Ratzinger called homosexuality an "intrinsic moral evil" that threatens "the lives and well-being of a large number of people."

As "Grand Inquisitor" for Mother Rome, Ratzinger occupied himself in service to the Truth (that is, the Roman Catholic Church’s understanding of the Truth): correcting theological error, silencing dissenting theologians, and stomping down heresy wherever it reared its ugly head -- and, consequently, had received somewhat of a notorious reputation among the liberal media and liberal Catholic scholars.

Likewise Ratzinger was the author of the now famous or infamous document Dominus Iesus.  According to the Times News Service, the statement implied that "Churches such as the Church of England, where the apostolic succession of bishops from the time of St. Peter is disputed by Rome, and churches without bishops, are not considered 'proper' churches." They suffer from "defects." Religions other than Christianity are considered to be "gravely deficient." Their rituals can constitute "an obstacle to salvation" for their followers. (See the following site for relevant quotations: )  This is pre-Vatican II stuff.  It harps back to that era when Fr Fahy, S.J., an American theologian of the 1950s, was going around proclaiming that “there is no salvation outside the Roman Catholic Church.”  As far as my memory serves me, this rather fascist theologian was severely censured and indeed censored by his immediate Church and religious superiors. (I am open to correction as memory is a very fragile and fallible tool)  I remember reading this fact in Hans Kung’s marvellous book The Church which was banned by the official Church but which we studied at college back in the 1970s.  There is really nothing new in Dominus Iesus. It reflects long-standing beliefs of the Roman Catholic Church: that the Church alone possesses the full truth; all other faith groups have only elements of truth. To any secular individual, this may seem like an arrogant stance. However, it is hardly unique. Many, perhaps most, faith traditions also believe that they alone possess the entire truth, and view all other religions as being at least partly deficient.

However, practically all other religions, Christian as well as the Great Religions of the World have similar beliefs – that they alone possess the real and full essence of the Truth, with a capital T no doubt.  Hinduism, which is syncretistic by nature, is possibly the only exception.  Buddhism also can be viewed as a non-denominational General Life Philosophy as well as being a World Religion.

It is hard to see how mainline Christian Churches, Judaism and Islam (the three great religions of The Book) can have common ground.  If they each believe that they alone possess the truth or rather The Truth in capital letters how can they talk to each other about common ground.  Relativism has always been a bad word for religion of any hue because it allows for compromise, that is that our religion may not be the whole truth and nothing but the truth as it were.  Personally I feel and believe and think that truth is indeed relative.  People of deep, if entrenched, beliefs might find this objectionable.  I say to you that you are entitled to your deeply held beliefs, but I and others are also entitled to hold our own less dogmatic and less absolutist beliefs.  Absolutism leads to conflict and war.  Relativism implies compromise.  It also implies that I must listen to what the other person is saying.

The absolutist approach to truth has always turned me off.  In fact I find absolutism in religion repugnant in the extreme because it says that our members only have a privileged access to the truth and that we alone are saved.  Absolutism in ethics, in politics or in any other area also turns me off.  I am a firm believer in dialogue, and consequently in compromise, in the middle way as Aristotle put it.  Religion of the absolutist variety has caused so many wars and has been responsible for millions and millions of innocent deaths.  Christians stand condemned as well as Moslems.  It is time we went beyond the narrow confines of religion and embraced a spirituality that is open to all, that is open to learning what the truth is as we journey together towards a shared future on planet earth.

Nothing in this world is really 100% clear. This picture of the sunset with black obscuring clouds over Howth Harbour sums up for me the reality of the Truth - there are so many takes on it - it depends on where you are in the world. We all see the same sun, but truly we see that same sun differently

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