Beyond Religion 2
I chose the title “beyond religion” purposely, obviously. In choosing it I mean the title to be positive. This and the previous entry are in no way meant to be derogatory of religion. Perhaps a better way of putting it would be to say that my intentions and motives are good – that is I wish to deepen the debate, disabuse our minds of simplifications, encourage any readers there may be out there in cyberspace to bring the debate deeper and further.
Of course, any social commentator can see the good points in most religions: promoting social cohesion; promulgating ethical stances of great importance; helping humankind to come to grips with life – giving it some meaning and direction; marking all those great moments of life namely birth, coming of age, marriage and death; allowing humankind an appreciation of the symbolic; encouraging people to live better lives; helping the less fortunate; highlighting injustices; rooting out famine etc. The list of the good points are long and worthy of note. One cannot deny any of these factors. Good religion quite simply is good and provides a great service to humankind.
The negatives are also legion and do not belong to any one religion more than another. Christianity has a history of much violence behind it, not just Islam. In fact I’m sure if we were to look at most religions we would find that this was the case. I won’t go into the history of Christianity here, but will just mention the sorry saga of the Crusades, the persecution and execution of heathens of all religious backgrounds, the despicable and execrable massacres by the Conquistadores of hundreds of thousands of innocent Central and South American Indians (all in the name of religion, but really for gold and land and booty of all types) and the Holy Roman Inquisition. Need I go on? All the gory facts are there for all to find out.
I return again and again to one of my favourite authors – Fyodor Dostoyevski and to one of his great books, The Brothers Karamazov, a wonderful read for those of a philosophical turn of mind. My favourite scene in that book is where the historical Jesus returns to meet the Grand Inquisitor. Jesus does not recognize anything about the Church he was supposed to have founded. There is no freedom and people are put to death for heresies of one kind or another, just because they do not tow the party line. The Grand Inquisitor informs Jesus that people are really only like cattle – they possess a herd mentality, they cannot handle freedom, they need to be told what to think as well as what to do. Read this section for yourself, even if you never get around to reading the whole book. Is that the way our “official church” is today? Being brought up in a Catholic ethos I am referring to the Roman Catholic Church here in its official or hierarchical sense. This is a question you can answer for yourself. Questions are always more important than answers. This question and related ones can be asked of any Christian Church indeed.
Any religion worth its salt must improve humankind – it must be a leaven in society. If it is worth its salt it must critique society and bring it further on the road to righting injustices. When any religion begins to sow division and hatred of others then really it is hardly worthy of the name religion.
Without a doubt Pope Benedict XVI made a huge faux pas with his recent comments about Islam. Being too much the scholar (and like our own dear Cardinal Connell: both scholars in the Casaubon mode of Middlemarch I like to imagine) showed himself to be all too unmindful of the power of the media and the sheer ability of sound bites, often misquoted of course, to flit from one side of the world to another. The late Pope John Paul II was far too shrewd and canny an operator to make such a mistake. He always left it to the likes of Ratzinger (now the present pontiff) to promulgate the harsher parts of his message.
So Ratzinger, wearing the fisherman’s shoes, has incited Islam by quoting an ancient text by a medieval emperor. To see effigies of the Pope being burned by extremist sections of Islam is sad and all too worrying.
Is dialogue between religions of such seeming extreme viewpoints possible at all? Yes, there is some dialogue going on somewhere no doubt. Hence my title – can we go beyond religion? I’m not suggesting abandoning or abolishing religion – not that such a task would be possible anyway. What I’m suggesting is asking deeper questions in the tradition of the late great Anglican theologian who got me thinking about God and religion in a critical and meaningful non-denominational fashion. I refer to Bishop John A T Robinson who authored the multimillion copy seller Honest To God in the late sixties of the last century. It is in this sense that my title takes its meaning. I’m arguing then for a secular theology in line with Robinson and that other marvellous liberal theologian Harvey Cox of Harvard.
In the light of the horrors of worldwide terrorism, the so-called war on this latter, the wasted lives of all the thousands of innocents killed, we must deepen the questions we ask. We must be slow to jump to conclusions. We must be willing to listen and listen well. How can we establish a credible dialogue between Israelis and Palestinians, between right wing America and extreme Islam? How can we bring about peace with anyone whom we call enemies except by talking to them, and, of course, listening to them and their consequent listening to us?
There is a middle ground somewhere. There are liberal Catholics, Protestants and Muslims. This liberal middle ground must speak out and reign in our extremists!