When faith claims a monopoly on truth anything can happen - even planes being flown into skyscrapers, beheadings and innocents burned alive
IN MY THIRTY YEARS as a Kirk minister and spiritual leader, one word more than any other characterizes the way in which institutional religion has changed: Decline.
Fewer folk attending worship, fewer baptisms and marriages in church - and with this numerical fall, an inevitable drop in resources to sustain ministries and keep church buildings open. As a liberal Christian, I must admit that the only area that seems to buck the trend is an increase in those concurring with what I would call a conservative or fundamentalist religion.
Why? Because fundamentalism acts like a spiritual fire blanket. In a rapidly changing world it presents (wrongly I think) dogmatic, rock-like certainty; assurances gleaned from either infallible authorities or inspired texts – or both. It’s attractive because it provides a structured mindset of spiritual security that is both comforting and clear. Clear cut, simple, easily believed. And because of that, it is naturally suspicious of anyone choosing to dissent, or indeed, criticize.
When religious paradigms shift (and let’s be clear, they always have) such moments throw people into a state of flux. For example, think of a small primitive community burning sacrifices to the Sun God to secure healing for a local villager. And then one day a 21st century medical doctor arrives with appropriate remedies. With the distressed villager now well, the community’s religious paradigm shifts in order to accommodate the altered scientific reality. In a sense, the pieces on everyone’s chess board are on the move. But there again, is that not what the game’s about? Are the pieces not designed to move up and down the board? Is life different?
Of course, it’s not just medicine. It’s also astronomy, physics, biology, philosophy. Names like Galileo, Newton, Descartes and Darwin have all, in their own ways, generated seismic shifts in world thinking. And the result? A corresponding change in religious outlook. At first angry and antagonistic, but inevitably resigned to the fact that it must also evolve or die.
While I talk about religious evolution in a creative and life-giving way, I am conscious that today’s world religions are more inclined to adopt the language of death and dogma. And some are determined to evangelise their cause with weapons as well as words. How should we respond to this?
Someone once compared the church to a swimming pool. All the noise today is up at the shallow end. I think that’s true. The loudest have least to say. In a time of decline, when people can’t see how old-fashioned religion relates to their lives, the spiritual vacuum is generally filled by those flogging creeds of noisy simplicity. One fixed formula, one holy unchanging text, one leader with one infallible perspective. All terribly limiting. No, more than that – a sheer denial of life’s rich meaning and colour.
And yet, the crowds gather. We hear their chants on the evening news. It's because this kind of reductionism is attractive. It makes the complicated, less complicated. Or so it appears.
But then you apply your mind. Truth is truth. There’s not religious truth. There’s just truth. And what we regard as true is always, at the end of the day, a believed reality borne of one’s own heart. Things are not true because some religious figure says they are. They are true because you and I have the courage and audacity to embrace them, and more than that, run with them as free spirits. We then discover that truth, by its very nature, is self-authenticating. The purpose of religious bodies like my own is to share graciously the truth of their own stories. And to do this lovingly through signpost and symbol; in other words, kindly media through which friends in varied places can be spiritually encouraged rather than enslaved. At the end of the day, the freedom to hear, interpret and live belong to each of us. Nobody can rob us of that right.
I remain optimistic. I believe in Resurrections! So I must be a person of Hope. However, to be serious, religions, of whatever sort, must allow room for different theological stalls in their market places. My own church used to call itself a ‘broad church’. Historically, it was liberal. Therefore, there was room to accommodate folk of opposing views and perspectives. This was its strength. Indeed, the substance of any religious faith requires a rich cacophony of voices. Without them, religion dissolves into grey monotony marching its troops to a single drum beat.
A small example may illustrate this. When I arrived at my present church in 1994, the worship area was laid out like a cinema. The seating was fixed and in rows – all pointing to the front, where the minister occupied a high pulpit, allowing him to look down on the congregation with an air of authority. During my tenure, the pews were removed and replaced with flexible seating, whereby the congregation was now able to sit in a circular shape. The pulpit has fallen into disuse.
Wisdoms are now shared in the round. It’s risky, but at least it places authority back where it belongs – among the hearts and minds of us all. Because truth belongs to us all. And no religion worth its salt should canvas conviction in a way that deprives the individual of this sacred human gift. And I mean, NO RELIGION.
Religious faith can be such a life giving thing; a source of positive virtue in terms of hope, wisdom and peace. And yet, if one observes the reality of religious expression in many parts of the world today, one would have to conclude that religion is often used as a force for evil rather than good. It’s about enslaving rather than enriching human life.
But I’m also conscious of historical bench-marks; times when people of faith secured life-changing shifts in terms of morality and ethics. For example, an end to slavery and children up chimneys, general health inequality, illiteracy and a whole host of other injustices done away with by campaigners inspired by one faith or another.
Who gets in and who stays out?
The troublesome things I mention stem from the evolutionary path that all religions are prone to take as a matter of course. A little illustration from my childhood may help to throw light on this: I can remember, as a boy, being part of a tree-house building adventure. A long established oak tree behind a friend’s garden served to house our structure. With zeal and enthusiasm, a dozen determined youngsters set about with nails, wood and hammers. At first, everyone pulled together with a shared vision (visions have a habit of promoting unity). However, once the task was completed, relational tensions began to emerge. By the end of a protracted process, we had ring-fenced the tree, had placed a guard on duty at a small entrance, and with aplomb, provided a bizarre password for all who wished to enter. Indeed, for those acquainted with the Hebrew scriptures the word ‘shibboleth’ comes to mind. In a sense, we were doing what religions have always done: marking out theological territory, building a big high wall with a professional religious class at the gate ‘qualified’ to assess who gets in and who stays out.
The drawing board stage of ideas always unites people. It’s sexier than the day-to- day grind of making the ideas relevant and meaningful to the world around. At that stage, evangelism can so easily become a form of persecution.
But is this scenario inevitable? Can religions not naturally evolve and develop over time? I don’t think so. At least, not easily. It’s like Communism. Marxism had much to commend it, but ultimately it fell foul of the fact that ideas need institutions in order to trade in the world. Sadly, institutions love power structures, bureaucracies, filing cabinets and committee meetings. As a result, the means become more important than the ends. And at what cost? Well, terror. And let me just say that Christianity has little to boast about on that front. The so-called righteous causes of history have left many a community scarred, both physically and spiritually. All supposedly in the name of God.
Religions love the singular rather than the plural. One simple idea, one clearly defined creed, one single voice of authority. And once that religious train is set on the historical track, you can be sure there’s going to be one almighty collision.
New ideas will, of course, prove to be the offending obstacle. Religions will always be a hundred years behind the times. Darwin published his theories of evolution in the mid-nineteenth century. Yet in some circles folk carry on the endless debate about Adam, Eve and the Fall. New ideas have always tormented those inclined to see truth as fixed and unchanging. And my goodness, how folk have suffered.
Religions can evolve, but it’s usually while kicking and screaming; usually fending off those anxious to insist that the world is not flat, that demons don’t cause illness, that Hell is the product of a rather nasty religious imagination fired by dogma rather than healthy debate. On this front, the Enlightenment posed the biggest obstacle to those inclined to close their minds to the world.
And the Enlightenment remains crucial to today's religious debate. My New Testament Professor at Edinburgh used to say: ‘Always remember that you are children of the Enlightenment’. In other words, the emphasis now lies with human reason and experience rather than traditional religious authority. Religions will always claim some form of revelation at the heart of their spiritual experiences. However, the significance of such claims must be viewed under the spotlight of modern thinking, be it science or philosophy.
A true tale from the past that should serve as an awful warning to those tempted to indulge in the art of harsh judgement; judgement shaped by the mistaken belief in absolute truth.
The setting is Edinburgh at the close of the 17th Century. As a university city, the place was awash with student debate – most of it carried out quietly and discreetly behind locked doors. Enlightenment ideas, recently imported from the Continent, were leaving their mark on the consciousness of young minds. A Newtonian interpretation of nature had taken hold in the world of science, and within the Church Scriptures were now being subjected to intensive scrutiny; miracles were challenged and prophecy reassessed. As one historian has put it, ‘the balance shifted from what God has revealed to what man has discovered.
Into that Edinburgh scene came a young man by the name of Thomas Aikenhead, a divinity student studying at the university. One evening, in the company of student friends, Thomas found himself in a bar on the Royal Mile, just down from Edinburgh Castle. No doubt the day’s classes had raised issues worthy of discussion over a few beers. Unfortunately, by the time it came to leave the premises, tongues had been loosened to such an extent that young men in high spirits were capable of saying anything on the road home. Sadly, Thomas fell victim to this. Overheard casting doubt on the divinity of Christ, and generally questioning a literal interpretation of scripture, he was hastily condemned by so-called friends and reported to the religious and civil authorities.
Within days he was charged with a capital offence: Blasphemy. Things moved quickly. Thomas was jailed. A few remaining friends pleaded for mercy, but to no avail. A rigid Calvinist dogma would ensure that this free-spirited critic would shortly pay the price. And Thomas did. Twenty one years of age, he was sentenced to death, and on 8 January 1697 he was hanged from the gallows at Leith. His final words are particularly poignant: ‘It was out of a pure love of truth that I acted…It is a principle innate to every man to have an insatiable inclination to truth.'
We should take time to absorb these words. Every religious person needs to trade in the currency of openness and acceptance. It’s fine to affirm a particular faith, but the moment that faith claims a monopoly on truth, well, anything is possible Even planes flying into skyscrapers; innocents being beheaded or burned alive.
What would Thomas say today, given the rise of religious extremism in certain quarters?
I think he would encourage us to do as he did: Regardless of constraint, never lose the desire to see life afresh, and never lose the passion to follow the arguments wherever they lead. Upon these principles civilisation depends.
Andrew Frater is Minister of Cairns Church of Scotland, Milngavie, near Glasgow