Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Religion Gone Bad

Let’s take a little break from the Anglican history—though it just about to get interesting with Henry VIII and all that stuff—and look at some contemporary issues.  The following article by Jason Rezaian appeared in the Washington Post on May 31st  

In the narrow alleys of south Tehran, life is a struggle that feels anything but just.
The traditionally religious neighborhoods have long been a base of support for the Islamic republic and the 1979 revolution that led to its formation. The densely populated communities supplied tens of thousands of young men to fight in the eight-year war between Iran and Iraq in the 1980s. Their working classes formed a base of support that helped catapult Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to the presidency in 2005.
But the quality of life has been plummeting for families such as the Vahidis, a three-generation clan of 14 people crammed into three small floors of a roughly built house. On a recent day, the 80-year-old matriarch, Khatoon Vahidi, lay quietly trembling in a room, the victim of a recent stroke; her three daughters said they have halved the dosages of her medication because the imported drug she needs has tripled in price.
“We love our supreme leader. We just hope a better president comes,” said 45-year-old Mahboobeh Vahidi, the oldest of the daughters and a mother of four. Devout, working-class Shiite families such as the Vahidis compose much of Iran’s population of 75 million, but with an election to choose Ahmadinejad’s successor less than two weeks away, some are questioning old allegiances.

“We love our supreme leader…”  This encapsulates the major problem of organized religion—any religion.  We too often have the cult of the leader instead of the search for Truth. In this case Ms. Vahidi. her belief in the Ayatollah Khamenei has blinded her to the role that a particularly dogmatic school of Islam plays in the misery of the Iranian peoples.   Iran’s domestic and foreign policy is driven by dogma, and dogma as defned by one man, rather than reason and the search for the welfare of the people of Iran. But this is not a problem limited to Iran or to Islam.  It doesn’t matter whether the leader is Sayyed Ali Khamenei or Ruhollah Khomeini before him or Joel Osteen or Patriarch Kirill of Moscow or the Lubavitcher Rebbe, the Dalai Lama, L. Ron Hubbard, or the Pope.  The Problem is when people confuse religion with Truth and religious leaders with Divine Authority.  I say divine authority rather than God because there are many far too devout people who can, at least intellectually, distinguish between God and a human leader but who still confuse the credibility of the human leader with a confidence that should be placed in God alone. Many people cling to religious doctrines, or even opinions, as God’s final and authoritative word when religious doctrines, at best, can be no more than attempts to articulate a Truth that surpasses any human ability to comprehend much less to define.  This over confidence in one’s religious opinions leads to the burning of Christian churches in Nigeria, Buddhists attacking Moslems in Myanmar, Palestinians being driven out of their homes by Jewish settlers in the West Bank, and Hindu attacks on native Indian Christians.  It has led to the outrageous attacks on Christians under Pakistani “Blasphemy Laws.” It was responsible for pogroms against the Jews in Russia and it permitted “good Catholics”—even Saints like Maximilian Kolbe—to fan the flames of anti-Semitism that led to the Holocaust.  It is responsible for the fire-bombing of abortion clinics by right wing Christians and attacks on the LGBT community by Christians, Jews, and Muslims alike. Contemptible amounts of evil have been—and are being done—in the name of Jesus, of the Prophet, of the Buddha, and of God himself by people claiming to be religious but who have confused prejudice for faith and rage for virtue. 

Does this mean that religious people should not organize themselves into churches, synagogues, mosques, or sanghas?  By no means, but we need to keep in focus what the nature of religion is and we need to recognize that those who pretend to religious leadership whether on the level of the local congregation or through vast television “ministries,” or national and international conferences, councils, synods, or curiae are no more than charlatans if they do not speak for the dignity and rights of men, women, and children (note: women and children, not merely men) that empower each human person to live not only in safety but with the opportunity for a better future in this world as well as some doctrinally defined “next.”   And let us remember too that while each of us is entitled to believe our particular religious tradition to contain “more” truth than others, that no religion or Church has the monopoly on Truth and that far less Truth is “known” to the human mind than can ever be apprehended or defined. 
If religion does not succeed on the human level it can make to pretense to bear Divine sanction for if it does not allow us to be more fully human it impedes the work of the One who created humankind.  The High Middle Ages and Renaissance fostered a humanism that was deeply rooted in the Catholic Tradition of our Christian faith precisely because it took seriously the levels of human development that make us more god-like people.  The disdain of “humanism” and “humanistic thought” by self-proclaimed Christians only betrays how little these same “Christians” understand of our history and heritage as Christians in general and Catholics in particular.
Church Fathers such as Iranaeus and Athanasius spoke of how God became human so that humans might become Divine.  (Actually the Greek in which they wrote was far more explicit, even scandalous: God became Man so that Man might become God.  Their use of the word “Man” here is not a gender specific word as “man” has become in English but defines how each man, woman, and child is invited by the Incarnation of Christ to “become God.”  A priest friend of mine tells me he has been reported for “heresy” six times in this thirty plus years as a priest and every single time was for that quote: God became Man so that Man might become God.)    
The lesson of the Incarnation is that it is precisely in the fully human person of Jesus, that is in his humanity, that we come to see his Divinity and if we were truly human, truly what God has created us to be, we too would see in our humanity the revelation of our becoming Divine.  The problem is that we are less than human.  We have masked the “image and likeness of God” in which we were created by our anger, our prejudices, our indifference to the sufferings of others, our greed, and the other vices which make us less than human.
If Christianity is to be faithful to its founder, it must reinfuse its theology with a genuine humanism—a focus on our human development that evokes from us our best nature, our “angel faces” of which Newman wrote, that let the divine glory shine out from us.  To many of us remind me of the words attributed to Gandhi; I love your Christ but I have yet to meet a Christian.    

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