Just in this last week we have heard of and seen the consequences of attacks in Manchester and London carried out in the name of God, to say nothing of killings in Kabul and elsewhere. We have seen the effects in growing islamophobia which along with a growing anti-Semitism shows our ability to hate those who are different from us. This weekend there are anti-Muslim demonstrations in something like 20 American states, a result no doubt of policies that want to exclude Muslims from entering the United States, hoping that somehow that will prevent terrorism. Then there was the recovery of a miniscule manuscript of a diary of a 16th cy Spaniard, Luis de Carvajal who had emigrated to Mexico and was tortured along with his family for being Jewish. He came from a family of conversos ie Jews who had become Catholic but whose commitment to their chosen religion was doubted by the Catholic authorities. His diary details the terrible tortures afflicted on him and his family before they were burned at the stake. The Spanish colonisers had brought to Mexico the horrors of the Spanish inquisition – something we should never forget when pondering the atrocities of ISIS and the so called Islamic State. Then there was a report from an international conference in Belgium about the persecution of Christian women in many parts of the world. Participants were able to give examples of women being abducted, raped, forced into marriage and to change their religion.
All of this in just one week – no wonder people are suspicious of religion. I’m religious and yet I can feel overwhelmed by it all. What is it all about? I know some people want to say that the negativity, the conflict, the wars are not religion but a distortion or abuse of religion. I can’t go with that. The people perpetrating the atrocities call themselves religious, are and have been inspired by a religious vision, are and have been convinced of their own religious truth, that the only way of living is their way. They believe or have believed that violence is permissible in establishing their goal – sometimes claiming that God is on their side, that it’s better that people should die rather than lose their eternal souls through error. It’s as though suffering in this life is unimportant compared to eternal happiness. We certainly see it in suicide bombers but it’s a philosophy that has been present in most religions and underlies a belief in schools that focus on asceticism, denigrate the body and see pleasure as bad. Sometimes religion can be so heavenly minded that it’s no earthly good
I do know that all this negativity is not the whole story and that instances such as those above can be counterbalanced by many, many examples of good religion. But religion cannot turn its back on its dark side or try to suggest that it doesn’t have one. To do this is move closer to the dark side and give it power, I would suggest. There’s good religion and there’s bad religion and those of us who are involved in any way in teaching or preaching must acknowledge the bad and promote the good. So what is this good religion?
I think of religion as a system, embedded in a human context and a human culture which contains a pearl of great price, a wisdom that can make life meaningful and purposeful for those who find it, can give dignity to the believer and to our fellow human beings, can show our interrelatedness to all beings including the world in which we live. Different religions express this wisdom in different ways – according to their particular culture and the historical and cultural contexts in which the religion grew up. The trappings of religion – the doctrine, worship, community practices, moral codes – are only truly understood in the light of this pearl of great price and only useful in so far as they take us beyond themselves to the Reality that’s at the heart of religion. It’s the old adage of the finger pointing at the moon. Look too closely at the finger and you miss the moon. Most of the time religious conflicts focus on the trappings – which is the truer expression of Reality as they understand it and this can happen as much within religion as without. Interreligious dialogue which focuses on religious experience and the mystical side of religion often finds that religious believers can understand the core wisdom of another religion without understanding or agreeing with its expression. So often what people see in religion is the external framework which some believers take as sacrosanct and which can obscure the sacred reality, the good news as Christians would call it, more than they reveal it. The challenge today for religions is to find a way to express this core wisdom in a language which is meaningful to the modern age.