Honestly confronting the failures of your own religion

There’s been a bit of curfuffle online recently concerning Bill Maher’s statements concerning Islam which garner accusations such as ‘racist’ or ‘Islamophobe’ that are not really logically valid if you pay attention to what Maher has actually said. When he criticises Christianity, some Christians will say, ‘You are wrong.’ To my knowledge, most of us don’t think Maher is a racist or bigot for thinking our religion is a lot of hooey. We think he’s just plain wrong.

And that’s the way things are supposed to work in a just, liberal society. People can criticise my religion all they want. And I, in response, can offer reasoned refutation of their position or perhaps a clearer explanation of my own. But it’s not the Carolingian age anymore. People shouldn’t and, in most countries, don’t go to jail for criticising Christianity. And that’s a good thing. I can’t remember which Late Antique or Early Mediaeval Christian said it, but you can’t force people to believe. Not truly. If we truly want people to love Jesus, everyone needs the legal and social freedom to be able to reject him as well.

What some people do when their religion is criticised by a person such as Bill Maher is simply state contraries, with no evidence, that this fellow is wrong. That there is nothing in Islam that would promote the subjugation of women or the beheading of prisoners.

Or that there is nothing in Christianity that would promote, say, slavery…

Oh, wait.

Well, that’s awkward. There is.

What shows intellectual maturity in how you defend and view your own faith is when you meet something like, say, 1800 years of Christian slavery, you don’t explain it away, you don’t say that those people weren’t true Christians. You admit that this is a thing that went on.

Oh, and you don’t blame Constantine. Can’t play the Constantine card here.

Instead, admit the truth. Say, yeah, most Christians for most of history were pro-slavery. It’s one of those things in the ancient world — you wouldn’t want to be a slave, but almost no one makes the logical conclusion that no one else should be, either. Some do, and some of them, I’ve been told, are Christians. Some are ‘pagans’.

Maybe mention the anti-slavery ancient Christians, if you have a chance. Mention also that a great many of the earliest Christians were themselves slaves.

But admit that, yeah, Christians were slave owners.

Also, don’t act like there’s no slavery in the Bible.

Disagree with Sam Harris’ interpretation of how Christians should apply those passages, but don’t act like they aren’t there. They are.

17th-c Quaker John Woolman opposed slavery

But then, if you do want to show that Christianity is good for human rights, talk about the early Quakers who were abolitionists as early as the 1600s and who made pacts to avoid acquiring goods involved in slave labour. Then talk about the biblical basis for Quaker opposition to slavery — that, yes, there is slavery in the Bible, and, yes, you’ll even hear a few people to this day using those verses to support it, but there is a thematic thread running through the entire Old and New Testaments that points to the emancipation of slaves to a position of legal freedom that parallels their spiritual freedom.

This is how to look at your religion’s history full-on. Own the moral and intellectual failures of your predecessors. And then show the way out of this difficulty.

Such should be the response of moderate Muslims when people such as Bill Maher criticise the extremist and conservative practices of many Islamic states — acknowledge the weight of history and the errors of the past, but then show a way out. It will do a few things:

  1. Free up intellectual debate and conversation about Islam so that critics do not hide in corners but can speak their minds and have a real conversation about religion, and be corrected when they are wrong rather than shouted down by Ben Affleck.
  2. Show Muslims who may sympathise with more extreme visions of the religion a way forward that is still Islamic.
  3. Address the real Islamophobes and their problems, rather than attacking Bill Maher, and demonstrate to them that, while they may fear certain things, there are real Muslims who share some of their fears and who are seeking alternatives.

This is how debate is meant to work in free, just, liberal societies. And this is how people of faith should engage the failures of their own religions.

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What Good Has ‘Religion’ Ever Done?

In an age where Westboro Baptist stages its “God Hates the World” and “God Hates Fags” demonstrations, where terrorists crash airplanes into buildings (or blow them up), where Pastor Terry Jones threatens to burn the Qu’ran, where people sometimes destroy property and human life in their anti-abortion stance, where Christians who have converted from Islam are systematically tortured or executed in some countries, where former President G W Bush used biblical rhetoric to underlie engagements in Afghanistan and Iraq, where Hindus in India attack Christian minority groups, where Christians and Muslims in Nigeria often turn to violence against one another — in such a world, many people have a hard time seeing what good “religion” and, frequently, Christianity in particular, has to offer.

Historically, it is easy to see the good that religion has done (thus giving the lie to Hitchens’ subtitle, “How Religion Poisons Everything”).  We need look no further than the hospitals of the city of Toronto, one, St. Michael’s, founded by Roman Catholics and another, Mount Sinai, by Jews.  Historically, religious people have been on the front lines of providing healthcare.  Livingstone brought both the Bible and medicine to Africa.  The first hospitals of the Byzantine and mediaeval worlds were church organisations.

Historically, the arts show us to what heights religion can take man, even if today’s “Christian Art”, be it music, novels, or trashy Jesus paintings, makes me shudder.  We have the glories of Palestrina’s Missa Papae Marcelli, of Bach’s St. John Passion, of Handel’s Messiah, of Haydn’s Creation (my post on that last one here).

I have posted previously about Christian fiction — there is great narrative art from the pens of Christians, from the Anglo-Saxons to Dante to Spenser, Milton, and Bunyan to Chesterton, Waugh, Lewis, Tolkien, Buechner.  The Christian faith has produced some consummate storytellers.

Any cathedral with its stained glass intact can tell you that in no way is religion an entirely bad force.  Behold the Sistine Chapel!  Gape at the illuminated Winchester Bible!  Stand in awe before Michelangelo’s Pieta!  (Sorry I used Buonarroti twice.)  Any history of art that covers the Middle Ages and Renaissance will give a good hearty drink of what good religion can produce.

Winchester Cathedral

If you watch the video Palestrina’s link takes you to, you will see some of the architecture of the Church.  Christianity has produced some amazing architecture over the centuries.  So have Hinduism, Buddhism, and Islam.  When a person is striving for the highest good, when striving for something greater than one’s own petty self, beauty can be achieved.

But what good does religion do today?  A lot of people think that it has outlived its usefulness, that it has become nothing more than a source of strife and division, that our society has evolved beyond needing religion.

Well, in purely “practical” terms (ie. beyond what I see as the spiritual benefits), religion has built at least one hospital in Angola and a nursing school with it and another nursing school in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.  These are recent foundations.  Religion has brought many a person off the street, out of addiction, and into the workforce through organisations like the Salvation Army, Shelter House, Bethany Christian Trust.

In Toronto, I spent a good number of Saturdays at Toronto Alliance Church, the “Upper Room”.  This church is in the upper level of a storefront on Queen St. near Bathurst.  If you know Toronto, you have visions of that area with the intersecting streetcar lines, the street-health clinic, the street people, the community housing, the nifty shops, the closed down shops, the Starbucks on one corner, a mission to street people on another, Pizza Pizza the third, and a bar (now closed) on the fourth.

Every Saturday night at Toronto Alliance is “Community Night.”  There is a meal — soup & sandwich or something more filling, always warm — a clothing room full of donations people have brought, a nurse who can look after people’s feet (this is a real problem for a lot of people who live on the street), and a food bank.

Part-way through the night, the eclectic group of people who has gathered for food and friendship has a church service gathered around the tables.  There are always some of those old “revival” hymns, like “Just As I Am,” and frequently a lot of the people present know and love these hymns.  Then there is a message from someone on the church’s ministry staff; when I went, usually Bill or Doug.  The message was simple and always focussed on Jesus and the hope he brings and the change he can make.

These church services are sometimes raucous affairs.  I’ve never seen banter during an Anglican sermon, but there would be banter here.  People would often still mill about, but not many.  Some people looked uninterested, but others took a keen interest in the hymns, prayers, and sermon.

Bill, the pastor of Toronto Alliance, knows a lot of the people who come out to Community Night.  He’ll chat with them, see how they’re doing, show real concern for them and their welfare.  We often think that helping out that vague, amorphous group “the unfortunate” is a matter simply of food, shelter, clothing.  It is also very much a matter of love, as I witnessed in Cyprus, of love for the lonely, friendship for the friendless, and light for the lost.

Saturday nights at Toronto Alliance Church provide for the whole person.  That alone tells me that religion is of much good in this world, in spite of Westboro Baptist and Islamist terrorism.

Saint of the Week: John of Damascus

Photo by A Whistling Train on Flickr
Photo by A Whistling Train on Flickr

While I was house-sitting for my parents this summer, I read Princess Ileana’s Meditations on the Nicene Creed (yes, this is what I do with my spare time).  Throughout the course of this most delightful and invigorating little book, she frequently quoted from the Exposition of the Orthodox Faith by St. John of Damascus (some say “John Damascene”).  I wrote none of the quotations down, however, thinking to nab a copy from a library when I wanted to reread any.

I’ve never read Exposition of the Orthodox Faith, but the portions I encountered were quite good.  St. John of Damascus was one of those men with an unafraid mind.  He lived from 676-749, born into a Syrian Christian* family of high-ranking officials under the Byzantine Emperors and then, during his lifetime, the Arab Caliphate, for which he himself was an official.  Indeed, since most of the population of the Near East would have been Christian at this time, the Caliphate employed many Christians in the civil service.  This is also common practice of most ancient empires — so long as you get your tribute from them and they leave your soldiers alone, the conquered can do business as usual.

Business for usual for John included more than being an official for the new aristocracy, however.  He is most famous for his defense of icons, which is where I first discovered him.  He argues that in Deuteronomy, when YHWH makes the prohibition on images, the argument made by God is that no one had ever seen Him.  However, when Christ became incarnate, suddenly people were able to see the Second Person of the Trinity.  Therefore, icons are an affirmation of the Incarnation, and the Incarnation is essential to salvation.

One other thing I learned in my reading of his thoughts on icons was the incorporation of the senses into worship.  In most of contemporary Western Christianity, especially certain branches of Protestantism, the only physical sense we incorporate is the sense of hearing.  We worship with our minds.  However, John of Damascus points to the incorporation of all the senses.  We not only hear the hymns and the sermon, but we smell the incense, taste and feel the Eucharist, and behold the icons.  Through these physical media, our giving glory to the Holy Trinity becomes an act of the whole person.

St. John of Damascus wrote in defense of icons because at the time the Eastern Church was going through the Iconoclastic Controversy (726-843).  The Controversy was started by Emperor Leo III who removed all images from Constantinople and sought to impose his will in this matter over the whole Empire.  843 is called the “Triumph of Orthodoxy” by the Eastern Orthodox, and I believe that the Iconoclastic Controversy is the reason why images are more important to Eastern Orthodox worship than Roman Catholic worship — once you have fought for something, you have a greater attachment to it.

Anyway, since St. John was living in Damascus, and Damascus had been conquered by the Muslim Arabs, he was beyond the reach of the iconoclastic emperor.  Therefore, he was able to write in favour of images with impunity.  Although Muslims disapprove of images in their own worship, it seems they did not impose this prohibition upon the dhimmi, which worked in the favour of iconodules such as St. John of Damascus.  Thus he produced his treatises On Holy Images, and they have become central to the Orthodox theology of worship (you can buy modern English translations from Saint Vladimir’s Seminary Press here).

St. John of Damascus is also notable because of his dealings with Islam.  To the modern Protestant, with rock-star worship styles and auditorium-like worship spaces, the worship practices of Muslims are strange and foreign.  They pray five times a day.  They bow in a certain way.  They pray specific prayers at specific times.  They go on pilgrimage.  They fast.  However, all of these things are part of the worship of Christians in the Middle East.

So when Damascus was conquered and the Arabs rode in on their horses, built a mosque, and prayed toward Mecca, John didn’t look at them and say, “Oh, a new religion.”  Instead, he said, “Oh, another heresy.”  He did not see Muslims as being something totally other from Christians but simply heretics, and Mohammed as another heresiarch like Arius, Apollonarius, or Emperor Leo III.

I haven’t read On Heresies thought I would like to.  However, one aspect of Islamic theology he found especially unsettling is the denial of the divine and most Holy Trinity.  The treatise includes this as it closes:

But, if you are curious about God, first tell me of yourself and the things that pertain to you. How does your soul have existence? How is your mind set in motion? How do you produce your mental concepts? How is it that you are both mortal and immortal? But, if you are ignorant of these things which are within you, then why do you not shudder at the thought of investigating the sublime things of heaven?

Think of the Father as a spring of life begetting the Son like a river and the Holy Ghost like a sea, for the spring and the river and sea are all one nature.

Think of the Father as a root, and of the Son as a branch, and the Spirit as a fruit, for the substance in these three is one.

The Father is a sun with the Son as rays and the Holy Ghost as heat.

The Holy Trinity transcends by far every similitude and figure. So, when you hear of an offspring of the Father, do not think of a corporeal offspring. And when you hear that there is a Word, do not suppose Him to be a corporeal word. And when you hear of the Spirit of God, do not think of wind and breath. Rather, hold you persuasion with a simple faith alone. For the concept of the Creator is arrived at by analogy from His creatures.

Be persuaded, moreover, that the incarnate dispensation of the Son of God was begotten ineffably without seed of the blessed Virgin, believing Him to be without confusion and without change both God and man, who for your sake worked all the dispensation. And to Him by good works give worship and adoration, and venerate and revere the most holy Mother of God and ever-virgin Mary as true Mother of God, and all the saints as His attendants.

Doing thus, you will be a right worshiper of the holy and undivided Trinity, Father and Son and Holy Ghost, of the one Godhead, to whom be glory and honor and adoration forever and ever. Amen (taken from this webpage)

In the above quotation he takes into account many of the Islamic problems with the Trinity and the Incarnation.  No doubt there are arguments against St. John of Damascus from the Islamic position, for no argument in theology or philosophy is completely unassailable (this also covers many in the natural sciences).  However, in those early days of Islam, we see something important between the Muslims and Christians when they encounter one another.

It is not jihad or Crusade.

It is not an attempt to ignore differences.

It is not a whitewashing of how their theologies are almost completely incompatible.

It is, rather, respectful dialogue and debate.

When someone disagrees with your theology or religion, you produce an argument against him.  You do not take him to court.  You do not fine him large sums of money.  You do not bomb his place of worship.  You do not silence him by force.

Silence him with reason and love.

This is a lesson for both Christians and Muslims today.

As a Prayerbook Anglican, I don’t dig invocations of Saints.  However, let’s at least read these words of an Orthodox hymn as we close:

Champion of Orthodoxy, teacher of purity and of true worship,
the enlightener of the universe and the adornment of hierarchs:
all-wise father John, your teachings have gleamed with light upon all things.
Intercede before Christ God to save our souls.

*Wikipedia says “Arab”, but I disagree.  They cite Peter Brown, so they may well be right; I’ll have to check The Rise of Western Christendom myself to be satisfied.  I think he was probably of local Syrian descent, Syriac and Aramaic (the local languages) being Semitic languages like Arabic, and ancient Syrian culture would have had many cultural similarities to the conquering Arabs — so a Syriac-speaking Syrian could be mistaken for an Arab, especially if Arabs give him an Arabic name that’s almost exactly the same as his Syriac one.  Most people of the Middle/Near East were not and are not ethnic Arabs, although they have similar culture and today speak the language.