Two once-like-minded ideals no longer synonymous with each other. With religious intolerance now at the ugly centre of many of the world's major conflicts, it is important to look at the concepts of spirituality and the clashes of conformity within the contexts of organized religion.
Gone are the days when Western religious dissenters had to worship in secret and flee to New Worlds to escape arbitrary persecution from monarchs and governments. Yet still, centuries on, they seem unable to find peace! Just a few weeks ago, Britain saw Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor express some very grave concerns; this head of the Catholic Church in England and Wales announced that modern culture is suffering from a ‘considerable spiritual homelessness.’ It’s 2008, the age of equal opportunity monitoring and policies, and supposed tolerance. So what are these issues that so haunt religions here in the 21st century? What is it that the Christian Church, in particular, is seeing when it looks out into the world? Or, what is it that non-religious folk are seeing when they peer into the world of religion – perhaps this is the most important question of all!
With the most wide-ranging beliefs and practises of all the world’s religions, the umbrella of Christianity seems to be under the greatest strain. Catholics, Baptists, Seventh-Day-Adventists, Pentecostals, Methodists, the Eastern Orthodox…the list of various Christian denominations could probably fill this entire page! That Jesus Christ is the Messiah, who will return to Earth at some point in the future to reward the most righteous amongst us, they can all agree. On too many other issues, however, differences and aspersions torment them. And, as a recent letter to Nigerian Synods from Peter Akinola (Nigerian Archbishop) indicates, the modern age has brought with it new crises that further plague and divide Christians:
“We want unity but not at the cost of relegating Christ to the position of another ‘wise teacher’ who can be obeyed or disobeyed…We earnestly desire the healing of our beloved Communion but not at the cost of rewriting the Bible to accommodate the latest cultural trend.”
Gestures of Christian tolerance, seen by Western religious leaders such as the Archbishop of Canterbury, and institutions like the Anglican Church of Canada and the Episcopal Church of the USA, with their resolutions to approve same-sex unions and elect fornicating Bishops, is causing eruptive factions to break through to the surface within the Christian Church. Matters of culture creep in insidiously and eat away at the core of a belief system with a remit to bind and keep united. Maybe this is why Christianity is said to be burgeoning in Africa, but dying in the liberal West.
As the West rules in the realms of socio-economics and politics, it therefore stands to reason that it should also expect to dominate the position occupied by the world’s most influential religion: ideology is fundamental to the success of every empire. Is this the essence of the War on Terror? It does seem strange that Islam is the one religion worthy of comparison in discussions about growth rates world-wide. In 1997, statisticians at the US Center for World Mission announced a prediction that could only have inspired fear amongst Western Crusaders:
“Christianity’s total number of adherents is growing at about 2.3% annually. This is approximately equal to the growth of the world’s population. Islam is growing faster: about 2.9% and is thus increasing its market share. At this rate Islam would surpass Christianity as the world’s main religion by 2023CE.” Can you hear the utterances of the words ‘oh my god!’?
Notwithstanding Christian efforts to appease their Muslim brethren with reassuring words that the War on Terror is not a battle against Islam, Muslims around the world appear to remain unconvinced. These two religions simply seem to have too much history, and not just ancient history either. It was Christians at the centre of the Middle Eastern conflict, which rages until today – remember British and American intervention in the creation of Israel, a Jewish state plonked in the middle of a Muslim country, in 1948? Yet another gesture of Christian tolerance, and, wow! What an example for the world – an amicable agreement between the believers in the Messiah, and those who are said to have crucified that same Messiah! One wonders what Western interests dictated such a huge trade-off?!
And still, the non-religious world looks on. It’s not as though they fail to see internal divisions in Islam, but there seem to be more features that unify than divide: one holy day; one original language – Arabic; viewed as a religion that has always judged a person’s religious convictions before their race; issues of modernity seem unable to penetrate their interpretations of the Qur’an; following their doctrines appears to be a way of life, rather than something adhered to at the weekend.
Yes, there are many people that still do go to church, but the essential fabric of that tradition is considerably weaker, and this fact is dominant in the mind of everyone born before about 1979 – no, I’m not blaming Mrs. Thatcher! Those born just under 30 years ago may remember a time when religion occupied a revered position in society. Back then, a lot more people went to a place of worship on a regular basis. Reverence for a holy day was reflected in the Sunday Trading Laws. There was a real distinction between the appearance of religious folk and those ‘of the world,’ as there was a marked distinction between pastimes enjoyed by religious folk and those ‘of the world.’ Even one’s attire, when going to church, was different just two generations ago.
Nowadays, many despair as they agree that anything goes. Today, some denominations permit you to wear what you like, visit places you please, marry, or don’t marry, marry your own sex or the opposite. You can wine and go down in whatever dance hall you choose, and only go to church when you need to get your child into a particular school. And all this takes place in the name of Jesus! And still, the non-religious world looks on. And many of their concerns are not entirely dissimilar to those at the crux of issues raised by Peter Akinola and Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor. The Cardinal speaks of a ‘distorted kind of Christianity’ and adds:
“Many people have a sense of being in a sort of exile from faith-guided experience. This is the effect of the privatisation of religion today; religion comes to be treated as a personal need. You cannot banish religion to the church premises. There are social currents that want to isolate religion from other forms of knowledge and experience in order to marginalise it.”
The world is old and, here in the New Millennium, there is little we humans have not seen. We remember the misuse of holy books to enslave and slaughter. We’ve heard men of the cloth misinterpret scriptures to suit their own ends, whilst making their arguments sound very plausible indeed. We can quote the words of theorists such as Karl Marx who warned that religion was put in place to control the masses and so should be dispensed with.
As sheep-like as the mass still appears, humankind seems on the brink of a new consciousness comprised of people who have a sense of a more personal spirituality. These refuse to lean on philosophies that dictate their convictions. Their belief systems centre on their understanding of the part they play in the workings of the universe. As we see the New Age sections in mainstream bookshops grow, we realize that ancient practises and philosophies of Africa and the East are becoming more relevant and prevalent: people are becoming tired of the confusing chaos that comprises the modern age. Religion hasn’t brought an end to prejudice or wars – for all their holiness, none has brought unity or peace. Each focuses on their superficial differences and fails to see their essential similarity. Christianity’s gestures of tolerance have only created multiple schisms and confusion. No one likes to be controlled, unless you make them fearful enough to accept that state. It’s time this world stopped promoting the concepts of independence, competitiveness and exploitation. People are pining a new order, one that allows their acquaintance with a sense of purpose and truly upholds the principles of equality and interdependence.
1st June 2008