Sunday, 3 January 2010

On religious fundamentalism

Jacob wrestles with Angel
by Delacroix (Genesis. 32:26-28)

As a religious convert in the mid eighties, I struggle with a number of religious teachings . Not because I think they are necessarily right or wrong but because they are often stated in unbending legalistic terms.

Many religious teachings have become inflexible over time and have produced a back-ward orientation. In the hands of fundamentalist they are dangerous weapons of judgment and condemnation. Many religious beliefs surrounding homosexuality, abortion, same-sex marriage etc., are now expressed in militant terms. An increasingly zealous approach to religion has been responsible for many random acts of violence throughout the world. Fundamentalism, it must be admitted, is completely devoid of God's gift of compassion. Have we perhaps forgotten that God's gift of compassion and understanding reaches far beyond the written word?

To the fundamentalist, a 'true believer' is someone prepared to submit to an unquestioning obedience to religious teaching. To a struggling member of a religious institution, it can bring both fear and distrust. Any suggestion which hints at the introduction of change, is frequently met with fear and suspicion. Even the mere act of questioning established dogma and doctrine teachings can be considered heresy in some religious circles, while a virtual anathema or a promise of hell awaits those who dare to openly challenge these teachings. Because virtually all world religious teachings, and their interpretation, are usually held in the hands of a select few, they are not held subject to individual interpretation. But it is important to note that our unquestioning dependence on religious dogma is a relatively new phenomenon. According to respected historians such as Karen Armstrong, fundamentalism first surfaced as recently as the nineteenth century. Since then it has bred the foundation for much religious strife in the world today. Until the twentieth century "the Catholic Church presented itself internally and to the world at large, as the church that did not change. It took great care, as well, to show a united front on all issues and to deal swiftly and discreetly with any occurrences within the church that might seem to suggest otherwise." ( J. W. O'Malley What Happened at Vatican II (2008),P. 34.)

But then came Vatican II (1962-1965). For the first time in its two-thousand year history the church showed a desire to accept change from the outside. At its conclusion Dominican Edward Schillebeeckx of Nijmegen University called it "the triumph of anti-triumphal ism"—the rejection by the council of the world-hating, anathema-hurling Counter Reformation conviction that Catholicism alone possessed the truth of life. In contrast to past councils, which devoted much of their time consigning to eternal flames those who did not agree with majority decisions, Vatican II issued no such condemnations. On the floor of St. Peter's, Vienna's Franziskus Cardinal Konig argued that the church has much to learn from the world, even from atheism. (Time Magazine Friday, Dec. 17, 1965).
Clearly the Vatican II authors responsible for the following statement recognized that obedience to a higher norm takes precedence over external authority:
Deep within their consciences men and women discover a law that they have not laid upon themselves but which they must obey. Its voice, ever calling them to love and to do what is good and to avoid what is evil, tells them inwardly at the right moment: do this, shun that. For they have in their hearts a law inscribed by God. Their dignity lies in observing this law, and by it they will be judged . . . By conscience that law is made known in a wonderful that is fulfilled in love for God and for one's neighbour. Through loyalty to conscience Christians are joined to others in the search for truth and for the right solution to so many moral problems that arise both in the lives of individuals and in social relationships. - Pastoral Constitution on the Modern World

Regretfully, even as the Church stood on the threshold of change beginning with Vatican II, it has once again expressed fear of change by denouncing various forms of relativism, secularism, liberalism, modernism, capitalism and just about any other 'ism' it can name. Each article of faith is once again protected in an unbending and unchangeable doctrine which if challenged, might reveal a crack in the concrete of its two thousand year history. Its religious dogma is carefully preserved under 2,865 articles of faith contained in the Catechism of the Catholic Church supported by 1,752 rules prescribed in the Code of Canon Law. Both were published after Vatican II under the watchful eye of Cardinal Ratzinger, the future Pope Benedict XVI. The Catechism once again states that "Outside the Church there is no salvation." This statement completely contradicts the pastoral views held by the fathers of Vatican II extending God's salvation to all humankind! Similarly, documents released by the Vatican in recent years, state that the Catholic Church considers itself in sole possession of the complete truth. It appears then that in spite of a brief venture into the future, the Church would prefer to remain locked in a safer past. As a consequence, Catholic theology will probably continue to reflect the mistaken belief that:

As God is unchangeable therefore the church must also resist change. Religious practise must be based on proven doctrinal formulations not subject to modern 'novelties'. The church, while in the world, must resist any integration into the world. Reconciliation with any principles outside the church will ultimately cause irreparable damage to church life and a serious dilution of its teaching.

Is there a way of changing religious teachings that will be less likely to form unbending literal interpretations? Author John W. O'Malley thinks so.He shares the belief that the documents of Vatican II were expressed in a new way of speaking. Its persuasive and inviting language encouraged an inner transformation. O'Malley recognized that "persuaders do not command from on high. Otherwise they would not be persuading but dictating. Persuasion works from the inside out. To be successful, persuaders need to establish an identity between themselves and their audience and make clear that they share the same concerns and even the same sentiments, such as hope, joy, and sadness. Implicit in it, therefore, is an invitation to rise above all pettiness and to strive for an expansive vision and a generous spirit."

The question for many of us at this juncture will be "do we follow a religion rigidly frozen in the past or do we follow a faith based on 'unknowing' but securely guided by a Creator who leads us in the present - safely towards the future? Will it be a religion of the heart or a religion of the head? Perhaps, like Jacob, we will have to struggle with our own internal demons (Ego) to make this decision.

And then finally, religious fundamentalism will eventually give way to religious liberty which recognizes that all of God's creation is Holy and that we are all equally Holy Sons and Daughters of God called to community with one another.

We need not think alike to love alike - David Ferenc

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