Suffering in the world – is religion to blame?

 

The bulk of the following text is from a talk I presented at the University of Saskatchewan at an interfaith panel. (Jewish, Christian, Muslim). The question that the panel was instructed to elaborate on was “Suffering in the world, is religion to blame?” It is written for that format. Thank you Gil Klassen and Tyrone MacKenzie for your input, prayer and support.

“To blame religion for the suffering in the world is a little bit like blaming the ink in a bad book or the body for being sick. “

First of all I’d like to say thank you for arranging a safe place for this kind of discourse to take place. It is so important in days like these.

Religion as well as suffering are complex in nature and therefor an answer of a more elaborative nature is required.

In trying to answer a somewhat leading question like this I believe we must begin with getting our bearings in regards to what we actually mean with “religion”. Many religious scholars today agree that it is almost impossible to define religion in any way that makes defining it worthwhile (http://www.britannica.com/topic/study-of-religion). The definition is either to broad or to narrow. The spectrum of definition ranges from a broad, often etymology based definition along the lines of Cicero, saying that it basically means to “thoroughly go over again”, to a very narrow definition of someone saying that religion is and can only be what I myself define it to be. Why is religion so hard to define? I believe it’s because it is connected to all other branches of the human enterprise, from psychology to physics. I believe that religion is intrinsically bound to who we understand ourselves to be. I would claim that we all have a “religious” side to our person, that we are all spiritual beings. This is why we often get emotionally engaged when talking about “religion”, “belief” and “truth”.

Hear me out. For pragmatic reasons I am presenting a definition that finds itself somewhere in between the broadest and the most narrow definitions, namely that religion has to do with a number of agreed upon beliefs or rules in action that makes us attentive to connecting our subjective interpretation of the universe to a more objective reality.

As you quickly realize this definition is applicable from everything from Eastern Orthodoxy and Indigenous Spirituality to watching professional sports and Facebookism. It depends on the parameters you set up around this definition. Different religions sets different parameters. (Maybe in a near future, if it has not already been done, someone here at the U of S will work on answering the question: “Is the Roughriders the biggest religious expression in Saskatchewan?) I believe that we are all religious to some degree in that we form beliefs about the universe that we act (with others) upon. We believe in the value of entertainment so we watch TV.  We believe in the benefit of knowledge and a salary so we study and work. We get with the hipster program. We try to loose weight. We go to prayer. We repeat scientific experiments and trial until we can substantiate and motivate a belief beyond a reasonable doubt in what’s occurring. (I mean, some of us follow Instagram and “House of cards” religiously.)

So are these the subjects, the individual’s, our,  process of trying to connect ourselves to a bigger reality and other people through belief and ritual to blame for the suffering in the world? I would say “No”. It is not our desire to know a greater reality, be it God, the Higgs particle, Nirvana, or Rider Nation that is dangerous in itself. It is when I try to direct this desire towards something that has already been decided by my own parameters to be the “whole truth”, when I claim that I know the full truth, I am irrecvocably and logically pushed towards forcing that truth on others becuase truth proper is all encompassing and when I do, religion becomes dangerous.  We make ourselves “god”.

Classic Christian thought teaches that we can not know the depths of God, He is shrouded in mystery but His Son has reveled Him. I can not know God as in comprehending Him. I can only know Him as in having a relationship with Him. In the very moment I do try to coerce my belief on another person (either by direct force or manipulation) I, in essence, if I employ this current definition of religion, leave the area of religion and enter the area of ruling because now I am not trying to connect my subjective belief to a greater reality. Now I am trying to enforce my reality, my law, my truth upon another persons reality. I no longer come in humility, I come with pride. And pride turns all neutral things (like religion, or a fruit, or a knife) into a tool of oppression.

This does not mean that religious expression should not be allowed in public forums because it is in the public forum, in the open, that we have a chance to get connected to the very reality we are looking for. Now more than ever do we need to peacefully safeguard the structures of human discourse so that differentiating beliefs can interact in mutually beneficial ways. We must be allowed to be presented with the alternatives so that our choice can be real. What if our scientists wouldn’t have the opportunity to corraborate their findings? What if we only could “vote” for one party? We need cultures, religions and political parties mature and secure enough to present themselves with conviction but without condemnation and violence towards the “other”.

The suppression and ignoring of religion, this seemingly innate notion of wanting to be part of something greater than oneself, can itself take “religious” shapes and forms as in Stalins Russia, Mao’s China or currently in North Korea. That’s how deep this religious notion goes. The to narrow enforcement of “our truth upon all” will only lead to violence as in the historic and modern day slave trade, the crusades and the current situation in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Nigeria and France. A freedom to choose and to express your preferred religion must lay as one piece of the foundation of any nation that claims to respect the nature of the human person.

Given this definition of religion the Christian answer to the question. “Suffering in the world – is religion to blame?” becomes this: Since we believe that our work could not perform perfect religion (the law) in truth, God Himself needed to fulfill the law for us. His Son, Jesus Christ fulfilled it perfectly in His divine and human Person, we don’t believe that faith in this Person is to blame. Rather I as a Christian believe that I have failed in fulfilling the law, what I was intended to fulfill, on my own. We failed at enforcing perfect society, we failed at formulating heaven on earth as seen in everything from Constantins Roman Empire to the Khalifats to Christiania in Copenhagen. We could not regulate our way out of our predicament of suffering. We can’t even suffer well. We failed at conjuring up a state recipe for ending suffering. As Christians we believe that Christ fulfilled the law in His Divine and Human Person, reconciling and transforming failed religion into restored reality in His own suffering and sacrifice. I am Christian because what I believe to be the True Objective, God Himself, touched a suffering world with His own Presence in His Son so that we can know and re-enter this Reality that was lost. We could not reach up to God with pious works, sacrifices, holy wars or fasting, so God sent His Son down to us. Jesus became the subject, after we had failed at religion, this connection point between the physical and the spiritual, the known and the not yet known, so that we could become a part of His body again.

He never enforced His belief on others but He acted out His faith in public. (The ones that encountered Him were grown ups and could make up their own mind about what to believe!) He never condoned or encouraged war, slavery or violence. He helped the outcasts, sick and dying. He gave His life for others. In His Word it says that true religion is to help the orphans and the widows. Is that kind of religion responsible for the suffering in the world, no. It’s alleviating and transforming it. Is the twisting and abuse of this kind of religion responsible for the suffering in the world. Yes.

Belief is a powerful thing because it connects our inner person to our external  expanding context. The interesting question to me is where we direct our belief? Do we direct it towards things that are already seen and measurable? If we do that, well that kind of limits the potential of new discovery. Do we place it in political personalities or economic wealth? Do we deny belief altogether with an absolute claim? Do we place it in Jesus Who says: “I love you, regardless of what you believe or do.” I don’t know about you, but I choose to believe in Someone greater then myself to be the arbitrator of Truth. Someone that offers eternal growth and mystery to pursue. To conclude.

Your body can be used to hurt someone, it can also be used to help someone. We have seen both recently in the media. Your belief, your religion can be violated to do violence towards others. It can also be honoured by loving others in truth. What belief, what religion is secure and mature enough to allow for freedom of choice to happen? In the end it is not religion, technology, law or politics in themselves that are responsible, it is how you and me choose to use them. That freedom to choose is protected and upheld in forums like this. Will a world void of religion and belief have less violence and suffering like John Lennon alluded to in his song? I don’t think so. However, I do believe that a world without belief and religion would have less music, art, educational institutions like this one and freedom. Jesus didn’t judge people, He offered them the choice to follow Him. Hence I believe that religion without being in Christ following His example causes suffering, but religion as part of and restored by Christ transforms it. But that belief does not give me the right judge others, it gives me the privilege and opportunity to love others.

However, love requires that we tell someone that their fly is down and that we do privately as to avoid embarrassment.

Suffering in the world is not caused by religion, it is caused by people placing their desire to belong in a by them, predetermined place. Suffering is caused by pride and ignorance. Ask Adam…

I finish with a quote:  “-If you judge people, you have no time to love them” Mother Theresa

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The issue behind the issue

The root words of “Pornography” means to “write down and then sell”. For “Prostitution” it’s to “stand before, to expose publicly”. Poverty means “to produce little”. Trafficking means “touch repeatedly, handle”. All these words and their root meaning have a very ‘physical only’ connotation. They are basically void of a spiritual meaning. They are about product, profit, property and production. This is not mere chance because as long as we talk about these things with physical language and words only we won’t be able to tackle the issues. How we talk about something shapes how we think about something. How we think about something shapes how we feel about something. How we feel about something shapes how we act. How we act shapes who we become.

Our minds recalls and brings to mind different images and pictures when we hear words like: Poverty, Human Trafficking, Prostitution and Pornography. If we close our eyes and if we empathize with victims of these aforementioned situations of brokenness we actually might begin to cry.

If we ourselves have been victims of abuse, addicted to porn, trapped in a cage or sold as a product by other human beings we re-member these events with much more vividness. We might even throw up. We might get a panic attack. We might fall back into patterns that were forced upon us.

Why is this so. Why are we able to “re-live” a reality that has past into history? I believe it is because our body, our mind and our spirit operates together, as a small “trinity”. It operates in the image of Who it was created by either we chose it or not. Despite our best efforts and attempts to separate the spiritual realm from the physical realm, these two sides of our person are still two sides of the same coin. They are intrinsically bound to each other independently of how much we try to split them apart and treat them as independent areas of our person. This is why we might begin to cry simply by remembering a certain event. Our body is intrinsically linked to our spirit. We are body, soul and spirit. A small trinity, three different aspects of the one person that is us.

U.N as well as the Human rights commission has declared that every person has the same value. U.N got this not from socialism but actually from Christianity because it is only Christianity that has the philosophical base and logical explanation for that idea. If we perceive the world with the secular/material or the sectarian/legalistic eye we realize quickly that every person is not at all of the same value because value is determined by production or contribution or position with these paradigms. We may say that everyone has the same value but by simply observing how reality is playing out in secular society or in sharia countries we see that this simply is not true. If you have wealth you have access to more rights, better protection, better lawyers and a better life all over. If you are born a man you have a better chance at life over all. The idea of equal value can not be incarnated in a world that understands itself as material only. Christ changed that paradigm when He became human. When the Spirit touched the physical.

Equal value of persons can only be made real if we accept the idea that we are equal because of who we are, not because of what we do or what we produce. Who are we? Physical manifestations of a spiritual reality that God has created out of love. We are equally loved that is why we have the same value. True value can only be determined  by the One Who created the work, and we are the work of His hands. We are persons because we are loved. Not because we perform. We were nothing but became something because of His love. Love is the undergirding constitution of the reality we find ourselves in. We lost that awareness in the fall but we are able to meet and see God through the physical once again because God has reclaimed the work of His hands by revealing Himself in this work once more in a way we can comprehend, namely as Person. Jesus.

Now, what does all of this have to do with human trafficking, prostitution and pornography? Everything. Since we are able to see God and discover Him and His reality through the physical, by our senses, the devil twists our experience of the physical so that we won’t recognize God at work in the world. He tries to bend creation which is created good into something that will hinder us from seeing Gods fingerprints all over. He tries to turn Love into lust. Serving each other into consuming one another.  Music into noise. Bodies into commodities. Therefor the devil constructs his chief attack around the two paradigms that forms the  structure from where we perceive the world.

  • Knowledge (our mind) “Do you want to be like God?” (Objective view of the world)
  • Relationship (sexuality, our body) “The fruit is delicious” (Subjective experience of the world)

Once these two main sources of revelation are “out of tune” it becomes hard to see the spiritual reality that finds its expression in physical revelation. We start to see without seeing and hear without perceiving. Once we have “separated” the physical from the spiritual with our mind, trusting our own knowledge, we can easily fall into one of two ditches.

The first ditch is legalism and sectarianism that seeks to control the body with rules and laws (no freedom). The second ditch is secularism which claims that we can do whatever we want with the body because it won’t effect anything else because nothing except what we can see, feel and measure exists anyway (no boundaries). Once we loose the connection between the physical and the spiritual we are easy victims for the forces that operates in the spiritual realm because we don’t even believe that they are real!

For instance, we often believe that we are the authors of our thoughts. That might be true to some degree but our thoughts are triggered and stimulated by our surrounding and what our senses are picking up from the world around us. Ideas, thoughts, messages and information gets into our head all the time, often without discrimination. We often find ourselves to become like the people we surround us with don’t we? Addiction itself always starts with a thought. And the thought is triggered by either a memory or by our current context. Marketers knows this. CEOs knows this. Weight watchers, McDonalds, pimps, traffickers, pornography producers knows this. The devil knows this. They know that the mind has a very hard time resisting repetitive sensory stimuli. We have actual chemical reactions to visual imagery and colours. This is how we are created to bond and interact with the world. Eventually the mind gives in, even though it knows it’s not the best choice or even a good choice. Once the cigarette, the porn, the food, the violence, the purchase of sex or whatever addiction, is consumed the connection between the physical and the spiritual is done and the cycle reinforced. Next time we need more to get the same effect because what we incorporate in our body shapes who we become.

We used to think that the best way to avoid bad choices is to make the choice of not being in the environment they are being offered in. This becomes harder and harder today as we have instant access to lots of information. It’s almost impossible. We believe that the best way to avoid porn addiction is to avoid the context where you have access to porn. The best way to avoid sexual addiction is to avoid the circumstance where sex can happen. The best way to avoid addiction to food is to avoid exposure to the food you know are not good for you. And in some sense this is true but it is not only the physical environment we have to avoid, it is the spiritual environment. What does the spiritual environment that addiction can thrive in look like? It looks like not feeling good enough, loneliness, being disconnected, unloved, not being heard or seen, being abused, being disrespected, being cheated, feeling worthless, like nothing etc. It is only from a void, an emptiness, a lack that addiction can take hold.

Ever since the fall we crave the very thing we lost, that we can’t get on our own. Perfect love. To be connected to one another in Truth. The devil tempted us with the only thing we could not have, to be like God with the tactic of separation. To understand that we crave the perfect peace, love and harmony that we once had, lies at the foundation of understanding the nature of addiction. Our thirst is unquenchable, our greed is unsustainable, our soul is restless until it find peace and rest in God. It is His love we are searching for.

Addiction is so hard to break because it fails to recognize the spiritual reality (loneliness, separation) that caused it in the first place and makes the physical the only battle ground. If you are one of the many people that has tried to defeat addiction by saying with your mind “I will not do it again”, “This is the last time” and find yourself even worse off, you are not alone. This is the very nature of addiction. Addiction, or lets call it what it is, repeated broken actions separated from the good Reality from where they originally came, are hard to overcome because we are left with the belief that it is only by more actions, more work without faith, that we are able to defeat them. But, spiritual enemies can not be defeated if we only use physical tools. Addiction can only be defeated by addressing the very thought pattern and spiritual environment that it started in. We see this all the time in successful rehabilitation and restoration. It is when a person is able to recognize the cause (be it an abuser, one self, social circumstance etc) and forgive that cause that healing begins. It is at the moment of forgiveness that we recognize our inability to defeat our addiction by our own strength.

Remember, no one, no one is beyond redemption. No matter how far down the road of : “Who you are not created to be” you find yourself, you think beyond recognition, God loves you. All of you. He sees who you actually are, not what you have become. He sees beyond the hardened surface and under the filth. He sees the glorious potential and not the accumulated shame and guilt and He says:  “I have and will always love you, no matter what you do.” It is a  revolutionary message. It is hope, joy and peace. It is the message of love. And it is this message that we have been put here, right here to share, so that no one have to resort to behaviours in isolation they were not meant for.