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