Unification Sermons and Talks

by the Reverends Eby

Values in Conflict: Religious Fervor vs. Religious Tolerance

by Lloyd Eby

A clash between religious fervor and tolerance of religious difference and diversity emerges in nearly every case where there has been a passionate religion. In the early centuries of Christianity under the Roman Empire, Christians were required by the Romans to give sacrifice and obeisance to the Roman Emperor. But most Christians refused to do so because, in their view, doing so -- since the Emperor was a god for the Romans -- constituted idolatry. To the Romans, however, the Christian refusal amounted to treason. The Romans could not understand the Christian view, asking "Why are these Christians being so unreasonable?" After all, the Romans were quite content to tolerate Christianity and allow the Christians to worship their god and perform their religious rites, just as long as the Christians also acknowledged the Roman gods.

Religions, especially fervently held ones, are nearly always exclusivistic and triumphalistic. Religious exclusivism is the view that only members or adherents of that particular religion, cult, sect, or sub-sect can engage in right thought or conduct, or receive whatever advantage or value the religion is supposed to confer: salvation, forgiveness, being under the domain of God or heaven, or receiving divine protection, grace, or other benefit. Religious triumphalism is the doctrine or attitude that one religion or religious creed is superior to all others. Religious exclusivism usually leads to or implies triumphalism, but it need not necessarily do so, and religious triumphalism usually leads to an emphasis on evangelism -- on getting those who are not members of the religion in question to convert to it -- although it too need not do so.

After the triumph of Christianity and its adoption by the Roman Empire as the official religion of the Empire in 392 under Theodocius I, the Europe of the Middle Ages had a single faith in the sense that there were no alternatives except heresy. Whatever debate and religious struggle existed occurred between the religious and the civil authority. But there existed a universal view of the cosmos that embraced both of those as part of one larger entity.

With the coming of the Protestant Reformation, however, the conflict became much more insurmountable and difficult to manage. The ensuing religious wars that engulfed Europe in the seventeenth century -- known generally as the Thirty Years War (1618 to 1648), a series of wars fought by various nations for various reasons, including a struggle between Catholics and Protestants and between various Protestants, especially Lutherans and Calvinists -- following the religious reformations introduced by Luther and Calvin and others, resulted not in any resolution of these religious differences, but instead in exhaustion and in a reaction against the intense religious exclusivism that had produced them. These bitter and destructive conflicts -- carried out without a resolution -- gave rise, particularly on the part of neutral observers and non-participants, to an intellectual and moral revulsion against religious exclusivism and fanaticism. The humanistic side of the Renaissance combined with Enlightenment ideas of the role of reason and led to notions of tolerance as a value, a value greater than religious fervor for some people. The central question of this point of view could be expressed as "How can we live together without all this destruction that comes about if people assert the truth and exclusivity of their religions and carry this into the political and public arena?"

Since exclusivism and triumphalism, when taken up in the public arena, frequently lead to war and bloodshed, some way of threading the needle between religious fervor and strong belief, with its attendant exclusivism and triumphalism, on the one hand, and tolerance and accommodation of religious difference, on the other, seems to be necessary. But this dilemma is difficult if not impossible to reconcile. Can religions become tolerant unless they become exhausted or decadent? Does an attitude of tolerance mean that an accommodation has been made with evil, that there has been a "loss of first love" as suggested in Revelation 2:4? Or is it possible to achieve tolerance of even severe threats to the received view without thereby compromising that received view out of existence? Historical and present-day examples would seem to suggest pessimism.

Religions of the Book

Those religions known as religions of the book are especially prone to exclusivism and triumphalism. Such religions -- Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Mormonism, and others -- have sacred books or scriptures that contain what are supposed to be the central revelations, divine commandments, historical records, basic doctrines and precepts, or other things underlying the religion. These scriptures are usually taken by adherents of those religions to constitute the basic or fundamental authority for the religion, or at least one of its basic authorities.

Being a religion of the book has both an upside and a downside. The upside is that the scripture text is unchanging; it provides a touchstone or standard that is invariant over time, so whatever comes can be critiqued by reference to this unchanging criterion. The downside is that the unchanging scripture tends to prevent acceptance of anything new or different into the religion unless it can be shown to meet the standard of conformity to the received scripture. Moreover, because they have scriptures that do not change over time and those scriptures seem to command exclusivism and triumphalism, religions of the book have an especially difficult problem if they also take religious tolerance and ecumenism to be important values.

The Jewish or Hebrew scriptures (known to Christians as the Old Testament of the Bible) emphasize the exclusivity of the Jewish people and their religion -- Judaism is, after all, a tribal religion, restricted to the Israelite people -- and sometimes express a religious/tribal triumphalism. The first of the Ten Commandments says, "You shall have no other gods before me." (Exodus 20:3. All quotations here from the Revised Standard Version.) The Pentateuch asserts the peculiarity and distinctiveness of the Israelites, and commands them to drive out and overthrow everyone else in the land of Canaan, and utterly destroy the seven nations -- the other non-Israelite peoples -- residing there. The annals of the history of the Jews as given in the books of Kings and Chronicles detail repeated episodes of success and exaltation when the people remain exclusivistically faithful to their God and His commands, contrasted with times of decline and punishment when they become syncretistic and accommodating to the views and practices of their neighbors.

For Christians, the key Scripture is the New Testament of the Bible. There, the exclusivity and triumphalism of Jesus and Christianity are clearly and repeatedly affirmed. In John 14:6 Jesus says, "I am the way, the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father, but by me." In Matthew 28:18-20 Jesus commands his disciples: "All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you..." In Acts 4:12, speaking about Jesus, St. Peter declares: "And there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved."

In his First epistle to the Corinthians (8:5-7) St. Paul states: "For although there may be so-called gods in heaven or on earth -- as indeed there are many `gods' and many `lords'-- yet for us there is one God, the Father, from whom are all things and for whom we exist, and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and through whom we exist. However, not all possess this knowledge." Moreover, Christian history and doctrine, as it developed, made Christianity even more exclusivistic and triumphalistic because it declared that Jesus is God.

There are, however, contrasting passages in the New Testament that suggest a less exclusivistic view. Jesus' parable of the Good Samaritan shows that goodness does not reside just with the Jews -- in fact, a non-Jew, one regarded with contempt by good Jews, is held up as more righteous than the Jews. In the early Christian church, one of the most difficult controversies centered on whether, to be a Christian, one had also to become Jewish. Eventually those who argued that the answer is no, led by St. Paul, prevailed over those who argued otherwise, such as St. Peter.

For Muslims, the Qu`ran is absolute and determining. There su–rah I speaks of Jews and Christians, thus acknowledging their existence, but chides them, tacitly saying that they have turned away from the true religion: "They have taken as lords besides Allah [i.e. God] their rabbis and their monks and the Messiah son of Mary, when they were bidden to worship only One God. There is no god save Him." (IX:31). (Pickthall translation)

The Islamic mullahs in Iran and elsewhere have a point when they call America the "great Satan." America represents a culture that is profoundly at odds with their own, one whose cultural products and artifacts overwhelm their culture and religion if given any chance to do so. Thus, America represents a religious challenge even more than a cultural challenge to them, and, since they see their religion and its attendant culture as the true one, any strong challenge to it must be of Satan.

The Example Of Present Day United Methodism

Tension between exclusivism and tolerance can exist not just between different religions but between different branches, sects, or sub-sects of one. A notable example of this is occurring today within United Methodism. This example shows that such conflicts may not admit of a peaceful resolution, but lead to the breakup of a religious group or institution.

In an article entitled "United Methodists at the End of the Mainline" in the June/July 1998 issue of First Things, William J. Abraham writes that the United Methodist Church in America "now harbors within it forces that threaten to destroy it as a single body." This has come about, he says, because the core identity of United Methodism lies in commitment to the Methodist Quadrilateral -- Scripture, tradition, reason, and experience -- and this permitted and sanctioned doctrinal pluralism. This doctrinal pluralism will work, the author says, so long as the leadership of the church adheres to Liberal Protestantism, and "so long as those who are not Liberal Protestants acquiesce." ...pluralism is part of the intellectual structure of Liberal Protestantism. If you believe that Christian doctrine is essentially an attempt to capture dimensions of human experience that defy precise expressions in language because of personal and cultural limitations, then the truth about God, the human condition, salvation, and the like can never be adequately posited once for all; on the contrary, the church must express ever and anew its experience of the divine as mediated through Jesus Christ. The church becomes a kind of eternal seminar whose standard texts keep changing and whose conversation never ends. In these circumstances pluralism is an inescapable feature of the church's life. Pluralism effectively prevents the emergence of Christian doctrinal confession, that is, agreed Christian conviction and truth; and it creates the psychological and social conditions for constant self-criticism and review. [p.28]

The problem is that liberal pluralism is incoherent because, although it pretends to tolerance, "it cannot tolerate ... those who believe that there really is a definitive revelation of the divine, that the church really can express the truth about God through the working of reason and the Holy Spirit, and that such truth is necessary for effective mission and service." Thus "pluralists desert their pluralism in their vehement opposition to certain kinds of classical and conservative theology." Supposed pluralism is not really pluralist because it is absolutely committed to the view that "there is no divine revelation that delivers genuine knowledge of God." It holds that "Christian tradition constitutes a series of landmark expressions of the faith which are worth exploring, but which must change to incorporate new insights and new truth... tradition is seen to be relatively benign, if not strictly binding..."

The liberal position within Protestantism is now challenged, however, by "a form of Radical Protestantism which constitutes a whole new vision of Christian faith and experience. Its proponents claim that the tradition is dominated by patriarchy and exclusion, the product of oppressive forces linked to geographical location, social class, race, and gender. It is not to be tolerated, but stamped out and destroyed." These radicals, like the liberals, are absolutists on some things and relativists on others, but on different issues. The radicals "absolutize a commitment to liberation, emancipation, and empowerment." They give a privileged position to "designated victims of oppression." In some cases "a working doctrine of divine revelation has crept back into their discourse, where certain experiences of oppression and liberation are taken as epiphanies or as visible signs of the reign of God, and anything that questions the truth embedded in these experiences must be suppressed."

The radical position is contrasted and opposed by the conservative or classical Methodists, who tend to insist that United Methodism is a confessional church, and hold to a basic commitment to "civility, relevant evidence, and respect for the tradition of the church across the ages..."

But now that Liberal consensus within United Methodism is breaking down because United Methodism finds itself challenged on its traditional position on sexual morality by the emergence of the conscientious conviction that gay and lesbian relationships are a legitimate expression of God's good and diverse creation. Revisionists are sufficiently agitated by the rightness of their cause that they deem it essential to make use of both rational and non-rational means to win over the church as a whole.

The irony in this is that the theology driving the conscience of [this pro-homosexual movement within Methodism] is one that is deeply committed to inclusivism. In this theology gay and lesbian Christians have the same status earlier attributed to slaves and currently attributed to women, the status of those excluded from the traditional church. The clear aim is to include this new minority within the church, but the effect is to drive out those opposed to legitimizing homosexuality. Because they see themselves as agents of reconciliation and unity, the revisionists have difficulty seeing that their position is in effect exclusionary.

The paradox is, as yet, unresolved, but the author sees little possibility that United Methodism can survive as a united church, given this seeming impasse, unless one side should succeed in converting the other. Perhaps the revisionists will withdraw to form a new church, but that too is unlikely.

The author concludes by pondering "the very real possibility that the Liberal Protestant project exemplified by United Methodism was flawed from the start. Perhaps the very idea of theological pluralism was bound to self-destruct in time. These are the ominous questions now engaged." His musings on this issue within one particular church can be taken as emblematic of the larger problem of religious commitment versus tolerance as it is expressed in inter- and intra-religious interaction worldwide.

The Political Realm

Among many other examples of the bloodshed and war that have resulted when religious exclusivism and triumphalism were expressed in the political realm are the Crusades, undertaken beginning in the eleventh century at the urging of Pope Urban II in 1095. Although the Crusades had numerous causes, the most important one was the belief of Christians that Muslims should not occupy Jerusalem, the shrine of the Holy Sepulchre, and the rest of the holy lands because to do so profaned those places and lands. Thus, Christians took up arms and traveled to the Middle East in order to attempt to cleanse those lands and places by wresting them from Muslim control and driving the Muslims out.

The present day struggle between Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland and the struggles between Christians and Muslims in the Balkans have numerous causes, but inter-religious rivalry is one of the main ones. Likewise, the ongoing fight between Muslims and Jews in the Middle East, and indeed the worldwide struggle going on in European cities, in the Middle East, and in Asia between Muslims and the mostly Christian west is another example of religious differences resulting in bloodshed and war when taken into the political arena.

This seems to be an especially difficult problem for Muslims and for today's Islamic world. For one thing, Islam has not had any great Protestant Reformation, with its attendant political and intellectual changes that resulted in a certain separation between church and state, and between religious and civil authority. For another, Islam, from the time it was driven from Spain, has seen itself as beleaguered, confined to a kind of second-class status, politically, culturally, intellectually, and financially (at least until the discovery of oil wealth in the Middle East) vis-a-vis the Christian-Jewish world. This has tended to produce in the Islamic world an especially virulent form of cultural-political-religious envy and antagonism.

Any Way Out?

There are at least three ways of attempting to get out of the iron box that pits religious exclusivism and triumphalism against tolerance of religious differences: downgrade the authority or authenticity or interpretation of the scriptures or the received tradition; circumscribe or privatize religion in some way; or appeal to a new or different revelation.

Denying The Authority Of The Scriptures Or The Received Tradition

Since the Enlightenment, the Western world -- previously overwhelmingly Christian -- has been moving toward secularization. While this secularization is now a world wide phenomenon, it seems to have become most pronounced in the First World: Europe and America. Secularism has several roots or causes; people and culture are or may become secular because they are uninterested in religion; religion has no draw or attraction for them; it is a nullity in their lives. In other cases secularism comes about or is chosen because people actively reject religion; they see it as an impediment to human or societal fulfillment and well-being.

A third form of secularism -- widespread in Western high culture and among the intellectual elite -- sees religion as totally culturally conditioned and contextualized. For those who hold that view, the religious experience itself has no reality or existence. Thus, an unbridgeable gulf is created between those who see religion that way and the participant for whom religion is a living experience -- these represent two ways of seeing the world that never meet. The result is a kind of patronizing tolerance of religion on the part of the secularist.

In all of those cases, the effect of secularization is to deny the authority and force of religion and the scriptures. This is one possible way out of the dilemma of religious fervor versus tolerance. If religious fervor declines through secularization, the way may be opened for the development of tolerance of differences of view. We should be wary, however, of seeing secularization as a boon to human fulfillment and well being because the greatest offenders against human rights and well being in the 20th century -- judged on the basis of the numbers of killings and murders committed -- were not the religiously fervent but the secular political-social-cultural systems: Marxist-Leninist Communism and Nazism. In addition, many people are now convinced that the coarsening, and the moral, intellectual, and political decline of the west has come about mostly because of its secularization.

A way of undermining the status and force of the scriptures, working from within a religious view or commitment, is to directly attack their composition, their authority, or their canonical status. People who want to deny the claim that God directly commanded the Israelites to kill the other inhabitants of Canaan, for example, have claimed that these scriptures did not come as a revelation from God, but were written by priests or scribes from the Northern Kingdom (after the division of Israel into two parts) who we attempting to give a theological and scriptural justification or basis for their own xenophobia and triumphalism.

Critics of Christianity or the Christian scriptures have claimed that the New Testament does not really represent the views of God or Jesus, but was written some years after the fact by Christian apologists who were attempting to give a written basis or justification for their own Christian exclusivism and triumphalism. Others have claimed that the New Testament is primarily the work of Paul and his followers, who gave their own account and interpretation of the Christian gospel, an account that, according to this view, is significantly different from what Jesus himself had taught. Many scholars have question which, if any, of the purported sayings of Jesus are reliable. Still others have attacked the accuracy or veracity of a particular book or passage from the scriptures, sometimes holding that it should not have been accepted into the canon. Martin Luther, for example, is supposed to have said of the letter of James in the New Testament that it is "a right strawy epistle" because it contradicts Luther's dictum that salvation is by faith alone.

Closely related to attempts to deny the status or authority of scriptures or religious traditions are attempts to attack or reinterpret the received or prevailing interpretations of them. This is tricky, however, because it is always necessary to interpret the scriptures; there is no reading or understanding of any scripture or scriptural passage that is transparent, that is done without use of some hermeneutical principle or approach. Thus, every reading or appropriation of the scriptures (or a tradition) is in fact a mediated one.

This observation opens the door to introduction of varying interpretations and varying interpretative principles -- to new or differing mediating principles. And this is just what has occurred over and over again in the history of religious and scriptural interpretation. Moreover, interpretation is a never- ending process. As philosopher William L. Reese has written:

The task of interpretation is said to be never-ending. One reads the text, and makes an interpretation of what one has read; but just as the text was not self-evident, neither is the interpretation; so the text, perhaps indeed in light of the interpretation, requires a new interpretation, which also requires interpretation. This process is sometimes called the hermeneutic circle.

That may seem to suggest that the hermeneutical process is always one of endless and unproductive tail-chasing. But that is not so because important, productive, and long-lasting reinterpretations have frequently been made. Examples are Luther's re-interpretation of the Christian gospel and the New Testament, the ongoing rabbinical reinterpretation of and commentary on the Jewish scriptures, and Thomas Aquinas's reworking of both Christian doctrine and Aristotelian philosophy in light of each other.

Religions with any history and tradition have usually spawned a received interpretation of the scriptures of that religion that establishes what is permissible or sanctioned, and what is impermissible and unsanctioned. Moreover, some scriptural passages (or traditions) seem sufficiently clear in their meaning and intent that some interpretations of them seem to be ruled out as so fantastic as to be beyond believability -- as, for example, interpreting a `STOP' sign on the highway as meaning "proceed without stopping or slowing down" would be regarded as both bizarre and illegal.

The example from the United Methodist Church shows, however, that the practice of reinterpretation as it occurs in actual circumstances can lead to a situation where the re-interpreters see themselves as doing God's work, while others see them as perverting the truth. Thus, reinterpretation can introduce novelty into the religion and open the door to increased tolerance, but, just as likely, this reinterpretation may not solve the problem of diminishing tension or rancor and increasing tolerance. Instead, it may simply produce a new group with its own claims to exclusivism and triumphalism, leading to still more tension and lack of tolerance.

Banning Religion From The Public Arena

Since the public arena is where religious conflict results in political tension and even bloodshed and war, the American Founding Fathers, in writing the United States Constitution, banned any religious test for public office and set up what has come to be known as a "wall of separation" between church (or religion) and the state. (Whether the original Founding Fathers intended this separation to be what has come to exist in America today, or whether they had something different in mind, need not concern us now.) This has the practical effect of banning religion from the public arena or sphere and making it into a private matter, thus -- supposedly anyway -- keeping religious tensions from erupting in religious wars.

But non-trivial religions all commit their adherents to certain public stances and deeds as well as private ones, and they make pronouncements about right and wrong in public affairs and actions. Thus, restricting religion solely to the private sphere is in fact impossible. Moreover, any attempt to do so will be seen by most religious believers as subversive of the public good because, in their view, religion and religious adherence serves to promote those virtues, habits, and commitments in people that make good public life and behavior possible. A public arena without religion and the values religion brings and fosters -- what some have called the "naked public square" -- is soon also bereft of civic virtue and tends to degenerate into what Hobbes called a "war of all against all."

In Europe and in the American colonies prior to adoption of the Constitution, the solution usually taken was to make one religion (or several, in some cases) officially state-sanctioned, and regard the others as lesser and unsanctioned. In that case adherents of the unsanctioned religion(s) either must go underground or flee or accept state interference with their rites and practices. This solution may work for a time, but at the cost of state-imposed intolerance. As long as there were new territories for nonconformists to move into, this solution could work, if imperfectly. When there are no new places to emigrate to, however, this is not a workable solution.

In Islamic lands, there has never been a strong tradition of separation of church and state, or of religious and civil authority. Thus, the civil authority is an expression of the sharia, or religious authority. This tends to lead to a situation of extreme intolerance for any religious or secular expression that conflicts with what is taken to be the proper expression of Islam. As a matter of fact, many predominately Islamic countries today -- Egypt, Turkey, Pakistan, Algeria, Saudi Arabia -- have a severe and ongoing internal struggle between those who wish to set up a state power that they see as more authentically Islamic and those who wish to keep the state more secular, tolerant or open.

A New Revelation

All living religions, even the most rigid, almost always have some opening to new revelation, change, or innovation. Often this is by a "back door," a portal that bypasses the usual religious authorities and institutions. In Catholicism there is the charismatic movement, as well as various visitations and sightings from saints, sometimes to young children. Protestantism, because it has no central authority but instead teaches the "priesthood of all believers" tends to have a built- in openness to innovation, frequently through the rise and breaking away of various sectarian movements. Protestantism also has its own version of the charismatic movement as well as openness to new visitations of the Holy Spirit, especially in the Pentecostal-type churches.

Islam has Sufism as a back door to religious and spiritual innovation. Among others, Anwar Sadat, the late president of Egypt, was a Sufi. While imprisoned by the English, he had even learned Persian so that he could read and study Sufi poetry. His Sufism certainly helped give him the personal characteristics that made him able in 1977 to make the fateful opening and take the flight to Israel, ultimately resulting in the Israeli- Egyptian peace accord, an accord that helped bridge a rift that had come about at least partly because of religious opposition between Muslims and Jews.

Another avenue of openness to religious innovation and possible accommodation of religious differences comes through the changing of generations; elders die off or retire and younger people take over. This does not assure that innovation or increasing tolerance will occur -- a younger person or generation may be even move tradition-bound or resistant to innovation than the older one -- but the general tendency seems to be that younger people are usually more open to accepting the new and different than their elders. In any case, the transition from one generation to the next is inevitable and inexorable, and this necessarily places the administration, interpretation, and transmission of the religion into new hands, a situation almost certain to lead to at least some change.

The strongest candidate for introducing something new into a religion or its interpretation is a new revelation. But, as we can understand from the example of the Protestant Reformation, a new revelation usually brings into existence a new religion or religious expression with its own group of adherents, who may indeed be more tolerant of some existing groups and views, but this new religion or religious expression and its adherents will then usually be in conflict with a former view and its adherents. So the overall result is usually not greater tolerance but still greater tension and animosity.

The only true way out of this problem would seem to be the coming of a new revelation or religion of sufficient generality, scope, power, and authority that all previous religions and points of view could find their consummation and apotheosis in it. If there is indeed one God who is Lord of all peoples, views, religions, and ideologies, then this may be possible. But this remains, as of now, a not yet realized possibility. Perhaps that could be the real vehicle to take us into the third millennium.

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