Believing In Religion

beinreligionDespite the bad reputation Christianity, Islam and Judaism are getting these days through things like the shooting of abortionists, suppression of women and assassination of politicians, he writes, “sensible people in all religions” are turning back to their sacred texts like the Bible.

He quotes a Roman Catholic theologian who has taught at Rutgers and Princeton as reporting “a tremendous interest in liturgy and ritual among students. Students are also fascinated by moral orthodoxy in matters of sex and sexuality — tremendously hungry for things that give more shape to life.”

This is all very well, Mr. John Bentley Mays comments, but “the danger is the temptation to shift too far the other way, to go for what promises to be unchanging, rock solid. That can go to fundamentalism which risks perversion into violence.”

Which of course raises a crucial question. What exactly does he mean by “fundamentalism,” and how does it differ from the religion of “sensible people?” Belief in the “rock solid” is undesirable, but how exactly does one believe in the non-rock-solid? The only admissible beliefs in the Mays canon, it seems, are such as make no presumptuous claims that there really is anything to believe in. For that, alas, would involve the dreaded rock-solid, followed by sad descent into the loathsome “fundamentalism.”

You begin to suspect there may be some confusion of mind here–that what Mr. Mays doesn’t like may be simply another word for something he does like, or is at least prepared to accept.

Take, for example, three terms which doubtless figure on Mr. Mays’ blacklist of regrettable qualities: “fundamentalism,” “dogma,” “intolerance”–the qualities he sees as giving Christianity a bad name. And here are three prime candidates for his approved list: “conviction,” “truth,” “integrity.”

But aren’t these, in essence, simply different words for much the same thing? What precisely is the distinction between a “fundamentalist” and a “man of conviction?” The fundamentalist, surely, is a person who firmly believes in certain fundamentals; the man of conviction is one deeply convinced he’s right. Does the only difference between them not lie in the attitude of whoever chooses the words?

Similarly, what exactly is a dogma? Essentially, it is something advanced as a truth. The proposition that Christ rose bodily from the dead is a dogma of Christianity. The proposition that five times five equals 25 is a dogma of arithmetic.

Again, Mr. Mays is surely against intolerance, but would favour integrity. The former he regards as a fault, the latter as a virtue. But intolerance is not inevitably considered wrong, even nowadays. A frequent charge brought against German Christians of the 1930s is that they tolerated Naziism–and should not have. They were not, in other words, sufficiently intolerant. They lacked integrity. The fact is that integrity sometimes (quite often, actually) calls for intolerance–intolerance of, say, racism, of avarice, of exploitation, of child or wife abuse, and of a thousand other things. Both words imply the same values.

Another ambiguity surrounds the word “discrimination.” We are continually told discrimination is wrong, immoral, even in some circumstances illegal. We must never discriminate. But we’re also told that to be indiscriminate is a character flaw. And to be called aesthetically discriminating is high praise.

Now if the only thing at issue here is blurred usage of English, this would be no more than unfortunate. What is actually involved, however, is blurred thought. What Mr. Mays hankers after–belief with nothing to believe in, morality with no absolutes, “spirituality” so long as none of the spirits is really there–is simply impossible. In the end, you have either the rock solid or you have nothing, and anyone who believes in God must be at heart a fundamentalist.

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