Religion


I recently read Ross Douthat’s Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics and thought that it might be an idea to say something about it. I hadn’t intended reading it as the nation referred to in the subtitle is the U.S.A. and I tend to get irritated at the way American concerns dominate so many conversations. However, when a (South African) friend started posting quotes from it on Facebook, my interest was piqued and I realised that America has, after all, been exporting its bad religion around the world for a long time now. Or, perhaps more responsibly said, that the societal forces that give rise to developments in American religion are also present elsewhere, although the details, and even some of the trends, may vary. One of the key questions in my mind as I read the book was how what Douthat describes both does and does not relate to South Africa.

Douthat’s fundamental thesis is that, far from becoming a secular society, America is still a nation obsessed with religion. He argues that the problem is neither that its society is becoming irreligious, as the Christian right would have one believe, or that it is too religious, as the secular left would have one belief. Rather, the problem is that the last fifty years have seen the weakening of a broadly based Christian orthodoxy and the rise of “destructive pseudo-Christianities” as the institutions that sustained Christian belief have declined, giving way to a do-it-yourself religion on both the left and the right.

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I recently (and rather belatedly) got around to getting a diary for next year. Glancing through all the information on the opening pages (from astrological signs to Chinese animal years to a calorie and cholesterol counter) I made a rather curious discovery: it lists Jewish and Islamic holy days, but not Christian ones. Honestly. Okay, it does list “Public holidays” and these include “Good Friday” and “Christmas Day” which I suppose one could argue are Christian holy days. But Easter is not mentioned although the day after it is listed as “Family day.” Neither are Ascension, Pentecost or any other Christian feasts.

Please don’t misunderstand me: I am not objecting to people knowing about Islamic and Jewish feasts, indeed I would argue that this should also be extended to Hindu feasts. Neither am I saying that all Christian feasts should be public holidays. But I am seeking to highlight the way in which the very historical dominance of Christianity in this country has in fact led to its becoming invisible. The secularization of Christmas and Easter is simply part of life. However, when that secularization comes to define Christianity, so that it is eclipsed as a religion and ends up having less public identity than other religions, there is something very wrong.

This reminds me of a radio programme I overheard a while back. People were discussing end of year Christmas parties, and whether special provision should be made for Moslems who objected to being in places where alcohol is drunk. This led on to whether special provision should be made for Jews and kosher food and so on. But what struck me was that some people saw the dietary constraints of such religious groupings as being in contrast to the “Christian” majority who do not have any such dietary constraints. Given that the Nativity fast had just started this somehow struck me as decidedly odd! But I mention it here because it also underlines how the identification of Christianity (and an overwhelmingly western and largely Protestant Christianity at that) with a society somehow robs it of a religious identity that other religious groupings have been able to maintain.

The more I read about this mosque controversy, and the more hatred of Islam I see, the more horrified I become. It turns out that even Geert Wilders is involved, which should tell one quite a lot about the sort of people who are opposing the Cordoba Initiative. Anyway, I was trying to ignore this as it only arouses my own passions, when I dipped into a collection of essays by David Goa:  A Regard for Creation: Collected Essays (Synaxis Press, 2008). One in particular caught my attention, entitled “Zealous for Truth” and I then discovered that it is also available online. I find Goa’s article particularly helpful for the way in which he shows the relationship between zealotry and relativism, something that comes into particular focus in some current western discussions of Islam.

Recently I have listened to various people talk about Islam. Some are noted scholars. Others are journalists and others simply thoughtful men and women in the grip of fear. I have come to know some of these people. These women and men identify themselves, usually with vigor, with either the right or the left in both religious and political circles. They identify a discreet set of cultural diseases with our present age and I share at least a portion of their concern. Where I part company with both the right and the left – conservatives and liberals – and with their growing fraternities is when they prescribe antidotes to our cultural diseases based on their relativism or zealousness for the truth.

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I’d been trying to avoid the row over the mosque in the vicinity of Ground Zero as a peculiarly American storm in a teacup that I am incapable of understanding. But when the British Tablet dedicated a lead feature article to it I decided I’d better take notice. It’s a valuable article that I would highly recommend. But it made me even more horrified at the fear mongering Islamophobia that I’ve seen online, including on Orthodox blogs. And it also inspired me to visit the Cordoba Initiative website, which seems something well worth supporting, unless one actually wants a clash of civilisations.

A thousand books have been written on sacrifices and sacrificial offerings, and they still produce the most varied explanations. Theologians, historians, sociologists, psychologists – all have their own points of view, endeavouring to elucidate the essence of the sacrifice, some finding it in fear, some in joy, some in “lower” and some in “higher” causes. And whatever may be the value of all these explanations, it remains indubitable that wherever and whenever man turns to God, he necessarily senses the need to offer him the most precious things that he has, what is most vital for his life, as a gift and sacrifice. From the time of Cain and Abel, the blood of sacrifices has daily covered the earth and the smoke of burnt offerings has unceasingly risen to heaven.

Our “refined” sensibilities are horrified by these blood sacrifices, but these “primitive” religions. In our horror, however, do we not forget and lose something very basic, very primary, without which in essence there is no religion? For in its ultimate depths religion is nothing other than thirst for God: “My soul thirsts for God, for the living God” (Ps 42:2); and often “primitive” people know this thirst better, they sense it more deeply – as the psalmist declared once and for all – than contemporary man does, with all his “spiritualized” religion, abstract “moralism” and dried-up intellectualism.

To want God means above all to know with one’s whole being that he is, that outside of him there is only darkness, emptiness and meaninglessness, for in him and only in him is the cause, the meaning, the goal and the joy of all existence. This means further to love him with one’s whole heart, one’s whole mind and one’s whole being. And this means, finally, to feel and to recognise our complete and boundless alienation from him, our frightful guilt and loneliness in this rupture – to know that ultimately there is only one sin: not wanting God and being separated from him; and there is only one sorrow: “not being a saint,” not having sanctification – unity with the One who is holy.

But where there is this thirst for God, this consciousness of sin and this yearning for genuine life, there necessarily is sacrifice. In this sacrifice man gives himself and his own over to his God, because, knowing God, he cannot but love him, and loving him, he cannot but strive toward him and toward unity with him. But as his sins stand on this road and encumber him, in his sacrifice man likewise seeks forgiveness and atonement; he offers it as a propitiation for sin, he fills it with all the pain and torment of his life, so that through suffering, blood and death he may finally expiate his guilt and be reunited with God. And however darkened and coarsened our religious consciousness may be, however crude, “utilitarian” or “pagan” is man’s understanding of his sacrifice – as well as of him in whose name and to whom he offers it – at its basis necessarily remains man’s primordial, indestructible thirst for God. And in his sacrifices, in these innumerable offerings, invocations and holocausts, man, albeit in darkness, albeit savage and primitive, seeks and thirsts for the one for whom he cannot cease to seek, for “God created us for himself, and our hearts will not rest until they rest in him.” [Augustine, Confessions 1:1]

Alexander Schmemann, The Eucharist Sacrament of the Kingdom: Sacrament of the Kingdom. (Crestwood, N.Y.: St Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1988) 101-103.