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The Council of Christians and Jews (Vic)
Sr. Shirley Sedawie Oration
23 July 2017
Religion, Violence and the Pursuit of Heaven
Rabbi Fred Morgan AM
Professorial Fellow, Australian Catholic University
Emeritus Rabbi, Temple Beth Israel, St Kilda
Movement Rabbi, Union for Progressive Judaism
I feel very privileged to be invited by the CCJ (Vic) to deliver this oration in memory of Sr Shirley Sedawie. Sr Shirley was one of the great pursuers of heaven in our country. I hope she would have approved of my topic this afternoon.
The theme for this oration is “Religion, violence and the pursuit of heaven”. I think we all have many preconceptions about this topic. Many people today argue that religion has been and continues to be the greatest source of violence in the world. So, I believe before we can address the theme itself, we need to look at a prior topic: what is “religion”? Because, if we’re going to discuss the relationship between religion and violence, we need to be able to identify what a religion is. Otherwise, we cannot be clear about the claims we are making regarding religion and violence.
What we mean by the word “religion” may seem obvious, but as soon as we start considering the evidence it becomes more complicated. (Things are always simpler if we ignore the evidence!) It reminds me of what St Augustine said about “time”: We know full well what time is until someone asks us to explain it. So it is with religion.
We might capture what we mean by religion by treating it as a category and listing all the examples we can think of that fit in that category. But that’s exactly where the problems begin. We would all agree, I imagine, that Christianity, Judaism and Islam are religions, but what about Hinduism, Buddhism and Confucianism? Hinduism has two problems with it. First, it seems to be synonymous with Indian culture: Hindus are people who live on the other side of the Indus River and do what those people do. But there is today a Hindu diaspora, and when Indians arrive here and build a temple according to their native practice back in India, would we call that Indian culture or Hindu religion? Secondly, Hinduism seems to be an umbrella term for many different religions, or at least many different deities and their associated forms of worship. So maybe it’s not Hinduism but “Shiva-ism” or “Krishna-ism” or “Vishnu-ism” that is the religion.
If having a deity is the operative principle, though, what about Buddhism? Buddhism is commonly held up as the example that causes headaches for those who would use the term religion. Though some Buddhists acknowledge many divine beings, they deny the existence of a supreme being or “God” as Jews, Christians and Muslims know the term. Many of the important questions associated with the Divine, such as is the world created, can people achieve salvation, and the like, are rejected by Buddhism as “unedifying questions”, or questions that distract us from enlightenment and extinguishment. Since extinguishment is the goal in Buddhist understanding, would we call Buddhism a religion? Or, is it better called a philosophy, or a philosophical psychology? Is there any significance in the distinction?
Even Judaism has difficulties being classified as a religion in certain respects. Though it has a God, sacred forms of worship, a sacred calendar and so forth, Jews in general don’t say much about life after death, Judaism focuses its energies on this world, and most importantly it seems to encompass all the minutiae of life: from the food that we eat, to how we dress, to the manner in which we conduct business, to the way we use fire on the Sabbath. Some of these minutiae are precisely what marked the parting of the ways between Christianity and Judaism in the early centuries. For this reason Judaism is sometimes called a way of life, rather than a religion. Is this just semantics, or is there a real difference in the use of these terms?
Then there are “-isms” that are inimical to what we commonly call religion, but which themselves seem to do the things that religions do. Many years ago, Professor Ninian Smart responded to the challenge that the great scholar of religion Wilfred Cantwell Smith had set. Cantwell Smith wondered how we would identify what a religion is if we stop using Christianity as our model and came up with a more analytical description of religion. Drawing on the kinds of systems that we call religions in everyday speech, Smart abstracted from them features or “dimensions” that they all seemed to have. The sum of these dimensions he called “religion”. They include things like sacred books, sacred acts, founder/authority figures, community structures, ethical values, and a set of beliefs that explain the world. By applying this phenomenological description he discovered that Marxism can be called a religion, since it has the same dimensions that function in the same ways as the more traditional religions. He didn’t mean that Marxism is “like” a religion; he meant that Marxism is a religion to its adherents. I must admit, standing in the main square in Kashgar in western China, underneath a gigantic poster of Mao Tse Dung leading the Great March, I could easily understand Chinese Communism as a religion.
So, “religion” seems to be a slippery concept. The more we learn about the diversity of the cultural objects we call religions, the less useful it seems to be. This is a line of reasoning that was introduced by Wilfred Cantwell Smith. His book The Meaning and End of Religion, which was popular when I was at university about half a century ago, showed that the word is derived from the Latin, though it’s unclear whether it comes from re-ligio or re-legio; but the use of the word really took off with Christianity, which adopted it as a description of what Christianity is.
As Smith showed, its application to other so-called “religions” was really a measure of how close or how far away they stood in relation to Christianity, the model religion or religion par excellence. This labelling of other religions became very important as part of the imperial colonializing process with which Christianity was intimately involved. As other cultures were encountered, there had to be a way to categorise the cultural forms practiced by the native or indigenous populations. The term religion was used for that purpose: primitive religions, indigenous religions, higher religions, lower religions, even “without religion” (such as the Australian Aboriginal peoples) – all of these expressions came into being as a result of the colonial process. These other cultural expressions were measured against the religion which was believed to stand at the pinnacle of religious faith, that is, Christianity.
As a corrective to this usage, Cantwell Smith and others argued that they are not actually religions as Christianity is a religion. He argued that all religions, including the Christian religion, are actually human constructs. They are inspired by what Cantwell Smith called “faith”. Faith is what we might call a spiritual term, while religion is more accurately understood as a human construction that embodies or encapsulates faith. To use the anthropological term, religion is really culture. Though non-Christian religions may appear very differently from Christianity, as cultures they nevertheless encompass everything that Christianity encompasses: they tell their adherents who they are in this world, they provide a map by which their followers can plot out their existence, they set out rules for proper living, and they also offer images of what the cosmic end-game might look like.
All this is actually quite important when we come to consider the relationship between religion and violence. Some scholars like Mark Juergensmeyer in his best-selling book Terror in the Mind of God link violence directly to religious rhetoric. William Cavanaugh has a different approach. Cavanaugh argues that, by associating violence primarily with religions such as Islam, we relieve our own secular culture from responsibility for deeds that may be equally violent but are portrayed by us in other ways. For example, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have been portrayed by those who instigate them as righteous responses to religious violence, not as religious violence in themselves. This, despite the fact that they are presented as holy crusades to protect democracy and the freedoms that the West holds so dear; freedoms celebrated in sacred festivals such as Thanksgiving Day in the States, or ANZAC Day in Australia. President Ronald Reagan, following a long tradition in Cold War rhetoric, categorised the Soviet Union as “the evil empire.” He thus borrowed an image from Apocalyptic dualism, seeing history as the battleground between the forces of good and the forces of evil. Such religious terminology is common not only the traditional religions but also secular, political institutions that function as religions in the Ninian Smart sense, though they may not naturally fall under that heading for us.
I’d like to suggest that violence is not a product of religion. It is, rather, a product of culture. But, as William Cavanaugh has maintained, it’s only secular societies that differentiate between religion and culture in this way in any case. Religion, as one of the forms in which we embody or incarnate culture, is undoubtedly a carrier of violence, but it is not the only carrier of violence, and it is not clear that it actually causes violence, as is sometimes claimed. More likely, violence is caused by the way groups work in human experience; the “us” and “them” mentality of human beings, which comes from our genetic histories.
That’s not all. Virtually all religions around our globe, as embodiments of culture, teach their adherents to pursue peace and lovingkindness. It really is of no value to ask the representatives of a religion whether they teach peace. They will all answer in the affirmative. But many students of religion have noted that religious people often say one thing and do another. We hear religious people speaking words of peace at the same time as they are wielding instruments of war. This dissonance or disconnect between speech and action reflects badly on religions. But it also suggests that religion, as a human social construct, can be used to promote both peace and violence.
The defenders of religious faith will often argue that those who are engaging in violence are not really loyal members of the group, practicing the religion as it ought to be practiced. For example, those Ku Klux Klan Christians are not real Christians. The Muslims who murder hostages or run down pedestrians or stab people in supermarkets are not true Muslims. Those Jewish arsonists who set fire to Christian churches in Israel are not behaving as Jews ought to behave. Those Communists who force the proletariat to undergo re-education are not living out true Communism. But if people self-identify as members of a particular cultural group, act to all intents and purposes in accordance with the rules of that group and declare themselves to be authentic interpreters of the tradition they carry, then from the outside how would we say that they are not true members of the group?
There is a group in Israel called Tag Mechir “Price Tag”, an Orthodox group that performs acts of terror against Muslim and Christian targets. Gadi Gvaryahu founded Tag Meir (a play on the name) to oppose Tag Mechir’s activities. He said of Tag Mechir: “They are turning Judaism, of which I am an integral part, into something different and frightening. Judaism is not a murderous religion.” But the supporters of Tag Mechir are Orthodox Jews. They would claim, and do claim, that what they are doing is authentic Judaism. Saying otherwise, as Gvaryahu does, is ultimately apologetics; it may serve to protect the reputation of others within the group and perhaps the reputation of the religious tradition itself, but it doesn’t help people outside the group to understand it better. On the contrary, it further confuses those who are asking the questions.
Now I think we’re getting closer to our theme of religious violence and the pursuit of heaven. We see that religion can have a much wider sphere of reference than we may originally have thought. To think of “religion” apart from “culture” is to underestimate much of religion’s power, both for ill and for good. Probably a more productive way of thinking about religion is to see it as a human construct that brings out both the best and the worst in human nature. It’s not necessarily about God, though God may come into it. It’s not necessarily about a sacred scripture, though that too may come into it. It uses many instruments to accomplish what, in human terms, it is constructed to do.
In the past no-one constructed a religion deliberately or consciously; not even Marxists or Buddhists, both of whom rest their case on human experience without any appeal to divine intervention. Marx and Gautama did not set out to construct a religion, any more than Jesus did. They were seeking a deepened understanding of the misery and sorrow that we encounter in life and a response to life’s ultimate questions. Yet, religious cultures accrued around their insights and experiences. That is what we mean when we say that religion is a human construct.
Despite the absence of intention, religions as cultural constructs fulfil certain functions for us, functions that we need to be fulfilled. These functions may result in violence, or they may aid us in our pursuit of heaven. Sometimes they do both in a single package. The reality is that religions, as the incarnation of cultures, perform many functions and serve many purposes. Two functions stand out for me.
On the one hand, religions enable their adherents to form identities by participating in communities. Indeed, some members of religious communities will say that this is the very reason why they attend places of worship: not to pray but to be with their community. They feel at home in church or synagogue, it gives them a chance to associate with their friends and to reinforce their connection with past generations. These are crucial features of identity. The things that go on in the community are of supreme importance to them, the topics that are discussed are all-consuming for them and the stability and security of the community are of paramount concern for them. This is what identity formation is all about.
But there is a down side to this process. Communities are exclusivist. People know who they are as much in opposition to others as through their own positive virtues. Communal politics, with which we’re all familiar, is composed precisely of this: who is with us and who is against us? Indeed, identity formation is essentially a political exercise. It is a natural human impulse to join groups and form alliances. Religion provides a means to do this while imbuing it with special value. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks argues this case in his book about religious violence, Not in God’s Name.
However, there is a second function of religion quite different from identity formation, and that is to provide the disciplines and tools to undertake a personal spiritual quest. Religions provide the means by which individuals may pursue their dreams of transcending the ordinary, the profane, and achieving higher states of awareness and being. These higher states may be located in this world, or in another world; they may be accessible through quietist modes of meditation, or through bursts of activism; they may take a long time, even a lifetime, or they may be instantaneous. Which disciplines and tools for personal quest are available to the individual is dependent on the tradition within which one finds oneself. Yoga is a discipline supplied by Hinduism, performing mitzvot by Judaism, meditating on the sayings in the Little Red Book of Mao Tse Dung by Communism. But the goal of the personal quest is more or less the same: to achieve an epiphany of unity, or oneness, or oceanic being; as the prophet Zechariah puts it, “On that day the Eternal shall be one, and the divine name shall be one.” This kind of quest is carried out on a personal, not communal, level; it cannot be shared in the way that other experiences are shared; and so it threatens the boundaries of the group. That is why communities set out to devise rules to circumscribe, tame, and, as the sociologist Max Weber put it, “routinize” personal quests.
My contention is that, while identity formation through community building tends towards violence, the personal quest through individualised disciplines tends towards the pursuit of heaven, that is, the pursuit of peace. I stress that they tend towards these ends. Of course there are exceptions; on the one hand, there is the community that seeks transcendence by opening its doors wide to the stranger; on the other hand, there is the individual who seeks to enter paradise by committing an atrocity such as a suicide bombing. But in general these two functions of religion tend to move in different directions, the direction of violence borne of otherness, and the direction of peace borne of unity and oneness. And both of these functions exist side by side within religion, they are both identified with religious culture and they create a tension within religion which can be difficult to live with and which often drives people to choose one expression of religion over the other.
In an insightful essay, “An Uneasy Truce: Religion, Violence and the Pursuit of Peace”, Professor Nancy Martin identifies a number of religious figures who have bridged the gap between these two functions of religion. Bishop Desmond Tutu, a devout Christian, is moved to write a book entitled “God is not a Christian”. The Hindu figure Mahatma Gandhi famously valued the Sermon on the Mount from Matthew’s Gospel. The Vietnamese monk Thich Nhet Hanh wrote a book called “Living Buddha, Living Christ”. He is able from his Buddhist perspective to say that terrorism is not the natural outcome of a religious doctrine or outlook but expresses anger or rage which comes from “a knife in the heart”. The Jewish savant Elie Wiesel argues that God is not neutral but rather God is always on the side of the oppressed, the poor, the hungry – that is, without regard for their religious or cultural background; he applies the Torah verse “Do not stand idly by” to any situation of injustice, such as the Sudanese genocide. Similarly Desmond Tutu argues that God represents action on the part of the downtrodden or destitute. He says, “No religion can hope to have a monopoly on God, on goodness and virtue and truth.” We might add that Rabbi Jonathan Sacks comes close to saying the same thing in “The Dignity of Difference”, and in “Not in God’s Name” he argues that only the personal quest for holiness which ultimately gives respect to the stranger can tame and overcome our innate drive to violence.
What is it that makes these diverse figures so special and unusual? Nancy Martin refers to these figures, from the Christian, Hindu, Buddhist and Jewish traditions, to make her argument that the best way to seek peace in the face of religious violence is by focusing within one’s own tradition on values that recognise the humanity of others and show respect for the religious traditions of others. What I would stress is that it is from within their own traditions that these figures find the strength to reach out to others. In other words, they employ their powerful religious identities, not to put up boundaries between themselves and others, but to seek points of connection, or unity, between themselves and others. They see that their personal quest is shared with others of a different religious culture, and this empowers them to subvert the drive to violence which is the usual response to the alien-ness of the other person. They deliberately cultivate an awareness of other religions, and in the process they come to see themselves – the worst in themselves, and the best in themselves – reflected in the other religions. They become repositories of peace even while they remain firmly committed to their own community and its culture.
This is an inspirational achievement. These figures model for us a new kind of religious life, one lived deeply within cultural boundaries yet opening up to other religious cultures; proudly marking difference among cultures while pursuing the oneness that is heaven.
It does seem to me that this is the kind of religious life that Sr Shirley Sedawie sought through her service to the CCJ. May we be inspired by Sr Shirley’s example also to seek it.
Rabbi Fred Morgan AM
23 July 2107