When I think of the hard problems we are dealing with on this planet, I ask how the divine light that shines through the clouds is going to work its way into the eventual triumph of the way of truth and love.
I am convinced that we have a historic opportunity to learn to know and love our Jewish, Christian, and Muslim neighbors—of course: all our neighbors, but I have a particular nest of difficulties in mind at the moment. Like other opportunities, it gets harder if we procrastinate.
All three of these monotheisms recognize what the Hebrew Book of Proverbs called “the spirit in man, the candle of the Lord, searching all the inward parts,” what Jesus called “the kingdom of God within you,” and what the Qur’an calls God’s being “closer to [us] than our jugular vein.” (Yes, scholars are right to point to the different historical contexts of meaning, but different interpretations do not exclude the possibility of shared spiritual insight.)
Peace in the religious world requires that religions accord sovereignty to God alone, and not attempt to exercise sovereignty over one another.
Judaism, Christianity, and Islam characteristically proclaim God as the Creator, the sovereign of the universe and of this world—its past, present, and future. God not only transcends human understanding, but God also uses human language to reveal his will and his way to us. God speaks through the prophets, and the scriptures are a treasure-chest of these revelations. Belief in something as revelation has a marvelous capacity to focalize human religious loyalties and also a tendency to promote intolerance, which can turn to persecution and religious war.
It is plausible that Jews and Christians and Muslims could readily agree that God alone is sovereign. It is not so easy to see, however, what is involved in relinquishing the idea of sovereignty over other religions.
The word sovereign means: not subject to any other; supreme; dominant.
If a religion assumes it is superior to all others and if it claims exclusive authority over other religions, then the stage is set for trouble.
If religions exist in freedom and equality and acknowledge no higher sovereignty over themselves, then they will sooner or later fall into the temptation to try out their power to prevail over others.
Is this requirement for peace logically possible? Does it mean that a believer must not regard his or her doctrine as superior to any other doctrine that directly contradicts it? This would be an intellectual impossibility. But the proposal does not require intellectual or theological uniformity. Religion is deeper than theology. The riverbed is not the river. The institutions and doctrines of religion are not the flowing stream of spiritual life itself. Religion activates living relationships with God and with all creation in the light of the primary relationship with God. The water that flows in one riverbed is not superior to the water that flows elsewhere.
Is it psychologically possible for people to experience religious peace? The proposal is based on an appeal to which all monotheistic traditions would easily agree; but it involves a requirement which is subtle and at times elusive in its psychological demands. We are all too ready to play the “Mine is better than yours” game. For example, we, who understand the need for tolerance, are better than those others. Having organized many conferences of world religions, again and again I saw the same result: without pressure to agree with one another, after a few minutes of slight awkwardness, the majority of panelists were caught up in a spiritual unity that was so evident that the audience could see the light in their eyes, could feel the dance of their sharing. People did not maintain themselves in ironclad religious identities; they enjoyed a smorgasbord of the spirit. They focused on goals, not creeds. And there was one rule: that there be no attack on other religions.
One helpful thing would be to use a more differentiated vocabulary when characterizing religious believers. The term fundamentalist should be used to indicate a conservative theological position, which does not necessarily involve fanaticism or intolerance. The term enthusiastic could be used to characterize supreme personal devotion. Let the term fanatic connote a mindset where religious (or secular) ideals are exalted in isolation from the scientific mental attitude, from a critical philosophy, from beauty in nature and the arts, and from diverse types of spiritual experience. We might use the term evangelistic to describe those who proclaim, even aggressively, the message of salvation of their particular religious group. And we need a different term from each of these to name an imperialist disposition that is intolerant of other religions and seeks domination. Moreover, someone could be an active defender of his or her tradition without being aggressive. And hostility is a psychological disposition, a propensity toward violence, independent of each of these other characteristics. There are no necessary connections between these concepts, but it is common to lump them together.
Is the hope for religious peace historically possible? Every tradition has its adventures with the evolutionary factors of superstition and fear and ignorance and hostility and vanity and struggle for domination. But the right kind of religious leadership can indeed help us move in the right way. For example, in the midst of the Iranian revolution of the late 1970s, one of the most influential leaders was sociology professor and religious teacher Ali Shari’ati. He emphasized, among other things, the brotherhood of all humankind and the equality of man and woman.
Persons of faith have a role to play in the struggle toward world peace within an effective framework of law. Mature religionists will generally be good citizens, but they have an even greater responsibility and opportunity to be ambassadors of the future, living the golden rule, loving the neighbor as themselves, and helping members of all religions to live the best of their traditions. While we seek justice in an impersonal and collective attitude, the personal attitude of love and mercy is the divine and human attitude that will one day lead our planet beyond war.
Genuine religious experience of supreme value offers a bulwark against fanaticism if religious experience is integrated with scientific inquiry into fact, philosophic consideration of meaning, sensitivity to beauty, and devotion to universal goodness. Genuine religious experience refreshes the hope of humankind to flourish as brothers and sisters in a universal family.
Most of this blogpost comprises excerpts from a talk, “Religious experience, fanaticism, and Kant” presented to the Ohio Academy of Religion meeting following September 11, 2001.
“Universal Light” by David John Kilowski – David John Kilowski. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons – http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Universal_Light.jpg#mediaviewer/File:Universal_Light.jpg