Regardless of your religious calling, most of us come to our faith through teaching, whether its from our parents, religious teachings in schools and universities, or our Priest, Pastor, Rabbi or Cleric in our place of worship. Whether it’s Sunday school, Wednesday night Bible study, or sermons from the pulpit, the role of leadership in teaching is fundamental to our understanding and expression of our faith.
In the Christian context, the Bible is our text book, and our preachers, pastors and priests are entrusted with the responsibility of guiding our spiritual development through their teaching, interpretations, and practical application of spiritual understanding. Church leaders, of course, also minister to their congregation, are active in our community and generally seek to support it, and we look up to them for guidance, and in fact, give them a license to act with authority (perform marriages, baptize and circumcise our children, bury our dead, etc.).
There are good teachers, and not so good teachers – in every religion. The core message of many religions, including Christianity, can be obscured and corrupted, radicalized, and even militarized. In the west, we cringe at images of Muslim clerics instructing their followers towards violence, hatred and war, and at the manifestation of such teachings in public beheadings, the forced expulsion of non-believers, and in the worst of cases, mass genocides. The Qur’an, the spiritual text book for millions of Muslims, is cited as justification for those who would indulge in radical Islam and the violence that results from its interpretation in the hands of men willing to pervert it to their own aims. In the Christian west, we view these developments, rightly so, as being disturbing and dangerous, and often point to the Qur’an itself as being part of the problem, interpreting it as agressive, hostile, and incompatible with our own beliefs. It’s a bad book, we say, and cannot truly be what God intended for mankind. Taken literally, radical fundamentalist Muslim believers seem to feel that their marching orders are justified by the book, and act accordingly, and with predicable results. Most recently, ISIL (or ISIS if you prefer) have taken Islamic fundamentalism to new extremes, as we see now regularly on the news, and we’re confronted with the resulting atrocities that have followed in its wake – the power of perverting a religion’s core message by and through its teachers and leadership, profoundly expressed. Whatever the motives, political, economic, societal, or more human ones like revenge, justice or plain madness, when a religion is allowed to be hijacked by those who would corrupt its teachings, good things never seem to happen as a result.
Christianity is not immune from these dangers. From many pulpits, particularly American ones, we’re hearing a radicalized form of the faith being promulgated as well. Like many radicalized Muslims, these radicalized Christians are just as determined and head strong in their own beliefs, justified by their Bible, at least as delivered to them by their pastoral leaders. While they may not, as of yet, be taking up bayonets and rocket launchers in the training camps of Jesus’ army, their apocalyptic message has gotten louder with the beating of the drums of war, and some of them seem actually quite excited with the prospect of armageddon occurring during their own lifetime – a prospect made strikingly real by the fact that we now have the ability to make it happen – in less than 15 minutes no less. The fact that they’re wearing Jesus T-shirts and blue jeans makes them no less dangerous than their Muslim counterparts once radicalized. A short review of Christian history might remind many of us that we too, are capable of our own atrocities in the name of our religion (the Crusades, colonialism and the extermination of native American societies, implication in the Holocaust, and within the faith itself, the Inquisitions being examples that come to mind).
For the most part, mainstream Christianity, or whats left of it, and American society in general, tend to view religion as a matter separate from state, from politics, and view the faith is being somewhat benign. Unless we’re a church goer ourselves, we really don’t care too much about what’s happening in the pews down the street at the local worship centre – at least not until some cult is exposed, or a prominent religious figure is publicly humiliated on television for corruption, infidelity or otherwise scandalous behaviour. Society’s license on the clergy isn’t necessarily monitored by oversight, and matters of the church are pretty much settled by way of self regulation, with few exceptions. If say, a church was teaching its congregation that their following should prepare for an imminent apocalyptic war, provide money and resources to a foreign state to support it as an ally in the struggle, and engage in a domestic policy of political intervention to deny segments of its society rights and privileges to support the effort, who are we to argue? After all, we’re all Christians, aren’t we?
Now, more than ever before, our spiritual faith, Muslim and Christian alike, comes with a duty, a self responsibility, to examine our own doctrine and orthodoxy with regard to our personal faith, regardless of what’s being delivered to us from the pulpit, the media or charismatic evangelism. Scripture needs to be interpreted through the lens of intelligence as much as through the spirit, or it can become a very dangerous device indeed, and for that, we alone as believers have the responsibility. In the middle east, we see sons and daughters, even children, being lead off to war by the zealous provocations of radicalized clerics and Imams willing to distort, pervert, and use religious doctrine and scripture as their means of encouragement and coercion. The Christian church in America may be no less vulnerable at the hands of powerful influencers who too, have access to media, money, and military might.
Christians, in particular, in western society, have a duty, regardless of their particular denomination, to ensure such radicalization of the faith does not take root amongst our own brothers and sisters, whether in our churches, schools, or society at large. We have a duty to work for peace, and to be knowledgeable not just in our respective orthodoxies, but also in our history and common heritage. Most of all, we have a duty to engage our God on a personal level, and to not be lead astray from that relationship with Him by false teachings, misinterpretations of the Bible, political agendas that have usurped the faith, or the corruption of those who would distort the core elements and essence of the foundations of our faith. There is too much at stake, personally, and collectively, to simply acquiesce to charismatic teachers, trite “the Bible says so” interpretations, and reactive outrage at perceived attacks on our religion.
I don’t know about you, but if we’re going to go to war for Jesus, or Mohammed, or God himself, personally, I’d like to be sure before I commend another person’s soul to the almighty. Open your Bibles, read it for yourself, ask your pastors and priests and challenge them, but above all else, especially in these difficult times, approach religion with intelligence. If not for the sake of the world, for the sake of your soul. Know who your teachers are – whether its your cleric, rabbi or pastor, and don’t just take their word or interpretation for what your faith has to say about doctrine – think about what you’re taught, and seek out your own meaning and experience. God, in any religion, doesn’t want puppets or zombies, but thinking, intelligent and creative beings – in His own image. Understand your religion, intimately, how it evolved, its role in the modern world, how its vulnerable, and the conflicts that arise from within it. This, I challenge you to do.
You may discover inconsistencies within your faith, and your beliefs may be challenged, and some of us love our own thinking so much that entertaining something other than what we’ve convinced ourselves to be true can seem very threatening. Accepting the faith doesn’t necessarily mean you have to take what you think you know, or what someone else knows, on faith. Find your God on your own knees. There has never been a better time in history to make that journey, and the wealth of the world’s languages, books, art and music are at your fingertips. There has never been a time in history when the need to get God right has been more crucial, or less perilous. Martyrdom of ideas, we may find, may be a wiser path to peace before martyrdom of our sons and daughters makes that option impossible.
There is nothing enlightened about blind faith.