"RELIGION will be the death of us all." So say many of my
friends and acquaintances. I suspect that, in their eyes, my
persistence as a religious believer puts me into some kind of
remedial group of traditionalists who are struggling to adapt to
modern thinking, and are therefore needful of toleration. At least
that was how it was until recent newscasts became saturated with
the blood spilt as a result of the ferocious hatred between those
preoccupied with religion.
It is not easy to be a person of faith when so much of the
distress in the world seems to be motivated by religious passions.
We may try to wriggle out of the rejection of religion by many of
our associates by attempting to distinguish between faith and
religion, or to suggest that Islam is going through a spasm related
to the high proportion of underoccupied young men who do not like
the future that is on offer from Western societies.
In reality, however, there is no easy cover. Religion is a
powerful phenomenon, and, like all such phenomena, has the capacity
for both good and ill; it would be well to acknowledge this sooner
rather than later.
FOR those who are mission-minded, the easy association by the
public of passionate Zionists or extremist Muslims with the
mild-mannered Church of England is a disaster. All efforts at Fresh
Expressions of Church and building credibility in communities are
quashed by the atrocities committed by those who make public
profession of being close to their God.
The same challenge faces those of us who have persisted with our
faith. Once, we might have accounted for our perseverance as
believers because of having a well-tuned religious ear or spiritual
sensitivity, but now we are confronted by the sickening wickedness
of those who follow religious teaching. This can easily loosen the
commitment of those who might otherwise be regular
There is a twist to all this, which, although counter-intuitive,
is worth considering. The media focus on furious religion may have
the effect, not of causing people to shun religion, but of turning
people towards it. When conflict flares and anxiety rises, we
retreat into our base identities, and seek protection in religious
or tribal identities.
Anthropologists and psychologists alike recognise that, when
crises threaten, expressions of tribal identity get reinforced,
even in supposedly sophisticated cultures. People turn to religion
when they are anxious. And yet religion embraced as a response to
anxiety is unlikely to be healthy religion.
We have been too slow to differentiate between healthy and
unhealthy religion. The calamities we are witnessing because of
conflict between religious people are rooted in the presumptuous
certainty that they are in the right, and that, by implication,
everyone else is not ignorant or innocent, but in error.
This is unhealthy religion. When people are bound together in
the certainty of their own rightness, the notion of grace is
crushed; and, when religion has little room for grace, it imperils
empathy, energises scapegoating, and results in unholy solutions.
Theology tells us this, and so, too, does history.
THE report Faithful Cities, a follow-up in 2006 to
Faith in the City (1985), looked ahead to the possibility
that religion would become furious, and sought to distinguish
healthy from unhealthy religion.
ealthy religion deepens empathy; it teaches holiness and
wisdom; it enlarges the imagination, and thus opens people to new
possibilities. Furthermore, it does not indoctrinate, but
encourages people to think for themselves; it is essentially
humble, aware of the capacity to get things very wrong.
Importantly, healthy religion does not focus on what it is against,
but rather on what it is for.
In our rapidly changed context, much of what we hear in church
can sound bad, and too easily the business of church seems part of
the problem rather than the solution. When religion becomes
ferocious, the challenge is to avoid right answers, reactiveness,
and rumours of rapture, and to do this we need to church, more than
When we come together to church, we need to be prepared to
puzzle, to lament, to seek forgiveness; to encourage compassion and
conviviality; and to gain confidence in abundance, as much as we
are familiar with scarcity.
TO DO this, however, means that what we do in church has to
change. We have to let go of notions of a "Church militant" and of
fighting the good fight. Even canonical features of public worship,
such as the lectionary, need to be reassessed as our ears are
pounded by the noise of inhumanity in Old Testament localities.
In particular, our identification with Israel presents
difficulties, and so, too, does our presentation of the Old
Testament, in its elements of an eye-for-an-eye mentality,
communicated alongside the Gospels. In our troubled time, these
aspects of our faith need more thorough exploration of context and
purpose than is possible within public worship.
This means that the process of church has to adapt. Bible study
that takes the challenge of contextualising has never been more
important. One diagnosis of furious religion is that the
application of the text becomes more thorough than its
contextualising, and thus we witness the features of healthy
religion fading away.
Christ is the solution: I have for too long considered this
presumption to be unproblematic. In the context of vociferous
"Islam is the solution," however, I have to think again, and to be
aware that to continue with my favourite clichés risks antagonism
and unhealthy religion. A cliché is a phrase that circumvents the
need for deeper thought. Healthy theology works to unscramble
clichés, and it does this in a similar way to Jesus's using
vernacular rather than learned language.
We need more theological conversations where we can practise
using patient and attentive approaches in the face of the scorn of
newly confrontational friends and colleagues.
Such reflective conversation is essential to the scrutiny of
faith that has developed in easy times. Our usual congregating,
however, rarely achieves such honest thinking and empowerment. When
confronted with evidence that religion can go bad, there is a
pressing need for fresh ways of doing theology, as well as fresh
ways of church - not just for the sake of the Church, or even the
gospel, but for the sake of humanity itself.
Ann Morisy is a community theologian from south London, and
the author of Beyond the Good Samaritan (Continuum,
2009) and Journeying Out (Continuum,