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Ferocious religion needs nuanced responses

05 September 2014

Extremist believers' actions mean that Christians should contextualise their faith, argues Ann Morisy


Demonstration: an Islamist at a protest in London, in May this year

Demonstration: an Islamist at a protest in London, in May this year

"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 church-attenders.

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 ever.

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, 2006).

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