When my synagogue announced that it was taking part in a series of three inter-faith discussions with local Christian & Muslim communities, I was attracted and enthused by the idea. So last Tuesday I ventured forth, together with The Webmeister (an attendee of the Orthodox Church), to hear the first presentation from the Revd. Paul Nicholson of St. Peters Church Belsize Park.
It seemed to me that such an evening had to be only for the good; a dialogue between people for whom their moral compasses were significantly important that they chose to be members of communities that shared their faith. However, after an hour’s presentation by The Reverend, and a further 30 minutes of responses and opinions, I left the meeting more disquieted than reassured. Since then I have contemplated as to why this should have been so.
Revd. Paul came armed with direct quotes from the bible and others from reference sources. Armed with these, he offered a succinct number of reasons why the church had, at times, veered towards extremism in the last two centuries. Among them were the central tenets of the faith such as original sin, the one true religion, the path to heaven being only via Christ and ‘who is with not with me…’. Accompanying these were historical explanations such as the context of The Roman Empire, the congregations that the gospels were speaking to and crusading priests. It all made for a powerful argument as to why Christianity would invite extremism & fundamentalism!
Putting aside his very open acknowledgment of factors that gave rise to extremism in the church Revd. Paul read out Mathew 32-42:
All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left. Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’ Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’ The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me. Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink.’
To be sure the passage highlights individual responsibility for moral choices and their context in society. But the elephant in the room did not enter into the conversation, namely the central role that evangelism plays in the day-to-day working of the Church. Wikipedia defines evangelism thus:
The preaching of the gospel or the practice of giving information about a particular doctrine or set of beliefs to others with the intention of converting others to the Christian faith.
I put it to Revd. Paul that societal problems with religion really only occur when individuals operate on the bases of self appointed responsibilities for the moral welfare of others. His response – that one has a moral duty to attempt to correct wrongs within society – was indeed reasonable. However I would assert that such actions should be undertaken from the pole of personal social responsibility not moral responsibility. When the latter replaces the former that is when abominations can occur. In this respect I can’t help thinking about events such as The Spanish Inquisition, the predominantly passive role of The Church during the Holocaust and the current activities of Christian fundamentalism in the United States. And that is why Revd. Paul’s presentation so disquieted me: Would it be completely wrong to see two centuries of Christian history as a conceptual construct not unrelated to the blueprint of Muslim fundamentalism that is currently so exercising the modern world?
Followers of The Ericle will already know that, of late, I consider myself to be a ‘BuJew’ – in my case a person born Jewish but who also practices Buddhism. A major attraction of Buddhism for me is that it is entirely an inward-facing religion; and that if there is any social engineering on offer it occurs from the concurrence of individual behaviours accompanied by a basic imperative not to cause unhappiness to any other single individual. Unfortunately there will be no Buddhist presentations in this series. Regrettably temporal matters, (a Fulham home game!), will prevent me from attending the Rabbi’s presentation on the subject next week. I was much assuaged by his remark that Judaism has never asserted a position of being the only true faith. I look forward to learning about what he had to say in general; and in particular as to whether he offered some encouraging thoughts on Jewish fundamentalism & extremism, especially within the context of modern Israel.