When faith claims
a monopoly on truth anything can happen - even planes being flown into
skyscrapers, beheadings and innocents burned alive
MY THIRTY YEARS as a Kirk minister and spiritual leader, one word more than any other
characterizes the way in which institutional religion has changed: Decline.
folk attending worship, fewer baptisms and marriages in church - and with this numerical
fall, an inevitable drop in resources to sustain ministries and keep church buildings
open. As a liberal Christian, I must admit that the only area that seems to buck the trend
is an increase in those concurring with what I would call a conservative or fundamentalist
fundamentalism acts like a spiritual fire blanket. In a rapidly changing world it presents
(wrongly I think) dogmatic, rock-like certainty; assurances gleaned from either infallible
authorities or inspired texts or both. Its attractive because it provides a
structured mindset of spiritual security that is both comforting and clear. Clear cut,
simple, easily believed. And because of that, it is naturally suspicious of anyone
choosing to dissent, or indeed, criticize.
religious paradigms shift (and lets be clear, they always have) such moments throw
people into a state of flux. For example, think of a small primitive
community burning sacrifices to the Sun God to secure healing for a local villager.
And then one day a 21st century medical doctor arrives with appropriate remedies. With the
distressed villager now well, the communitys religious paradigm shifts in order to
accommodate the altered scientific reality. In a sense, the pieces on everyones
chess board are on the move. But there again, is that not what the games about? Are
the pieces not designed to move up and down the board? Is life different?
course, its not just medicine. Its also astronomy, physics, biology,
philosophy. Names like Galileo, Newton, Descartes and Darwin have all, in their own ways,
generated seismic shifts in world thinking. And the result? A corresponding change in
religious outlook. At first angry and antagonistic, but inevitably resigned to the fact
that it must also evolve or die.
I talk about religious evolution in a creative and life-giving way, I am conscious that
todays world religions are more inclined to adopt the language of death and dogma.
And some are determined to evangelise their cause with weapons as well as words. How
should we respond to this?
once compared the church to a swimming pool. All the noise today is up at the shallow end.
I think thats true. The loudest have least to say. In a time of decline, when people
cant see how old-fashioned religion relates to their lives, the spiritual vacuum is
generally filled by those flogging creeds of noisy simplicity. One fixed formula, one holy
unchanging text, one leader with one infallible perspective. All terribly limiting. No,
more than that a sheer denial of lifes rich meaning and colour.
yet, the crowds gather. We hear their chants on the evening news. It's because this kind
of reductionism is attractive. It makes the complicated, less complicated. Or so it
then you apply your mind. Truth is truth. Theres not religious truth. Theres
just truth. And what we regard as true is always, at the end of the day, a believed
reality borne of ones own heart. Things are not true because some religious figure
says they are. They are true because you and I have the courage and audacity to embrace
them, and more than that, run with them as free spirits. We then discover that truth, by
its very nature, is self-authenticating. The purpose of religious bodies like my own is to
share graciously the truth of their own stories. And to do this lovingly through signpost
and symbol; in other words, kindly media through which friends in varied places can be
spiritually encouraged rather than enslaved. At the end of the day, the freedom to hear,
interpret and live belong to each of us. Nobody can rob us of that right.
remain optimistic. I believe in Resurrections! So I must be a person of Hope. However, to
be serious, religions, of whatever sort, must allow room for different theological stalls
in their market places. My own church used to call itself a broad church.
Historically, it was liberal. Therefore, there was room to accommodate folk of opposing
views and perspectives. This was its strength. Indeed, the substance of any religious
faith requires a rich cacophony of voices. Without them, religion dissolves into grey
monotony marching its troops to a single drum beat.
small example may illustrate this. When I arrived at my present church in 1994, the
worship area was laid out like a cinema. The seating was fixed and in rows all
pointing to the front, where the minister occupied a high pulpit, allowing him to look
down on the congregation with an air of authority. During my tenure, the pews were removed
and replaced with flexible seating, whereby the congregation was now able to sit in a
circular shape. The pulpit has fallen into disuse.
are now shared in the round. Its risky, but at least it places authority back where
it belongs among the hearts and minds of us all. Because truth belongs to us all.
And no religion worth its salt should canvas conviction in a way that deprives the
individual of this sacred human gift. And I mean, NO RELIGION.
Religious faith can
be such a life giving thing; a source of positive virtue in terms of hope, wisdom and
peace. And yet, if one observes the reality of religious expression in many parts of the
world today, one would have to conclude that religion is often used as a force for evil
rather than good. Its about enslaving rather than enriching human life.
Im also conscious of historical bench-marks; times when people of faith secured
life-changing shifts in terms of morality and ethics. For example, an end to slavery and
children up chimneys, general health inequality, illiteracy and a whole host of other
injustices done away with by campaigners inspired by one faith or another.
gets in and who stays out?
troublesome things I mention stem from the evolutionary path that all religions are prone
to take as a matter of course. A little illustration from my childhood may help to throw
light on this: I can remember, as a boy, being part of a tree-house building adventure. A
long established oak tree behind a friends garden served to house our structure.
With zeal and enthusiasm, a dozen determined youngsters set about with nails, wood and
hammers. At first, everyone pulled together with a shared vision (visions have a habit of
promoting unity). However, once the task was completed, relational tensions began to
emerge. By the end of a protracted process, we had ring-fenced the tree, had placed a
guard on duty at a small entrance, and with aplomb, provided a bizarre password for all
who wished to enter. Indeed, for those acquainted with the Hebrew scriptures the word
shibboleth comes to mind. In a sense, we were doing what religions have always
done: marking out theological territory, building a big high wall with a professional
religious class at the gate qualified to assess who gets in and who stays out.
drawing board stage of ideas always unites people. Its sexier than the day-to- day
grind of making the ideas relevant and meaningful to the world around. At that stage,
evangelism can so easily become a form of persecution.
is this scenario inevitable? Can religions not naturally evolve and develop over
time? I dont think so. At least, not easily. Its like Communism.
Marxism had much to commend it, but ultimately it fell foul of the fact that ideas need
institutions in order to trade in the world. Sadly, institutions love power
structures, bureaucracies, filing cabinets and committee meetings. As a result, the means
become more important than the ends. And at what cost? Well, terror. And let me just
say that Christianity has little to boast about on that front. The so-called righteous
causes of history have left many a community scarred, both physically and
spiritually. All supposedly in the name of God.
love the singular rather than the plural. One simple idea, one clearly defined creed, one
single voice of authority. And once that religious train is set on the historical
track, you can be sure theres going to be one almighty collision.
ideas will, of course, prove to be the offending obstacle. Religions will always be a
hundred years behind the times. Darwin published his theories of evolution in the
mid-nineteenth century. Yet in some circles folk carry on the endless debate about Adam,
Eve and the Fall. New ideas have always tormented those inclined to see truth as fixed and
unchanging. And my goodness, how folk have suffered.
can evolve, but its usually while kicking and screaming; usually fending off those
anxious to insist that the world is not flat, that demons dont cause illness, that
Hell is the product of a rather nasty religious imagination fired by dogma rather than
healthy debate. On this front, the Enlightenment posed the biggest obstacle to those
inclined to close their minds to the world.
the Enlightenment remains crucial to today's religious debate. My New Testament
Professor at Edinburgh used to say: Always remember that you are children of the
Enlightenment. In other words, the emphasis now lies with human reason and
experience rather than traditional religious authority. Religions will always claim some
form of revelation at the heart of their spiritual experiences. However, the
significance of such claims must be viewed under the spotlight of modern thinking, be it
science or philosophy.
true tale from the past that should serve as an awful warning to those tempted to indulge
in the art of harsh judgement; judgement shaped by the mistaken belief in absolute truth.
setting is Edinburgh at the close of the 17th Century. As a university city, the place was
awash with student debate most of it carried out quietly and discreetly behind
locked doors. Enlightenment ideas, recently imported from the Continent, were leaving
their mark on the consciousness of young minds. A Newtonian interpretation of nature had
taken hold in the world of science, and within the Church Scriptures were now being
subjected to intensive scrutiny; miracles were challenged and prophecy reassessed. As one
historian has put it, the balance shifted from what God has revealed to what man has
that Edinburgh scene came a young man by the name of Thomas Aikenhead, a divinity student
studying at the university. One evening, in the company of student friends, Thomas
found himself in a bar on the Royal Mile, just down from Edinburgh Castle. No doubt the
days classes had raised issues worthy of discussion over a few beers. Unfortunately,
by the time it came to leave the premises, tongues had been loosened to such an extent
that young men in high spirits were capable of saying anything on the road home. Sadly,
Thomas fell victim to this. Overheard casting doubt on the divinity of Christ, and
generally questioning a literal interpretation of scripture, he was hastily condemned by
so-called friends and reported to the religious and civil authorities.
days he was charged with a capital offence: Blasphemy. Things moved quickly. Thomas was
jailed. A few remaining friends pleaded for mercy, but to no avail. A rigid Calvinist
dogma would ensure that this free-spirited critic would shortly pay the price. And Thomas
did. Twenty one years of age, he was sentenced to death, and on 8 January 1697 he was
hanged from the gallows at Leith. His final words are particularly poignant: It was
out of a pure love of truth that I acted
It is a principle innate to every man to
have an insatiable inclination to truth.'
should take time to absorb these words. Every religious person needs to trade in the
currency of openness and acceptance. Its fine to affirm a particular faith, but the
moment that faith claims a monopoly on truth, well, anything is possible Even planes
flying into skyscrapers; innocents being beheaded or burned alive.
would Thomas say today, given the rise of religious extremism in certain quarters?
think he would encourage us to do as he did: Regardless of constraint, never lose the
desire to see life afresh, and never lose the passion to follow the arguments wherever
they lead. Upon these principles civilisation depends.
Frater is Minister of Cairns Church of Scotland, Milngavie, near Glasgow