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A mature religion fosters self-critique


The third international meeting of the Parliament of the World’s Religions brought together over 6,000 participants from all the major world’s religions and many smaller and more recent religious groups (NCR, Dec. 17 and Dec. 24, 1999). There were probably more members of the Baha’i and the Mormons than Methodists.

For obvious reasons those who feel their religious options are marginalized and disrespected often turn up in larger numbers at such gatherings than those who feel that their normative status is being challenged. The parliament assumed certain principles of relationship between religions: that all religions have principles of truth and promote valid relationship to the divine; and that there should be mutual respect among religions, not intolerance or claims of exclusive truth by one religion against others.

For those who accept this stance of mutual respect, is there room for criticism of falsehood or evil in religion? Does the principle of tolerance and mutual respect reduce us to gullibility or polite silence in the face of patterns of religious thought and practice that might strike us as unjust, cruel, obsessive or self-promoting?

Clearly the organizers of the parliament are not advocating ethical neutrality. On the contrary, the 1993 parliament produced a statement of principles of a global ethic to which all the representatives of different religious traditions agreed. The Global Ethic found that all religious concur on certain basic principles: Do not kill, lie, steal or sexually exploit others. All religions agree on the promotion of the values of life, truth, justice and love.

The question of betrayal by religion of these principles came up in a session of the parliament in which I participated. This was a panel discussion of the International Buddhist-Christian Theological Encounter.

Our discussion was challenged by an Indian man in the audience, himself a member of the Jain community and a teacher in Great Britain. He pointed out to one of our Buddhist presenters an experience he had had in a great Buddhist temple in an Asian country. In this temple the Buddha was honored by a statue wearing a crown covered with precious jewels.

“How”, he asked, “can a religion founded by a prince that renounced the life of royal privilege for that of a wandering ascetic honor him with a crown of jewels?” The Buddhist presenter quickly acknowledged that this was a distortion of the fundamental principles of Buddhism that calls for the renunciation of avarice and the desire for wealth.

Christians on the panel acknowledged a similar history of distortion in Christianity. How does the cross on which Christ suffered get turned into a gold and jeweled artifact to be hung above altars in ornate churches? What fundamental distortion of the message of Christianity is involved in such a transformation of the cross into a piece of precious jewelry?

Jeweled crowns on the head of the Buddha and jeweled crosses on which Christ is hung both represent a distortion of the founder’s message, a critique of the exploitative power and wealth of society.

In the process of calling world parliaments on a five-year cycle (the next one is due in 2004), it would not be amiss to reflect on this question explicitly. Are the failings of religion simply ordinary human failing writ large? Are these failings simply that of individuals or do religions sometimes officially use their authority to sanction violence, avarice, untruth and exploitation? Are there some kinds of failings that are particular to religion?

My answer is yes to all three of these questions. There are certainly failures of individual religious leaders to live up to their teachings, but religion can also use its official authority to sanction evil. Most of all, religion suffers from a special temptation.

From the Jewish and Christian prophetic tradition I would name this particular danger as idolatry. Idolatry is the tendency for religious leaders to identify their efforts with the sacred itself. When the leader claims to be God, to have a privileged claim to speak as the font of divine truth and goodness, then the needed humility and self-questioning disappears.

The magnification of evil through false sacralization happens when leaders claim divine privilege to wealth, exercise authoritarian control, repress dissent and call for violence. This suggests that one of the criteria of “good” or “mature” religion is the extent to which it keeps a healthy principle of repentant self-questioning built into its quest for relation to the divine.

While all religions seek to bring us into such a relation, a fusion of the self -- particularly of a religious leader -- with the divine eliminates the possibility of self-critique. It opens up the danger of idolatrous abuse of power.

We readily recognize this abuse when we see it in other religions, but are less alert to our own idolatrous abuses. What this suggests is that the most valid critique of religion is self-critique, for the sake of our own community’s spiritual health and positive influence.

Perhaps one of the major gifts of a new sense of mutuality between religions is the way we can help nurture one another toward this mature self-critique.

Rosemary Radford Ruether is professor of theology at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary, Evanston, Ill.

National Catholic Reporter, February 18, 2000