Thursday, November 26, 2009

Is Your Faith Fungible?

Comenius and Fungible Religion, I

By John Taylor; 2009 Nov 26, Qawl 05, 166 BE

Last time we touched upon John Amos Comenius's contribution to the principle that religion has the specific purpose of promoting love and unity. Today I want to talk about the direct implication of this principle: a sacred duty to hold spiritual beliefs and religious organizations accountable. For as soon as we acknowledge that religion has a clear goal we must see that it is possible to fall short of that object. If this happens, it is a truly religious act to hold it to account, to question it closely and to treat it as replaceable. In a church in New York, Abdu'l-Baha succinctly laid out the Baha'i principle,

"Religion must be conducive to love and unity among mankind; for if it be the cause of enmity and strife, the absence of religion is preferable. ... the religion of God is intended to be the cause of advancement and solidarity and not of enmity and dissolution. If it becomes the cause of hatred and strife, its absence is preferable. Its purpose is unity, and its foundations are one." (Promulgation, 177)

This principle of holding religion to account, of course, does not come out of a vacuum. It has deep roots in scripture. The Qur'an, for example, asks, "Do men think that they will be left alone on saying, `We believe', and that they will not be tested?" (29:2, Yusuf Ali) Today, many Muslims are turning down the path of interfaith collaboration (cf. prompted by cues in their own Qur'an encouraging unity with other Abrahamic faiths based on a "common word" among them.

"Say: O People of the Scripture! Come to a common word between us and you: that we shall worship none but God, and that we shall ascribe no partner unto Him, and that none of us shall take others for lords beside God. And if they turn away, then say: Bear witness that we are they who have surrendered (unto Him)." (Aal 'Imran 3:64)

Comenius would have agreed that the solution lies in emphasizing commonalities, which he calls the "solid features of faith," rather than getting lost in niggling, external variance, as has always been the case among religious leaders. We should expect only "religion in religion," rather than idly making it into a substitute science or a quasi-political cause,

"But as for the underlying firmly-rooted disagreements, they will indeed be largely removed, provided that we allow their removal and do not bar all the roads to agreement by maintaining an attitude of prejudice. Later I shall refer to some of the questions which have arisen among Christians to show how easily disagreement on those subjects can be removed if we would all bring our minds to disregard the details of the questions and deal solidly with the solid features of faith, or to reject any fragmentation of Truths and grasp the truth of everything as a whole, or to avoid verbal ambiguity and the quibbling which it causes, and look at things themselves; but especially, if we abandon our concern for our stomachs, our kitchens, or our pride and seek nothing but religion in religion, which means Christ and Heaven." (Panorthosia II, Ch. 8, para 35, p. 123-124)

Comenius offers several Biblical justifications for holding both individuals and faith groups accountable to the high ideals they derive from their relationship to God. For example, Matthew 7:19 says, "Every tree that bringeth not forth good fruit is hewn down, and cast into the fire." Jesus told his followers to judge those with religious claims "by their fruits ye shall know them." He even went so far as to forbid anyone who is not reconciled with those with whom they have been in conflict to even enter the temple to pray.

It is fair to say that the entire message of Comenius to believers in Panorthosia is that they must concentrate on reconciliation. Unless they do, we do not have a hope of reforming society in a complete and satisfactory way. While science and politics may be concerned with the correct technical way to reform our world, religion's main concern must be with reconciliation and education. Churches are schools, "and should be conducted on school lines," and this requires that believers enter them as students ("be ye as little children," Christ put it) purified of their multifarious opinions and preconceptions. Comenius points to this question from the New Testament:

"How is it, then, brethren? when ye come together, every one of you hath a psalm, hath a doctrine, hath a tongue, hath a revelation, hath an interpretation. Let all things be done unto edifying." (I Corinthians 14:26, cited in Panorthosia, Ch. 23, para 21, pp. 73)

Essentially, religious conviction becomes toxic and fundamentalism raises its ugly head only if we ourselves are not moderate. Extremism occurs when our education falls short of being well-rounded. Without a universal perspective our moral center inevitably shifts towards one of the three main faculties, body, mind or spirit. A wise person does not favor only one of these, nor does she separate or draw artificial distinctions among them. Rather a healthy lifestyle attempts to benefit all three at once.

Similarly (and this is a further implication of this principle), leaders of faith, science and politics must not continue with their prideful contempt for one another, rather they must learn to work together in a single movement to reform all of humanity.

"It has been customary in the past to convene ecumenical councils where bishops from all the Christian countries assembled to consult about the business of the whole church. But we shall have a truly economic council only if we assemble enlightened men from all over the habitable world, philosophers, churchmen, and politicians of outstanding eminence in wisdom, piety, and prudence pledged to introduce plans at long last full enough to secure, establish, and increase the safety of all mankind." (Panorthosia, Ch. 25, para 1, p. 128)

As Plato pointed out in the Republic, such a universal reconciliation is only likely to happen when the individual is well enough educated to balance physical, mental and spiritual progress in their daily lifestyle. Only then can the best of us, our leaders, reflect that balance when they form a more ideal government. Comenius's contribution, I think, is that he adds a further provision. All three will reach their potential if and only if they work together.


"In other words, through the same full light of God, philosophers will be seekers after all things; politicians will be controllers of all human activity; theologians will be pilots unto heaven of everything on earth.

"Consequently philosophers will be torch-bearers ensuring that men everywhere live in the light; politicians will be guardians to see that in all their activities men live in peace; and theologians will be stewards to see that men in every walk of life always work for God and enjoy Him forever.

"To put it briefly, our philosophy, our politics, and our religion, being universal and wholly enlightened, will seek to make men wholly real instead of lurking in the shadows of ignorance, wholly human instead of savage, and wholly God-fearing instead of blasphemous, and if we establish them correctly, then with God's help they will be successful."

(Panorthosia II, Ch. 10, para 52, p. 173)


As long as they recognize their boundaries each of the three can specialize at what they do best, acting as pilots, guardians and servants to the general good. Today we know enough about the brain to compare their interaction to the neurons and glial cells in the brain, which can specialize in ways that are complex but discernible.

In order to be worthy of taking such a prominent role in society, religious leaders must therefore, in accordance with the principle of accountable religion, learn to work together in a harmonious way. Comenius tried to do this with his fellow Christians in the following passage. I cannot help but wonder if there would have been a holocaust or if the Middle East would today be so volatile if this passage had been read as often as the antisemitic screeds of another Christian reformer, Martin Luther. I have added subtitles to clarify the group that Comenius is asking Christians to reconcile with.


Let me further explain why there should be no exercise of hatred on religious grounds, however widely we may differ at the moment.

Unity Among Christians and Harmony with Muslims

Firstly we should have no hatred towards Christians, because they are servants of Christ, or at least profess to be so. We should not adopt a hostile attitude towards Mohammedans, because they acknowledge our Christ as a great prophet, and do not allow any blasphemy towards him.

Harmony With Jews

We ought to tolerate the Jews, firstly because they are our librarians, as our fathers of old used to call them, and they are most faithful in holding the word of the Prophets in trust for us.

And God's purpose in preserving them is that they keep the treasure of the word of God faithfully with a view to the full conversion of the Gentiles and the Jews themselves, when there shall be fuller light, and no further excuse will remain for doubting that these things were sent by God, when all prophecies shall be fulfilled: Revelation X, 7, XI, 15.
 Secondly, we should be tolerant towards the Jews because theirs is 'the adoption, and the glory, and the covenants, and the giving of the law, and the service of God, and the promises, and of them as concerning the flesh Christ came' (Romans IX, 4, 5); and we have only been taken up into salvation through their unbelief which befell them in times past (Romans XI, 11); and thirdly, because of the hope of conversion for which they are saved (Isaiah LXV, 9, Romans XI, 23-5). Therefore let us fulfil the will of God, so that on seeing a Jew we may say, as if we were beholding a cluster of grapes not yet beginning to ripen, 'Destroy it not; for a blessing is in it' (Isaiah LXV, 8).

Harmony with the Non-religious, "Secular Humanists"

Lastly, we should be tolerant towards all Gentiles, because they are blind, and deserve compassion rather than hatred. As Christ said of the Samaritans and Paul of the Athenians, that they worshipped an unknown God," the same may be said of all the nations of the earth, that they worship the unknown. (cf. 'the unknown God' in Acts 17:23) But as Christ, and Paul after him, showed tolerance towards the weak until he brought them to righteousness, we should do likewise, until God takes pity on them and the time comes when the fulness of the Gentiles shall come in (Romans XI, 25).

(Comenius, Panorthosia II, Ch. 8, para 26, pp. 119-120)



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