One Common Faith,
as taught by John Amos Comenius
By John Taylor; 2010 Jan 31, Sultan 12, 166 BE
Historians of science warn students to avoid studying the science of past ages in an anachronistic way by blithely assuming that investigators of nature in the ancient and medieval worlds understood science anything like we do today. Not only do we possess a much larger base of dependable knowledge but also our very definition of science and the scientific method have changed radically over the past two centuries.
A modern scientist is radically different a "natural philosopher" of the past. Although we have a huge variety of scientific disciplines, they all benefit from a large body of common scientific presuppositions that everyone calling himself a scientist is assumed to be familiar with. How otherwise could the members of an international, interdisciplinary institution like the UN's Panel on Climate Change even talk to one another, much less come to common agreement on the dangers of climate change? Even our lay understanding of science is infinitely more sophisticated; today, we expect every educated person to have some familiarity with basic scientific facts, especially since we have all studied elementary science for at least a decade in our youth.
Governments and corporations spend billions of dollars every year, in effect betting that scientific research will bear fruit and that society will know enough to apply it safely. We all benefit from the common understanding of science taught in schools and universities around the world.
Unfortunately, none of this can be said about religion. As with science centuries ago, there is no received definition of religion. Students in public schools are lucky to be taught that religions exist at all, and it is not universal for parochial schools to expose students to more than one of the world's religious traditions. Experts and the public alike fail to see common features among any two religions, much less among them all. Nor is there a consensus even as to what religion is, much less one that is taught in schools. We do not expect every educated citizen to know religion as they do science, or that religions will change, or even can change. While many faith groups do evolve rapidly, others are indistinguishable in core beliefs from what they were centuries and even millennia ago.
Teachers have no confidence that even if schools did teach world religions, that commonalities among faiths would be discernable, or even that students would gain from learning that. Worst of all, there is a common idea, held by religious and secular alike, that faith most come as a bolt from the blue, that it is a kind of knowledge that cannot be taught. This is an insidious misconception. As Thomas Hobbes pointed out in the 17th Century, such an attitude hardly leads to lawfulness or good citizenship, rather it instils an insidious individualism that exterminates all hope of common ground in matters of faith.
"It hath been also commonly taught that faith and sanctity are not to be attained by study and reason, but by supernatural inspiration or infusion. Which granted, I see not why any man should render a reason of his faith; or why every Christian should not be also a prophet; or why any man should take the law of his country rather than his own inspiration for the rule of his action." (Hobbes, Leviathon, Ch. 24, Of the Things that weaken or tend to the dissolution of a commonwealth)
John Amos Comenius had no truck with such religious exceptionalism. It is the duty of writers about religion to teach it in such a way that all serious believers, no matter what tradition they come from, will agree with what is being said.
"Religion or Theology must be so written that it is necessarily acknowledged by adherents of every existing religion or sect, Christian, Jew or Mohammedan, as the one and only way unto God and blessed eternity." (Comenius, Panorthosia, Ch. 13, para 12, p. 203)
Religious leaders must broaden their concern from the exclusive good of their own flocks to that of all humanity. Playing with the common sound in Latin of the words for "ecumenical" and "economic" (household management), Comenius urged his fellow Christians to broaden the scope of their ecumenicalism to the entire household 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)
He believed that the first step to his proposed democratic parliament of religions would be for every school to teach world religions, starting at the primary level. Here the fundamentals of religion would be taught to everybody, as science is today. The trappings of religion distract and divide more than they unite; they can safely be ignored by a world curriculum. If teachers avoid needless externals, the specific doctrine, dogma, laws and rituals that make up the facade of world religions, they will have time to teach what benefits us all, a purified understanding of God and what He has to teach in Holy Scripture. What is more, this reading of scripture should be done with a view to action and application rather than as historical documents or dead letters.
"I contend that if we ensure in our schools in future that only the Books of God are explained, and these only are applied by the churches to men's consciences and by political systems to the government of our affairs, we shall certainly produce mental light and a semblance of uniformity in our affairs." (Comenius, Panorthosia II, Ch. 8, para 34, p. 123)
This is similar to how a good science teacher instructs today, not not merely trying to instil a body of scientific findings but rather introducing students to how scientists think, to the essential elements of the scientific method.
Just as science includes common goals for both experts and society, this educational program should aim at establishing a common faith for every world citizen. This would start with a long period of meeting, mixing and reconciliation among members of formerly warring religious traditions. In this process, we all would learn to understand and talk about faith in ways that do not alienate or antagonize one another. Each believer should be able to feel that all respect his or her traditions and beliefs and that it is welcomed and included in the faith common to all.
"It is necessary also to look for agreement in the process of reconciliation, which will mean that we are prepared to make every possible concession to one another. It is to be hoped that this will be easily obtained through seeking a compromise even in cases of apparent contradiction. For when everyone sees that his own opinions and arguments are not being rejected but only adapted to the general universal feeling, would anyone in his senses choose to disagree and engage in further conflict? For any man would prefer his own possessions to be left intact or only limited in the interests of general harmony, and if he saw the fighting ended on these terms he would surely congratulate himself and others on a bloodless victory and unexpected triumphs in the cause of truth." (Comenius, Panorthosia II, Ch. 8, para 44, p. 128)
Comenius agreed with Bacon that the main obstacle in establishing both a common science and a common religion is the faith that it is possible to do so. If we think we can, we can, and if we think it is impossible, it is. Since the Bible teaches that "with God, all things are possible," it would be impious for any adherent of a monotheistic religion to doubt that this is possible. We can make it all the more possible by using God, the Being with Whom all becomes possible, as the cornerstone of the common faith of the human race. I will give Comenius the last word on this.
God Must be the Basis of the One Common Faith
"You will say that it all depends on whether this is possible. My answer is to admit that disagreements in philosophy, religion, and politics have grown so strong that it is impossible for us to be reconciled through self-reform, but it is possible through nature and through God, who is the foundation of nature.
"For nature remains the same for all men, regardless of our differences. The earth indeed supports all men equally, even although we should prefer it to swallow up those whom we hate. The sun looks upon all men with equally direct rays, irrespective of our habit of looking askance at one another. A rose smells equally sweet to Jews and Christians, and so on. Similarly God is the God of all, and every word that he speaks is addressed to all who are ready to listen.
"Therefore, if we only look upon our own dogmas and books and works, (which we ourselves have produced in a thousand varieties), we are wholly incapable of reconciliation; but if we accept with due attention and reverence God's thoughts concerning us, and His actions, words and inspirations given to us for our use, reconciliation will be very easy." (Comenius, Panorthosia II, Ch. 8, para 29, p. 121)
(Comenius, Panorthosia II, Ch. 8, para 29, p. 121)