Tuesday, December 01, 2009

Digression on Teleology, Accountability and Value in Religion

Comenius and Fungible Religion, Part II

By John Taylor; 2009 Dec 01, Qawl 10, 166 BE

We have been discussing John Amos Comenius's ideas about religion in the light of the Baha'i religious principles. Today, let us start with a little digression on how three basic presuppositions about religion relate to one another. Not one of them can rightly be considered in isolation from the other two.

The first, as we have seen, is that religion has a clear reason for being, that is, to establish love and unity. Second is what we are discussing in this "fungible religion" series, that faith must be kept accountable to this purpose. Like anything else taken beyond the bounds of moderation, if religion becomes an end in itself it becomes toxic. It ceases to benefit. No matter how sublime it was in early stages, it becomes a form of idolatry and idols by definition are encumbrances that must be smashed in order to progress.

The third assumption, which we have not yet discussed, is that although religion is not an end in itself (only God is the "Be all and the End all"), it is nonetheless a highly valuable commodity. Humans were not created solely for material existence. We have a primal need for more, to love God and express ourselves in the light of eternity. Only a true, honest-to-God religion, a genuine encounter with truth in a group can fulfil our deep spiritual urges, and this bolsters society in general. A positive, moderate religion protects society from extremism by assuaging enthusiasm that would otherwise be expressed in less than healthy ways.

This third sub-principle Abdu'l-Baha called "religion is a mighty bulwark," or RMB. It is due recognition that religion alone can perform several unique services. It can reconcile us with ineluctable death. It reduces the suicide rate. It connects the individual with both past and future. At the very least, the great religions constitute an important part of the heritage of the human race that no educated person can ignore. In order to be a complete and balanced human being we need some form of direct contact with this force.

But, and here we return to the accountability principle again, we also must be aware that faith groups are a blessing only as long as their expression does more good than harm. Undoubtedly, tolerance is a virtue. We should respect other peoples' beliefs. And it is only fair to recognize that religion can be a tremendous blessing to all. However, this does not mean we can afford to offer a blank cheque to all religious opinion, no matter what.

It is useful to compare this to the regulation of food production. We all welcome variety in our diet, and appreciate creative expression in those who prepare our foods. However food safety laws dictate that if a factory puts out a product that poisons even a small percentage of those who eat it, it must be shut down immediately. It has no right to appeal to artistic license, tradition, ethnic roots, or any other excuse when lives are at stake. We should apply the same vigilance and severity to those who would serve up dishes at the buffet of religious convictions.

RMB, then, acts as a counterbalance to the accountability of religion. Yes, we have a duty to expunge toxic religious beliefs. However, at the same time we cannot afford to swing to the opposite extreme and set faith aside entirely. Nor is extreme liberalism helpful, a blithe tolerance of anything that affects the name of religion. To treat all faiths as untouchable and sacrosanct is not broadmindedness, it is a highly anti-social form of criminal negligence.

Panorthosia, Or Universal Reform

In Panorthosia, Comenius did not go so far as to maintain that we are better off without a religion that ceases to cure the world. However, he surely would have agreed with Abdu'l-Baha that much of what passes for religion goes against the basic purpose of faith. He was acutely aware that we need to reform religious life, and his ideas on how to do this are still of interest today. For one thing, he refused to treat science, faith and politics as separate solitudes, as almost every intellectual does today. The saying "a man with a hammer sees everything as a nail" would not have the sad irony it has today if we were educated in the well-rounded way that Comenius advocated. Similarly, Comenius understood that progress of any of the three depends upon balance among all three, philosophy, faith and practical politics. In order to reform one of these fundamentals, you must involve all three at once.

"But it will be necessary to acquire new forms of philosophy, politics, and religion if they are to produce such effects, since those which we still profess have become useless (if one may judge by results), and to make matters worse, have changed into their opposites. For the accepted philosophy mainly increases the mind's uncertainty about things. The accepted religions are in many ways more likely to offend the Deity than to win His favour. Politics of the kind generally accepted are more likely to disturb human affairs than to preserve peace. Therefore all things need to be reformed, or rather rebuilt on new foundations in such a way that every order seeks and attains its own particular goal as directly as possible, philosophy maintaining the light, religion the love and fear of God, and politics peace for all men in all ways." (Comenius, Panorthosia II, Ch. 10, para 42, p. 169)

In this respect, like myself, Comenius was deeply influenced by Frances Bacon. Although Bacon is remembered today mostly as a founder of modern science, he was profoundly steeped in the wisdom of the Bible, more so in fact than most religious writers today. Bacon urged reformers never to despair of human maleability, and not to draw artificial barriers among science, religion and politics. No effort at reform can succeed unless it is directed at all three at once.

Comenius agreed that it would be useless to purify any of these three fundamental aspects of the human condition -- roughly corresponding to body, mind and soul -- in isolation from the others, since God is one, and we must be one image of Him. This means a balance among all sides of our nature is needed in order for good to predominate.

"The first condition means that the Good which is desired should be purely good, and immune from all evil, so that no matter from what point of view it is tested, it is appreciated as good. Experience tells us that the popular philosophy, religion, and politics do not comply with this, since in every case they are so compounded with ignorance, and errors, hypocrisy and superstitions, confusions and acts of violence. In olden times God said of the Church and Politics of the Israelites 'Thy silver is become dross, thy wine mixed with water' (Isaiah I, 22), and the truth compels me to admit that exactly the same applies to ourselves at the present time. Therefore the task which confronts us now is to make our philosophy, religion and politics into pure wine, without dregs, and purest gold and silver (digging it from the gold-mines of God, sifting it seven times and purifying it of all dross in the new fire of universal harmony). (Comenius, Panorthosia II, Ch. 10, para 6, p. 154)

Non-proprietary Religion

With an insight that today seems almost incredible, Comenius saw that the root of resistence to reform lies in a tendency of groups to isolate themselves from other groups. Not only do scientists cut themselves off from religion and politics, and religion from science and politics, but even groups within these three main branches of human endeavor tend to resist contact with all but those who think in exactly the same way. This leads to parochialism, an "us" versus "them" mentality, and ultimately to fundamentalism, fanaticism and extremism. In the following passage he compares this tendency to the monopoly that a tyrant or a large business enterprise tends to assert on all who threaten their dominance.

"For just as we must not tolerate the confusing system under which a number of people force their way into everything by an order which determines who should undertake each enterprise, so it is equally intolerable that any work which more people could do better through the interplay of honest effort and mutual competition should fall into the clutches of a single individual, certainly a catch for him, but just as certainly a costly trick at the expense of the state.

"The early Christians condemned Monotheletes for heresy; today no-one should play the part of a Monopolist. Everything should be common property except insofar as is necessary to preserve order and avoid confusion between parties. The same rule should be observed in the church and in schools. In Mark IX, 38, the disciples say 'We saw one casting out devils in thy name, and he followeth not us, and we forbade him.' This should be a living example for modern disciples of Christ, not only under the Papacy but in all sections of the church, who do not allow the teaching and practice of their doctrines except by their own members and their own colleagues, regarding them as workmen of the same tribe. But although this seems a wise order of things (in politics, religion, and also education), yet it has turned into tyranny, and therefore the tribes in Belgium wisely rejected it. (i.e. during the religious conflict in the Netherlands between 1581 and 1609) It should also be abolished in the church and all over the world. Every kind of work within reason should be open to all, and the state should profit, no matter who undertakes it. The works should testify whether anything is reasonably and profitably undertaken." (Panorthosia, Ch. 24, para 1, pp. 106-107)


No comments: