|Why bother to think about religion?
Is religion a complete waste of time? Does it
make claims that are reasonable or ridiculous? Important question - but
how can we get answers? All sorts of people make all sorts of claims on
behalf of all sorts of religions. They can't all be right, but are any of
Many people find religion an awesomely mysterious business, dealing
with matters so profound that it takes their breath away. Religion can
give other people a sense of peace, but it can also give them a sense of
certainty, making them deaf to new ideas or perspectives. When religious
certainty is combined with religious zeal, the result can be bigotry and
division, even persecution and bloodshed.
Although its role has changed, religion still occupies an important
place in our society. Everyone, whatever their views about religion, ought
to give some attention to the nature of religious claims. The general term
for such reflection is "theology" (literally, "God-talk"). There's not
nearly enough of it about, perhaps because theology is hard work. Theology
requires a willingness to read and to think and to discuss. It also
demands that we be open to new ideas.
Unfortunately, lots of religious people see religion as their anchor in
an uncertain world, and rather than work at theology they cling on
desperately to what they've got. They use the Bible as a sort of textbook
with clear rules for living, which were laid down by God. They are
sometimes called Fundamentalists. Their "fundamentals" of the Christian
religion grew up in response to the scientific discoveries of the
nineteenth century. Science seemed to undermine what the Bible said.
An obvious way of dealing with this threat was to reject the claims of
science. This clear and simple approach has been popular. The more
sweeping the claims made by the Fundamentalists, the more people poured
through the doors of their churches. But at a stroke the Fundamentalists
also showed that such an approach to religion was impossible for
critically intelligent people.
Opposed to fundamentalism are the theological liberals and progressives
who want nothing to do with any form of dogmatism or authoritarianism. But
they have a problem. In an age characterised by the sound-bite, their
reluctance to make sweepingly bold theological claims is seen as weakness
by those unable to understand their caution.
Generalisations are always risky, but in very broad terms we could say
that the Church is a continuum, with conservatives at one end and liberals
at the other.
The former are split into two groups: Evangelicals (including
Fundamentalists) and those who call themselves Catholic or Orthodox. Both
kinds of conservatives oppose granting equal rights to practising
homosexuals and to women.
The liberals try to see all sides and aren't opposed to anything,
except intolerance and injustice. It may come down to a matter of
psychology. Some people have a much greater need for certainty than others
and are natural religious conservatives. The others are able to breathe
thinner air and are natural explorers.
A liberal is typically someone who emphasises the need to travel
lightly and who is happy to do his or her own exploring, whereas a
conservative is more of a package-tour traveller who rarely ventures off
the main roads.
Throughout history, the Church has been able to accommodate all manner
of different theological perspectives. The conservative critics in its
midst constantly complain about its doctrinal openness, saying that the
liberals and progressives don't stand for anything at all. But this simply
shows how low a priority such people place on the ongoing search for truth
and how little time they have for genuine tolerance.
The breakdown in the late 1970s of the broad political consensus, which
had prevailed in Europe and North America since 1945, brought a new
stridency of public utterance to the fore. This unrestrained discourse was
echoed in religion by correspondingly shrill outpourings from both ends of
the religious continuum. The measured, thoughtful approach was replaced by
confident oversimplification, which had (and continues to enjoy) wide
appeal. A willingness to do the hard work of theology might have prevented
some of the worst excesses.
A study of theology helps to guard against religious arrogance because
it makes us aware of how fragile are the positions we adopt. All theology
is human, in that all God-talk is talk by us. It's all tentative, it's all
provisional - and it all comes down to us.