Previously in these pages, I have dealt with faith, which too often is confused with religion. Faith is an attitude of confidence in the future, based on an awareness of help from outside ourselves. At its best, religion is a human enterprise that helps us grow in, and understand the basis for, our faith. However, religion is not always at its best. In fact, given the age of people in our congregation, we all should be doing our best to jettison our religion, for though it has done its job of getting us this far, we are at the stage where it is likely to be more a hindrance than a help to further growth.
In this article I would like to make a distinction between religion and theology (literally “theos” + “logos”= “God” + “Word” or “wisdom”), for it is the latter that keeps religion honest. “The task of theology,” as Catholic theologian, Diarmuid O”Murchu states, “was to purify religion of its ideological and idolatrous trappings…, highlighting the need to be less dogmatic and more open and adaptable to change.” (Quantum Theology, p.11) Biblical scholars note that this is not a new pursuit, for this is very much the mind and attitude of Jesus in the Gospel stories.
O”Murchu goes on to write, “The task of theology…could be understood as an exploration of that wisdom which awakens ands sustains the creative impulse of life… Long before humans ever invented the formal study of theology, they did theology. They grappled intuitively and ritually…with the encircling mystery of life.” This is what I try to encourage in people; not the slavish obedience to a set of religious beliefs, but engagement in the ongoing search for life and meaning.
Religion has often done more harm than good to this enterprise. “It is the instrument with which humans tried to gain supremacy over the Godhead itself,” says O’Murchu. We cast God in the image of humanity and molded God’s will into a system of duties and expectations, and thereby created arguably the greatest idolatry in history and, in many ways, the most dangerous. Theology exists to rid religion of its idolatrous nature.
Theology is faith seeking understanding, and hence belongs to those primordial aspirations that underpin the search for meaning that predated religion by thousands of years. The proper starting point for the theological journey is not a particular belief about God, for this inevitably binds it to the very religion it is meant to tame, but rather the human experiences of the mysteries of life. Along the way theology is informed by the experiences of those who have gone before, particularly, in our case, the experiences of Jesus of Nazareth. The important thing to realise is that this journey is open-ended. While certain beliefs may mark points of the journey, no belief, not even beliefs about God, can be considered to be absolutely non-expendable. Beliefs are like clothes. We outgrow them and so there comes a time when continuing to carry clothes that do not fit merely bogs us down with excess baggage.
As time goes on I find that the journey gets more and more exciting. Life and faith makes more sense, and I find freedom in leaving behind those old beliefs that had been hard to reconcile with my experience of life.
Here is a really scary statistic: 61% of Americans think that the biblical story of the world’s creation in six days is ‘literally true’!! (ABC News poll, 2004). This statistic suggests the Church in the USA has done a pretty miserable job in helping its people to grow in the faith. It is not simply a reflection of competing belief systems (I am all for a diversity of views when it comes to the mystery of God), but rather a description of mass ignorance. No clergyman whom I have met believes that the creation story is literally true. No recognized scholar of the Old Testament believes it either and, hence, no one who has a good theological education will be likely to believe it. Yet, despite all the clergy who should know better, and despite vast amounts of scientific evidence to the contrary, most Americans still believe that the world was created in six days. Australians are not so naive, but then, Australians are not inclined to believe much when it comes to religion. Comparing the two peoples, though, Aussies are the better for their unbelief.
This level of ignorance might be harmless if it were not for the marshalling and manipulation of the theologically ignorant by those who would use them for gaining political power. In fact, I suspect that this theological ignorance is even fostered and programmed. Some may think this statement is a bit ‘over-the-top’, but I would bet those same critics would agree with me if I seemed to be referring to fundamentalist Muslims in Iraq or Iran or Syria or any other part of the world where religion is used a political tool. Just as Osama bin Laden and those who have succeeded him have been able to sway simple Muslim youths by taking parts of the Q’ran out of context, so too do some leaders of the so-called Christian Right by misusing the Bible, even in Australia. These groups have been growing in strength alarmingly from the early days of the Moral Majority in the US (neither moral nor a majority), and we now find their influence in the current Australian government. The last thing that their leaders would want is a theologically astute population. These people, and the politicians who court them, are dangerous. It is important that our politicians understand that this distorted form of pseudo-Christian religion is not to be confused with the faith that most Christians hold.
The solution? Less religion and more faith.