Religion and the responsibility to love

One of the great impositions on the citizens of the world is that religion has been the source of much evil—the disaster of the Crusades, the Inquisition, current attacks on Muslims in Nigeria, attacks on Christians in India. When acts of violence or terrorism are committed in the name of religion, people of faith have the opportunity to rise up against them through prayer that embraces mankind in love. It’s so important to see that atrocities are not due to the practice of true religion but to some of the worst elements of human thought, masquerading as religion.

Religions, by their very nature, make claims about absolute truth. But a key question is how the practitioners of a religion apply its truth to human experience. Do they deduce from that truth that they have the duty to impose some teaching on another? Or does their understanding of that absolute truth increase their own spirituality, perfecting their spiritual practice and commitment to help heal the world’s suffering? 

I remember once hearing that Jonathan Sacks, the Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregation of the Commonwealth, when asked if he was frightened by the teaching of Christianity in some British schools, replied that people practicing Christianity didn’t cause him alarm. Rather, what concerned him was supposed Christians not practicing Christianity.

The English word religion is derived from the Latin word ligare, which means literally to tie together. True religion includes, embraces, and uplifts, while any practice that excludes, divides, pulls down, and imposes is but a weak counterfeit of the selfless goodness and love that should be the hallmarks of religion. Of course, this makes “religious terrorism” a contradiction in terms—something I observed when I was in India at the time of the Mumbai attacks in 2008. The sense of brotherhood and true welcoming I felt when I visited the Sikh Golden Temple in Amritsar, for instance, seemed the perfect antidote to such extremism.

Someone who understood this concept of true religion was Abraham Bloch—one of the many who made the supreme sacrifice of his life in World War I. A Jewish chaplain, he attended to the spiritual needs of some of the thousands of his religion who fought on the Western Front as Allied soldiers. A French Roman Catholic soldier had been hit. In his dying delirium he mistakenly identified Bloch as a Catholic priest and asked him to administer the last rites. Bloch grabbed a crucifix, put himself in harm’s way, and acceded to the request. In doing so, he was exposed to enemy fire and was killed.

False religion masquerading as the truth is perhaps as old as religion itself. In the Bible, God, through the words of Isaiah, rails against ritual sacrifices, oblations, and long, empty prayers (see 1:10–17). The passage culminates in these statements: “Wash you, make you clean; put away the evil of your doings from before mine eyes; cease to do evil; learn to do well; seek judgment, relieve the oppressed, judge the fatherless, plead for the widow.” This sentiment is echoed in the New Testament: “Pure religion and undefiled before God and the Father is this, To visit the fatherless and widows in their affliction, and to keep himself unspotted from the world” (James 1:27).

Jesus seemed to go out of his way to condemn a kind of “false religion.” In the parable of the good Samaritan, a man of a supposedly inferior status expresses more love than two men of obvious religiosity (see Luke 10:30–37). In another parable, a man who is exemplary in his outward practice of religion is reproved, while a second man, having nothing other than
sincerity to offer God, is commended (see Luke 18:9–14).

A danger that I’ve observed is the self-righteousness of thinking that there is one infinite God who is all-knowing, but that we understand this better than anyone else. If we thought that way, wouldn’t this be a stumbling block to our individual spiritual growth?

Consider this passage from Miscellaneous Writings 1883–1896 by Mary Baker Eddy in relation to Christian Science practice: “Let us suppose that there is a sick person whom another would heal mentally. The healer begins by mental argument. He mentally says, ‘You are well, and you know it;’ and he supports this silent mental force by audible explanation, attestation, and precedent” (p. 220). The Christian Science healer doesn’t begin his treatment by defining someone by fear or pain, or by seeing his patient as somehow lacking metaphysical understanding. He or she doesn’t start by seeing an ungrateful or unreceptive patient. The healer starts with the fact that there is one Mind and that the patient is reflecting that Mind. Do we think this same way when we’re considering the world around us?

Surely it would be a fundamentally false sense of things that divides the world into haves and have nots—for instance, those who “have” Christian Science, the universal law of God, and those who don’t have ready access to the Christ. Such a mistake would be the opposite of true religion, since such thinking excludes and divides rather than includes and unites.

It’s true that some people know about Christian Science and others don’t. But to be consistent with the metaphysical premise that there is one infinite Mind, we need to discipline ourselves to see men and women in Science, the way that Jesus did (see Science and Health, p. 476:32–8). Then we’re free to share our love for Science freely and widely without preconceptions.

Disciplining ourselves to see the divine in the other person doesn’t mean that we don’t discriminate between good and evil. It also doesn’t mean that we “water down” Christian Science, failing to recognize it as the promised Comforter (see John 14:16), or paper over theological distinctions. On the contrary, it means being consistent with the metaphysical premise of Christian Science—that there is one Mind. Mary Baker Eddy writes: “It should be thoroughly understood that all men have one Mind, one God and Father, one Life, Truth, and Love. Mankind will become perfect in proportion as this fact becomes apparent, war will cease and the true brotherhood of man will be established” (Science and Health, p. 467).

So how do we deal with someone with whom we disagree theologically, even someone who may be aggressively espousing his or her beliefs? I’ve learned that the need isn’t to dissuade someone from their religion nor to willfully persuade the person of Christian Science. Rather, we need to see the person as the expression of God’s love, and trust that God is governing His own image. The person practicing true religion doesn’t impose his will or view. Rather, he or she supports the other person in their highest sense of good, and listens to God for how and what to share.

Because there is one Mind and this Mind is constantly communicating with its image and likeness, we can know that Mind is communicating with our friend of another religion or no religion at all. By having confidence that God is governing His image and likeness, we move beyond simply tolerating another’s views to dealing with any false concept as being an impersonal argument about man that cannot hold us or anyone back. We can affirm that all true views indicate who the individual is as God’s child.

As a Christian Scientist, I can feel secure in knowing the universal truth that God, infinite unopposed Love, is much more than a denominational teaching, and this truth is leavening all religions. I can stand confident that this infinite Love, already universal and constituting the only consciousness, will embrace and unite everyone.

Was there ever someone more “absolute” in his or her thinking than Jesus? He quoted the Old Testament when explaining that the great commandment is to love God with all one’s heart and soul and mind (see Matt. 22:36, 37). And the Gospels in the Bible show that he lived that commandment. But Jesus proved his absoluteness not by selfish rigidity nor by turning a blind eye to evil, but by his deep and broad humanity and by his unconditional love for his fellow man, which served to correct evil and spread the message of God’s grace.

Each of us has the opportunity to practice true religion and to do so both lovingly and radically. Though it may sometimes be difficult, doing this contributes to worldwide harmony and unity. Terrorism and violence must cease when confronted with a collective recognition and practice of God’s love—the strongest power there is.

All on this globe together
July 18, 2011

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