BY Jim Harding
Do we have to embrace matters of faith to stay engaged with the challenges of creating an equalitarian and sustainable world? Otherwise on what basis do we continue our endeavours for justice, peace and ecology? It can’t simply come from pure commitment. Perhaps the impulse also emerges out of the depth of our interdependences.
It’s not enough to restrict ourselves to acting only with those of “like mind”; this can lead to an ever-shrinking community. Our differences become magnified which in turn can lead to self-centredness, a sense of powerlessness and even defeat. At the same time we can’t spread our acts of faith too thinly.
Our motivation has to arise from various sources and somewhere in this flux matters of faith will appear. Whether we feel more isolated or part of a community of identity, our faith will be tested by life. Faith can weaken when our relationships fail or through our inner doubts.
FAITH AND RELIGION
Faith is often linked to religion, but there is a broader faith. In any religious tradition, monotheistic or not, you will find challenges and confusion about faith and action. Thoughtful writers from all traditions admit this tension. For example, writing in the May, 29, 2013 Prairie Messenger, Rev. Tom Ehrich hypothesizes 500 year transitions in Christianity. Around AD 500 “Christianity went underground”; around AD 1000 the “great schism” between Eastern orthodoxy and Catholicism occurred; around AD 1500 came the “Protestant Reformation”. And now, carrying all these streams and strains within it, he asserts there is a “relentless decline of institutional Christianity.” Ehrich suggests we might even call this transition “Christianity after religion.”
What might this latest transition mean for Christian or a larger faith? We certainly see a marked division among those professing the Christian faith. More conservative Christians want to circle the wagons and set more restrictive conditions for belonging to the group. This involves a leap of faith that some consider blind faith. More progressive Christians want to see religious practice freed from more doctrinaire custom and restraint. If you can regenerate your faith and spirituality through your daily activities why go to a physical church? Some however see this as such a dilution of belief that there is no longer a distinct creed.
The more germinal view may gain church attendance in the short term while the more searching view may shrink congregations. And statistics on church attendance show such a trend, with more evangelical churches gaining and more flexible ones losing followers. However overall, church attendance continues to decline while matters of faith persist outside formal religious circles.
An underlying tension exists within a wide array of moral issues, for example, abortion, euthanasia and poverty. I’ll leave abortion aside for this is still too polarized to glean much wisdom, but euthanasia and poverty can be revealing. The May 29, 2013 Prairie Messenger carried a story on a recent church discussion of euthanasia. The tone is revealed right off the bat with a the story of a 72 year old woman who chose to go to Switzerland to end her life being held responsible for cheating “her family out of a chance to learn and experience and grow?”A Reverend Gurr is then quoted saying suffering is not a part of God’s creation, “but suffering has become part of the human story of redemption. God allows it to continue because it is the result of our free will; however he has made it a vehicle for the fullness of our human journey, individually and communally.”
We need to ask whether such a hyper-theological approach brings us any real insight into the controversy over the right to die. Of course we should be doing all we can to build up the medical and physical support systems for an aging population, to reduce deterioration and sustain people in their homes and community, so that the “right to die” isn’t as likely to even become an issue. But the matter will still arise.
Where does “faith” end up when this view is taken? Are our personal struggles with pain, disease and the suffering that comes with aging and dying to be subsumed under an abstract belief in “God’s purpose”? Such a view can be seen to perpetuate the authority of the church; it can also be insensitive, even cruel where the person is expected to sacrifice themselves to uphold a prescribed belief within a community of faith. Is this the end-point for the belief that our salvation somehow always comes from the past suffering of Christ?
This places faith more in the realm of institutionalized belief than in the context of facing the challenges of human mortality. Faith here is in the service of maintaining homogenous beliefs, not expressing compassion. People are asked to submit to an orthodoxy which is not based on respect for free will. They are asked to circle the wagon in spite of possible harmful outcomes, including to the dignity of real humans facing serious challenges. Is it then any wonder that more people are tackling matters of faith outside the institutionalized church?
A similar tension can be seen with poverty. The new Pope Francis clearly wants to be seen as a friend of the poor; at the Rome vigil on the eve of Pentecost he talked of “the importance of caring for the poor”. But meeting the needs of the poor for food and shelter can take a back seat to promoting the faith. In the May 29, 2013 Prairie Messenger, the new Pope is reported as saying Catholics must “touch the body of Christ, take on the suffering of the poor”. He continued “For Christians, poverty is not a sociological or philosophical or cultural category” because Christ made himself poor in order to walk the earth, suffer, die and rise to save humanity.
Is the suffering of the poor more about affirming a particular Christian story than about changing the conditions that generate poverty? Some may wish to argue that it’s both, but this too can be seen as a very self-serving, non-compassionate view of faith.
Believers may have trouble distinguishing the approaches. If God is in control and we are to follow “him”, as interpreted by those who articulate the particular faith, then our human experience can become secondary to the perpetuation of the church or creed. This will always be open to some suspicion. It can be seen as being opportunistic, even exploitative, for it appropriates the suffering of disease or hunger to make a point. Doesn’t keeping the faith mean being faithful to acts of understanding and service!
How does this tension over faith translate into action to preserve the biosphere? Are we to engage in environmental activism to shore up a belief that God will not abandon “his” creation? Is our activism to serve the theology of creationism rather that the direct preservation of habitats, biodiversity, etc.? Or does our faith come directly from being embedded within the web of life, from our direct relationships with other life forms and to the air, water, earth and fire that sustains us all? Does there have to be a leap of faith at all?
Are we to act from our deepening knowledge and wisdom about our place in the cosmos that we are gleaning with the aid of geology, ecology and astronomy? Are we to carry on with a faith in the regenerative powers of life itself, which can’t really be a religious football for any creed? The discussion is long overdue.