Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Water, Water Everywhere—But Not a Drop to Drink

The phrase is from The Rime of the Ancient Mariner by Samuel Taylor Coleridge. The verse, which describes the predicament of a ship and sailors lost at sea, actually says,

Water, water, every where,
And all the boards did shrink ;
Water, water, every where,
Nor any drop to drink.

We can easily imagine the predicament of those sailors, mocked by the ocean full of salt water surrounding them and by the absence of any fresh water to drink.

I feel that way about religion these days. It’s ubiquitous but sometimes I wonder how many people are being nourished and enlivened and helped by it. I furthermore wonder how much good religion is doing in our societies and in the world at large.

But talk about religion is certainly everywhere. This week CNN is airing a series entitled God’s Warriors. In it, reporter Christiane Amanpour is examining those adherents of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam who can be considered the “warriors” of those religions in that they are committed to changing the world in the ways that they believe God would have them do so. They are the militants who see no separation between the sacred and the secular and who honor no division between church or synagogue or mosque and state and who are fully committed to shaping the world according to the tenets of the fundamentalist arms of their faiths. And some of them are armed.

Also, tonight PBS will air Cities of Light: the Rise and Fall of Islamic Spain. Here is a plot summary provided by Unity Productions Foundation, which produced the film:
Over a thousand years ago, the sun-washed lands of Southern Spain were home to Muslims, Christians, and Jews living together and flourishing. Their culture and beliefs intertwined and the knowledge of the ancients was gathered and reborn. Here were the very seeds of the Renaissance. But this world too quickly vanished. Greed, fear, and intolerance swept it away. Puritanical judgments and absolutism snuffed out the light of learning. Within a few centuries, the fragile union of these people dissipated like smoke.
I heard someone say that the film might provide food for thought as we ponder the possible future of the United States if we don’t somehow boldly and gladly affirm religious pluralism. Where will the intolerance of fundamentalism lead us?

There’s more. The cover story of the latest issue of the Christian Century asks the question “A Mormon in the White House?” The publication of The Preacher and the Presidents by Nancy Gibbs and Michael Duffy has brought the role of religion in the lives of Presidents and presidential candidates even more into the spotlight. Books by atheists like Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens and Sam Harris and counter-publications by various Christians and theists have thrust religion into the center of public discourse.

But is anybody being helped by all of this press and subsequent discussion? I’m frankly not too concerned about God’s reputation; God can defend God’s self just fine, I’m sure. But I am concerned about the role of religion in society, both American and international. People like Dawkins and Kitchens believe that the world would be better off without religion; I don’t agree with that and even if I did it wouldn’t matter because there is never going to be a world without religion. Whether you believe that God has revealed God’s self to us, as I do, or whether you believe that we created God out of our own emotional needs, as others do, the fact is that humans have, at least as long as there has been recorded history, believed in God. So it behooves us to accept each other and to try to understand each other and even to appreciate each other as we try to live out our faith.

Let’s face the facts. There will always be Christians. There will always be Muslims. There will always be Jews. There will always be Buddhists and Hindus and atheists. Until Jesus comes back (my Christian bias is going to emerge sometimes and you just have to allow me that even as I have to allow you yours) we are all going to be here together. Therefore, I believe, any and every nation, including the United States, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Israel, Russia and so on until the list is exhausted, is best served to have a system of government that is basically secular in its orientation while at the same time insisting upon religious liberty for all. Here in the United States especially, where we have lived under a Constitution for over 200 years that does just that, we must be vigilant to preserve such a system. It is for the good of the nation, for the good of the various faiths, including Christianity, and for the good of the world.

At the same time, our leaders need to have a solid understanding of the various world religions and of the role that religious beliefs play in the formulation and execution of policy by the various nations and groups with which we deal. In an interview conducted with former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright during the preparation of CNN’s God’s Warriors, she said,
In order to effectively conduct foreign policy today, you have to understand the role of God and religion…. Religion is instrumental in shaping ideas and policies. It’s an essential part of everyday life in a whole host of countries. And obviously it plays a role in how these countries behave, so we need to know what the religious influence is.
(Secretary Albright fleshes this idea out more in her 2006 book The Mighty and the Almighty.)
I’ve often thought that if I were a young person looking for a good and helpful career and if I had a felicity for languages, I would learn Farsi or Arabic and go to work as a translator for the State Department. But a young person might be well served to do graduate work in World Religions as well, because we need people who can translate non-Western religious ideas for our leaders.

As a Christian minister, my greater concern is for the public image of the Church and of the Christians who make up that Church. Let’s face it—sometimes we are our own worse enemies and, even worse, we often bring more negative attention to our faith than our critics could ever hope to cause. We don’t need to be Christian soldiers in the sense that we march off to wage battle against other religions by bashing and ridiculing them. We don’t need to be Christian soldiers in the sense that we try to use the trappings of power to force our will on everybody else. We don’t need to be Christian soldiers in the sense that we spout constant condemnation—and enjoy it. We Christians, and especially we who speak publicly for the Church, need to guard our words. We need to speak the truth, but we need to speak it in love—even for our enemies, for whom our Lord taught us to pray.

As a Christian minister, my greatest concern is that we actually do good through the practice of our faith. My fear is that even with all this talk about religion in our media and in our politics and in our culture there really is “water, water everywhere but not a drop to drink.” Our calling is to offer that cup of cool water in Jesus’ name. Our calling is to heal and to preach and to teach. Our calling is to offer the radical grace of God to a lost and dying world. Our calling is to practice love and sacrifice and hope. Our calling is to live a Christ-like life and to carry out a Christ-like ministry.

After all, we have the water of life. Isn’t giving it away the most important thing we can do?


The Beast said...

Not to mention "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner" is a great Iron Maiden song. I have almost the entire work memorized because of that tune. Who says heavy metal isn't educational?

I agree with your comments concerning religious freedom and plurality in the US. The question I wrestle with concerns the church's and my individual responsibility to people of other faith. Although we both believe the country should not act in such a way to suggest or favor any one faith over another, what about us? Should we not have a heart for Muslims, Hindu's, etc who are lost without Christ? You mention your own bias toward the return of Christ in your article, but isn't that exactly what we should do? Be in the business of mentioning our own bias?

On the other hand, the opposite extreme, some of which you mention, is perhaps even more detrimental to the cause of Christ. Disrespect, an unwillingness to listen, and general mud-slinging toward other people with varying beliefs seems to follow suit very quickly. I doubt if Christ intended for his followers to "make disciples of all nations" by creating a distaste for the church in the hearts of those to whom we are reaching.

Joshua Ruffin said...

We certainly encounter an interesting and unfortunate juxtaposition in our society today; the ideal, and certainly one of the principles upon which this country was supposedly founded, of a secular government with religious liberty for all is something difficult to maintain.

Obviously, a secular government already implies blanket religious freedom. Unfortunately, it also makes people defensive and sometimes fanatical about their faith.

The religion and race of the candidates SHOULD be a non-issue. I cringe every time I see a headline like "A Mormon in the White House?" or "Obama: Is He Black Enough?"

Who cares? Or more accurately, who SHOULD care? Well ideally, nobody.

As you said, there will never be a world without religion. And there will always be many religions, becauwe we simply can't agree on those kinds of things.

But freedom to worship...this is a principle by which all men can live, and I see no reason to not leave it at that.

Bruce Gourley said...

Leaving religion out of presidential elections would be a good place to start in terms of our nation returning to a healthy respect for separation of church and state. During JFK's campaign, Baptists (admittedly coming from an anti-Catholic bias) were quick to verify that JFK would not bring religion into his administrative decisions. If a Muslim were running for president today, the Christian Religious Right would be seeking that same assurance now. But in reality, all presidential candidates should pledge not to place religion - of any kind - over or even alongside politics.

Mike Ruffin said...

Thanks to you all for your comments.

Philip, you identify the line that we walk. On the one hand, we need to embrace the fact of religious pluralism and practice a healthy respect toward other religions. At the same time, we have the obligation to preach Christ, to express our bias, so to speak.

Joshua, we do indeed do a balancing act in this country and we need to keep doing it. Religious freedom means religious freedom.

Bruce, while I think that it is difficult (impossible?) and perhaps undesirable to ask a president or other leader not to have his/her religious faith impact her/his ethics and thus his/her decision making, I agree with you that a presidential candidate's religion should not be viewed as a critical issue. What matters is that she or he defend the Constitution of the United States, which includes the guarantee of religious freedom.

johnj said...

I'd like to speak about just one negative contribution to the public image of the Christian Church.

Our Christian fundamentalist brethren with their very public assault on science, especially evolution, are bringing much ridicule on our faith. Using the courts, the political process and much carefully packaged misinformation in an attempt to impose a narrow religious viewpoint in place of currently accepted science provokes atheist fundamentalists (thank you Alister McGrath for the term) to opposing extremes. A good fraction of Dawkins's recent diatribe is a reaction to the excesses of these creationists.

Christian fundamentalists must recognize that science is internally self-correcting. Theories and conclusions that cannot be sustained by observational or experimental evidence will eventually be revised. Theories cannot be imposed on science from sources outside of it.

The Creation Museum in Petersburg, Kentucky represents a fascinating but disturbing example of using technology to denigrate the science that makes the museum possible. The contradictions needed to create this museum are evident and increasingly the target of derisive commentary. Since the museum includes a strong evangelical emphasis its weird science reflects badly on its Godly message.

Ben said...

The very reason I wanted to study religion in college was to better understand people. When we understand what people value and believe, we can explain (maybe even predict) how they will behave in any given situation.

I would also concur those who will be shapping public policy moving forward should study the religions of the world. The insight would be invaluable.

Talk and study of religion is very different from the practice of faith. So is the Jesus of History and the Christ of Faith. However, both complement each other.

I think it's healthy to be talking about religious matters without feeling like we need to "convert" each other.

My hope is that in our conversation, we'll realize that we are all more alike than we think or care to admit.

I think Jung's belief in the collective unconcious and the philosophy that we all particiapte in the journey to to understand our own humanity is worth using as a lens to interpret the larger religious dialogue that is filling our media sources, our coffee shops, our churches and our own minds.

As far as the question of religion making a measurable difference, that's up to us. It our decision to allow our own beliefs to lead us to action. But if we accept the premise that religion defines our decision making, values and behavior, then every action is a result of our religion.

Perhaps the better question is "What is my religion?"