IF RELIGIONS ARE TO STAY DYNAMIC AND LIFE-ENRICHING…

Light of truth

Valson Thampu

A significant difference between religion and politics is that, unlike the latter, religion has traditionally allowed little margin for opposition and disagreement. The vitality of a political system is safeguarded by the robustness of its opposition. Democracy without opposition is indistinguishable from dictatorship. That is why the leader of the opposition is second in importance only to the Prime Minister. For want of spirited and principled opposition, governance relapses into complacency, stagnation and decay. It mistakes intolerance for ideological virility or patriotic fervour. Prime Minister’s claim of championing good governance is belied by the attitude of intolerance towards the opposition.

The need to safeguard the space for opposition within a living system, whether of politics or of religion, is validated by the logic of life itself. Whatever is dynamic exists and progresses by contraries. Day includes night. Night is the bridge to morning. The heart pumps blood and sustains life because its expansion is followed by contraction per cycle. Dictatorship, unlike democracy, arrests the life and aspirations of the people. It dampens the dynamism of life; and does so by crushing opposition.

Human improvement is a complex and multi-dimensional process. No system, leadership or ideology, no matter how advanced and well-meaning, can contain all resources and insights relevant to it. Each person, party or ideology, by virtue of forming itself into an organized entity, shuts itself out from a large horizon of possibilities. As a result, the powers that be become complacent, loses its vitality and inclines to insecurity-driven intolerance and decay. This undermines the intellectual dynamism of the society. Secondly, many avenues relevant to the development of the people get obscured. No community has ever progressed towards realizing its optimum potential in the sterile absence of struggle.

This is well-recognized in the Bible. The role of Satan, the Adversary, underlies the biblical narrative from start to finish. A familiar illustration is that Jesus, immediately after His baptism in Jordan, at which He is anointed by the Holy Spirit and acknowledged by God the Father, is led by the Spirit into the wilderness there to be tempted by Satan.

As a rule, whatever is dynamic involves opposition. After all, among Newton’s laws of motion is the principle that action and re-action are equal and opposite. That is to say, you can’t have action without re-action. From this it is not to be inferred that action and its opposing force are, taken separately, necessarily of the same order of beneficence. The agent of opposition may well be evil. The betrayal of Jesus by Judas, taken by itself, certainly is. But, in the mystery of God’s dispensation, evil sub-serves the cause of good. As Jesus said, it is necessary that offence comes, but woe unto him through whom offence comes. It is a paradox that we need to face up to with fear and trembling, lest we are beguiled by simplistic distortions of the biblical faith.

Consider the office of the “Devil’s Advocate” (advocaetus diaboli) vis-a-vis canonization? Interestingly, this was the official name of the Promoter Fidei, or promoter of faith, whose responsibility was to oversee every aspect of the beatification and canonization process. What this involved was arguing against – or opposing – the canonization proposed. So, it was said, in jest, that the Promoter Fidei was taking the devil’s part in the proceedings. This made the promoter of faith a devil’s advocate. This encapsulates a profound insight. It is anybody’s guess if the need for such an office would seem recognized or acted upon, in the present-day religious outlook.

Today religions all over the world are distinguished by their varying degrees of intolerance towards opposition. What escapes our notice is that this denotes an enfeeblement of faith. What is strong and robust can stand being challenged and proved. The quality and character of faith improve in the process, like gold purified in fire. When faith is fragile and uncertain, we equate interrogating it with impiety. The counterpart of this in present-day politics is the knee-jerk reaction of Modi-worshippers to the effect that those who disagree with him or his policies must flee to Pakistan.

In biblical history, the spirituality of opposition was embodied in prophetism. The function of the prophet was to speak the truth to power. Such truth is spoken in opposition, as in the case of Nathan addressing King David. But for Nathan confronting the errant king, we would not have Psalm 51. We would have been poorer for it. But the core spiritual problem, as stated by Jesus, is that the religious establishment sees prophets as enemies. Hence the paradox of religion: the prophet is the sentinel of the godliness of a religion. But the more alienated a religion is from God, the more intolerant it becomes towards prophets. But a religious community needs prophets most when it tolerates the prophet least.

Peter Berger, the American social scientist, has a thought-provoking book titled The Heretical Imperative (1979). Berger argues that believers come under the duty to be heretical – that is, to refuse to follow like a herd of animals the will of religious authorities during times of religious decay. One is reminded of Bertrand Russell’s characteristic statement that in such periods, faith may be found only among unbelievers! Jesus was crucified, lest we forget, for impiety. To the Jews, the way of Jesus was heresy. The spirituality of opposition is basic to Christianity.

I have ministered to the Christian youth, inter-denominationally, all my life. My experiences convince me beyond doubt that providing opportunities to them to ask questions, to articulate their disagreements and dilemmas, encouraging them to seek and find a personal understanding of foundational matters of faith, is an urgent and basic need. The church should not sweep this reality under the carpet either for want of time – priests are so overburdened- or for lack of confidence, given the theological formation of priests and the burdensome parish responsibilities they have to discharge. As a rule, what is not contested or debated is not well understood. What is ill-understood is never internalized. The duty of the church is not merely to proclaim articles of faith, but to help members of the faith community to ‘discover’ them for themselves. As a rule, human beings become only what they discover.

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