The vignette, Three Religions in One Place, which considers in effect two of the three religions having a sacred claim to Jerusalem, suggests a uniformity for each tradition. The adherents dress alike, observe the same rituals, and hold to the sacredness of their religious texts and sites.
While religions appear uniform, they are anything but uniform over time. Yes, at times adherents committed to a common cause act single-mindedly and with great force. Like a nation going to war, no adherent would question the tenets of the faith or behaviour of the group when the religions has a high purpose driving it or faces an external threat. In circumstances when there isn’t a specific purpose or identifiable threat, religions can be hotbeds of internal controversy and conflict. Religious traditions are made up of individuals each who value their own opinion and judgement and if a common cause does not subsume their personal views, then expressing those opinions and disagreement among members is common. Assertion of religious authority and challenging the authority consumes the energy of the religion.
At times when felt strongly enough, a religious faith will divide into separate traditions. In Islam there are Shiites, Sunnis, Sufis. In Judaism there are the Orthodox, Conservatives and Reform movements. In Christianity, there are Latins and Orthodox. As I mentioned in the vignette, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre is divided not only between Latins and Orthodox but various Orthodox such as the Syrians, the Armenians, the Greeks, the Ethiopian. Other orthodox such as the Russian orthodox aren’t even there. The Latins, called in the West Roman Catholics, further divided into Roman Catholics and Protestants. And the Protestants couldn’t all agree so there are many iterations of Protestantism.
My maternal grandmother was a Methodist. Methodists couldn’t agree with the parent Anglican church. Even in her small community in Ontario the Methodist members couldn’t stay together. One faction built a new church across the road from the original and the disagreement was one faction wanted to stand to pray during worship and the other wanted to kneel for prayer. Allowing either form during worship was too much to accept for the members and the two groups went each their own way.
Over time deeply dividing issues seem irrelevant. Religious war has been fought over different opinions concerning the virgin birth of Christ. However, before we feel more enlightened than they, we might better imagine how our own beliefs may seem irrelevant in the future. It’s hard to do. Is there a society in the future that will see human rights as irrelevant? Absolutely not we say. But we have just to look about us today. We have dispensed with privacy for the seemingly higher value of convenience. You might watch the documentary iHuman and see how rapidly AI is going to change everything we now understand what being human means. The future will not look like us today. Not even close as the visionaries tell us.
There are a few curiosities to the diversity of religious tradition. One is the growth of ecumenism. Ecumenism as a thought developed to promote Christian unity. Some even promoted an ecumenism to find common ground among all religions. I began radio work as a volunteer for CIUT radio, a University of Toronto student station that was given a commercial licence to broadcast becoming a community station with an alternative (non-commercial) media mandate. CIUT offered alternative music and spoken word programming. I started as a newsreader before the station went FM. With the FM broadcast licence and new programming, I was given the opportunity to produce a show called WorldSpirit. I was given a year’s worth of recorded lectures of Hans Kung who the previous year had been visiting scholar at the U of T. Hans Kung was a leading ecumenical advocate. It struck me after a year of 30-hour weeks editing and mixing his lectures that ecumenism was in effect its own denomination. Its adherents were people who believed in the possibility of ecumenism unlike others who didn’t. It was its own movement but not it’s own religion. And here’s a curious observation about religions. We give them vertical categories such as Islam and Judaism and Christianity and their various divisions. People identify with the vertical categories and share common adornment, style of worship, configuration of worship space, administrative hierarchy. In fact though, various factions in the religions actually share beliefs more in common with factions in religious traditions other than their own tradition. Ecumenically-minded people in the various Christian sects would be more comfortable talking to each other than with other adherents of their own tradition.
In my tradition of the Anglican church, especially before the precipitous decline of membership beginning in the 60s, different factions existed much like different political parties yet all were Anglican. One group was the High Church even said to be more Roman Catholic in style than the Roman church. One group was Low Church where they disliked the display of colourful and elaborate liturgical vestment and were more like the Reformed protestant church in theology. Another group claimed the badge of Evangelical and were more aligned with fundamentalist churches. Later a Charismatic movement that stressed the spiritual experiences of the early church such as speaking in tongues was took hold in some Anglican parishes but those parishes had much more in common with charismatic Roman Cathoics, for example, than with other Anglicans. The curiosity is that shared religious belief seems legitimately more horizontal than the traditional vertical order. Anglican evangelicals for example, have far more in common with other evangelicals in other traditions than with the High Church Anglicans.
When producing short docs for CBC radio as a freelancer, I attended conferences and followed the publicity of the Coalition of Concerned Canadian Catholics (CCCC) who were Roman Catholics in a bitter struggle with the Roman Catholic hierarchy over gender and other issues. I remember thinking how comfortable they would feel in the Anglican Church and how little it would take to worship exactly as they wished to worship by switching to the Anglican church. They wouldn’t have given that even a slight consideration. They saw themselves as Roman Catholics and they were prepared to fight to change the church to reflect their values. The vertical pull is so strong. I don’t understand it actually.
So what is belief? A good question. It’s better a question than an answer. Something for you to ponder.
A psychological principle described by sociology helped me to sort out my interpretation of the religious milieu I was born into, deeply born into in fact as third generation clergy. It is the only world I really know. Richard K. Fenn describes how a religious institution that pursues relevance in that pursuit for relevance and significance loses control over the obedience of the membership. Relevance means letting people determine what is significant in their lives, address the needs of daily life. A focus on relevance is subject to local circumstances and cultural variations. This means the members living in different situations arrive at different answers to the question of what is relevant. The practice and even values of the body of membership ends up going in divergent if not conflicting directions. Belief and practice will vary significantly with allowing membership to explore the relevance of practice. An institution that wants to assert its authority cannot be relevant. The goal to be relevant is incompatible with an institution that seeks conformity to a hierarchy, demands unwavering subscription to a particular interpretation of sacred text, adheres to standard ritual observance, and conforms to an identifiable style. It’s a matter of control, of who dictates the course of the institutional ship. Do the adherents in their myriad circumstances adopt practice relevant to their lives. Or do the authorities assert their will on the practice of the people. The dilemma not recognized by my church for example, is that one can’t have both relevance and centralized authority.
Hierarchies love their power. People who work their way to the top feel they have earned the right to make decisions for others, believe they know better than others what is best. Why else would they be given such title and status and honour? And people in high places like the exercise of authority and are quite reluctant to give to give it away. Institutional authority that seeks to be more relevant has to allow their own control to be less absolute. Good luck with that!
The dilemma as I see it for the established institution of religion is a failure to understand this. Religious authorities seek to be relevant in a hope to reinvigorate membership and influence in society, but they still want control. Control comes from demanding obedience to established form or some highly controlled variation of the old form presented by the authorities as progressive. The church, as with all institutions in decline and unable to reinvent itself, cannot see their way to becoming relevant, to letting go, and so the institution does what its always done, only harder. More effort. Moreeffort. It’s said that so many telegraph companies disappeared after the World War II because they did not reinvent themselves with changing technology, thinking themselves in the telegraph business and not realizing they were in the communication business. The hierarchy resisting the way the world was going.
The flip side is when the ordinary adherents enjoy their religious practice and the authorities have a different agenda and force change on the ordinary people. In the vignette I mentioned the reign of King Josiah. He was politically driven to take advantage of Assyrian overlord weakness and expand his nation. To do that he needed the nation to take up his cause and come together and act as one nation in a quest for territorial conquest. Josiah demanded cultic worship centralized to the Jerusalem temple, that is under his control. He enacted a puritanical purge on the Temple cult to assert his control over the Temple by purging the cultic practices that he did not wish. However, archaeological research shows the farther from the temple the less effective his purge, and after the execution of Josiah by the Assyrians, people returned to their cultic practices on the high places and with images and rituals of old religions. Only the literature written by Josiahs elite suggest unity of religion. Archaelolgy reveals it was much different in practice, the ordinary people resisting the hierarchy’s agenda.
Recent research into the protestant reformation reveal that Protestantism wasn’t a movement of the people for reform against a corrupt Catholic church as the leaders of the Reformation claimed. That only served the reformers’ interests. The people loved their tradition. In fact, the corruption claimed by the reformers was far exaggerated. Shifting the common people from the practices they knew and loved took generations and much bloodshed.
What is the follow up to the vignette of three religions bowing in prayer in such different ways to their most cherished sacred sites all in a few minutes walking distance from each other inside the walls of Old Jerusalem? How different are they? Perhaps not at all. Perhaps we can see the attempts of religion, most holy, as the effort to understand the meaning of life, or perhaps more so to reconcile our consciousness with the fact we die. And despite all the claims to absolute truth, perhaps we can see religion as a very human enterprise. The story of religions is about the most noble of human aspirations and its most bloody and violent. Religion is just as subject to our psychological makeup for tribe and belonging and the human pursuit for power and influence over others. If the rabbi could don the cassock and the bishop wear the talis and they all pray with Moslems 5 times a day, then maybe the three religions could be in one place, of one mind, that all accept the order of things is not as it appears but as it is. The order of things is witnessed in the first breath of an infant and the expired breath of a person now dead. The order of things for us to discover is beyond the madness of our human institutions, beneath the madness of human life as it appears. As Thomas Moore writes in a Religion of One’s Own, we are what inspires us, not what we intend or make ourselves to be.
I have found inspiration in the silence I spend in my own inner place, beyond the noise of the human activity pressing on me. In the silence I find the whole of the world, a sense of being part of something. The more I attend to listening, spending time observing the petal of a tulip as it opens, as the sun brightens its colour, as it shrivels and falls to the ground, seeing that tulip not as something to possess but something to teach me wisdom, only then do I awaken. I become a different actor in the world.