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The Paradox of being a Moderate

Saturday, September 3rd, 2011 at 5:01 am
by Borg

Japanese girl in the aftermath of the Tsunami

In the days after the horrific Japanese earthquake in March 2011 an SMS circulated around in the Middle East claiming that it was an act of punishment from Allah for the wrongdoings of the Japanese people. If you, like me, are not a fundamentalist Muslim you will probably find that attitude morally repulsive. If you are religious, the idea of a God that would inflict such tremendous suffering hopefully does not sit well with you. You may feel religion is about things like caring for others, trying to do good, strive to reduce suffering and to give hope and meaning.

You think talk about a punishing God is an expression of religious extremism, and you are as concerned about it as any secularist would be. You know of course that the Old Testament is full of references to the wrath of God, but you think the Holy Book should not be taken literally and that it must be understood in the historic context in which it was written. I am all with you on this, but as much as I prefer this kind of religiosity I cannot help but point out that this position is inconsistent. I want to show that people that think “any calamity is either a test or a punishment by God” are actually perfectly rational in their conclusions. Moderates that question these conclusions have realized something is wrong with the basic assumptions, but not followed through with this insight. They have taken the first step in a journey towards a modern sophisticated religiousness that is needed in a global society, but it is only a small step and not a place to rest. As an embryonic philosophy it is full of tensions and with most of its implications yet to be realized.

How powerful or caring is God?

The first thing that is troublesome is that if God cannot influence events of such historic proportions that fatally affect the lives of millions what in fact can He do? Logically, He either could not, or did not care to. If God can not affect such pivotal events in human lives why pray to him? Why praise Him? Why talk to Him? How is a God that can only witness the toil of man and nature but is powerless to interfere and serve justice actually a God? Is there a meaningful concept of God where He can do nothing?

If, on the other hand, He could have spared Japan the suffering, or at least warned them somehow, He must have had a reason not to. If He cares about us at all, and it was not the result of a Divine Mistake or the blind forces of nature, then the death of thousands of people and the ruin of the lives of so many more must have had a motive. Thus, either God is not a God to be reckoned with, or the tragedy had a purpose. This is not the thinking of religious extremists but simply applying everyday logic and drawing obvious conclusions. But how could a loving God allow so much indiscriminate suffering? This dilemma is so famous it even has a name – the Theodicy problem – and it is something the brightest thologians of mainstream Christianity have fought with for centuries. What then makes the SMS vile and an expression of extremism? If it is not extreme to assume God has a plan, God cares and God can intervene, is the morally objectionable aspect what kind of motive you assume He would have? Is it exteme to assume “punishment” is the motive? Is there not in fact in all religion a right and a wrong way, the righteous and the sinners? Does it not in fact make perfect sense if God wants us to learn to live a certain way that He would teach us? When geology professor Zaghloul Raghib Mohammad El-Naggar from University of Wales (unconfirmed), who happens to be a Muslim, expresses the logic as follows, there seems to be nothing fanatical about it, but a perfectly plausible conclusion.

Glorious Qur’an emphasizes the fact that nothing happens in the universe without the knowledge, will and wisdom of the Creator. Earthquakes – like many other natural disasters – are part and parcel of the Divine plan for punishing the ill – doers trying the pious ones, and teaching the saved individuals the lesson of their lives. Unless taken in this context, human beings will never learn from their own mistakes or even from the mistakes of others. Understanding the mechanisms by which earthquakes take place and measuring both their intensities and magnitudes cannot help in their prediction. The only way of avoiding this and other disasters is heeding the Creator and living according to His guidance.

The record of earthquakes proves the sudden, non–linear nature of these disasters that took the lives of millions of individuals throughout history, injured several other millions, made billions of people homeless and caused material losses of endless values. These tragedies cannot be the work of the mechanical processes of the earth, but need a designer, and the designer is the Creator Himself. And they must have a purpose, and the purpose is punishment for the transgressors and the aggressors, trial for the pious and honest ones that are caught in the middle and a reminder for the survivors.

I want you to see that to reject this conclusion is not to reject extremism but to reject the notions of a God that makes any direct and tangible difference to human life. You either accept that laws of physics cannot be broken, or have to explain how they could be broken in one place and time without breaking the machinery of the entire universe. (Something Zaghloul Raghib Mohammad El-Naggar has yet to do).

The Power of Prayer

Unless you think Obama and Blair are religious extremists to believe in the power of prayer is not fundamentalist or fanatical, but part of mainstream moderate Christianity. To pray is to ask for something and it implies God can listen and make a difference. It means He can defy the laws of the universe. But by implication it also means He wanted the Japanese people to suffer. Not long ago an American Christian refused to take his sick daughter to modern health care but simply trusted the teaching in the Holy Book.  Following the same teaching as Obama he now faces 25 years in prison – why? We are encouraged to pray from every direction yet someone that follows the instruction is sent to jail. How is that not an expression of paradoxical hypocrisy?

You might still think moderates can get out of choosing between a punishing or powerless God by a more liberal reading. If so lets explore what it means to be a moderate Christian or Muslim? To be a moderate means not to take the words literally, but to interpret the texts, to take it in moderation. Liberal Christians hold that it is OK to reject parts because they are tainted by human flaws and specific to a historic time. But does selecting the Holy Bits from the Holy Book really solve the Theodicy dilemma we have outlined above? No, as a matter of fact it makes it worse by introducing some kinks of its own. If you choose to ignore all the bits about the wrath and jealousy of God, of a selected people, of the righteous, and stay only with a kind, loving, all embracing and forgiving God, the question still remains: Can God make a tangible difference in the real world? Yes, if so why did He do nothing? No, if so why pray to Him?

The Fake Policeman fallacy

If you can take any more let me unravel the bonus issues that are added to the plot by the moderate twist. If you are a moderate you would perhaps prefer to cut out all bits in the Holy Book that feed into acts of religious violence. Even though there is much support for such behaviour it goes against your sense of compassion. This whole act of moderating the text does however present some profound challenges to the whole notion of religious authority. To explain how let me use a favourite technique: An allegory.

As I am writing this on a beach in Sri Lanka I have come to think of a fraudulent practice that is common in this part of the world. In India Westerners are sometimes stopped by the police and without any legal authority forced to pay a bribe to get out of a situation. If this corruption was not bad enough I have learnt official policemen sometimes lend their uniform to other friends and family for them to earn a little extra by parading under the authority of the law. Surely you find this False Flag practice wrong, but what has it got to do with being a moderate? False authority. The authority of the Holy Book over any other text is that it is a revelation of God. It is perfect and divine. If it has human flaws it is no longer the source of authority it claims to be. Crucially, to be a moderate means to move the locus of authority from God to the personal judgement of the moderator. If this move was overt and made honestly by saying, so-and-so is not Absolutely True but my personal take on things, it would be fine, but when it is done underhand it is like the practice of the fake Indian policeman. You don’t agree with me? Then answer me who is selecting what to consider and what to reject in the Book? Based on what authority can you reject the concept of a punishing God found it the Old Testament? Ultimately only your own. And it is good that you listen to your inner sense. It means inevitably however that whatever you profess to believe in is your own home baked philosophy.

Further, if it is a human text it means it is affected by the passing of time as all other cultural artifacts. What you select your Holy Bits from has little to do with the original texts as it has been changed like a message in Chinese whispers (a theme explored in the book Misquoting Jesus). How do you know the version you are selecting from is the best most authentic one? Should you not try to read the original? Is it not even possible other texts better express the Truth? Actually the question for a moderate becomes, are my Holy Bits superior to all others? If you think Yes you have elevated your own understanding of a teaching long lost in translation to the level of Divine authority, and again commit the fallacy of the fake Indian policeman. If No, lets carry on our journey.

Religion as the source of morality

Maybe I am preaching to the choir here, as you may already have realized that your faith is not without contradictions and not superior to other faiths. For you it is not a matter of Truth, as you realize that all versions of the Teaching cannot be true and since yours is one in a million it is in all likelihood false. For you religion is a source of morality and without it society would collapse. To start with lets note that when it turns in our stomach when someone justifies something like the Japanese earthquake by means of religion our repulsion does not stem from any Holy Book but from our own human sense of empathy and aversion to suffering. This proves that not all morality comes from religion. We have our own sense of morality, and it is this faculty we use when we choose to ignore passages in the Holy Book that talk about cutting off hands and capital punishment. If it is our own morality that guides us in selecting the Holy Bits how could morality come from religion? It is circular to claim that you first have learnt morality from one part of the Teaching and based on them reject other parts.

In all sincerity we know that the texts where written by people and that any morality found in them were put there by the authors. Thus any morality to be found in religion is our human morality and to claim it is the word of God is again to wear the hat of our Indian friend.

Is there any harm in being a moderate?

If the Holy Book does not have total authority does it have any special authority? If it is not perfect is it in any sense the ultimate piece of philosophy mankind has ever produced? Should we not give equal credibility to other religious and profane teachings? This focus on One book is a major obstruction to proper education. To be educated means to know the thoughts of many cultures, and if you as a moderate think truth can be expressed in many ways you should for instance study the core Jain concept of anekantavada that explores the notion that every viewpoint is incomplete. If you as a moderate think it is all about experiencing God not following the letter you should perhaps read the Dark Night of the Soul by  St. John of the Cross, Aurobindo’s The Life Divine, Deikman’s views on Sufism and Psychotherapy, Varieties of Religious Experiences by William James, Krishnamurti or Zen. If you think religion is about morality you should study Aristotle, psychologist Kohlberg moral stages, Kierkegaard’s concept of Christian ethics or the nonviolent ethics (ahimsa) of Buddhism. If you believe there can be a global religion that embraces all faiths you can learn from Theosophy, Bahai, Transpersonal Psychology or even New Age. If you a struggling with a more philosophical concept of the Divine that does not waste energy on settling tribal feuds perhaps you find inspiration in Teilhard de Chardin’s Omega Point. If you accept that religion is shaped by history you need to follow through with this thought and realize that for the first time ever we live in a global age, and any religion needs to be shaped by that. Whatever you may find, rest assured that by clinging on to the One Book that was to be found on the bedside table where you happened to be born you are blocking the way for a healthy global open-minded spirituality.

By lending validity to parts of the Holy Book you are passively supporting fundamentalists whose only crime it is to read and believe all of it to the letter. What does a symbolic afterlife mean? It either exists or not. By supporting the notion of an Eternity you are enabling those without sound judgement to take destructive actions against life, because by implication this infinitely brief moment of earthly life is worth infinitely little in comparison.

As a source of morality you should realize from your reaction to the SMS above that you consult your inner sense before the letter. Morality was not invented when people started jotting down religious stories. They were looking after each other before then. If you are concerned about violence, realize that with modern psychology we understand better what produces violent behaviour and are better equipped to deal with it than using the old trick of a looming hell. We are hard-wired to feel empathy and the circle of empathy – the group we care about – can actually expand. Unless you are taking side with Luther and consider Reason the Devil’s whore realize that the science that made your mobile phone possible contradicts the truth of your ancient dogmas. Modern religion must not fear science, but embrace it fully. As our need for religion is not going away the world needs new healthy spiritual teachings that can bridge divisions between all groups, inspire personal growth, strengthen the inner sense of morality and intensify our experiences of beauty and purpose.

Ultimately we need to achieve a sustainable way of life that enables well-being for as many sentient beings as possible. What religious teachings can form part of that and which should be forgotten is not easy to judge, but it is beyond doubt that all faiths will undergo profound changes. As you do not believe in the Roman Gods, the particular story about some  prophet you call your faith will be transformed. The question is only if you will take an active part in that change or not.

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6 Responses to “The Paradox of being a Moderate”

  1. Guy Says:

    I read this and then looked at Facebook – someone had posted this:
    http://mirabaistarr.wordpress.com/2011/03/22/how-...
    - which in a way is coming to the same point from the 'opposite' point of view.

    Also, while I'm here, some John Gray: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b006qng8

  2. b_o_r_g Says:

    I love it, but he is a lot more poetic than I could ever hope to be.
    "It fills me with hope to see religious leaders not only willing but eager to explore the places where they do not know, where they are not in charge, where they loosen their grip on the dogmas and practices they were taught – and on which they have relied for guiding the souls of others – and invite the mystery to change them from the inside."

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    my weblog – website – Lashonda -

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