Monday, October 22, 2012

Religious Conservatism and Me

Last week I shared a link on Facebook about a group of extreme Russian Orthodox believers who see the logo of Apple, the maker of iPhones, iPads, and all things Mac, as blasphemous, insofar as it represents original sin. I posted that I thought that religious conservatives needed to get out more.

A good friend of mine commented that he was a religious conservative and that he was well-traveled. These are all true, and moreover, he's also a very good man, and one I am proud to have as a friend. He also indicated that not all religious conservatives were narrow-minded bigots, and that intolerance could be found in liberal circles as well. All of this is true as well.

However, all this did get me thinking about exactly what words might be used to describe my own beliefs. After some thought, here's what I've come up with.

I am religious. By this I mean that I believe in acknowledging the spiritual dimension of life. I believe in a supreme being, a creator. Specifically, I am a practicing Christian. Most of the time that practice involves trying to be the type of person Jesus the Christ calls each of his followers to be, and in one way or another, failing the test. But I persevere, aware that grace and forgiveness is mine to have, if I will only acknowledge my failures, get up from the ground, and try again.

I am also religious in that I believe that certain practices - liturgical, devotional, contemplative, and so forth - are productive in opening up and aiding in fully participating in that spiritual dimension of life.

I am conservative insofar as I believe that certain things in life are worth preserving, conserving, holding on to. Those things that produce maturity, wisdom, graciousness, harmony, love, good stewardship of our world and its resources, all those things are worth holding on to and using as guidelines for our daily lives.

So, in those ways, I am a religious conservative. I know there are other people who feel pretty much the same. So, I am not alone.

However, all that said, there are other types of religious conservatism that I absolutely do not hold to.

For instance, I oppose religious conservatism that demands that I become closed-minded. I oppose any belief system that demands that I deny the essential rights of half the human race. I oppose beliefs that demand that I destroy cultural artifacts from societies that don't happen to share my values.

I vehemently oppose beliefs that seek to impose themselves on others who don't happen to feel that way. If someone wants to believe that women are not really human, for instance, as some ancient Christians did in the early years after Jesus walked the earth, that's fine - so long as that's their personal belief and they limit it to themselves. If, however, they try to impose that attitude on those around them, who disagree with them, then they will find me as an opponent as well. We're finding ourselves facing just this sort of situation in some parts of the Islamic world today, as the hardcore attitudes of the Taliban, as an example, collide with the beliefs of the West.

The Roman Catholic Church does not believe in the ordination of women as priests. They don't believe in allowing married clergy, except in certain special circumstances when a married pastor from another tradition converts to Catholicism. Within the Catholic church, there is not one single attitude about this, despite the best efforts of the Vatican to line everyone up behind the official position. Many deeply devout Catholics pray daily for the rules to be changed, on this and other matters. Here again you have a confrontation between one kind of religious conservative and another.

In these sorts of issues, I could probably be described as more a religious radical than a conservative. The word "radical" comes from "root" in Latin, and can be used to describe a person who wants to change a situation at its very roots. If all you deal with is the externals, the symptoms, then you're not really dealing with the underlying reality of something. Change, real change, if it's called for, requires more digging.

All of this is a judgement call. Judgement calls are likely to be wrong at times. Most of us take these sorts of position without worrying much about that fact. Wrong in this case means acting without complete information, and in the process, making a situation worse than it already was. This too has little deterrent effect on us; I guess that's just the way we are. I haven't seen anything that would make me believe that we're much wiser than were our ancestors in this regard.

So, yes, I am a religious conservative. I am also a radical. In fact, my reading of Scripture, and particularly the Gospels and the rest of the New Testament, demands I be more a radical than a conservative, if you use expansive definitions of those words. The way that things have been done, the old tried and true, are the ways that need to be overturned in many cases before the kingdom of heaven can reign on Earth. This is not done by armies, or military might, or any of the traditional ways of achieving imperial change. It's done one person at a time, one changed heart at a time, bottom up, completely overturning the way of the world. It's done incompletely by people wed to the way of the world even as they try to change it in a different way. It's a mess most of the time. But it's what we're supposed to do as Christians. Reading all these words you can see the tension in this task. Yep, that's just the way it is. And it continues.

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