Shap Journal 20022003
Shared by: blc15726
Shap Journal 2002/2003 World Religions in Education Religion: the problem or the answer? Is Religion a problem or part of the answer to a problem? Clive A Lawton There's an interesting story in the Torah (Numbers Chap 25). It refers to the time when the Israelites were wandering in the wilderness. As they approached the promised land, they encountered the Moabites whose young women started to seduce the young men of Israel, invite them to their rituals and in general lead them to take their eye off the ball. Their policy was successful. Soon Israelite young men were cavorting around with the lusty wenches of Moab/ Midian and had no thought for the future mission of the Jewish people. And a plague ensued. Israelites were dying right and left and something had to be done. But what? One day an Israelite prince and a Midianite woman were canoodling in a particularly brazen fashion right in the heart of the Israelite camp. Pinchas (Phineas), grandson of High Priest Aaron, was so incensed that he seized a spear, followed them into the chamber they had just entered in the full sight of Moses and the rest, and ran them both through with it. (The fact that he appears to have been able to run them both through with one thrust gives us some idea as to exactly how brazenly they were cavorting!) Later rabbis were concerned about such 'taking the Law into your own hands' and could only relieve their anxieties because, according to the text, God approved Pinchas's action and stopped the plague, the people were shocked into remembrance of their purpose and God sought to reward Pinchas. His reward? He was made High Priest, successor to Aaron. On the face of it, this is pretty shocking stuff. Do we really want vigilante assassins being promoted for their rash behaviour? (A question made more forceful and poignant when you discover that the assassin of Yitzchak Rabin took Pinchas as his role model.) On the other hand, would we have condemned or feted the successful assassin of Hitler? Perhaps it is, as most good moral dilemmas are, hard to judge until you have all the facts. Due process of law is an important principle, but not when law has broken down or is in itself being undermined. But what of the nature of the reward Pinchas gets? This passionate activist, this man of action gets rapidly promoted to High Priest. Indeed, the next time we meet him in the narrative, he is accompanying the Israelites into battle as... Army Chaplain! What a double edged reward! For ever after, this impetuous man of action will be trammelled by the most ritualistic and uninstinctive role in the entire Israelite community. Never again will he be able to just do as he feels. Never again will his own personality matter as much as the demands of his job. Religion, in the guise of a very hefty job description, stops him from his tendency to take the law into his own hands. I must stress this is not the conventional way to understand Pinchas's story, but I don't mind. It brings me to my point. We often think of religion as a field for either fanatics or liberals. Fanatics are scary-eyed loonies who have no sense of moderation or limit and bring disaster to others who don't agree with them. Liberals on the other hand are reasonable people who realise that nothing much is absolute, things are often somewhat relative and we must all rub along together somehow. But those who are deep adherents to a tradition might also be operating within a system that demands of them levels of selflessness, self-discipline and allegiance to higher principles that are unimaginable in a more 'liberal' lifestyle. Liberals are often deeply intolerant of the specificities of others. Commitment and conviction are not necessarily dirty words and a religious commitment can teach young people a kind of sense of themselves in the wider context that modern materialism has difficulty doing. (This is of course not to say that only religious people are moral people. That is self-evidently not the case.) But I am still puzzled by how anyone can really argue for Universal Human Rights without the doctrine of universal brotherhood - requiring, if not often mentioning, universal Fatherhood to make it valid - otherwise it's just whistling in the dark. Nothing has yet improved on the sublime teaching that humanity was created 'betzelem elokim' in the image of God, thereby requiring a level of equal respect for all human beings regardless of their nominal differences. If, however, you want to move Eastwards, from my own tradition into those underpinned by Hindu origins, you can find an even broader embracement of living creatures under a single title. But either way, religions and their doctrines pose monumental challenges to the otherwise tendency of humanity to act selfishly and detect in people their differences rather than their common humanity. This is not to say - it would be foolish to try and deny it - that religion has not been used by many villains in the past to justify their wickedness at least, and worse still, actually been the cause of much wickedness too. Indeed, it is incumbent upon religious communities not just to disown those who have done so. 'Suicide bombers are not real Muslims', or 'Northern Irish Protestants are not real Christians' avoids responsibility for accepting the danger of our own religious fanaticisms and the manner in which all great things can be perverted. After all, it was Darwin's excellent and enlightening theory of evolution which gave rise to Hitler's screwy racial theories. But recognising the dangers allows us to address them, not deny them. When we teach about religion in school we need to make sure that we address the dangers of too much certainty as well as the danger of too little. The 'it all depends' school of morality which is widely prevalent nowadays is as dangerous, but no more dangerous, than the 'I know I'm right' school. As a Jew, of course, I'm less tuned in to this tendency to think that my solutions should be everybody's solutions. While I think I have insights which might be rich for others, I don't think all my prescriptions for life apply to everyone. Most of the Jewish things I do and consider binding on me are for Jews only. But watching little children grow up in a Jewish community, I notice their many advantages over their peers outside religious communities. Firstly, of course, just community. They learn to interact with adults not in their own family. They have markers along the way of their growing up, celebrated and noted by the community. They are repeatedly called upon to consider - through the festivals, the rituals, the mitzvot - their responsibilities and place in the world at large. At its best, the community serves as a training ground, bridging the huge gap between relating to one's family and relating to the world. These young people find themselves talking the language of moral issues and dilemmas on a regular basis. They know they are not the definition of what matters but that there is a God who thinks they matter very much, enough to take time out from running the universe to show interest in them. They learn to read - and value - complicated text. In Judaism, as in Islam and Sikhism, they learn to read another language. They learn to appreciate other people's words. They learn a historical perspective and a relationship with the past - that is, time - and with the world - that is, space. We call this 'perspective'. They learn to appreciate the natural world and its rhythms even if they live in the heart of a town. Again, let me reiterate that I am not saying that a religious community is the only way they can do these things - but there are not many other systems that do it better. But for the sake of completeness, I'll mention some of the down sides. They can become isolated from others, dividing the world into 'us' and 'them'. They can grow up thinking that others are 'wrong' and they are 'right'. They can fall prey to fanatics who promise them 'salvation' beyond this world so that this world doesn't matter to them any more, nor do the fortunes and futures of those with whom they share it. They can become slaves to those who claim to have God on their side. But overall, young people with a religion tend to be more law abiding, less likely to get blind drunk, less likely to get into drugs, more likely to live in caring families, work harder at school than their secular counterparts. In particular, the experience of the Black Caribbean communities of Britain have demonstrated that religious commitment often offers them the only way out of the cycle of deprivation and low achieving that they seem to be condemned to in the UK for no apparently decent reason. Without doubt, sadly misled suicide bombers, manipulated to their own destruction, poor Southern Whites done out of their savings by a TV evangelist, or Yigal Amir who thought he was doing God's work by killing Yitzchak Rabin, are proof of the terrible damage that can be done by the passions that religion arouses. But the world over, there are millions more decent caring folk doing good, and each of them bears witness to the value of religion in the world.