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Religion by the Book?

May, 2006
By John Huckans

While an undergrad a long time ago I signed up for an elective in comparative religion. It wasn’t part of my major, but it seemed to fit in and really was an eye opener. I remember the assigned text that tied together readings from more primary sources – a book long since lost or loaned because I never would have sold it. The title was “Man’s Religions” by John Noss and even though I’ve forgotten most of the detail, I remember, or at least think I remember, that it was warmly sympathetic to what I consider the best in all religions.

At the moment there are 238 copies for sale on and allowing for the usual duplication of listings, there are dozens of copies in all sorts of editions available for only a dollar each (plus anywhere from triple or quadruple that amount in shipping and handling fees), with the highest price copy offered at $67.50. I hope to turn up a decent copy in a secondhand bookshop this summer and am willing to pay several dollars premium over the cheaper online copies – a fair exchange for the pleasure of examining a book before I buy it. But that’s just me.

Lately I’m becoming more than annoyed by a lot of organized religion. The recent news story about the Afghan on trial for his life because he converted to Christianity is but a sorry reminder of the legacy of Innocent III who is credited (if that’s the right word) with putting his stamp of approval, in 1198, on what became known as the Inquisition. Whether it was Raymond V of Toulouse, who began burning heretics in 1194 or Peter II of Aragon, who decided to join in the fun in 1197, the excesses of diseased individuals who act in the name of religious authority says something not only about them but also about the mental and moral capacity of followers who would take them seriously.

During Europe’s Middle Ages the unholy alliance of religion and the state contributed heavily to the violence of the period and if nothing else the writers of the U.S. constitution got one thing right when they adopted language forbidding the establishment (or prohibition) of any religion or the imposition of a religious test as a condition for holding public office. In Jon Meacham’s new book American Gospel: God, the Founding Fathers, and the Making of a Nation (Random House, 2006), he makes the point that religion shapes American life but doesn’t strangle it. Certainly there are some cultural backwaters that would seem to contradict his opinion but they would be the exceptions that support his conclusion.

And even though this system works well for us, I believe it a mistake beyond hubris to think that we can or should export our values to the rest of the world by means of force and we should pay close attention to religious (and political) leaders in America – the spiritual children of Raymond of Toulouse – who suggest that we should. But fortunately and for the moment, Abdul Rahman is alive – the Afghan Christian convert who was forced to plead mental incapacity in order to escape the death penalty, is reported to be safe in Italy.

In religion, as in many other things, I think a good case can be made that less is more. I tend not to look to religious experts, scholars or clerics for spiritual guidance – too many of them come off as stiff-necked and self-righteous. Salvation is somehow linked to intimate knowledge of religious texts, adherence to doctrine, or strict observance of traditions having their origin in tribal customs. Christians, Muslims and Jews are all good at this sort of thing, and I have this nagging suspicion that God is quietly amused (or possibly annoyed) by all the things people do in his name. Incidentally, I don’t think God gives mid-terms or finals.

Rather than blame Christianity for Innocent III or Pat Robertson, why not rejoice in the life of John Paul II or Mother Theresa? Judaism shouldn’t be tarnished because of the policies of slow-motion ethnic cleansing pushed by Benjamin Netanyahu and his noisy supporters – its image is burnished by the work of Ned Hanauer of Search for Justice ( I’m sure Hinduism has its share of bad examples but for me Mohandas Gandhi remains the icon for the best of what that religion has to offer. Lately, the romantic and sympathetic view of Islam encouraged by the writings of Washington Irving has been completely trashed by the Taliban, Wahabis, and the soul-less killers who behead innocent people in the name of their dimly understood faith.

For folks who know him, Islam’s modern exemplar may well be Ali of Youngstown, Ohio. Ali, of the Shia or Sh’ite sect, was born in Yemen, received a graduate degree in geology from Syracuse University, and worked most of his career managing university bookstores – most recently at Johns Hopkins Medical School. We’ve been good friends since the early 60s and I’m sure that when he prays five times a day it’s in private and without fanfare. He’s a great reader, enjoys a glass of Shiraz or Cabernet Sauvignon, has been known to eat pork, has many Sunni, Christian and Jewish friends, and in good weather lives and works in his park-like garden that friends and neighbors have a standing invitation to visit – and do, often. Ali’s major fault is that he tends to be overly generous with his time and limited resources.

When discussing religion Ali doesn’t preach, but asks questions. Not long after he moved to Youngstown one of the first people to knock on his door turned out to be a Jehovah’s Witness and I can imagine the poor man was surprised to not have the door shut in his face. Instead he was invited in and since then he’s gotten into the habit of stopping by every Saturday along with his two sons. Three Jehovah’s Witnesses and a Sh’ite hanging out on Saturdays, each one secure in his own faith – these days that’s about as good as it gets.

People born into the Christian tradition who are not regular church-goers and who are more interested in the similarities rather than the differences between the various denominations are sometimes called “cafeteria Christians” by people who probably don’t realize that what was intended as a put-down is in many cases accepted as a compliment. With that in mind do you suppose sectarian partisans have invented even more scathing terms for people who carry their inter-religious inclinations to a higher level?

In an excellent article in the eleventh edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica, Robert Mackintosh discusses “deism” and “theism”– two words that are sometimes used interchangeably:

(Theism)…appears for the first time in 18th-century English as an occasional synonym for ‘deism’ (q.v.), and therefore as applying to those who believed in God but not in Christianity. Later criticism… upon the English deists inclines to charge them with the conception of a divine absentee, who wound up the machine of nature and left it to run unattended… if the word ‘deism’ emphasizes a negative element – rejection of church Christianity – ‘theism’ generally emphasizes the positive element – belief in God. ‘Theism’ was (later) reclaimed by Theodore Parker, F.W. Newman, Frances Power Cobbe, and others, for their more modern speculative belief in God, which, while non-Christian or at least non-orthodox, held to an immanent God, continually revealing himself – in the moral consciousness.

Theism has a lot going for it. It’s a religious view with universal potential, not based on strict observance of customs or traditions that are essentially tribal in origin, more accepting of the teachings of other religions, and because it generally holds “to an immanent God, continually revealing himself – in the moral consciousness” more open to metaphysical speculation.

I’ll drink to that.