Monday, 21 November 2016

That Which Kills Can Also Heal

That which heals can also kill.

That's the central and intentional leit motif of my first-year "Health, Spirituality, and Religion" course, which is functionally an Intro to World Religions course with a thematic focus upon healing.

The central theme, repeated over and over again, is that the question is not "Is this religious tradition, or religion in general, healthy or toxic?" but rather "What in this tradition is healing? What in this tradition is toxic?" We consider the fact that numerous studies have shown that persons with a strongly held religious faith and who are well-integrated into a religious community tend to have better healthcare outcomes than those who are neither, whilst at the same time certain aspects of certain traditions can lead people to avoid certain healthcare options or, even worse, can cause inflict various forms of injuries. As I regularly repeat, religion X at its best is incredibly life-affirming, and at its worst incredibly life-destroying.

By my way of thinking, this is the only reasonable and responsible way to approach the question of Christianity in the context of recent developments in American and indeed global politics. The reality is that there is a surge in extreme Right-wing politics globally, and it would be disingenuous to deny either that this is happening or that much of these politics are not couched in terms of Christian faith, Christian identity, etc. Like it or not, this stuff is harmful and often wrapped in a Christian flag. That needs to be acknowledged, by Christians not least of all. At the same time, it would be disingenuous to deny that there aren't Christians fighting back against that. Yes, Marine Le Pen is a practicing Catholic, and her National Front an affront to human decency (although to her credit, she has cleaned it up to a large extent; it is literally not her father's National Front, as she expelled him from the party that he led and helped found due to his rank anti-Semitism), but Catholic social teaching also was crucial in liberation theology's turn towards the poor, the development of sanctuary cities in the US, etc. Yes, Christianity can kill, but it can also heal.

Lonergan is clear about what distinguishes religion that heals from religion that kills. He doesn't use quite that rubric, but the idea is there. He talks about religious conversion, by which he means not conversion to a specific religion but rather to a particular way of being in the world. The religiously converted moves beyond parochial self-interest and even parochial group-interest, and towards a universal love for all persons, even in principle all matter (Teilhard de Chardin is on the theological outs these days, but his focus upon love and matter perhaps needs some second and third looks in the face of the ecological crisis). Although a practicing Jesuit and loyal cleric of the Catholic Church, Lonergan does not argue that Christianity has a monopoly on such love, nor that every self-declared Christian or Catholic possesses it. Rather, he envisions it as something that occurs in some Christians, in some Jews, in some Muslims, in some Buddhists, in some Taoists, in some Hindus, in some atheists...and which does not occur in others. When I hear the words of the modern Catholic Gloria, "Peace to people of goodwill," I am reminded of this idea: there are people of goodwill in all these traditions, and people of ill will as well. That is the line that truly divides us, not those between traditions.

I would argue that this is the crux of where we are today. We are being told that there is a clash of civilizations, Christian versus Muslim, white versus dark. This was implicit for much of the Bush II years, despite Bush II's (I have come to believe quite sincere but ultimately unconvincing) efforts to deny this message, and under Trump the euphemisms are going to all but disappear. Trump is many things, but a person of goodwill he is not. But this clash of civilizations is not the real conflict. The real conflict is between those who are motivated by love on the one hand, and those who are motivated by parochial self- and group- interest on the other. It's between those who understand intuitively that the declaration "Black Lives Matter" is implicitly a statement that all lives matter, and those who are so immersed in zero sum thinking that they see an explicit affirmation of the significance of black lives as a denial of their own significance. It is not a clash of civilizations, but rather a clash between civilization and barbarism.

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