Larry Speight brings us his monthly column –
Religion and salvation
Although it is widely thought by the inhabitants of these islands that we live in a secular society this would not wash with a first time visitor from a distant country if they had listened to the radio, watched TV and read the newspapers these past few weeks. A fair amount of time was devoted by the mainstream media to the Easter celebrations, and to a lesser extent to Ramadan. The lament of Christian leaders over the Covid-19 closure of their churches received considerable media attention. In addition to covering religious festivals and giving airtime and print space to the debate of such issues as the teaching of religion in schools the traditional media, RTE 1, Radio 4 and Radio Ulster for instance, have a stable of religious programmes.
Our visitor would certainly not have missed the confluence of religion and militarism at the funeral of Prince Philip. This entwinement of military and religious symbols is on display in many a Protestant church. Examples are St Ann’s Cathedral, Belfast and St Macartan’s Cathedral, Enniskillen where an impressive amount of space is given to remembering British soldiers who died in various wars. Needless to say the people killed by these same soldiers are not mentioned, probably because they were regarded as non-entities, impediments to British sovereignty and profit. One will also observe that in some Protestant churches homage to British regiments is on par with the homage paid to saints in Catholic churches.
The pairing of religion and militarisms is a classic case of cognitive dissonance. What of the Christian ethic of not living by the sword? If abided by, air planes, ships and submarines designed to carry nuclear weapons whose sole purpose is to kill people by the million, utterly destroy material culture and decimate the nonhuman world would not be blessed in the name of the very same God held to have created life.
In Ireland, if not in other parts of our archipelago, our visitor would likely by struck by the degree of religious thought that runs like a stream through everyday conversations. In spite of the prevalence of religion in everyday life there is a marked lack of appreciation of the role it could play in affecting positive social change especially in regard to the need for us to realign our relationship with nonhuman nature.
If religion was more concerned with universal wellbeing than of trying to ensure that people go to Heaven then all the money, energy, time and administrative know-how that goes into running a religion, and adhering to the do’s and don’ts, would be channelled into eradicating poverty, assisting the needy and healing our dying biosphere. In other words the religious would be devoted to securing the salvation of all living things.
In fact if religions abided by their golden rule of love your neighbour as yourself their adherents would not destroy the handiwork of God in the first place and there would be little if any structural poverty. The retort to this might be that humans by their nature commit sin – which is to say cause harm. This does not hold. What does is that people care more about the earthly delights of a meat based diet, using a private car in a city well served by public transport, and taking regular flights than the health of the biosphere.
Barring the exception of religiously minded individuals who defy orthodoxy in compassionate and socially creative ways, the main function of religion is to provide a sense of existential comfort and security by shoring up the normal as sanctioned by the state and endorsed by society at large rather than as an agency of wholesale positive change. The “mother and baby homes” in Ireland and the forced schooling of Aboriginal children in Australia are a testimony to this as is institutionalised racism in the Church of England as recently documented by Panorama on BBC 1. It does not have to be this way. Religions could learn from liberation theology as practised by some parishes in South America.
The term liberation theology was coined by Gustavo Gutiérrez in his book A Theology of Liberation (1971). Gutiérrez encapsulated what he thought the focus of organized religion should be with the phrase “preferential option of the poor”. By this he meant that God has a preference for those considered to be outsiders and insignificant, the marginalized, vulnerable, and the poor. Gutiérrez emphasised praxis over doctrine. Fifty years on some of the mainstream religions have developed a theology of the environment underpinned by praxis. The best known text in this field is perhaps that of Pope Francis’s 2015 encyclical Laudato Si; On Care for Our Common Home.
The Covid-19 mantra that no one is safe until everyone is safe should apply to the religious promise of salvation. In effect this means we are obliged to do what we can to save all life forms from extinction and protect the ecosystems we dwell in and are part of. This, without doubt, would be one of the cardinal messages of Jesus Christ, Muhammad and other religious figures if they breathed toxic air, saw the scattering of plastic waste, were aware of the plummeting loss of biodiversity as well as experienced extreme weather conditions that scientists link to climate breakdown.
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