When religion goes bad
by L. William Countryman

When I read, from time to time, the anguished plea of a moderate Muslim that the rest of us not judge Islam by those who practice it as a religion of hatred and violence, I feel a certain resonance with my own experience as a Christian. More than once, over the past few decades, I have found myself trying to distinguish, in public settings, between the classical Christianity of, say, Anglicans, Lutherans or Roman Catholics and the repressive, hostile version of the religion proclaimed by fundamentalists and near-fundamentalists.

Occasionally, I've had broad-minded Episcopalians take me to task for saying that fundamentalism isn't real Christianity. They were mistaken, I think. Whether fundamentalist Islam is as much a misrepresentation of classic Islam as fundamentalist Christianity is of our faith I am in no position to say. But I think we would all do well, both Muslims and Christians, to think about what goes wrong in the teaching and practice of religion to produce this sort of hostile, life-destroying religiosity.

Jesus went to dinner once at the home of a very religious man, who met him without any great show of hospitality. A woman of questionable reputation came in and began washing Jesus' feet with tears and wiping them with her hair. The pious host was inwardly disapproving. Jesus rebuked him by pointing out that only the person who has been forgiven much can love much (Luke 7:36-50).

Despite this warning, Christians have been as eager as anybody else to place the cultivation of devout perfection at the heart of our religious life. I wonder if this is not exactly what lies at the root of all fundamentalisms. The search for this sort of flawless perfection breeds hardness; it breeds lack of hospitality; it breeds anger and a sense of entitlement and, if frustrated, sometimes violence as well.

An important part of the gospel is that God is much more generous than we are likely to be – even with ourselves. When we want to feel good about ourselves, we cloak our own faults and concentrate on those of our neighbors. When God wants to feel positive toward us, God manages to do it with full knowledge of exactly who and what we are. Somehow, God manages to love and forgive us anyway.

Perhaps there are contexts in human life where this message cannot be heard. I know there have been times in my own life when I could not hear it. I wonder whether this message is particularly difficult for young men to hear. Both in Christianity and Islam, young men seem to be particularly apt recruits to fundamentalism. Is that an age when we males are particularly in need, not just of ideals, but of absolutes? If so, how can the teachers of faith, Christian or other, enlist the attention of young men for other ways of understanding God, life and the world?

I do not mean to undervalue the tendency of young men to devote themselves to a cause. It is also a tendency toward idealism and self-giving. That is precisely why it deserves something better than to be employed in the interests of perfectionism, for perfectionism will eventually prove destructive to those who embrace it and often to those around them as well.

Do women have a comparable tendency to take the faith of Jesus in the wrong direction at some point in their lives? I think so. But I'm not sure when it is most likely to happen. I would guess that, in the American culture I know, it is a bit later than in the case of men and has more to do with responding to disappointed hopes in one's 20s.

However that may be, the wrong choices of both men and women are apt to remain with us for a long time. And as we grow older and assume leadership in the community of faith, we will propagate them – unless God has somehow gotten through to us and rescued us from our own misguided efforts to be godlike.

That, after all, is the great danger. Religion keeps confusing itself with God. We religious keep confusing ourselves with God. This seems to be a cross-cultural, multi-religious opportunity for sin. Fundamentalisms are expressions of idolatry, the terrible confusion of something this-worldly with the God who is never simply to be identified with even the most devout beliefs or claims of worshippers.

Islam seems to be the leading example of the moment. But it holds no patent. The Roman Catholic hierarchy's truly dumbfounding indifference to those sexually abused by priests has its roots in an idolatrous sense of the church. The self-styled Christian Right's indifference to truth and human suffering in its campaigns against lesbians and gay men has its roots in idolatry of their particular interpretation of the Bible.

Episcopalians are not exempt. We can tolerate everything except "what simply isn't done." And we feel sure that God can't tolerate that, either.

To which I say, "Get forgiven." It will do us all a world of good.