In the heat of current political issues, is it possible to find a healing ethic of religious freedom? Might a fresh look at Christian tradition help us with this? The ideological use of notions of 'religious freedom' is certainly hardly new. Judaeo-Christian history is riddled with it and their consequences. Jesus himself was famously condemned, according to John 's Gospel (11.50). since it was argued that it was better for one person to die than for the nation to be destroyed (allegedly). Other faith expressions and Christian 'heretics' have met comparable fates. Meanwhile, in many places, Jews and Christians have experienced, and continue to experience, harassment, persecution, and even outright destruction. Yet the Jewish and Christian traditions are also founded on expansive ideas of liberty, grounded in the very being of God in God-self, and on liberative myths and symbols such as Exodus from slavery, return from Exile, deliverance from sin and evil, and the in-breaking and embodiment of God's reign of justice, peace and love. These have empowered, and continue, to empower people to achieve freedom across the world. Not for nothing then did Martin Luther call his seminal work 'On Christian Freedom'. Its use highlights three typical trajectories western society has explored in relation to 'religious freedom'. Its central message however points us deeper...
If Samuel Johnson were around today he might well feel that religion, rather than patriotism, is the last refuge of the scoundrel. It certainly seems to be an excuse, or self-justification, for all kinds of bad behaviour, as well as a source of strength and inspiration to holiness in others. Not least this is the case in regard to some leading Christian approaches to LGBTI+ people and their vigorous intent on backlash. At times horribly distorting reality, they even hijack 'religious freedom' into its opposite - i.e religious privilege - thereby further diminishing religion's positive features and making life very difficult for those very many Christians who believe and act differently. Indeed, when it comes to the current contentious battle over 'religious freedom', as both a transgender person and a Christian, I consequently frequently find part of who I am dismissed by one contending group or another. When, instead, will we recognise that the real problem are the scoundrels? Just as Samuel Johnson was not attacking patriotism as such, only a false kind of patriotism, so we do well to call out those with 'bad faith', whilst finding a fresh consensus among those genuinely seeking balance of conscience and liberty, whether we are secular or not. ..
Looking into the future is notoriously difficult, as any historian knows. The most we can really do is to be as honest and perspicacious as we can about our past and present and extrapolate as best we can with tempered imagination. Yuval Noah Harari (professor of history at the Hebrew Museum in Jerusalem) does a good job of this in his recent book Homo Deus: A History of Tomorrow. It is certainly a challenging vista he opens up. Due to the speed and scale of unprecedented change, he argues that homo sapiens as we know ourselves will not exist in a hundred years. This is due to major technological shifts, particularly in biotechnology and artificial intelligence, which threaten to make religion and various forms of humanism redundant. For we appear to be at the beginning of a 'data-religion' age, in which the algorithms and a small number of their elite human 'managers' (in corporations like Google and Facebook) become increasingly dominant. Harari is not unappreciative of the past positive, as well as negative, evolutionary contribution of both religion and humanism. Religion, for example in its Christian form, was a powerful force historically in enabling human development through doctrines such as the 'imago dei' in every being, and in its earlier contributions to enabling technology, society and art. Yet its constructive role is essentially at an end, hastened by its inability to keep up, never mind engage, with today's scientific and technological drivers. Humanism, in whatever form, also appears to be very long in the tooth as an ideological bearer of the future. For example, modern democracy - a central humanist fruit - cannot operate as efficiently or inteiligently as a contemporary algorithm in working out preferences, policies and directions. Intelligence increasingly appears to be separable from consciousness, another religious and humanist core principle. In a world where death (for some) can be further postponed, what then also happens to meaning?
Harari's work asks powerful questions of us. Like his previous dazzling bestseller Sapiens, Homo Deus is a product of great scholarship, crossing many disciplines, and written in lively, vivid language. Its author is no lightweight thinker. Indeed he claims to meditate for two hours a day and goes on extended retreats, whilst, being gay, he says, helps him to question received opinions. “Nothing should be taken for granted,” he has said, “even if everybody believes it.” (see further The Guardian 19 May 2017) It is thus both contemplative as well as intellectually attentive. No doubt, like other 'end of history' books, some of his contentions may be misplaced or over-exaggerated, as well as misused by others. Yet we would do well to reflect upon it, if we are at all serious about building on the fruitful aspects of humanism, in its religious or secular forms. What kind of spirituality and politics do we need in our changing bio-technological and data-intelligent world?
Jo Inkpin is an Anglican priest serving as Minister of Pitt St Uniting Church in Sydney, a trans woman, theologian & justice activist. These are some of my reflections on life, spirit, and the search for peace, justice & sustainable creation.