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?
One of my most fascinating distant ancestors (on my mother's side) was William Bartholomew, who was Vicar of Chipping Campden between 1636 and 1660. As such he lived through many of the epic events of 17th century England: remarkably holding his living from the age of the 'Personal Rule' of Charles 1, even in the upheavals of civil war, the Commonwealth and Protectorate, through to the return of the monarchy. So was he like the fabled 'Vicar of Bray', a by-word for holding on to his ecclesiastical office irrespective of principle? Or was there something more at play in his career? The immediate historical records themselves can be confusing. On the one hand, some have portrayed him as an 'ardent Puritan', perhaps on evidence which suggests he was a major player in the suppression of Dover's Games on the Cotswold downs after 1643. Yet he also appears to have been harassed by the Committee of Plundered Ministers and forced to spend 200 pounds of his own money to avoid trouble. Indeed the memorial in Chipping Campden Church records him as a 'fearless advocate (even in the worst of times) of the Royalist cause.' The latter seems the most likely, as, on Charles II's return from exile, he had the honour of preaching the Restoration sermon in Gloucester Cathedral (see front page pic above right), as well as speedily restoring to his parish the Church of England's Prayer Book which had been proscribed. What then went on in his ministry which enabled his stabilitas through such dramatic changes? The answer needs more research (!), which my beloved late aunt Molly began with my parents a few years ago and which I would love to follow through with at some point soon. My historical hunch however is that, like Jesus' words in the story of Mary and Martha, William Bartholomew effectively continued with 'the one thing necessary': waiting on God in Christ even in the toughest circumstances, continuing to read and expound the Scriptures, and exercising a deeply appreciated 'cure of souls' (earning 'the love and praise and admiration of all', according to his church memorial). As such, his life tells us both something about the complexity of English religion in that tumultuous period (much broader, more localised and even less ideological than simplistic history might assume?) and also that the essence of Christian priesthood (lay or ordained) is not defined by obvious externals (such as the presence or otherwise of episcopacy or authorised liturgy, helpful though they may often be). That may point us to the deepest mystery of all.
The other evening I had the pleasure of being part of this year's inter-denominational service of commissioning of Religious Instruction (RI) teachers for Toowoomba. It was a typically up-beat and prayerful occasion, with fine inputs from local school principals and Stephen Urmston, the new Anglican Children & Family worker at St Barts Toowoomba. I was moved again by the genuine care and loving commitment of those involved in offering RI to children in our local state schools and do believe that, in some ways, they enhance both the spiritual and wider relational life of the children and adults they share and meet with. However...
When some people question me about religion and violence, and especially Islamist related violence, I often think and talk to them about Azim Khamisa, one of the most inspiring people I have ever met. A successful international financier and Sufi Muslim, Azim's life was turned upside down when his twenty year old son Tariq was shot and killed, for the price of the pizza he was delivering. Yet, out of the midst of his terrible anguish, an amazing compassion, rather than commitment to vengeance, arose. Azim came to realise, as he puts it, that there were 'victims at both ends of the gun' that killed his son, and this spirit-led understanding drove him to contact the family of his son's killer (whom he then later met and has lobbied for) and to commit his life to sharing the power of forgiveness, particularly among millions of young people vulnerable to gang culture and other pathways to violence. His mission is especially embodied in the Tariq Khamissa Foundation but has also been exercised internationally through books and other communications tools and events of various kinds (including his own website found by clicking here). When I think of the message and example of Jesus, Azim is an amazing contemporary model. A little of his story can be found in this video clip:
Jo Inkpin an Anglican priest, trans woman, theologian and justice activist. These are some of my reflections on life, spirit, and the search for peace, justice and sustainable creation.