Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Religious Fanatics

As we follow different religious movements around the world, by reading history books, reading newspapers, or watching the news, we learn about all sorts of religious extremists: suicide bombers acting religiously in our day; Jim Jones calling his followers to join him in eternal life via suicide; young men and women joining cults and forsaking all ties with family and friends. When I was in graduate school at Vanderbilt, we lived in married student housing with international students. I used to talk with one student from Yugoslavia fairly often, and with a couple of students from India also. All three of them were complimentary about how Americans didn’t kill each other over religion. The man from Yugoslavia thought the most important freedom was really the freedom from religion, because all he had ever known of religion was violence and division. This was right before the “ethnic cleansing” in Yugoslavia in the early 90’s. I always hoped that he got that “green card” and was able to stay in the U.S. and work for a few years as he and his wife had planned.

Of course, I can certainly agree with these feelings about religious extremism, and I am as upset as the next citizen about religion that leads to violence. But, sometimes I have wondered: "am I a religious fanatic?" When I was in seminary, doing my summer internship in Foley, Alabama, my supervising minister called me on it towards the end of the summer. He was a very good pastor, and good supervisor for me as well. And, I think he genuinely cared for me and my family. In our closing meeting that summer, he complimented me on my work, then he added: “but, there is one thing: you should watch yourself, because you could become a religious fanatic.”

I put this conversation together with a conversation I had with my pastor from my home church. After hearing of my interests and views on church during my theological training, he said that he understood where my heart was and thought I probably might find my place more on the mission field than the parish church in the U.S. He also told me that he had always thought of me as a mystic. Now, my pastor was as good a minister as I could have had. And, he was one who listened and really communicated with me when I expressed views and raised questions.

Taking these comments together from insightful, well-meaning, and faithful ministers, maybe I ought to own up to the fact that I am at least somewhat of a religious fanatic.

Of course, like all other true religious fanatics, I want to distinguish myself from misguided and crazy and abusive and egocentric religious fanatics. And, I distinguish my self, just like they do, by saying: “I am in relation to that which is true. I am moved by the living Spirit of God.” Now, I believe that at the center of my faith is the conviction that only God holds the truth, that I do not, etc.; but, in relation to other human beings, there is still a real strong dose of religious fanaticism that feels empowered by a living truth. I want to defend my brand of fanaticism because I am fanatical about mercy and freedom. But, still fanaticism can start out with mercy and end up so unmercifully. It is a fanatical conviction that makes me disdain authorities in the name of God and go on cussing spurts like Luther when he mentioned the Pope, or John Knox when he spoke of the Queen. I know that those close to me must think at times: “O, here he goes again!” When I get on a real tear of fanatical talk, I often speak the deepest truths, but also some real half-truths, which are really falsehoods. It is a tricky thing being prone to fanaticism.

I went from full-time pastor to half-time pastor 18 years ago, not because I was moderate and not too excited about being a pastor. No, I needed secular, hands-on work to check my religion and keep it from being cut off from daily life. Religion is a blessing, but can be a curse. I have found that good, hard secular work that stands with people is a good anti-dote to the negative part of religion, especially for someone prone to fanaticism! Sometimes that good, hard work that stands with people represents faith a lot better than all the worship, theology and talk of the church. But, I do keep up the religious talk – my mind and heart are set in motion to make sense of things by faith. That is a motion I don’t think I could stop if I tried. It is a motion that feels like the power of life – in all its strangeness and beauty. But, the motion can deteriorate in the heart and mind if it doesn't lead to good deeds towards other people. If it doesn't turn outward in love, it turns inward and twists the heart and mind.

George McDonald once said that religion is not part of life, but life essential. I have heard people talk of some religious people as “God-intoxicated” men or women. I tend to recognize religious fanatics and react strongly to those I feel are false. But, I guess it takes one to know one.