Tradition(ed): Religious Violence and the Shadow Side of ‘Orthodoxy’

The most recent post in this series on tradition talked about different conceptions of orthodoxy, and why I think orthodoxy (that is, correct belief and practice) is a helpful concept. But we cannot deny that a lot of evil has been done in the world in the name of ‘right belief’. Today, I’d like to think through some of the reasons why this may be the case, and how we might manage this tendency for great harm to be done in the name of faithfulness to tradition and to God.

First, why is violence done in defense of religious orthodoxy often so brutal? Religious beliefs are, for the faithful, core beliefs. They touch on — and promote — our deepest values and commitments. In this way they mirror strong political beliefs, another major driver of violence in the world. And, as psychologist Edward Edinger notes, this can easily lead to defensiveness and aggression when we feel they are under threat:

We can measure the degree of psychic [i.e., psychological or spiritual] threat by the intensity of the defensive reaction evoked. By that measure, heresy for the true believer is the ultimate threat. It threatens the supreme psychic value and is therefore more dangerous than death which threatens only physical existence. (The Christian Archetype, 86).

We can see this dynamic in the life — and death — of Jesus himself. By undermining the value of ritual purity, Jesus also undermined the Pharisees’ authority, and more importantly their value system. And, Jesus’ flippant attitude toward the Temple similarly challenged values of the Sadducees, who were willing to sacrifice a lot to Rome to ensure the Temple stayed open. It is no wonder Jesus was viewed as a rabble-rouser and ended up dead!

This plays out time and time again in history, and the tendency is alive and well in all of us: the more we perceive someone’s beliefs as a threat to our core values and therefore to our identity, the more likely it is we will lash out at them. The history of our Christian tradition is full of such violence (psychological and physical). While we might immediately think of inter-religious violence — anti-Jewish pogroms, the Crusades, the Doctrine of Discovery, and so on — often it is intra-religious violence that is the worst. There were riots in the street during the Arian controversy, the iconoclastic controversy was tantamount to a civil war in the Byzantine Empire, and the Reformation era was marked by widespread persecutions, including burnings at the stake and outright war. When the perceived threat is coming from within the community that ‘should’ be safe, it seems that the sense of threat, and therefore the lashing out, can be all the stronger.

As psychologically understandable as lashing out against those we perceive to be threats to our values and identity (and the religious orthodoxy that these both support and are supported by) may be, such violence represents the opposite of the way of Jesus. There is no way in which we can justify religious violence from the teachings of the New Testament. By lashing out in defense of our faith, we betray the very faith we say we are defending.

The interesting thing is that the wrongness of such violence is often obvious to us in hindsight. We shake our heads at the ‘bad old days’, certain that nothing like that could happen today. And yet, if history is any indication — and as the sudden rise of reactionary movements across the West that claim a Christian motivation confirms — such overconfidence would be foolish. What we have in this phenomenon is yet another classic expression of the problem of the shadow. A violent response to religious difference is an indication that that difference is touching on something about ourselves we haven’t addressed. Often it’s our own doubt about our faith or feelings of insecurity in the world. In my post about shadow work in September, I quoted Carl Jung’s response to a Cold War official who claimed to have “no imagination for evil.” It’s worth quoting again here:

None of us stands outside humanity’s black collective shadow. Whether the crime occurred many generations back or happens today, it remains the symptom of a disposition that is always and everywhere present — and one should therefore do well to possess some ‘imagination for evil,’ for only the fool can permanently disregard the conditions of his own nature. In fact, this negligence is the best means of making him an instrument of evil. Harmlessness and naivete are as little helpful as it would be for a cholera patient and those in his vicinity to remain unconscious of the contagiousness of the disease. On the contrary, they lead to projection of the unrecognized evil into the ‘other’. (The Undiscovered Self, 53 (CW par. 572))

In other words, we need to keep our own potential for sin, as individuals and as communities, where we can see it. It does only harm to imagine that religious violence, no matter how big or small, is impossible in our own lives.

Partly this means telling better stories. The Christian tradition does a good job of celebrating the genuine heroes of historical catastrophes of religious violence. For example, there are several saints in both East and West who are commemorated for their defense of Jewish people being attacked by ‘Christian’ mobs. But, if this is the only story we tell, we can conveniently forget the priests and bishops, to say nothing about the mobs themselves, that undertook the violence in the first place. We would do well to incorporate lamentation and repentance for the violence and humility before its victims, alongside our celebration of those who did the right thing. Our tradition contains within it the memory of those who got it right — and we are right to celebrate that — but it also contains within it the attitudes and behaviours of those who got it wrong. And this needs to be acknowledged.

Another antidote against the venom of the tendency for religious violence is to shift the focus of our faith away from beliefs to actions. We are not called to have the right answers, but to let our hearts, minds, and whole lives be transformed by the Holy Spirit. It is instructive that the first name we have for Christianity is simply ‘the Way’; likewise, the most common understanding of Christian identity in the first centuries of Christianity was as the imitation of Jesus. These are not intellectual propositions. Christianity is not primarily a ‘belief system’; bearing good fruit in our lives — things like love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control — is what it’s all about it.

Related to this, we can also reframe of our doctrines as means to an end rather than ends in themselves. This is akin to George Lindbeck’s ‘cultural-linguistic’ model of doctrine, which understands our theological ideas as a kind of language game: our doctrinal statements are meaningful because they serve a function within our community. This perspective allows for greater mutual understanding without sacrificing anyone’s orthodoxy, by shifting the focus away from the ways doctrines are expressed and toward the reality they are trying to express. While they would not likely phrase it in this way, this is essentially the approach that led to the theological rapprochement between the Eastern Orthodox Churches and Non-Chalcedonian Churches after 1500 years of schism: In the end they were able to agree that while they continue to disagree with each other’s theological language, they accept that the different statements express the same reality. This recognition that our theological formulas are not perfect expressions of reality is nothing new. As we saw over and over again in the series on Knowing God, it was a fundamental presupposition of ancient Christian theology that we must be prepared to unsay everything we say about God — that left to their own devices, without intentionally marginalizing them, our theological formulas become idols, cheap and powerless alternatives to the true and living God.

The last idea that I’d like to share today for mitigating the more dangerous aspects of orthodoxy is an alternative way of understanding religious boundaries: this is to understand the boundaries of our faith traditions as what is known as a ‘centered set’ instead of as a ‘bounded set’. The idea here is that rather than understanding our faith traditions as being like a medieval city, with our understanding of orthodoxy acting as the protective and impermeable walls, we can understand them as more like a solar system, in which different beliefs and practices revolve around a shared, ‘orthodox’ centre of gravity. This can shift our perspective, away from who is ‘in’ or ‘out’ to being ‘who is in the orbit’ of our faith. I had a great example of the advantages of this perspective a few years ago in my encounter with the thought of Marcus Borg. Growing up in more conservative Christian circles, Marcus Borg had been something of a bogeyman, being a prominent voice of that classic liberal theology that wanted to ‘free’ Christianity from the shackles of ‘unreasonable’ beliefs, including the resurrection of Jesus. In my old, ‘bounded set’ understanding of orthodoxy, he was unquestionably outside the bounds. But, one day, just before Holy Week, I came across the most powerful theology of the resurrection and its importance for Christian life and faith that I had ever encountered. So, imagine my surprise when I discovered that it had been written by Marcus Borg. As I read more of what he’d written, I realized that while, yes, his intellectual presuppositions about the world led him to reject the historicity of much of the Christian story — and therefore, he was outside the bounds of traditional orthodoxy in many ways — his commitment to being a disciple of Jesus was strong, and this led him to be very close to the centre of traditional Christianity in other ways — far closer than many who upheld the doctrines he rejected. This was a great lesson in theological humility for me.

There is far more than can be said about all of this, but I hope this has provided some context for, and some helpful ways to avoid, the problems of psychological, spiritual, and physical violence committed in the name of religious orthodoxy. Our religious beliefs are closely connected to our identities and values; when we perceive they are under attack, there is a strong impulse to lash out in their — and therefore our — defense. But this is not the way of Jesus and is a violation of the very orthodoxy we hope to defend. When we feel this impulse, this is a call to do our shadow work and make sure we are not going to act out of our own insecurities or fears. We would also do well to focus on our own life, and understand our faith as a matter of our own way of life rather than as a set of intellectual beliefs. This can help us pull back the covers on religious language and try to understand what that language is trying to express, and therefore open the door to mutual understanding — even where difference and disagreement remain. And, we can reframe orthodoxy from being a fence to being a centre of gravity and therefore more easily allow more, and more diverse, conversation partners, and come to a more generous orthodoxy.

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