St Anthony of the Desert

Orthodox Christian Mission

Las Cruces, New Mexico

Fr Gabriel

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The Trouble with Religion

I have often heard people say that “religion is at the heart of all the hatred and warfare throughout the world.”  This may be a deflecting move, calculated to disarm me so that I won’t bring up spiritual concerns, or maybe ask why they don’t belong to a faith community.  Few of us are immune from the disease of blaming religion.  It is easier to blame and stand apart than it is to aid toward healing.

Unfortunately there are times when I find myself in agreement with these people.  This is one of them.  It seems as if the world – or at least large chunks of it – has become a keg of dynamite, and it only takes a small spark to set it off here and there.  Religion is once again at the heart of the problem.  Currently we are troubled by headlines that feature Islam.

In his Journals, Fr Alexander Schmemann wrote: “Christ was killed and is being killed by religion.  Religion is the organ which…is at the same time intensifying and hiding from us our deepest passions and sins: pride, hypocrisy, self-admiration, self-satisfaction.”  This is the heart of the problem, and it is at the heart of the problem for all communities of faith.

It is indeed a matter of the heart.  One of the wise and beloved saints of Russia, St John of Kronstadt (1829-1908), wrote: “the purer the heart becomes the larger it becomes; consequently it is able to find room for more and more loved ones; the more sinful it is the more it contracts; consequently it is able to find room for fewer and fewer loved ones – it is limited by a false love: self-love.”   People in various faith communities share this truth.  Depth of faith leads to breadth of acceptance.   Ignorance leads to hatred.  Insecurity leads us to barricade ourselves against others.  An Islamic sage, Sheikh Mufazzer, taught, “To love is to see what is good and beautiful in everything.  It is to learn from everything, to see the gifts of God and the generosity of God in everything.”

Christians often hear the frustrating taunts of people who blame Christianity for every conceivable evil in the world, so we can easily relate when people of other faith communities go through the same agony.  You work so hard to demonstrate compassion and love, to exhibit humanity toward others on behalf of your faith, and to be rid of “religion” as a cover for your prejudices and pride, only to be undercut and betrayed by the fools and hotheads in your own house.  And we all have them!  Worse, perhaps as Pogo the beloved cartoon character famously said: “We have met the enemy…and he is us!”

In every age, we are called to achieve a measure of solidarity among people of good will in all faith communities.  There were golden moments in history when the forces of good seem to have succeeded and diverse communities worked together for the benefit of all.  The late Middle Ages in Spain come to mind as such a time, when Muslim, Jew, and Christian together forged a society of deep compassion and high intelligence, each tradition benefiting from the other.

St Seraphim of Sarov (another Russian saint) said: “acquire the spirit of peace and thousands around you will be saved.”  The reverse is quite obviously true; hatred inspires hatred.  Violence breeds violence.  Hostility destroys hospitality. Drawn into the maelstrom we all may react with fear, hostility, and violence.  Muhammad said, “Remembering God is the cure for the heart.”  Here is the antidote for the poison of religious hatred.