Saints and Fanatics: The Problematic Connection between Religion and Spirituality

By Nicholls, William | Judaism: A Quarterly Journal of Jewish Life and Thought, Fall 1996 | Go to article overview
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Saints and Fanatics: The Problematic Connection between Religion and Spirituality


Nicholls, William, Judaism: A Quarterly Journal of Jewish Life and Thought


1. Religion Produces Both Saints and Fanatics

In my research on the history of Christian anti-Semitism, I came across some who seem to have been both. The best known example is St. John Chrysostom, the great preacher of Byzantine Christianity, who was called the "golden mouth" for his eloquent sermons. Yet in the same sermons, so much praised up to the present day for their spirituality, he called the Jews deicides, killers of God, blaming them for all sorts of imaginary crimes, and describing their synagogues as whorehouses. In the mediaeval period, Franciscan saints who wrote eloquently about Christian love led the assault on the Jews, claiming that they were responsible for the ritual murder of Christian children, a charge now acknowledged by all responsible scholars to be a libel totally without foundation. Yet many Jews lost their lives as a result of the zeal of these saints. Martin Luther, so much admired by Protestant Christians, was also a fanatical anti-Semite, in his old age at least, calling for measures against Jews that it took the Nazis to carry out. What kind of sanctity is it that can lead to hatred of Jews?

In Islam, Hamas provides abundant social services and charitable enterprises, while training suicide bombers to kill Israeli children and other civilians. Its charter defines its absolute hostility to Jews as such, not just Israelis or Zionists. They are all eligible to be killed.

In Judaism, along with many saintly rabbis, we find the brilliant Torah student Yigal Amir plotting and carrying out the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin, the democratically elected Prime Minister of his country. At his trial he continued to maintain that he did what he did for God and the Jewish people. In his case, as in many others, fanaticism seemed to consist in the complete identification of a political viewpoint with the divine will. These phenomena of the three so-called western religions can be paralleled, at least to some extent, in the religions of Asia. Look, for example, at the communal strife between Hindus and Muslims in the Indian subcontinent. Even the non-violent Buddhists do not seem to be entirely exempt from the phenomenon of religious hatred.

Violence in the name of religion is not the only form of fanaticism. It shades off through many gradations into various forms of bigotry and prejudice that are no less incompatible with religious ethics, even if less serious in their consequences for others. Today, the issue of abortion brings out the fanaticism in both sides. And the intense partisanship of contemporary sexual politics, though often - but not always - unconnected with religion, seems to involve a degree of passion that it is easy to call fanatical. An analysis of fanaticism ought to throw light on these phenomena too.

How can we account for this double effect of religious training, sometimes operating within the same individual? It appears as if the same cause can produce both love and hate. For many this does not seem to be a problem. Either they concentrate on the fanatics, condemning all religion out of hand. Or they look only at the saints, and the decent people among the ordinary adherents of the religion, dismissing the fanatics as an inconsequential anomaly. The problem arises when we take both saints and fanatics seriously, on the reasonable assumption that both are in some way products of religion. In the most extreme case, we find those who appear to be both saints and fanatics at once. How can we explain that? What are its implications for understanding the nature of religion?

It seems at least that the widespread idea that religion and spirituality are distinguishable, even distinct, has abundant justification. Everyone will agree that a central purpose of religion should be to encourage the development of spiritual people, capable of disinterested and undiscriminating love. All too often religion does not do this. It can even engender hatred for others.

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