More Religion, Less Violence. (Faith Matters)

By Volf, Miroslav | The Christian Century, April 10, 2002 | Go to article overview
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More Religion, Less Violence. (Faith Matters)

Volf, Miroslav, The Christian Century

RECENTLY, IN A CLASS titled "Theology and Trauma Theory," we read the text that catapulted Karl Barth to theological fame: Epistle to the Romans, written shortly after World War I. In the light of current events, what resonated with some of us was Barth's critique of religion. Religion is not the solemn music that accompanies all the noblest human experiences, argued Barth. Rather, we can see "sin celebrating its triumph in religion."

Stung by his teachers' facile identifications of Western civilization with the "kingdom of God," Barth raged against religion. "Conflict and distress, sin and death, the devil and hell, make up the reality of religion." As I was reading these words last fall, I thought of the terrorist attackers and their religious inspiration in Islamic fundamentalism. What Barth had in mind, however, were not primarily other religions but his own, Christianity.

While I resonate with Barth's critique of religion, I resist some of its contemporary appropriations. A sense that religions are irredeemably implicated in violence around the globe is prevalent among intellectuals and, to a somewhat lesser degree, in the general public. One can easily point to prominent examples of religion fueling violence-inducing passions.

Historically, contemporary coupling of religion and violence has fed on the memories of the wars that plagued Europe from the 1560s to the 1650s and raged around religious differences. Today also it seems that the gods have mainly terror on their minds. Ireland, Serbia and India are just a few sites where religion is a factor in bloody conflicts.

For an example to make a point it needs an explanation, and there are many theories that purport to explain why religions generate violence. Mark Juergensmeyer's recent book Terror in the Mind of God suggests that violence has accompanied religion's renewed political presence because of "the nature of religious imagination, which always has had the propensity to absolutize and to project images of cosmic war." Of course, cosmic war is waged for the sake of peace, so that religion, a phenomenon with cosmic war at its core, "has been order-restoring and life-affirming."

The problem is that religion seeks to restore order and affirm life through the violence of cosmic war. Though its intentions are good, its means are not. If religion is not to do more harm than good, it cannot be left to its own devices, argues Juergensmeyer. He does not go as far as some Enlightenment critics, who demanded that religion be neutralized or even eliminated as a factor in public life. But he insists that religion "needs the temper of rationality and fair play that Enlightenment values give to civil society." Religion qua religion is inherently violent; the Enlightenment must redeem it.

Jurgensmeyer is mistaken, not in affirming values of rationality and fair play, but in thinking that these values need to be introduced into religion from outside.

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