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Stefan Ort

Good Religion

 

From: Herder-Korrespondenz, 10/2005, P. 487489

 

According to recent surveys the Germans are more religious than assumed. One needs no longer look embarrassed when the conversation turns to faith. Social commitment, even from expressly religious motivation, is recently more esteemed again.

That far the smart theses with which one asserts the return of religion in this country, as it were, at the same time with the strengthening of religions in other cultures and parts of the world. Even if the indices of Christian life, gathered with hard empirical methods, cannot prove such an optimistic interpretation of a change for the better of the religious practice in our latitudes, at least it is obvious that religion is a suitable topic for the public discussion on all levels.

 

Faith in View of the Variety of Religions

With declarations of decidedly atheistically minded contemporaries, as e.g. the recently published disputation of the French philosopher Michel Onfray "We need no God", one gets on the other hand often enough the impression that they are made not so much by conviction but rather for the sake of opinion variety, and for animating the discussion by contradiction. The great philosophers and critics of religion from Enlightenment over Feuerbach, Marx and Nietzsche up to Freud, including their descendants in the 20th century are today rather the subject of analyses relating to the history of ideas than that the present social awareness would be shaped by them. Regardless of a broad agnosticism in Central Europe the burden of proof between sworn in disbelievers and followers of religious convictions has apparently shifted.

The explosiveness of the question about religion becomes apparent today above all where religion does not dwindle into quasi-religious phenomena, but is - in contrast to the laboriously identified indications of an "invisible religion" (Thomas Luckmann) - actually lived and witnessed in the context of a religious community. In view of the variety of religions that happens more or less consciously also in this country today, after the world has moved closer together by international connections, tourism, telecommunication and migration. The mere numbers of members of religious communities, collected at the end of August by the Marburg Religion-scientific Media- and News Service (REMID), impressively confirm that plurality also in Germany.

Actually there are time and again strong conflicts world-wide - due to the variety of the religions and denominations which let themselves use in different ways for political interests or even foster them. In many cases thereby religious differences must - only for simplicity's sake - serve for the marking of violent arguments between peoples or civil war parties. For the assassins of New York, Madrid and London for example, the religion of their actual victims was unimportant. But nobody questions any longer the fundamental importance of religion for politics throughout the world. It is even criticized already as "religionizing of politics" (Bassam Tibi).

 


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But even if there are no violent interreligious conflicts in Germany, the questions about freedom of religion, of interreligious tolerance and of possible ways of conflict management understandably become more or less automatically the focus of public interest. The discussion about the connection between religion and violence is spurred on by the debate stimulated by the scholar in the humanities Jan Assman with his book "Moses the Egyptian", in which some people insinuate that the monotheistic religions had a structural inclination to violence.

It is therefore no coincidence that in a series of the "Neue Zürcher Zeitung", in which for some time prominent figures of different faith deal with the question "What Is Good Religion?", the assessment of the ethical quality of religious convictions depends above all on the fact how the respective religion positions itself in view of other religions.

 

To Acknowledge the Ambivalence of Religion

Here as elsewhere it was - in view of this question - inevitable that all religions, whether Christianity, Judaism or Islam, but also the allegedly exclusively peaceful Asian world religions, have to defend themselves in view of the following reproach: Are the sinister activities of religion, is its violent potential not everywhere and at all times so common that one has basically, in all honesty to reckon it to the nature of religion? There is finally no doubt that in the name of religion violence was and is still done up to this day; and religious denominations are thus instrumentalized and abused because of ambition for power.

That does not only apply to the much criticized history of Christianity or to the present situation in Near East. There are religiously marked conflicts in by majority Hindu India as well as in Buddhist dominated Sri Lanka or in Russia that with all its might tries to make sure again of its Orthodox tradition. In an appeal for peace the Twentieth World Prayer Meeting at the beginning of Septembers in Assisi, originally initiated by John Paul II, stated therefore with good reason that it should be forbidden to use "religious differences as reason or excuse for violence against other people".

In view of that situation the Muslim journalist Navid Kermani rightly asks to bear in mind that the fact that other religions had often distinguished themselves likewise rather by brutality than by mercy only initially convinced: "It is actually the meanest argument to defend one's own religion with the fact that other religions committed also some bad crimes."

 

Regardless of the abundance of impulses and activities which did actually bring about peace the ambivalence of religion is to be recognized in any case. One shouldn't make it too easy for oneself by referring to the fact that the abortive developments let the actually good core appear all the more radiant. The ambivalence of religions, so the Protestant theologian Friedrich William Graf demands, should have consequences even within religion: "A religion is good when it keeps the ambivalences of religiousness present in its symbol system; when it works on it and so fosters the reflection of its members by a self-confident faith practice."

But here is also indicated: In order really to understand the phenomenon 'religion' in its depth you have to leave behind that comparative view of the variety of religions and to replace the perspective of the observer by taking part in the religious life as such, with its prayers and services, rites and rituals. Religion is primarily not just a thing for university graduates and thus above all a question of education and knowledge. Not least in view of the intellectuals who are talking with some euphoria about the Renaissance of religiousness and the fascinating world of religions you get the impression of missing consequence here.

But only by such a transition into the religious practice you are able to leave also those misunderstandings behind which in view of the question after the sense of religion only check on the answers to find out whether there is a moral surplus value and a social benefit. That meant to functionalize religion and to subordinate it to worldly interests - after it happened long enough vice versa. Even if philanthropy and the repeatedly emphasized counselling belong to the core and are thus also a criterion of good religion, you must not stay with them when you want to do justice to the transcendental reality that is constitutive for every religion.

The pressing question of religious existence in view of the variety of religions is of course not answered by mentioning those criteria. Just in view of the admission (which is to be made in all honesty) that the geographical, social, and family origin is, as a rule, decisive for one's own faith convictions, the questions after the truth of religion and after the criteria for the distinction between true and wrong religion are unavoidable - but all too often one passes over them too fast. In the dialogue of religions it is of little use to refer to the faith in a revelation initiated by God himself.

After the Second Vatican Council with its Declaration on the Relationship of the Church to Non-Christian Religions (Nostra Aetate) had relativized the traditional insisting on the conviction that only the Christian religion, resp. the Catholic church meant salvation,

 


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the question is still hanging in the air whether also the present position is still a form of pocketing other people. Often enough they do not find themselves in a draft that is centred on Christ, and in which all religions participate in different degrees in the salvation worked by God. After a series of sharp admonishments and condemnations of the so-called pluralist theology of religion by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, particularly by its prefect at that time, Cardinal Josef Ratzinger, that debate came as good as to a standstill, at least within Europe. That primarily applies to the declaration "Dominus Jesus" from the year 2000.

 

Benedict's XVI Statements on His Bavaria Journey

Perhaps church and theology at present busy themselves too much with the as such legitimate defence of their own interests, so that no spectacular results may be expected from the search for a right understanding of other religions.

Anyway, that topic is not so prominent as it was necessary in view of the world-wide developments. The discussion of the epochal re-orientation of the Second Vatican Council had decreased to "some stereotyped argumentations", Ulrich Winkler criticizes in the editorial of a recently published special volume of the 'Salzburger Theologische Zeitschrift' with translations of essays of the in 2004 deceased Catholic religion theologian Jacques Dupuis. "Anxious questions about orthodoxy became dominant; an orthodoxy which is decided by the distinction between inclusive or pluralist." It seems really tragic that this debate the consequences of which are hardly understood yet already subsides again.

The discussions about the Regensburg lecture of Benedict XVI on his Bavaria journey have now impressively confirmed it. One can give the Pope credit that he did not really intend to insult the religious feelings of Muslims by the quoted critique of the Prophet Mohammad. Anyhow, Benedict XVI said in his Munich lecture that the today in the intercultural and interreligious discussions "urgently" needed tolerance includes in view of the reverence for the always greater God also the reverence "for those things which are holy to others".

On the one hand that was said to those who purposefully use taboo breaks to make profit by hurting religious feelings. But on the other hand it applies also to the repeatedly evoked interreligious conflict between Christianity and Islam. Muslims see their identity not threatened by the Christian faith, so the Pope was interpreted, but by the "contempt for God".

But the Pope gave here in passing also a hint how the obvious aporia of the faithful in view of religious pluralism is to be dealt with. Faith, so can be concluded, does neither avoid nor deny the feeling of insecurity caused by the existence of other religions. It rather develops respect for them and witnesses so God's kindness, in which it believes and which it needs not anticipate. Just that insight into the nature of religion is for example not realized where mission is prohibited by the state and where freedom of religion is restricted.

The against that background necessary argument with and between other religions, which has to be done with a certain humility, has so far hardly begun and went seldom beyond individual initiatives - if not even of one single person. That a dialogue presupposes two interlocutors with own, assured ideas is meanwhile just as much a truism as the reproach is untenable that the readiness for dialogue leads ipso facto to giving up one's own viewpoint.

 

Not to Monopolize the Believed God for One's Own, Finally Limited Purposes

God's greatness can probably be understood correctly only where it is settled beyond the horizon of one's own religiousness with its concrete spiritual slant. Religion must therefore always operate also with reservations. Otherwise one runs the risk of monopolizing the believed God for one's own finally limited purposes. That is the quintessence of the insights which the modern age has won due to painful experiences, and behind which one should not fall back just for the sake of the truth of religion. The Pope affirmed in his lecture at the Regensburg University that in the context of a scientific discussion the question about the reason of faith is necessary for the "real dialogue of cultures and religions (...) that we so urgently need".

In view of that situation good religion should also be able to make understandable or at least bearable for man both, the own painfully felt eventuality of existence and the variety of human existence. Any arrogance towards those who live without faith and mean to miss nothing is equally out of the question. Christianity too has time and again to provide proof of such an attitude when it professes its faith. What did Benedict XVI say in Munich? "We force this faith on nobody. That kind of proselytizing is contrary to the Christian faith. Faith can only take place in freedom."

 

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