In my previous post I commented on a survey that asked whether people had a favourable or unfavourable opinion of a religion (in this case Wicca), and said I would be among those who was neutral or had no opinion.
But the question was raised if the people who practised the religion did things one disapproved of, what then?
I disapprove of some practices of some adherents of some religions, but one can’t blame a religion for the behaviour of its followers.
Where a practice is something I believe to be wrong or immoral and intimately bound up with the practice of the religion, that is something else, and probably deserves a separate discussion, and is not something that can easily be determined by a survey questionnaire.
Let me give an example of practices that I believe to be wrong or immoral, but which are closely bound up with the practice of a religion.
When Protestant missionaries evangelised the Kikuyu (Gikuyu) people of central Kenya, they strongly disapproved of some features of Kikuyu culture, such as polygamy and female circumcision, and urged the British authorities (Kenya was at that time a British colony) to assist them in suppressing them. They demanded that all teachers in church schools (and all schools for Africans in Kenya were church schools) take an oath against female circumcision. As a result two independent school associations were formed, the Kikuyu Karing’a Educational Association and the Kikuyu Independent Schools Association. The former became affiliated with the Orthodox Church, and the latter with the African Independent Pentecostal Church (for more details, see my article on Orthodox mission in tropical Africa).
Female circumcision (female genital mutilation) was an integral part of Kikuyu religion and culture, but Christianity generally opposes bodily mutilation (Protestant missionaries in China, for example, started the Natural Foot Society to counter the Chinese practice of binding the feet of female children to keep them small). So the Protestant approach was to suppress practices that they regarded as immoral, and to seek the aid of the government in doing so, thus linking mission and colonialism.
The Orthodox Church, however, did not begin with moral denunciations of practices it thought immoral. Polygamists could be baptised, but after baptism further marriages were discouraged. Now, after 70 years, polygamy and female circumcision are not practised by Kikuyu people who are Orthodox Christians, but this was not achieved by a direct frontal attack on Kikuyu culture. The Orthodox approach was that people need first to know Christ, to worship the Triune God, and and then gradually be transformed into the image of God, not by human laws and prohibitions and sanctions and punishments, but by the working of the Holy Spirit.
Female circumcision is still practised in some parts of Africa, and some Westerners still make an issue of it, and those who do are not always puritanical Protestant missionaries, but are often quite secular. They regard African cultures that do such things as barbarous, and, like the puritanical Protestant missionaries, campaign for laws to be passed against them, yet their own cultures practise wholesale abortion, which seems equally barbarous to many Africans (and to many Christians outside Africa). What lies behind it, in the case of both the Protestant missionaries and the secular social reformers, is Western cultural imperialism.
So there are two things here.
One is the behaviour of some adherents of a religion. Is that adequate cause for indicating disapproval of a religion?
Some people cite the Inquisition and the Crusades as examples to show that Christianity is an evil religion that one should disapprove of. But I think it is silly to blame a religion for the behaviour of some of its followers. The Crusades and the Inquisition were products of certain periods of human history, and show that Christians, like other people, sometimes succumb to social forces and sometimes even mistakenly identify these with mandates of their religions. One can say the same of suicide bombings and pogroms and various other things.
In the case of Wicca, it is clear that some Wiccans have created a myth of “the Burning Times”, which they have quite deliberately and consciously used to fan the flames of hatred against Christians. Should I therefore disapprove of Wicca? No, because not all Wiccans do this, and some have spoken quite strongly against it. One cannot blame a religion for the behaviour of its followers, unless that behaviour is an integral part of following the religion.
And that brings us back to the second thing. Female circumcision was an integral part of Kikuyu traditional religion and culture, which is why the attack on it by Protestant missionaries was seen as a direct attack on Kikuyu culture and part of a scheme by the colonial government to deprive the Kikuyu people of their land. The Protestant missionaries demanded oaths against female circumcision, and, almost as a counter to that, the Mau Mau movement began demanding oaths to recover the land, and suddenly the Kenya colonial government began denouncing “oath-taking” as the greatest evil of all, and to punish people for doing that, and detaining them if they were even suspected of it.
And this is a point at which I follow the Orthodox missionary tradition, which is not to denounce the religions and cultures of others. All human religion and all human culture is fallen, including my own, and needs to be transformed by the grace of God through the Holy Spirit. This can be seen in the missionary instructions of St Innocent of Alaska
On no account show open contempt for their manner of living, customs, etc., however these may appear deserving of it, for nothing insults and irritates savages so much as showing them open contempt and making fun of them and anything belonging to them.
Even if one disagrees with their culture and customs, one can show respect for people. One can disagree with their theology, and can say why one does. as St John of Damascus did in pointing out where Islamic theology differed from Orthodox theology (he regarded Islam as a Christian heresy). But it should be done in an atmosphere of respect. It is fashionable nowadays in some Western to belittle the notion of respect, and to despise it as mere “political correctness”, and that is something I think worthy of disapproval!
St Innocent of Alaska also disapproved of the linking of mission and colonialism, when he said,
2. On arriving in some settlement of savages, thou shall on no account say that thou art sent by any government, or give thyself out for some kind of official functionary, but appear disguise of poor wanderer, a sincere well-wisher to his fellow-men, who has come for a single purpose of showing them the means to attain prosperity and, as far as possible, guiding them to their quest
12. Ancient customs, so long as they are not contrary to Christianity, need not to be too abruptly broken up; but it should be explained to converts that they are merely tolerated.
So tolerance is an Orthodox missionary principle. Some things cannot be tolerated, as contrary to Christianity, such as human sacrifice. In this, I think Fr Thomas Hopko’s account of tolerance is worth repeating:
Tolerance is always in order when it means that we coexist peacefully with people whose ideas and manners differ from our own, even when to do so is to risk the impression that truth is relative and all customs and mores are equally acceptable (as happens in North America).
Tolerance is never in order when it means that we remain idle before wickedness which harms human beings and destroys God’s creation.
To be tolerant is to be neither indifferent nor relativistic. Neither is it to sanction injustice or to be permissive of evil. Injustice is intolerable and evil has no rights. But the only weapons which Christians may use against injustice and evil are personal persuasion and political legislation, both of which are to be enacted in an atmosphere of respect. While Christians are permitted under certain conditions to participate in police and military actions to enforce civil laws and to oppose criminality, we may not obey evil laws nor resort to evil actions in defence of the good. This means that Christians are inevitably called to suffer in this age, and perhaps even to die. This is our gospel, our witness and our defence.
So generally my attitude towards religions other than my own is one of tolerance. I neither approve nor disapprove of them. I may approve of some of their beliefs or practices, and disapprove of others, but recognise that if these are integral parts of the religion that they cannot be abruptly separated without destroying the whole, therefore I cannot either approve or disapprove of the whole, unless the whole thing is evil or based on evil, and such religions are rare.
I disapprove of the Hindu caste system and sutti, I don’t disapprove of Hinduism. I disapprove of Jewish support for Zionism, but don’t disapprove of Judaism, and recognise that Zionism is a secular movement, and is no more necessarily tied to Judaism than crusades and crusading and pogroms are tied to Christianity.
There are also some aspects of these and other religions that I might approve of, though that does not necessarily mean that I approve of the religion per se, nor that it would be right for me as an Orthodox Christian to believe and practise them. I used to think, and to some extent still do, that Jack Kerouac’s Zen Catholicism was quite cool, but Orthodox Christianity has different, and I believe better, ways of achieving similar ends.