President Obama’s moving eulogy for Clementa Pickney, following on the heels of the words of forgiveness uttered by several family survivors of the Charleston murders, has prompted me to think for a long time this week about the value people place on religion.
Religion has been at the center of human existence for centuries - longer than any other institution we have created as human beings. This despite the countless acts of hypocrisy, corruption, violence, and death directly attributable to religion and the belief systems they espouse. Acts that span the globe and human history.
John Ralston Saul’s book On Equilibrium makes a telling point about the relationship between belief and imagination. Saul states that belief is one of humanity’s best way to control imagination. We take refuge in the surety of our belief systems, no matter how fanciful they are when they are subjected to the light of empiricism. Belief becomes much less about truth than about feelings of certainty, and our willingness to give even our own lives to hold onto that certainty.
Imagination, on the other hand, requires us to do things very differently. It requires us to suspend judgment and hold ourselves in a state of uncertainty. It requires us to tolerate opposing ideas in our awareness simultaneously and risk being thought foolish. It requires us to genuinely take in, as best we can, other people with our awareness.
This last capacity is what made the forgiveness shown by relatives of the murdered victims to Dylan Roof transcendent - an expression of something many would consider one of the finest human qualities we are capable of expressing towards one another.
It is well documented that the expression of forgiveness can help people in their own healing process. But it’s fair to assume that the forgiveness shown to Roof by surviving family members is more than just psychological. It is also attributable to the devoted study of, and incorporation of, Christian beliefs by those who forgave Roof. Beliefs that in all likelihood included the kindness earlier extended to him by the people he eventually murdered, something Roof himself noticed when commenting afterwards that he almost “didn’t go through with it” because people had been so nice to him.
When religious belief can prompt people to act with such incredible generosity of spirit, then that religion can justifiably say it is doing the job its belief system claims it is there to do. What is it, then, that can lead religious people in one instance to act like this and in another behead innocent people? What is it that led Catholics and Protestants to kill each other in such huge numbers in the sixteenth century that Pope Gregory XIII issued a medallion to commemorate the St. Bartholomew’s day massacre, one of the most brutal events in the history of Christendom?
We crave a superhuman, transcendent reality. No matter how much we value science and empiricism, no matter how much we elevate our various quests for knowledge, we also take comfort in the fact that there are unknowables in our world. Mysteries we cannot solve. Things that can never be explained. And when things go terribly awry, we turn to that sense of the unknowable and, at our best, explore it in our imaginations. We find a way, for instance, to simultaneously feel grief and forgiveness. It’s amazing when this happens.
We’re equally remarkable, however, in the other direction. We’re superb at channeling our venom and our hatred into religious belief systems and using them to justify pathological violence. The fact that the same institution can lead to these apparently diametrically opposed results is a stunning reality about religion.
But it’s the former - our faith in where the imaginative dimension of religion can lead us - that continues to fuel our willingness to have religion in our lives.
Can we, then, reinvent religion somehow? Not to add more wisdom - there’s plenty of that in the texts of every major religion already. Not to elevate one religion above another - history is strewn with the carnage that futile endeavor entails.
Can we, instead, find a way for our imagination not to be pushed aside by our beliefs? Can we cultivate our curiosity about life enough so that it take precedences over boisterous proclamations about “the truth”? Can we lower the noise in ourselves and our society enough to genuinely reflect on the world around us? If we could, what better way would there be to honor our desire for a superhuman reality and avoid getting mired in the mud of dogmatic belief?
The relatives of those murdered last week in South Carolina showed us how to do this last week. So gracefully. It was one of those rare occasions when religion was truly put to the test, and passed.