Tuesday, May 21, 2024

cell913blog.com #52

 From the last piece in this space, we all learned (from Ali Velshi, MSNBC host, in reference to his father and grandfather) of Gandhi’s commitment to a father (Velshi’s grandfather), a Muslim living under apartheid in South Africa, upon enrolling his son (Velshi’s father) in Gandhi’s school, about how Gandhi committed to read the Muslim texts and teach the son about ‘his’ (the son’s and the father’s) faith. We also learned of Gandhi’s commitment to read the Jewish and Christian texts in a determined, deliberate and dedicated pursuit of religious tolerance, as a premise for social and political tolerance, co-operation, collegiality and pluralism.

Looking through Gandhi’s lens, let’s review the words of the current Speaker of the House of Representatives, Michael Johnson, from a report on abc.go.com, October 27, 2023, by Sarah Beth Hensley. Reporting on a Fox News interview with Sean Hannity,

‘Someone asked me today in the media, ‘People are curious, what does Mike Johnson think about any issue under the sun? ’I said, ‘Well, go pick up a Bible off your shelf and read it. That’s my worldview.’

From the same abc.go.com report:

Rep. Jamie Raskin, D-Md., said in a post on X that Johnson’s speakership ‘is what theocracy looks like.’ Speaker Mike Johnson? Anti-choice, anti-LGBTQ, anti-gun safety, anti-democracy. This is what theocracy looks like,’ Raskin wrote.

Ms Hensley continues to write about Johnson in this piece:

Johnson mentioned his religion prominently in his acceptance speech, saying God helped elevate him to the top House job. (quoting Johnson) ‘I believe that Scripture, the Bible is very clear, that God is the one who raises up those in authority. He raised up each of you. All of us. And I believe that God has ordained and allowed each one of us to be brought here for this specific time,’ Johnson said after his election.

Later, on the Capitol steps, Johnson drew on Scripture as well: ‘I was reminded of the Scripture that says, ‘Suffering produces perseverance, perseverance produces character, and character produces hope,’ What we need in this country is more hope.’

Johnson has indicated he does not believe in the separation of church and state spelled out in the First Amendment’s establishment clause: Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.

Pluralism, we have learned through formal and informal instruction and mentoring, by so many sources, is inextricably linked, even embedded in, democracy. Britannica.com defines pluralism this way:

Pluralism, in political science, the view that liberal democracies power is (or should be) dispersed among a variety of economic and ideological pressure groups and is not (or should not be) held by a single elite or group of elites. Pluralism assumes that diversity is beneficial to society and that autonomy should be enjoyed by disparate functional or cultural groups within a society, including religious groups, trade unions, professional organizations and ethnic minorities.

The aspeninstitute.org contains these words in a piece entitled Religious Pluralism 101, July 17, 2019:

Religious pluralism is the state of being where every individual in a religiously diverse society has the rights, freedoms, and safety to worship, or not, according to their conscience. This definition is founded in the American motto e pluribus unum, that we, as a nation, are gathered together as one out of many…But religious diversity on its own is not religious pluralism; that requires a bit more: Individuals have the legal rights and de facto freedoms to worship, believe, practice, and join in community with others according to their conscience. Individuals are also able to abstain from these activities. In the U.S. these rights and freedoms are guaranteed by the Establishment and Free Exercise Clauses of the First Amendment; Individuals and communities protect their own and others’ rights and freedoms to worship, believe, practice, and join in community with others, or not, according to their conscience; Individuals and communities protect each others’ safety to worship: and Communities engage with each other, acknowledging areas of deep and irreconcilable difference, but focused on areas of common ground. And finally, since religious pluralism does not happen without sustained and diverse religious communities: Diverse religious communities themselves thrive, meaning leadership is good, community institutions are sustainable, community ties remain strong, and congregants know the basic theological content of their own traditions….Religious pluralism is NOT: The simple fact of religious diversity in a society; A synchronistic mix of religious beliefs that pares down theological ideas to the lowest common denominator; Religious belief being prioritized over non-belief.

As a Canadian confronting these words, concepts and precepts, for the first time, formally, I am somewhat confused. On the one hand, the ethics and the tolerance of various religious iterations, beliefs, practices, and rituals are totally acceptable, reasonable and even highly valued. Stating these precepts, however, in a bald, assertive and almost legalistic phraseology, seems to be more the language of the public square, and not the religious sanctuary, as I know or conceptualize it. In Canada, for instance, we have no ‘Establishment and Free Exercise Clauses in a First Amendment.

From the Centre for Constitutional Studies.ca website (in Canada), we read:

The freedom of religion is one of the fundamental freedoms protected by section 2 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms…According to the Supreme Court, the charter-protected freedom means that no one in Canada can be forced by the government to act in a way that is contrary to his or her religious views. For example, the Supreme Court has determined that religious officials cannot be forced to perform same-sex marriages if doing to violates their religious beliefs. In practice, having the freedom of religion means a person is allowed to entertain whatever religious beliefs he or she chooses. Freedom of religion also allows a person to declare his or her religious beliefs ‘without fear of hindrance or reprisal,’ and to worship, practice, and disseminate those beliefs. The freedom of religion protects only ‘beliefs, convictions, and practices rooted in religion, as opposed to those that are secular, socially based or conscientiously held. What does the term religion mean in this legal context? ‘Religion,’ according to the Supreme Court, ‘is about freely and deeply held personal conviction-connected to an individual’s spiritual faith and integrally linked to one’s self-definition and spiritual fulfillment. It often ‘involves a particular and comprehensive system of faith and worship’ and the belief in a divine, superhuman or controlling power.

Acknowledging that both the U.S. and Canada have some legal framework and protection of religious freedom, the words, the tone, the perspective and the implications of both positions are quite unique and very different. Also, the exercise of law enforcement, and ‘shading’ of the law, in the U.S. at this moment in history, is very different from the religious ethos in Canada. And given the Canadian history of a degree of not only tolerance, but also accommodation of different religions in the public school system, we see and are oriented to the question of religion, in the public square somewhat differently.

The Ontario Human Rights Commission, (ohrc.on.ca) displays these words:

The right to freedom of religion under s. 2(a) of the Charter (of Rights and Freedoms in Canada) has also been found to protect the right of confessional schools-including Roman Catholic schools- to teach from a confession all religious perspectives. The (Supreme) Court affirmed that other aspects of the ERC (Ethics Religion and Culture) program (in Quebec) dealing with ethics and other religions should be taught from a neutral perspective, in keeping with the program’s objectives preparing students for living in a plural, democratic society which was described as being constitutional and ‘of immense public importance.’

The history of religion and religious debate, legislation, practice and its place in Canadian society, while asserting principles of pluralism, tolerance, and protection, is also fraught with pain. Small towns, especially, have, too often, been deeply divided between Roman Catholics and Protestants, and more recently, with the surge of immigrants, there still remain social pockets of division, given the influx of Muslim, Jewish, Sikh, Hindu and other faith communities. These divisions also have a racial and an ethnic aspect, whether these include religious intolerance or not. Religious tolerance, for example, as reported in the assaults on individual Muslims and their mosques, as well as on Jews and on their synagogues, remains a serious, contentious and seemingly intractable blight on the Canadian cultural, religious, ethical and ethnic landscape. Doubtless, we are a deeply divided nation when examined from a religious pluralism perspective.

The U.S. House Speaker’s ‘adherence to the Bible,’ as the sourcebook for his world view is very unsettling to many in Canada, who consider ourselves Christians by education, and pluralists by thought, practice and tolerance. The Bible, as well as any of the religious texts that have been developed as foundational of a faith, are wide open to interpretation, by both laity and religious scholars. At a very basic level, the various literary forms, poetry, prose, literal, metaphoric, mythic, visionary, utopian, dystopian, apocalyptic, judgemental, morality guides, war histories, legal documents and pronouncements, prophetic assertions….require a rather intense and critical scrutiny by all who venture forth into those texts. And yet, throughout history, the major religious, faith communities have stressed, along with nuances of difference some basic themes, attitudes, ethics and norms.

Pluralism, as a sociological, political, ethical, and even more idea, concept, notion or even a philosophy, for many, may not be a ‘religious’ or spiritual exercise or process. However, that question may also require revisiting, given whatever each individual considers his/her spiritual/religious journey.

Karen Armstrong, in her insightful work, The Case for God, writes these words about religion:

Religion is a practical discipline that teaches us to discover new capacities of mind and heart. …It is no use magisterially weighing up the teachings of religion to judge their truth or falsehood before embarking on a religious way of life. You will discover their truth-or lack of it- only if you translate these doctrines into ritual or ethical action. Like any skill, religion requires perseverance, hard work and discipline. (p. xiii)

At the core of religion, from very early times, lies the unseen dimension of existence. In many parts of the world, the moon was linked symbolically with a number of apparently unrelated phenomena: women, water, vegetation, serpents, and fertility. What they all have in common is the regenerative power of life that is continually able to renew itself. Everything could so easily lapse into nothingness, yet each year after the death of winter, trees sprout new leaves, the moon wanes but always waxes brilliantly once more, and the serpent, a universal symbol of initiation, sloughs off its old withered skin and comes forth gleaming and fresh. (Armstrong, op. cit. p. 11)

Armstrong is enlightening, too, from a modern perspective, about the way religion is ‘conceived’ in the twenty-first century.

She writes:

We have become used to thinking that religion should provide us with information. Is there a God? How did the world come into being? But this is a modern preoccupation. Religion was never supposed to provide answers to questions that lay within the reach of human reason. That was the role of logos. Religion’s task, closely allied to that of art, was to help us to live creatively, peacefully, and even joyously with realities for which there were no easy explanations and problems that we could not solve: mortality, pain, grief, despair and outrage at the injustice and cruelty of life. Over the centuries people in all cultures discovered that by pushing their reasoning powers to the limit, stretching and compassionately as possible, they experienced a transcendence that enabled them to affirm their suffering with serenity and courage. Scientific rationality can tell us why we have cancer; it can even curs us of our disease. But it cannot assuage the terror, disappointment, and sorrow that come with the diagnosis, nor can it help us to die well…..Religious insight requires not only a dedicated intellectual endeavor to get beyond the ‘idols of thought’ but also a compassionate lifestyle that enables us to break of out the prism of selfhood. Aggressive logos, which seeks to master, control, and kill off the opposition, cannot bring this transcendent insight. Experience proved that this was possible only if people cultivated a receptive, listening attitude, not unlike the way we approach art, music, or poetry. It required kenosis, ‘negative capability,’ ‘wise passiveness,’ and a heart that ‘watches and receives.’

Searching, through reading texts, has been central to the process of ‘learning’ and ‘grasping’ not only in a cognitive manner, but also in an emotional, psychological, spiritual sense. Words, it turns out, however incomplete and fallible they are to convey the fullness of meaning, as intended by speakers, writers, people at prayer, composers of songs, poets, historians, are really our only (original) means of conveying whatever it is that we wish to convey. Like musical notes, and different from those, words come from a source and bridge to another ‘receiver’ who then has the chore of discerning the meaning of those words. Scripture(s) have used the words ‘mythos’ and ‘logos’ from early time, to discern and attempt to separate different kinds of messages and their respective impact on the recipient.

Although only a general characterization of these two modalities of communication, logos, a Greek word, is generally defined as word, thought, principle or speech and relates to factual, objective and empirical reality. ‘Characteristic of the brain’s left hemisphere’ logos can describe only a portion of what we consider as our reality. Myth (mythos), (today) ‘is something that is not true. If accused of a peccadillo, in his past life, a politician may say that it is a myth—it did not happen. But traditionally, a myth expressed a timeless truth that in some sense happened once but which also happens all the time. It enabled people to make sense of their lives by setting their dilemmas in a timeless context. Myth has been called an early form of psychology: the tales of heroes struggling through labyrinths of fighting with monsters brought to light impulses in obscure regions of the psyche that are not easily accessible to rational investigation. Myth is essentially a programme of action: its meaning remains obscure unless it is acted out, either ritually or ethically. The mythical story can only place you in the correct spiritual or psychological attitude; you must take the next step yourself. The myths of scripture are not designed to confirm tour beliefs or endorse your current way of life: rather, they are calling for a radical transformation of mind and heart. Myth could not be demonstrated by logical proof, since  its insights, like those of art, depended on the right hemisphere of the brain. It is a way of envisaging the mysterious reality of the world that we cannot grasp conceptually; it came alive only when enacted in ritual without which it could seem abstract and even alien. Myth and ritual are so intertwined that it is a matter of scholarly debate as to which came first: the mythical story or the rites attached to it. (Karen Armstrong, the Lost art of Scripture, p. 11)

Living in a world dominated by ‘logos’ and the empirical lens on each of our lives, one has to wonder if Mike Johnson is offering a ‘literal’ and ‘empirical’ interpretation of The Bible, to his political audience or a mythos, right-brain driven and directed interpretation. And the convergence of the logos and the mythos, even in religious institutions, is a confusion that seems to attract and to benefit from a closer look that a merely superficial glance.

Pluralism, as considered from a ‘logos’ perspective, can be considered in it political context. If considered from a mythos perspective, it takes on a very different meaning, application and implication….Pluralism, from a spiritual perspective, embraces, celebrates and honours the notion of ‘love’ likely from an ‘agape’ (Greek, the highest form of love, charity, and/or the love of God for humans) lens. This love shows empathy, wants good for the beloved, extends help and is intended for everyone. On the political (logos) level, humans are expected to respect, and to refrain from judgement, harm and insult of another; we are also expected to permit and to endorse the permission of every person to engage in his/her religious actions and beliefs without interference, prejudice or judgement.

Mike Johnson, in his declaration of ‘go and read your Bible’ does not carry with it the kind of agape love in the Christian modality, that has been considered to be the core of the gospel. Rather, his aggressive assertion reads, for many, like a kind of ‘power trip’…of self-righteousness, piety and superiority….even in the alleged pursuit of ‘hope’ which Johnson says we need more of.

Could someone introduce the Gandhi example, of committing to read, to comprehend and to share the texts and their meaning from the main world religions, to Mr. Johnson?


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