Recently I heard a sad story of a religious refugee. This American man had fled an authoritarian religious sect, leaving his wife and children behind, because the religious authorities had discovered he was listening to the radio, reading newspapers and secretly watching television. As he left them he felt relieved of the obsessive secret that he had kept for so long, but he sorely misses his wife and daughters.
He complained that religion is like an ideology. The leaders of his former commune enforced a strict interpretation of their religious beliefs, allowing no dissent and little discussion. They tolerated – and perhaps encouraged – young members to physically punish suspected “heretics.”
Saint Paul, many centuries before the word ideology appeared, might recognize the phenomena. It might be called a psychiatric disease but would hardly fit in the DSM. In its milder forms it is very common and not particularly dis-easy. If anything it’s more comfortable than the anxiety and uncertainty that go with true faith.
Those who ascribe to no religion might accuse any religious person of being ideological. Faith is certainly a way of looking at life. Christian faith provides a set of foundational beliefs, a moral compass, and broad guidelines for personal behavior. It readily judges one’s own attitudes and behaviors and can be used to assess others. The believer takes delight in the presence of another believer; and is less comfortable, even more cautious, among unbelievers. Finally, the Christian believer feels a responsibility to, “Go into the whole world and proclaim the Gospel to every creature.”
Religions have been with us since the beginning; they were most often practiced by entire villages and nations who, despite their personal differences and varying degrees of sincerity, basically agreed on their religious beliefs. There was no dissent and no need for dissent.
Ideologies appeared when those doctrines demand more than ordinary compliance; when internal belief must conform to external observance; as when -- for instance -- "Thou shalt not take thy neighbor's wife" becomes "Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor's wife, or slaves, or animals or goods. Don't even think about it!"
Some “atheists” would renounce “religion” altogether, although they often enforce their own improvised rituals, moral conduct and beliefs. The French Revolution, for instance, converted Catholic churches to “Temples of Reason” with new rituals for her worship. They experimented with a revised calendar without Sundays, solemnities or saints. Dissenters risked the guillotine.
True faith, I believe, has a sense of humor about itself and its doctrines. We believe and profess our beliefs but we never forget that our knowledge is limited. As Saint Paul said, “…If there are prophecies, they will be brought to nothing; if tongues, they will cease; if knowledge, it will be brought to nothing. For we know partially and we prophesy partially…” and then, “At present we see indistinctly, as in a mirror…”
Even our moral teachings are qualified. Adam and Eve were not permitted to eat of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, lest they encroach on God’s prerogatives. When they did eat of it they received only a severely limited knowledge, not nearly enough to judge other people. If we hold the keys of the kingdom of heaven, it’s not to shut anyone out.
Faith is a sense of humor about the limits of human knowledge, wisdom and certitude. It is a confidence that we can practice our beliefs, maintain our moral discipline, “with malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right...”