Monday, September 22, 2014

Secularism: Does this weaken faith?

Today we live in an increasing secular world to fulfill the freedom of religion clause of our Constitution.  What is the implication of this?

Secularism is defined by the dictionary as "the doctrine that morality should be based solely on the well-being of mankind in the present life, to the exclusion of all considerations drawn from belief in God or in a future state." This means secularism is about a morality based on a Godless way of living. A secular state is one where our Christian faith is separated from our discussion about morality in our public affairs. This assumes that we can separate our religion from our discussions on moral issues. Is this possible?

A secular approach is based on a misunderstanding about the nature of religion. Our faith is about why we live the way we do. It informs us about the purpose of all our actions, why we are given life and then death. It is an essential part of our world view that allows us to interpret everything we sense in this world. Religion is essential to all people. Even if we do not understand what our religion is, we still have a religious world view within us. It is what give meaning to our life.

The attempt to take religion out of public discourse and activities is doomed to failure as it is not possible to separate our beliefs about life and our life after death from our actions or any discussion we have about about moral issues.

The reality of the world is that there are many world views based on differing belief systems. Anyone who says we can build a society based on a non-religious viewpoint in our public life and yet allow for us to privately practice our religion does not understand that they are asking us to build a society on their idea of religion, an atheist one. They are assuming that religion really is not important in our life and can be relegated to a small part of our life. Secularism implies a view that self-proclaims itself to be greater than all other religions.  It is another form of religion called secularism.  No religion teaches us to keep our beliefs separate from our public life. Secularism is simply a way for atheists to promote their world view.

If we want to have more meaning in our society we need to have sincere dialogue about our individual beliefs and seek ways to include them in our societal actions no matter how much they may differ. There are many issues where agreement may not be possible. We have great differences on issues like abortion. Is this be something a diverse society that protects freedom of religion can ever attain agreement? It deals with how we understand the very idea of sanctity of life and the impact of our choice in this regard to our status after we die.  For those who believe it's ok to kill a fetus, are they to be oppressed or restricted by those who see this a murder? Or, are we to leave such choices up to each individual based on their own faith? I as a Christian should be able to fight for the protection of the unborn based on my religious beliefs, not on some logical morality devoid of God.

We may ask, are we to be ruled by the Ten Commandments of Shria Law?  How do we resolve such issues? In a free society we must allow each to practice their own morality based on their faith after a meaningful debate on such issues. Otherwise, we violate the intent of the promise of freedom of religion. When we do not permit this kind of dialogue to take place in our public arena, we are reducing freedom of religion rather than increasing it. There should be no place or forum where we cannot express our religion and its beliefs. It is part of who we are. To make restriction is an attempt to marginalize our faith.

It seems that it is best if we recognize the diversity of our beliefs in the public sphere and permit individual freedom to reign as along as it does not limit actions dictated by another person's beliefs. Everyday we make choices  according to our religious beliefs. If we are an Orthodox Christians we daily examine our actions and seek forgiveness for all the times that we have not been able to follow the teachings of our Lord and God Jesus Christ. We know we cannot live up to them all, but also know that we are expected to strive for perfection in our moral behavior. The key for life as a Christian is to be able to live so we can freely pursue our faith and live according to the way Jesus taught us. This may mean we need to say a prayer before doing certain activities. We may need icons or other religious symbols in our work space. Christians are taught to accept those who have differing beliefs even though they disagree with them. So they should also stand up for the right of a non-Christian to say a prayer to their God or have display in their workspace a image of symbol of their faith.

We should have enough belief in our faith, in the power of God, that if we live according to the Truths taught us we will influence others and will bring others to the truth with His aid. This is what happened in the early days of Christianity. With fervent faith they were aided by the Holy Spirit. But  they had a greater faith in those times. They were willing to stand firm in their beliefs even when it did not fit with the norms of Roman society or against the will of a ruthless Emperor and meant death or torture.

We should expect to persecuted as the Scripture tells us, but we also know that to be united with God we must become humble, seeing our own sinful nature while we also see the image of God that is also in all others who do not share our beliefs. We do not want to interact with others is a way that would make them sinful.

So what is the answer? It makes no sense to try and take religion out of public debate as it is integral to who we are a persons. A Christian cannot accept this and  be true to their religion. We should work to expand our pubic discussion to include all our differences with respect for the rights of every one. We should allow each person to express their faith in their own way in public forums. Freedom of speech should never be compromised in the name of secularism.

Let's not shrink from standing from as a witness to our faith in Jesus Christ by expressing our faith in the public sphere and remaining true to who are and what we believe. In this way our faith will grow and not become weakened. If we succumb to secularism we will end up with a weakening our faith, succumbing to relativism where all faiths are seen as equally valid, and lack the strength and grace to become united with God. If we stand true to our faith, we will gain the grace of God and gain in our ability to live the life He taught us.  As we do this we will influence others to come to the truth we have.  But first we must not let our faith be marginalized by the well intentioned ideas of those who believe that a pure rational godless approach is superior to one that combines rationality with faith.

Monday, September 15, 2014

On Truth. Are There Many Truths?

When I was a teenager I was taught by my Methodist pastor that there were many paths to God besides Christianity. He described it as climbing a mountain. Some paths went around the mountain and zig and zag, but the Christian path was one that climbed straight to the top. I held on to this notion until quite recently not realizing how it was weakening my faith. I see now how it caused me to wander in my spiritual pursuits seeking the right path. This way of thinking along with those who say all religions are the same, that they teach similar values and so forth, discounts your belief in the Truth of Jesus Christ. You cannot hold a strong view about what you believe if you think it is only one of many paths.

Often we are taught that its arrogant to claim that our faith is the absolute Truth. After all, others make the same claim. But it's jut as arrogant for someone to claim that there are many paths. They are taking a position that they have a larger, higher view than you, and are claiming a greater and superior truth. We cannot be ashamed of proclaiming what we know to be Truth. 

Jesus Christ is a historical reality. The true nature of Christ is critical to understand and believe. It was fought over in the seven Ecumenical Councils. It was always affirmed that He is the incarnate God. He is both fully man and fully God, not just some virtuous person or esteemed prophet. Only Christians believe this Truth. It is through our understanding of this mystery of God's revelation that we have the best chance at finding true joy and salvation from the turmoil, suffering and death we face in this worldly life.

Because so many claim to have the Truth and seem to want to impose it on others, there is much strife in the world caused by the different religions. The solution is not to condemn religion or to stamp it out. This only causes greater suffering. Man needs religion as proven by its continual growth. It is the Christian Truth that offers the greatest hope for peace and harmony in the world.

As Christians we believe that all people are created in the image and likeness of God. We know that everyone has within them the potential to be virtuous. In addition to this Christians recognize that we are all sinners. We are in practice less than our Orthodox Christian beliefs should make us. Even though we are sinners we know that God still loves us. If He loves us as sinners, surely He also loves all others who have not understood the truth of Christianity.

Saint Silouan put it this way,
While still a child I would pray for those who gave me offense. I used to pray, "O Lord, lay not sins on them because of me." But though I loved praying, I did not escape sin. Still the Lord remembered not my sins, and gave me to love people, and my soul longs for the whole world to be saved and dwell in the Kingdom of Heaven, and see the glory of the Lord, and delight in the love of God. I judge by my own case: if the Lord so loved me, it must mean that He loves all sinners in the same measure as He loves me.
Others may even be more moral that we are, but does moral behavior guarantee us salvation? No! Our salvation is based on our faith and our love of God and a life of repentance where we seek His grace to help us become united with Him following His teachings out of this love and faith. This requires great humility on the part of a practicing Orthodox Christian. We must recognize our sinfulness, our weaknesses and failings out of our love of Jesus Christ and what he has taught us. We know His teaching to be True as they have been recorded for us unerringly in the Gospels and maintained in purity by the Orthodox Church.

Strife in the world comes when one group feels it is superior to others. Such superiority leads to marginalization and even persecution. Christians know this superior attitude as pride. This is one of the greatest of sins. It's the sin of Adam and Eve and it blocks our relationship with God. A practicing Christian cannot accept that they are greater than others, but must insist that they are the greatest of sinners. We are taught to live by loving our neighbors, no matter what their religion or beliefs, and to to live with humility knowing the human condition.

We are called to master our own failings and to help others do the same. This is the mission of the Church.  It is a place where we come to be healed and united with Christ. Our beliefs help us to develop a loving relationship with all others regardless of their beliefs. This is something that can be witnessed from the beginning of Christianity.  The early Christians were diverse in their make up which was scandalous at the time. They were selfless and generous in helping others, even in the times of the plagues where many gave their lives helping the sick. They even faced persecution with peace of mind. True Christians are peace makers and generous to all humans.

A Christian needs to hold firm to their faith. One cannot let it be discounted by those who say it is only one of many paths. It is a path that offers the best hope for the world peace and universal salvation. The teachings of Jesus Christ will not make us arrogant, but will develop in us humility. Following Christ we will not be led to oppress or marginalize others.

Beware of those who claim there is no absolute Truth, who claim that all religions are the same or that they are just different paths. They will surely weaken your faith. With humility of mind, seeing yourself as a sinner, know that you have the correct faith that has been revealed to us by God Incarnate, Jesus Christ, who was conceived of the Holy Spirit, born of a virgin, who lived a life without sin, who was unjustly killed by crucifixion, rose and ascended into heaven opening the gates of Paradise for all mankind. He sent the Holy Spirit to establish His Church so we  could all live as loving communities being led to a union with Him. This is the truth of the Orthodox faith. Don't become a lukewarm Christian.

The late Bishop Augoustinos of Florina writes,
The soul seeks truth. truth is the atmosphere in which the soul lives and rests. It is the living water, the heavenly bread. But only Jesus Christ has this bread. He declared that He is the truth, the incarnate Truth: "I am the way, the truth, and the life.". (John 14:6)