Politics, religion, truth


A very expensive, long political battle across this country is finally behind us after last week’s voting. There were winners and losers by the thousands. Individual men and women must cope with the high emotions that go with the end of intense struggle. They, along with their supporters, are asked to work back from extreme competition to some balance where contest is transformed into cooperative work.
We’ve followed this rhythm of democracy for over 200 years now and it still feels exhilarating: somewhat dangerous in the tensions aroused, like living on the edge. But we’ve done it often enough that a sense of tough resilience abides, giving us confidence that allowing differences to air every few years is healthy — even essential — for sustaining human community.
Looking out across world history, we can see religious differences clashing and abating in a somewhat similar way, although over much longer cycles. Catholic and Protestant. Hindu and Muslim. Jew and Christian. Spinoffs from each of these major faiths add to the chorus of religious variety, each voice claiming to be the best way of life and key to heaven.
In religion we aren’t just competing for a political job with power over the way people live now. We’re competing about ultimate truth, reality with a capital T. We want to reach so deeply into life that we find both its ultimate origin and goal, which in all traditions turn out to be the same: a transcendent power and light we refer to in different names: God or Allah or Brahman. In Judaism the name carries such significance, is so revered, so far beyond, that it can’t be expressed as a human word, only pointed to with letters signifying He Who Is.
Jesus in the Gospels carries on the Jewish sacred name and places himself within its meaning by referring to himself as “I am.” This affirmation of divinity was the scandal he created among Jews leading to his rejection by the leadership. Jesus threatened their control of the name; another way of saying he threatened their control of the people.
We know what happened next: this rejection of Jesus by the Jewish leadership of his time was turned into God’s rejection of the Jewish people. Hostility to Judaism became embedded across the cultures where Christianity spread, a seed that grew eventually into the mass killing of Jews across Europe that we call the Holocaust.
The shock of that bloodbath which took place during the larger bloodletting of World War II helped produce a reconsideration of Catholic views and attitudes about Judaism. In a way, our contest with Judaism, like an intense winner-take-all political contest, had gotten out of hand. Rhetoric had morphed into murder. In the Second Vatican Council we set down a new pattern of relationship that begins with respect, not hostility.
Christianity and Islam also carry a long history of deadly tension. This one involves territory as well as truth, so it’s more complicated. The Catholic Church has declared its respect for the Islamic sense of God’s presence, but relations remain strained because Islam has not found a way to reciprocate. It retains the single sense of freedom that guided us for so long: freedom only to do right. Once having found the truth, there is no freedom to go elsewhere, and we have the Truth.
This was once the only guiding light of Catholicism. At Vatican II we found a balance and a road to peace by emphasizing the dignity of the individual person. This dignity requires freedom from coercion, even psychic coercion, especially regarding religious faith. In Islam, a clear balance of this kind is yet to be found. As Muslims gain experience living with other cultures of greater liberty, we should trust that they will learn as we did: There is great value in the dynamic peace which rises from reciprocating respect for differences and trust in everyone’s honest search for the truth.
If Republicans and Democrats can live together, any people can. We fight as if we own the truth but we live and work together knowing that we also never stop seeking the Truth — which includes reverence for the mystery, the dignity, of the individual Other.
Frank Wessling

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