True Religious Extremism: A Response to Giles Fraser

gilesFraser.jpgGiles Fraser recently published a short opinion piece at the Guardian arguing that the problem with religiously-motivated terrorism is not that such terrorists–like the man who drove a truck into crowds on Bastille Day this past summer in Nice, France–are too religious, but that in fact they are not religious enough. Fraser goes on to argue an important theological point:

It’s a very basic point. The truth of God’s existence does not depend on me. It does not depend on me filling my church with believers at midnight mass. Nor does it depend on me (or anyone else) winning or losing arguments about God’s existence on Twitter. God is not like a political party that lives or dies on its support or lack of it.

Fraser is reiterating a fundamental theological doctrine central to the Abrahamic faiths: that of God’s utter sovereignty. God creates but is not created. God upholds, but is upheld by nothing except God’s own self. God defines without being defined. Fraser’s argument is simple: those of us who profess religious faith should be “more extreme” in our total reliance on God–and this should lead to less terrorism and less religious coercion rather than more. The more we depend on God, he argues, the less we will try to act as God’s guardians or agents. The more secure we are in our faith in God, a faith based on God’s solidity and not our own confidence or energy, the less anxious we will feel, the less need we will have to assert our beliefs on others.

To some extent, this strikes me as a good argument. Certainly, I will always applaud any public declaration of this kind of theology. Asserting the super-ontic, as it were, primacy and security of God over and above the material world or human thought and activity is something we need more of, and it’s refreshing to find this kind of discourse in the Guardian, which is not known as a place one goes for metaphysical subtlety (this is of course not a critique, as the Guardian is a newspaper generally focused on current events).

And yet, I have to say I have a problem with Fraser’s argument. While it may be the case that we believers in God need not defend God’s being or honor in public, and that we need to trust God more and our own actions less, I worry that, taken on its face, his argument could lead to a sort of religious quietism: trusting in the goodness of God while the world burns.

But this kind of extreme, to borrow Fraser’s own diction, understanding of God’s sovereignty and power is, in fact, un-Scriptural. It is certainly true that the Bible–both the Hebrew Bible and the much shorter Christian New Testament–frequently acclaim God’s ineffability, power, and utter sovereignty, yet both texts also make it clear that faith must always mean action. It’s true that God doesn’t need us in order to be Real, in order to be God. But! God does call us to action, to serve a broken a world, to heal wounded people, to speak truth in a time of falsehood. God may not need us, but God’s world does.

Perhaps the clearest expression of this is in the famous passage of the goats and the sheep in Matthew 25:31-46. I quote it here at length and encourage you to read it, even if it is familiar to you:

‘When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left. Then the king will say to those at his right hand, “Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.” Then the righteous will answer him, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?” And the king will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.” Then he will say to those at his left hand, “You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.” Then they also will answer, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?” Then he will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.” And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.’

It is easy to miss the central thrust of this passage by either dwelling on the implicit threat contained in this passage, or by snickering over the comparison of Christ’s followers to “sheep”. But note the main point Jesus is making: those who care for those in need have already entered ‘the Kingdom’, they are already doing the work of building the just and peaceful reign of God in the world. Meanwhile, those who profess faith while refusing to live that faith are proving themselves to be obstacles to God’s work, God’s plan for a creation imbued with justice and love.

jesuscleansesthetempleThat is to say: “extreme faith”, as Fraser calls us to have, should not lead us to disengage from politics, social action, or advocacy for what we hold to be true or right. This point can be summarized even more succinctly by John 14:15–“If you love me, keep my commandments.” One who professes faith in a sovereign God but refuses to endeavor to live a renewed life of love in light of that faith, does not really have faith at all. Or, as St. James put it, much to Martin Luther’s later chagrin: “Faith without works is dead.” (James 2:17).

Thus, I worry that Fraser has oversimplified what it would mean to live an “extreme” faith. I agree wholly with him that those who kill, exploit, enslave, or disregard others in the name of God are indeed not nearly religious enough. But I disagree with his conclusion that this means that religious people ought to retreat from acting on their faith. It’s just that we must be very clear about what kind of action God calls from us. Let’s let Jesus’s word guide us again:

‘Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves. You will know them by their fruits. Are grapes gathered from thorns, or figs from thistles? In the same way, every good tree bears good fruit, but the bad tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a bad tree bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Thus you will know them by their fruits. (Matt. 7:15-19)

Those who are truly, and “extremely”, religious, will be people whose fruits are acts of love, kindness, compassion, social and economic justice. This means refusing to use force and violence in the name of God, to be sure, but it does not mean retreating from all religiously-inspired activity. To do so would be to abdicate our responsibility to build the just and loving society God calls the human community to be.

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