Tuesday, August 28, 2012

By Their Fruits You Will Know Them—Elul 10

Hatred and condemnation, even of one’s own people, is an equal opportunity disease.

Anti-women violence by Haredi Jews: In the past years, chairs have been thrown at Jewish women praying in the women’s section of the wall in Jerusalem (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xrvxaT6QIw0), screams of rage and insults have been hurled at the women, as I myself experienced in the fall of 2011, and fecal matter has been poured on Torah scrolls carried by women (http://www.phyllis-chesler.com/119/wailing-at-the-wall). (Read about Women of the Wall http://womenofthewall.org.il/.)

Anti-abortion and anti-women violence by Christians: On May 31, 2009 Dr. George Tiller was shot and killed by Scott Roeder as Tiller served as an usher at church in Wichita, Kansas; recently in the Roman Catholic church, the pope and the bishops have been trying to muzzle and chain the women religious because they do not parrot the “church’s” teaching as they go about their works of compassion.

Anti-Sufi-inspired Islam by Moslems: Recently in Mali, Al Qaeda and Al-Qaeda in the Magrebh and other Moslem fundamentalists transplanted from other countries have physically attacked Moslems in Mali who follow a gentler path of Islam, forcing over 90,000 people over the border into refugee camps in Mauritania, to escape violence at the hands of their own people. (http://www.nytimes.com/2012/07/19/world/africa/fear-stalks-malis-refugees-despite-escape-to-mauritania.html)

I write this not to condemn the condemners, but to reflect on what makes a person pious—pious Jew, pious Christian, pious Moslem—and to consider what repentance and forgiveness mean in our world today, especially during these Days of Awe.

In what may seem to many to be a great irony, I take as my guide Jonathan Edwards, the Calvinist whom people love to condemn for his fire and brimstone sermon “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.”

Jonathon Edwards lived during the time of the Great Awakening, the great mystical revival in New England, and he himself was a mystic. In a time of so much religious fervor and division, with so many people claiming to have had religious experiences and to have become “true” Christians, superior to others who had not had their same experience, and condemning those who had not had them, he wrestled with the question of how one can know with certainty whether one’s neighbor’s or ones’ own religious experience was holy. The result is one of the finest treatises ever written, Treatise on Religious Affections (The Works of Jonathon Edwards. Volume 1. Banner of Truth, 1974, pp. 234-364.), in which he argues the following.

There is no guarantee that a person is saved, is holy, is chosen, is spiritual because of what visions or spiritual experiences they have had, or because of what beliefs or doctrines they hold. If this is the case, then what are the signs by which we can distinguish what are true and what may be false religious affections?

Edwards mentions many signs. Here are three that seem to speak to our situation today.

1. “Gracious affections are attended with evangelical humility” … [or] “holy humility.” (VI)
“And this may be laid down as an infallible thing, That the person who is apt to think that he, as compared with others, is a very eminent saint, much distinguished in christian experience, in whom this is a first thought, that rises of itself, and naturally offers itself; he is certainly mistaken; he is no eminent saint; but under the great prevailing of a proud and self-righteous spirit. And if this be habitual with the man, and is statedly the prevailing temper of his mind, he is no saint at all; he has not the least degree of any true christian experience; so surely as the word of God is true.”
This is a daring, radical conclusion: To believe oneself above others, and so certain in own’s superiority and the rightness of one’s judgment that one can condemn others and compel them to believe or feel or behave as one does is a sign that one is not as pious as one imagines.

This sign is well worth considering today in our stormy atmosphere or religion between, among, and within religious traditions: to judge another as unworthy is not to act in humility. In almost every religion, ancient and contemporary, true humility is a mark of communion with God or the sacred.

Tomorrow we’ll look at another sign Edwards mentions.

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