We should maintain that if an interpretation of any word in any religion leads to disharmony and does not positively further the welfare of the many, then such an interpretation is to be regarded as wrong; that is, against the will of God, or as the working of Satan or Mara.

Buddhadasa Bikkhu, a Thai Buddhist Monk

Saturday, May 26, 2012

The Power of Idolatry in Our Times

When I was a grad student at the University of Maryland in the 1980s, I presented a paper in one of my classes on the missionary role in the modernization of 19th century northern Thailand.  Another student quizzed me on the motivations of the missionaries and rejected out of hand my claim that the missionaries were primarily motivated by their religious beliefs.  He argued that they went to the mission field in search of economic gain, and that fact explained their behavior.  Their beliefs were just a ruse.  Now, any fair reading of the missionary record does not substantiate that argument nor does the fact of the risks missionaries faced living in one of the most isolated places (from North America) in the world—especially health risks but also the risks attending living in a kind of social exile from their homeland.  I still remember, however, the scorn of my fellow student as I tried to make the case that faith was the primary motivation for most of the missionaries most of the time.  I knew from my own experience that faith is a powerful source of motivation.  And I knew for having spent years working with missionary documents and publications that their faith was the primary reason for their being missionaries, but my classmate rejected the whole idea out of hand.  He denied reality.

Previous to that experience in the classroom, I worked as a church-based archivist in Chiang Mai, Thailand, and the archives I managed contained a fair amount of missionary records going well back into the 19th century.  I remember a conversation with an American doctoral student working on his dissertation in the field of anthropology during which I observed that there was a wealth of material on his subject in the missionary records at the archives.  This grad student said with clear disdain in his voice, "I would never use missionary materials."  When I asked why, he replied, "Because they are biased."  Talk about the kettle complaining about the soot on the pot!  Yes, of course, missionaries wrote with a bias, which a reputable scholar will learn to read through and make allowances for.  On the other hand, they were the first Westerners to live for extended periods of time in northern Thailand, and their records contain a wealth of historical anthropological data obtainable from no other source.  This grad student rejected learning from that source because it was tainted by the religious nature of the record.

My point is that religious conservatives do not have a monopoly on self-righteous arrogance based on ignorant prejudice.  Those of us who are various degrees of liberal decry the denial of evolution and the findings of science by folks on the right while we engage in our own forms of prejudice and denial based on our own ideologies.  Ideological idolatry is no respecter of persons or philosophies or theologies.  It is a danger to us all.  For those of us who seek to live the Christian life, this is why doubt is so important.  Doubt can help us refrain from turning faith (which is a humble trust in God) into certainty (which can become an arrogant ownership of God).