zondag 25 juli 2010

Holy fire

Some ideas are so good that you spontaneously think: everyone should endorse this. For example the idea of loving ones neighbour. You'd almost want to oblige everyone to adopt that idea. Nobody could possibly disagree with that.

Why such a thing yet goes wrong? And wrong it went, no doubt about that. Not because Christianity did not bring us a lot of good as well, but the balance of two thousand years Christianity contains simultaneously such an amount of Crusades, Inquisition and Jews hate that you're left full of bewilderment wondering: didn’t it all start with charity?

Probably then the problem is not in the latter question, it is more likely to be found in the sentence: “everyone should endorse this”. Because in saying that we are taken over by ideas, to the point at which we become violent. Then, with all our good ideas, we miss the bend. That's what I think happened with Christianity: it missed the bend.

So 'Everyone should endorse this' is a dangerous idea, because coercion is, so to say, already ingrained in it. The desire, which is so natural, to want to roll out a good idea to anyone is not innocent, the quest for universality of ideas is problematic. Modest restriction of ideas to those who also happen to feel that way may be a great virtue. Without the debate on those ideas being abolished.

That restriction of ideas to one’s own circle is, I believe, a merit of the Jewish tradition. And that merit does not appear out of the blue. Judaism is familiar too with the holy fire and with the desire for a world-wide Messianic time when the lion and the lamb lie together peacefully. But it also knows the would-be prophets and pseudo-messiahs who wanted to realize the dream immediately and to force utopia. Having learned from these often disastrous episodes the rabbis have become cautious in their dealings with prophecy and utopian visions. They tried to canalize messianic claims.

Apart from that the question is whether all fire that burns in religions is that holy indeed, or of a nature that one spontaneously gives or expects approval. As religion scholar Erwin Jans recently said: any religion also has a dark core that refuses to be enlightened. Think of all unsavory stories in the Jewish Bible, the blood thirst of the crusaders and violent passages in the Koran. If that dark side connects with the already compelling ‘good ideas’, distress may be immense.

That makes it important, according to Jans, that religions incorporate into their teachings, schools and institutions moderation and delay mechanisms to keep a check on both the light and the dark fire. Because holy fire is always totalitarian. Jans assigns that dampening function to theology: its task essentially is the domestication of sacred violence by reflection on religion.

I must say, understood this way I suddenly understand what theology might be. I've never been able to situate theology as an intellectual genre. It functioned as a pseudo-critical activity that would accord a scientific nature to what never could become science. But theology understood as canalizing dangerous but also valuable fire, such is an important intellectual task and perhaps very necessary as well.