Friday, 29 January 2010

Between the Monster and the Saint

I've just finished reading Richard Holloway's Between the Monster and the Saint. Holloway is pretty much the only religious person mentioned positively by Richard Dawkins in "The God Delusion", mainly because of his self-description as a "recovering Christian". However, while Dawkins has little feeling for religion, and refutes his own caricature of it, Holloway has lived a life immersed in it. As a lifelong Anglican priest, former Bishop of Edinburgh and author of over 20 books on religious subjects he has spent decades wrestling with the Christian faith, so while he no longer seems to believe it in an orthodox way he understands it intimately, is sympathetic to it and has been deeply influenced by it.

In this book Holloway is searching for an answer to those perennial questions - why are humans so cruel? Why do they suffer, and make each other and other creatures suffer? Is there an ultimate purpose to life? "The human herd," he says, "when collectively aroused, is the most ferocious beast on the planet.... Sadly there always seem to be charismatic monsters around who are brilliant at rousing the herd and hypnotising it into obedient servitude to their terrifying visions. Fortunately, there always seem to be a few rare individuals who are impervious to all the pressures....these alone are capable of consistently speaking the truth and naming the lie. The rest of us crowd ourselves uncertainly between the monsters and the martyrs..."

He suggests that there are four basic postions from which people answer this question, each of which shades into the one next to it. The first he calls "strong religion", in which people believe they have a revelation from God which definitively answers these questions once and for all - essentially fundamentalism. This view breeds an arrogance which Holloway clearly distrusts, and often turns religion into a monstrous instrument of power. The second is "weak religion", in which people believe in a religious creed or world view, but acknowledge that humans have a limited capacity to understand divine revelations so there are always new things to be learned, mistakes to be corrected, adjustments to be made, and a need to live humbly before others knowing they may be wrong. I think I'm in this camp.

The third position is one he calls "after-religion". People who take this position view religion as an entirely human construction, but nevertheless useful as a set of metaphors or aids to understanding the human condition and working out how to live. The fourth and final position is that of atheism, where religion is held to be irrelevant and life is lived in the understanding that it is a purely material, biological process. This view includes those who are relaxed about other people being religious as long as they don't have to follow suit, as well as those who are actively hostile to religion.

Holloway is reluctant to commit himself to clearly to any point of view, but it seems fairly clear that he is an after-religionist. "I have found it helpful to think of (religion) as a product of the human imagination," he says. "If religion is a human invention, an examination of it will give us valuable information about ourselves and our strange story. This understanding of religion need not reduce its value to the user....We will be less interested in the alleged divine authority of its origins, than in the gifts of interpretation it offers us for understanding our own lives."

He then goes on to share his view of the help this gives in understading our suffering and our capacity for harm. I wish I had room to quote more, because he really does write with passion and beauty. I can hardly do justice to that here, but I will quote a bit of his final paragraph.

"It shows ingratitude and a lack of imagination to spend the life we've been given stamping, literally or metaphorically, on the lives of others, or sneering contemptuously at how they have chosen to make sense of theirs. It is a harsh world, indescribably cruel. It is a gentle world, unbelievably beautiful. It is a world that can make us bitter, hateful, rabid, destroyers of joy. It is a world that can draw forth tenderness from us, as we lean towards one another....It is a world of monsters and saints, a mutilated world, but it is the only one we have been given. We should let it shock us not into hatred or anxiety, but into unconditional love."

Holloway may have abandoned his formal profession of Christianity, but he has avoided throwing out the baby with the bathwater, and has retained a sense of Chrstian love and charity which puts so many Christians to shame.

Tuesday, 12 January 2010

Exclusive Brethren

A little bit of extra holiday reading - Behind the Exclusive Brethren by Michael Bachelard. Bachelard is an investigative reporter with the Melbourne Age who first came in contact with the Exclusive Brethren when they were exposed in some rather dodgy behind the scenes support for the Howard Government's re-election in 2004. Subsequent investigations took him as deep into the life of this exclusive sect as it's possible for an outsider to get. This book is the result, and a sorry tale it is too.

There are currently about 40,000 Exclusive Brethren in the world, including about 15,000 in Australia. Their collective life is largely shaped by an extreme interpretation of the passage in 2 Corinthians 6 which begins "Do not be yoked together with unbelievers. For what do righteousness and wickedness have in common....'Therefore come out from among them and be seperate' says the Lord." This is a controversial passage and has been applied to many things by different groups of Christians - to Christians taking part in pagan rites, to marriage between believers and unbelievers, and so on. As far as I know, only the Exclusive Brethren apply it to everything. Their members are not only to abstain from non-Christian worship and marry amongst themselves, they are to seperate themselves from all other Christian groups (even other Brethren groups - more of which later) and take no part in secular life (they don't vote, join clubs, watch television, play sport, or even eat with non-members). Their only contact with the outside world is what is needed to make their living, and even there they work for, employ and do business with other Brethren wherever possible.

It is curious that a group with this basic doctrine not only got involved behind the scenes in an election campaign, but has lobbied extensively on a range of political issues. Quite a lot of the book is devoted to these activities, but my interest quickly waned. Unsurprisingly, they are highly conservative, and most of their lobbying is directed at promoting their own interests - getting a good deal for their schools, ensuring that their members can be excused from union membership on grounds of conscience, attempting (unsuccessfully) to get the family court to allow them to keep children away from non-believing parents. Nor is it particularly surprising that there is a certain amount of hypocrisy in their lobbying - like the way they campaign on the grounds of religious freedom while allowing none to their members.

What interested (and horrified) me more were the depictions of their community life and their religious practice. I've met a few ex-Exclusives in my time - traumatised lost souls trying to rebuild their lives. Bachelard met and interviewed a number of similar people, and their stories are not for the faint-hearted. Essentially the Exclusive Brethren are a highly authoritarian, controlling community who regulate every aspect of the lives of their members. Members who step out of line or challenge the authority of the leaders can be punished in two ways - by being "shut up" within their own home in a form of house arrest, isolated from family and friends until they are considered to be adequately repentant, or being "withdrawn from" or ejected from the fellowship.

It doesn't take much to be considered out of line. One young man I met was shut up for a lengthy period for attending a football match. Bachelard tells the much more disturbing story of a young girl who was shut up after having a holiday romance with an Exclusive Brethren boy. Nothing much happened - they kissed, and secretly wrote letters to each other. However, when her parents found out she was shut up for weeks, and repeatedly questioned in prurient detail (including suggestions about sex acts she had never heard of) by middle-aged male church leaders. Innocent romance replaced by torture and sexual abuse in the name of God and purity!

In the face of such treatment, you would think it would be a relief to be withdrawn from. Many people do decide to leave of their own accord, but it's not easy. Departure means a complete break with everyone and everything they know. They are seperated from parents, siblings, partners, children and friends. They lose their jobs, their religious identity, their homes. They have to start again from the beginning, bringing with them the scars of an abusive culture.

How did a group of followers of the God who is Love get to be like this? Bachelard, who appears to have little interest in Christianity, only gives a partial answer this question. So let me combine my knowledge with his in a brief explanation.

The key founder of the broader brethren movement was John Nelson Darby, an Irish Anglican clergyman. In the late 1820's and early 1830's Darby came to the conclusion that the church of which he was a member was irredeemably corrupt, admitting members and even leaders who did not believe in Christianity and doing the the bidding of worldly powers. Other churches, most of all the Catholic Church, were similarly fallen.

Darby's answer was not to attempt to reform the church. He regarded this as impossible. Rather, he concluded that this hopeless corruption was a sign that the age of the Church was coming to an end, and that Jesus was about to return - motive force for extreme fundamentalists in every age! The proper course for true believers was to withdraw from the church ("come out from among them and be separate!") and wait prayerfully for God to act.

Darby resigned his position in the church and became a travelling preacher and writer, basing himself with a group of like-minded believers in Plymouth in the south of England, from where he travelled extensively, wrote long-windedly on theological and ecclesiastical subjects and produced his own translation of the bible.

And here we come to the difficult bit. While you are waiting patiently for Jesus' return (particularly when it doesn't come as quickly as you expected) how will you regulate your common life? Having thrown over all corrupt church authority and purified yourselves of worldliness, how will you deal with the small or not so small remaining impurities which you or others have brought out with you?

Of course the inevitable happened, divisions emerged, and these questions had to be faced. The group split down the middle. The "Open Brethren" maintained that while discipline was needed, there could be a certain amount of compromise on less essential matters, and that fellowship should be maintained with all true believers, even those who might differ from you on some things. The Open Brethren are quite strong and numerous to this day, and I spent six years as a member of one of their assemblies. While there is a lot of diversity amongst them, they are not incredibly different from, say, the Baptists.

The "Exclusive Brethren" (of whom Darby was the most forceful) maintained instead that the true fellowship of God had to remain pure, and therefore to cut itself off from those who held "false doctrine" or were corrupt in other ways. This they did, forming a tight group with a strong focus on correct doctrine, conformity and church discipline.

Once they were on this path, there was no going back. Over the subsequent century or more, the group fractured again and again. Ostensibly, the causes were obscure points of doctrine or church practice, but it doesn't take much imagination to see the struggle for power and the destructiveness of pride that lay beneath. The result is that there is not one group of "Exclusive Brethren" (a term which they do not use for themselves, believing as they do that church names are part of the problem with the church as a whole) but many, mutually excluding each other while clinging fervently to their version of faith. Some are quite large and only mildly "exclusive" - we have cousins who belong to a network with thousands of members across the USA. Religiously they are quite strict, but they are lovely, hospitable, friendly people who don't in the least restrict their kindness to those within their group. At the other end, there are groups like the one some of the family attend in Sydney, a small independent group which is so exclusive on religious matters it has no contact with any other group anywhere. Once again its members are free to make friends with anyone and stay close to family members no matter how pagan.

Meanwhile the group known generally as the Exclusive Brethren became more and more exclusive. Once the idea of seperation took centre stage in ther lives, it spread like cancer and its logic overtook everything. Supporting this, the church developed a strong heirarchical structure to enforce church discipline, with a single man at the top who, ironically for a group with such a strong anti-Catholic heritage, out-popes the Pope in terms of his infallibility and his power to intrude on the minute details of the lives of church members. Like the popes, these men have not always been as holy as they should be.

Bachelard opens his book with a description of the last year in the life of James Taylor Junior, the supreme leader who in 1970 was in the final stages of alcoholism and caught "in the act" with the wife of another member. The subsequent power-plays were worthy of a Dan Brown novel as some members tried to get him removed from power, only to find themselves expelled before they could act. Taylor came out victorious, but at the cost of mass defections and ongoing internal dissension. When he died the following year, a vicious power struggle resulted in James Symington, another unstable alcoholic, taking charge and expelling leaders across the world whom he saw as a threat. While these times are over, and the current leadership is far calmer and more settled, the wounds, the exclusivity and the punitive corporate life continue.

The Exclusive Brethren are publicly very big on the idea of religious freedom. This freedom is guaranteed in the Australian consitution, they say, and so they should be left alone to follow their beliefs. However, to my mind this is an open question. None of the Exclusive Brethren are converts. They are born into the sect, and grow up confined to it in a literal sense. They have no friends outside the sect, read no books other than those written by their leaders (and the Bible as translated by Darby), have no access to television, radio, newspapers or the Internet, work in businesses owned by sect members, attend schools run by the sect (although taught by outsiders, since the members are forbidden from attending university), and marry other sect members. They attend bible readings and prayer meetings every night of the week, and have the minutiae of their lives overseen by church leaders. Those who leave are pressured and ostracised.

Was this the freedom of religion that the liberal philosopers advocated? Freedom to control, abuse and brainwash children, and to deprive adults of any semblance of freedom or choice? Thomas Jefferson and John Stuart Mill would be rolling in their graves to hear their ideas used to support such an abomination.