Being normal in abnormal times

Lenny Bruce once remarked, “Every day people are straying away from church and going back to God.

Lenny Bruce once remarked, “Every day people are straying away from church and going back to God.”

I think about this as I take my Sunday morning walk up toward the summit of Bear Creek.

I think of my father who was fond of telling me there are two things we should never talk about: religion and politics.

And he didn’t. As far as I know, he never set foot in a church and to this day I cannot tell you how he voted.

One of Canada’s more outspoken religious leaders, Anglican Bishop Remi DeRoo wrote “religion has always been political.”

And our most prolific Canadian historian Peter C. Newman often reflects on his “religious upbringing.”

In his chapter on God in his book The Canadian Revolution, he tells us how he slowly drifted away from the church for a good part of his life. 

“It was only when I resigned as editor of Maclean’s magazine in the spring of 1982 and moved to British Columbia that the spiritual stirrings began.

“Its not that geography defines spirituality, but there is a remote, surreal quality to the West Coast that prompts candour.”

As I walk, I wonder and worry about the role of religion in the world today.

This last week we have seem Muslim’s long held sensitivities run head-on into our relatively freshly minted western ideals of a free press.

St. Mary’s University philosopher Peter March attempted to build a case for academic freedom by plastering his office door with the cartoons that have inflamed a good part of the world.

During a protest aimed at March he said, “I’m here to deal with the philosophical issues and discuss them. You can’t do philosophy honestly and directly without causing inflammation.”

Newly sworn in Foreign Affairs minister Peter MacKay outlined his “official” position by stating, “Freedom of expression is a legally enshrined principle in Canada, but it must be exercised responsibly

“We commend those Canadians who have acted appropriately.”

Our own Al Pope even weighed in last week.

“Between insensitivity and repression, there is no choice. In the name of free speech, there is always open season on religious rights and rituals, as much as on political ones.”

After a week of this back and forth banter, I think my father was on to something. We shouldn’t talk about politics or religion.

But we do.

I do.

Religion and politics are closely entwined with civic life. We can’t seem to avoid talking about one without making a veiled reference to the other.

How did these two ideals become such strange bedfellows?

Like it or not, religion has always been a function of society.

French sociologist’s Emile Durkheim suggested “it is the beliefs of a society that makes things sacred or non-sacred.

“Therefore, religion is best understood as the power of a society to make things sacred or profane in the lives of its individual members.

“The social and religious power of sacredness are one and the same, since to hold something sacred is to demonstrate one’s commitment to and respect for the authority of one’s tradition.”

If Durkheim is correct, and I believe he is, then the war of words and deeds sprouting as a result of cartoon characterizations of the Prophet Muhammad can most accurately be described as a clash of two opposing authorities, both trying to uphold two very different traditions.

This is not about cartoons, religious icons or freedom of the press. Those who insist it is have defined the issue to narrowly and only serve to fuel the flames.

This is about authoritative power — who has it, who does not.

The power of one tradition to insist its citizens should punish those who characterize Muhammad in pictures — tasteful or not — and the power of another to insist press freedom is to be worshipped above all else.

What has made the clash so immediate and so violent is the fact the West has been systematically at war with Middle Eastern traditions for centuries.

But while recognizing the struggle is all about power is useful, I am afraid it does not get us very far.

Western attitudes about eastern traditions — and vise versa — have been tarnished so completely by the war in Iraq we can only assume the most recent crisis of cartoons will escalate.

I of course am not alone in holding this view.

United States Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is suggesting this crisis will spin out of control if — and she said a mouthful here — “governments refuse to act responsibly.”

I can only imagine how her words were received in the Muslim world.

Since at least 1931, when British and US interests turned their sights on Iraqi oil and Britain installed King Feisel and Nuri-as-Said, the West has acted irresponsibly toward the Middle East.

The US policy of repressing, sanctioning, and when all else fails, illegally invading and occupying strategic countries in the Middle East is the problem, and not as the Secretary Rice would like us to believe, the solution.

This test of wills over “the will to power” is complex. And while according to Durkheim it runs much deeper than either religion or politics, we may find that religion and politics are all we have to fall back on.

If both Christians and Muslims, democracies and dictatorships, can find acceptable levels of tolerance for one another, we may be able to douse the flames.

Author and artist William Blake wrote back in the early 18th century, “Everything that lives is holy.”

This seems as good a place as any to begin reconciling the violent differences in this current malaise.

Kathleen Raine, Blake’s greatest commentator took it one step further.

“The sense of the holiness of life is the human norm,” she said.

In this view we are all holy people living among other holy people. We are, in fact, living on a holy planet.

What sustains this level of holiness is the notion that economic exploitation, social injustice and religious intolerance work against us.

When holiness becomes the norm, we become normal.

Maybe this is all we can hope for. Maybe it’s all we need.

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