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Religious Freedom and being Religous about Freedom


Udo W. Middelmann

The Francis A. Schaeffer Foundation

Chalet Les Montaux, CH 1882 Gryon, Switzerland #41 24 498 1656

Religious freedom issues go to the heart of the American experience and history. Early immigrants came from Europe with a mixture of religious and economic interests. Escaping religious dictates and persecution, they sought a place to live according to their mostly Christian faith.

Affirmation of religious freedom precedes any Enlightenment ideas about human freedom and reactions to Church structures, which determined public attitudes, made laws and controlled the conscience of people. Previously the Reformation itself struggled for freedom from the external forms of political power of the church, against a spiritual authority apart from Scripture or a final judgment by others than God himself. The need for law was all the while affirmed to limit the public expression of religion, where such practice would contradict a Biblical view of things and would be harmful to society.

In the Bible God himself gives freedom to the will of the creature and then watches with grief the subsequent tragedy of sin and death, while engaging himself to undertake an extra work to offer Man forgiveness and salvation by grace to the repentant sinner.

You will find the Bible is quite unique in that affirmation. There is life outside of God and, with the fall of man, also against God. Since God is not only infinite, but also personal, God is not in everything. In creation itself we are not merely an emanation of God. All of creation is looked at by the infinite person of Jehovah as something outside of himself and as initially made good. The will of the creature can express itself in obedience, but also in rebellion. The God of the Bible is neither everything nor in everything.

Jesus teaches that even the unbeliever will be raised to life, though in eternal damnation (John 5). The freedom of man is not without moral consequences, but it is real freedom within a created order.

The concern for freedom to initiate, to choose what and whom to believe is almost exclusively rooted in the Bible's view of God and man. For only here do we find a God pleading with man, weeping over Jerusalem and looking at the rich young ruler, who walks away, with love and sorrow.

No other religious community is such endurance of the unbeliever. Everywhere else, the unbeliever is to be extinguished, the dissident to be annihilated. The very idea of democracy rests in the end on two poles placed there by a Biblical view of things: the ability of people to have opinions that are not necessarily true and the necessity to judge whether they be true or false.

In the current discussion on religious freedom around the world, three items in the news bring this question to the table of our lives. In response to these, however, it is easy to fall off the other side.

Firstly, the Duma in Russia, its parliament, and the president have signed into law a limitation of the freedom of religious bodies present in that country. This has received wide criticism and solicited even a letter from the Pope against the decision. The US Senate at one time considered economic sanctions against Russia in case the law were ever signed.

Secondly, a number of European countries have refused to grant religion status to the 'Scientology" movement. Germany, Austria, France and Switzerland are investigating activities of the group, which has responded by whole page adds in US newspapers. In them the current rejection of Scientology as a religion is compared with antisemitic practices under the Nazi government in the thirties.

Thirdly, an increase in the persecution of Christians in many countries around the world has been brought to public attention through the news, repeated editorial articles by Rosenthal in the New York Times and by the rewarding of the Wilberforce Prize from Prison Fellowship in 1997 to Mr. Horowitz, a N. Y. Jewish lawyer in acknowledgment of his strong public support of Christians under persecution.

The new law in Russia limits the rights of religious bodies to own property and to distribute literature. It applies to all organizations that have not been active and registered in Russia for the last fifteen years, taking us back to before 1991 and the recent welcome changes. While Moonies and Jehovah's Witnesses may have been in the mind of officials, it touches all foreign religious works.

After the signing of the law in September, the Russian government tried to weaken its effect by suggesting that the law would not be implemented in all cases. This is little comfort, since the law will hang, like a guillotine ready to fall, over every religious organization that will stick its head out in Russia, whenever the executioner chooses to have it fall with deadly efficiency. The law is in place, its application will depend on the whim of officials. Against such there is no recourse.

The law uncovers an older nationalistic, anxious, totalitarian and paternalistic mentality in the religious and political system. We are reminded of the continuing battle between the Slavophiles and the Westerners to safeguard a special Russian way over territory and into the soul of Russia's people.

That battle has been waged for centuries. It is not a recent component of the ideological blocks we all lived with for seventy years. It was born of a division a thousand years ago between Rome and the Eastern churches over theology, authority and territory. It lived in the conflicts between Rome and Moscow, the Polish kings and Russian Czars, in Ukraine and Yugoslavia.

The opposition to any Western religious activity in Russia is tied to the Orthodox church's desire to be the nationalist voice of Christianity on Russian territory. Also allowed are Buddhism, Islam and Judaism as well as other traditional Christian groups found in Russian history. This selection points out interesting factors in the mind of the proponents of the law in both the Orthodox hierarchy and the largely communist and nationalist supporters.

The reasoning could hardly be based on a a desire to protect a unified and pure teaching of the church. The numerous 'demons' and subsequent splits within Orthodox circles do not manifest an unchanging Holy Tradition. Russia has also had numerous religious conflicts. By contrast, however, she has never had much of a restraint in them from the gradual effects of the Gospel in people's lives, of education, of reason and tempered expectations. Demanding blind faith in dogma and veneration of myth, the church prepared people well to uncritically transfer their devotion to the new religion of scientific atheism, demonization of all opponents and a life of sacrifice and denial.

In the nineteenth century the lines were clearly drawn against Western influences on the basis of a growing protective nationalism. The Czar did not want an educated, liberal public, but saw himself as a guardian of Christian government against the influences of the church of Rome, the Reformation and the revolution in France. Much of the awakening opposition was eradicated or exiled. A young Bible Society was prohibited as subversive. The Orthodox church went along with this, having always, and until our own days, been closely aligned with whatever authority ruled the soul and the land.

In fact, Orthodoxy in its nature is dictatorial and expresses no confidence in the truth of creation, of revelation, of reason and evidence accessible to the honest person. By nature, I suggest, since it claims to be the one true church, faithful and pure, holder of a mandate from God to define what is to be believed. In fact, it is the church that exhibits the truth, defines it in dogmas and lets it reside in the mysteries the church gives to the world. Scripture is seen as the result of the church's ministry and therefore inferior to reveal God's mind.

In this vision of authority, the church has nothing but its claim to appeal to. For there never was a pure visible church with such authority, even at the time of the apostles. Christ and the Holy Spirit working through the apostles have the authority, not the church as believers. The Spirit, not the church, is the vicar of God on earth. Corinthians or Galatians give us a description of both the life in the church and the confusion even an apostle like Peter could fall into.

The history of the visible church is one of struggle, not purity and success. In the history of Orthodoxy the demands for councils arose out of conflicting teachings inside 'the church at war' about the nature of Christ, the content of revelation, the authority in the church. Heretics taught for a while in the bosom of the church together with saints. At times they may have won. Church fathers are cited, where they teach things that line up with the assumed authority of the church. Under Metropolitan Nikon major aspects of the teaching of the church were changed and the 'old believers' persecuted by the thousands. Among many other accusations, they did not cross themselves with the right number of fingers!

The teaching of the Orthodox church is far from uniform today. U.S. NEWS and WORLD REPORT (October 20, 1997) describes some of the divisions around the world. There are territorial conflicts and theological differences. Orthodoxy in America is in most aspects, at least for second generation believers or recent converts, a further American denomination.

How should we respond then to the recent law in Moscow? I see the law as a sad admission of no-confidence and failure on the part of the church and the State. Neither body has accomplished enough through years of work to have the confidence that people can make decisions for themselves, can weight the strength of any truth claims. Both church and state have failed to prepare the Russian people to think for themselves and to be discerning in ideas and proposals. Both are really afraid of a genuinely open discussion and discovery. The failure to engage many people on the level of critical minds and responsible choices is evident in this area in much of society, including economics.

Therefore, both church and state must see themselves as a paternal elite, obligated to provide protection for its immature charges. Years of indoctrination without the challenge on a market of ideas about the state, the church and truth has left people unable to discern and reject ideologies, false religions or a false (Korean) messiah.

The church has not been able to show that its life and message stands out as distinctly true, beautiful, and capable of speaking and exhibiting God's truth into a fallen world. Orthodoxy's history and liturgical focus exist very much apart from biblical proclamation, exposition and application of God's word. This explains perhaps why most Russians I have met have a very bizarre, distorted and Platonic perspective on the God of the Bible, on Jesus Christ and on the Christian life in the full circle of reality.

The law, supported by Orthodoxy's concern for the purity of the teaching, admits freedom for Buddhist and Muslims as well, but not for European and American Protestants. Again the nationalist overtones shine through very clearly. For, in the Russian Federation any criticism of these two faiths would cause a national scandal in Buddhist Buryat and in the many Islamic regions. The focus is on the nation and its religions. The church has given up on the notion that the Truth of the God of the Bible is neither national nor indigenous. It is foreign to all of us. Not Moscow, Rome or California gave us the Gospel, but the Lord, who placed his name in Jerusalem.

Is the rejection of "Scientology" as a religion (in contrast to being a recognized association) something of the same limitation of religious freedom? Does this curtail by law some religious freedom in some of our Western countries?

The reason for not granting religious status to Lafayette Ronald Hubbard's teaching and his followers is founded on the nature of the association and its basic economic interests. The teaching about the need to free oneself from the influences by evil 'Thetans' imbedded millions of years ago in man may appeal to someone's religious needs. They are free to believe that, when it responds to their desire for power. science fiction and mysteries beyond the stars. The metaphysics of the movement are not being objected to by the state.

Objections exist to the manner in which people are spun into the web of the organization by means of physical threats, suggested personality changes, documented and openly available confessions and contractual and financial obligations in dependency on totalitarian masters. Those who reconsider their affiliation and wish to leave face threats, intimidation and scare tactics.

Secondly, the purpose of the organization is to sell its courses and materials. The 'spiritual needs' of its followers mainly serve that economic end. They pay dearly for the promise to become something like a super-race, when they have rid themselves and the world of the evil influence of other people, religions and forces. For that reason Scientology was, until recently, not recognized as a religion in the US as well.

Europe has had very different experiences with such movements in recent history. The control of the mind, the exploitation of people's need for transcendence and the makings of a mass-following through fear or hysteria have led to many of the tragedies in people's lives in our century.

Such organizations are free to operate, to state their case and to invite followers. For that they have the protection of the law. Yet when they seek the respectability of a recognized and supported religion, it is refused precisely because of the exploitive manner to which affiliates are subjected.

Scientology is not beneficial to the life of society, when a central teaching is separation from family members and combat against other faiths, whose existence is understood to be the cause of evil 'thetans' in a person's life.

The religious freedom provision in law allows a person to believe what he wants to. One can not always understand and certainly never live the choices of another person. But where the practice of the religious belief becomes inhuman, where it violates the basic integrity or life of the person, laws must declare the limits in the expression of such freely chosen religious convictions.

In the US this limit was anchored in the law that prohibits Mormons from actually marrying several wives. Law rightly does not allow a Muslim father to keep his daughter from getting an education. It does not allow a brother to kill an unwelcome boyfriend of his sister. Animal sacrifice is not admitted in the heat of a New York summer in public places. Female circumcision is not tolerated as an expression of some religious groups.

Such limitations of religious freedom touch only the practical and external consequences of religions. Where practice interferes with the lives of others in such a way, that the orderly and rational functioning of society is made impossible, it must be prohibited.

Laws must define the limits of personal freedom. They accomplish this by confronting us with the limits of the real world, including other people like ourselves, which a person's religious view may well wish to disregard.

Strange practices among Christians are not the cause for an increase in persecution, murders, incarcerations and dismissals in countries as divers as China, Cuba, Sudan , Egypt and Saudi-Arabia, to name a few. Christians are not accused of cruelty to human beings or of living in conflict with the real world. The reason is bound up with a sense of national identity, Muslim extremism and Anti-Western resentment. A desire for purity, conformity and obedience are at the religious core of the antipathy. Demands for cultural and intellectual submission result in persecution.

Only in the Bible does God give the creature the freedom to disbelieve. God endures even the sinfulness of man. Besides diversity rooted in true individuals with names, the Bible lets atheist and Ba'al worshippers live in their folly until it catches up with them.. We are to be only salt and light to convince others of the truth. Until the judgment wheat and tares will grow side by side.

Such a view expresses a fundamental certainty of truth, which is not afraid of divers other opinions in the market of ideas. It is limited to the Jewish and Christian religion. Islam has often tolerated Jews and Christians as people of a book from earlier prophets before Mohammed. But converts to Christianity were and often still are persecuted and sometimes killed.

Any system of thought or politics that is afraid of the challenge of other ideas, will give evidence of its own insecurity. What is taught is not verifiable in the real world. It applies to both religions and governments. We find it in Islam and in atheistic communism. It is the case in any totalitarian system, because they claim to contain and practice the totality of what is true, necessary and good.

Islam never produced democracy, a genuinely open education, an intellectual life or a concern for individual human rights. Even Islam's high cultural period between the 9th and the 12th centuries borrowed more from Greece and Jerusalem than it produced from its own world view. In fact, facing natural catastrophes in Africa, its fatalistic resignation to the will of Allah dried up all human creative intervention and left a country like Mali in devastation.

The persecution of Christians is also based on the association of Christianity with the Western world. It is said to be a European/American invention, much the same way black Muslims in America see it as a white man's religion.

Two aspects of this western connection is particularly annoying to the persecutors. One is the association of 'Western' with colonial history. The rise of national awareness and power brings with it the rejection of all things associated with foreigners. The second aspect is that the elements of freedom, diversity and personal initiative found in Christianity and Judaism are annoying to any system that claims to provide all a person needs. Such openness involves possible criticism, debate and challenges to the existing views. It is naturally a challenge to any authoritarian ideology, religion and government.

On a deeper level, the very inquisitiveness reveals a fundamental openness, permitted and even called for only in the Bible, where God created an unfinished world, which, in addition, is now in need of moral correction as well. Science and art, which depend on such a sense of unfinished reality, are easily understood as a doubt about the finality of what is. Yet in Islam there is only finality. China claims to be the oldest culture par excellence and needs to learn nothing from the rest of the world. A Chine Christian is therefore an agent of another King.

The opposition of Islam to Israel and Christianity is not only a criticism of the misuse of freedom in license, sexual perversion and other forms of immorality. It is more basically an accusation of blasphemy against the teaching of Islam. For the debate over what could and should be goes beyond what already is. It involves play with the world as real, but subject to change and creative work with integrity. It assumes a world outside of God, a world in need of scientific inquiry and moral correction. In such a world not everything that happens is the will of God. That constitutes blasphemy in Islam, where everything is the will of Allah and therefore already complete and good.

A Biblical view of things then contradicts the core of Islam. To many in Islam the Christian or the Jew is a blasphemer, who in affirmation of his own personhood relates to a personal God.

Any discussion about religious freedom must include a warning about a religiously held view of freedom in our own culture today. It is a perversion of true human freedom. The temptation is always to play god, to obey only an often untrained conscience and to owe no explanation to anyone. Modern man walks in step with the pattern established by Adam and Eve's choice to become like God and to invent their own rules. The Enlightenment suggests that Man has become an adult and is no longer dependent on outside information about right or wrong, origin and meaning.

That freedom is not religious freedom, but an idea of freedom now religiously claimed. Freedom does not exist in itself. It is always the freedom to something: to think, to do or to abstain. Freedom always exists only in a context, which it qualifies. Freedom is meaningless by itself, just as describing something as 'very....' is meaningless.

I can not say that I am 'free' in any sense. I am only free in relation to something in the real world. It is always a freedom from or to, but never 'freedom' by itself.

I am free to dream, to imagine, to believe anything. That is freedom in the mind. But I can not practice these dreams, imaginations and faiths, unless they relate to and respect an objective universe outside myself, where ideas, dreams and convictions have consequences.

Adam and Eve could not be like God, for they had to live in a world already made. I can have freedom to wish to fly like a bird, but that is impossible with the human body.

Reactions against totalitarianism, the success of modern rational science, the recognition of individuality encourage personal initiative, responsibility and creative ideas. But they also seem to encourage a view of freedom in a vacuum. We do not live in a universe, where choices do not have consequences. We are not free from having to pay for our choices. I am free to swallow poison, but I will get sick or die. I can not have my cake and eat it as well!

In America especially the idea of an unlimited freedom has found fertile ground because of geographical and social realities. They are well described in Boorstin's "The Americans." The vastness of the land, the ease of associations, the pressure to become free, independent and adult very early in life, the encouragement to make all kinds of experiences without much thought to consequences produce more than individuality and responsibility. In fact they produce individualism and a scary fearlessness. AT&T, Sprint and MCI may connect over distances, but they can not heal the wounds resulting from individualism and shortsighted selfishness. Spontaneity in unreflected experimentation with religions, drugs or family members may confirm that I am a self-made person. But it also will affect negatively the cohesion and continuity I need as a person in my finiteness.

Yet such a sense of freedom is assumed to be a right, claimed religiously and deemed worthy of protection. Any regard for the reality of others, much less of God, is seen as a limitation of my entitlements. Such individualism goes beyond the Biblical emphasis on individual persons, choices and responsibilities.

The quasi-religious devotion to the idea of freedom is found in the pursuit of self, religion and personal gods. The frequent rejection of a traditional church is not in itself a rejection of God, truth and obedience. It is, however, an expression that God, truth and obedience should be fashioned to meet personal needs, desires and expectations. Here the person is no longer face to face with a world that needs an explanation, ignorance that requires insight, a moral dilemma demanding a resolution. Instead, the individual plays god and fashions himself a world he likes, a god he relates to and a redemption, which lets him feel better about himself.

The smashed relationships with parents, traditions and the real world are replaced by a community with similar 'relevant' (to us) interests. The community becomes therapeutic and easily replaces the lost family communion or neighborhood. Here are found redemption and renewal. The new fellowship performs miraculously to meet my emptiness in the absence of the real God. The church family replaces the broken human family. People go to church more often, because they like it there, than because of the answers received.

One can sympathize, if not agree, with the reaction or disgust of a number of recent converts to Orthodoxy. They explain, that this mentality denies the understanding of a traditional truth. It is too subjective and too recent and thus can not claim to be true. Modern individualism reveals a denial of a firm and steadfast truth.

Such religious freedom covers a desire for freedom to define God in our own image, to validate our personal testimonies and to create our own meaning from favorite texts. It surfaces as an ego-centric anthropology, not as Biblical theology.

The real world is marked by real battles over ideas and over people's physical lives. It should not surprise us, but it should grieve and motivate us to pray and to act.

In the Russian context, compassion should be exhibited for the failure to instruct the public enough to be able to discern between truth and falsehood, between religion and truth. Formed by years of imposed atheism and in continuity with centuries of mystery stories about saints, stars and silly villagers, people look for the strange, other and mysterious instead for the intelligent understanding of the Biblical word.

There is no violation of religious freedom in the concern about "Scientology". The concern is about their treatment of human beings, the lust for power and the hidden capitalism in the perverted form of the enrichment of the movement at the expense of followers.

In response to Christians' being persecuted in many countries around the world we must see the makings of a new form of anti-Semitism. Involved is a battle against the God of the Bible and his children. It is a form of anti-Westernism in disguise, but now with real people being killed, sold as slaves, ridiculed and blamed.

Therefore our discussion of human rights, democracy and economics ought to receive again the moral and intellectual components, which gave rise to human rights from their Biblical foundations. The idea of human rights can only surface in a Biblical context, where Man (Male and Female) is in the image of God. There are human rights, because the creator has given these rights to personages made in his image. Having chosen to make us, he can but respect us. Lacking such a beginning, no other social or religious context ever worried about rights, individuals and law to protect what is true in the service of man in general.

Practically we need to state our opposition to the way people are treated in other cultures. We need to practice opposition by treating our employees, also in other cultural contexts, as fellow human beings in the same family.

Finally, we must be ashamed that some in our society have lowered the concern for rights to the level of matters of personal indulgence, pleasures and needs.

Francis A. Schaeffer, widely recognized as very perceptive in his analysis of modern thought, understood the trend, when 20 years ago he warned that a society without external law will become a law unto itself. He also added that towards the end of our century there will remain only two values to be pursued: personal peace and affluence.

We are there. It describes our situation well.

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