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Fanaticism not “True Religion”

One night during Hanukkah this year, two Jewish children disappeared from their home about two hours northwest of New York City, according to a story in the New York Times. Two days later, the children were with members of an ultra-Orthodox Jewish sect in Mexico.

A Brooklyn man was charged with kidnapping the children, accused of conspiring with members of the religious group Lev Tahor to kidnap the siblings and take them south of the border.

“Lev Tahor, which translates to “pure heart” in Hebrew, is an offshoot of an anti-Zionist Hasidic sect. Members of the group practice a strict form of Orthodox Judaism. The group reportedly eschews technology and requires its female members to wear black robes from head to toe.  

“Over the years, children in Lev Tahor have often been subjected to ‘physical, sexual and emotional abuse,’” according to the criminal complaint.

Fanaticism in Many Religions

I hesitate to get into this blog using the example of Jewish fanaticism. Many religions, including my own Catholicism, have generated their share of fanaticism. Requiring women members “to wear black robes from head to toe,” in fact, may remind some readers of the former habits of Catholic nuns.

Some nuns may have been or may be fanatics, but the difference here is that, despite rare instances to the contrary, nuns join religious communities of their own free will and choose to wear religious habits. (And without exception, the dozens of nuns I’ve known throughout my life have been exceptionally selfless, dedicated women.)

The point of the example, and of this blog, is that religion is not about fanaticism, which in my view, is an attempt at faith without context, without regard for others, without the need for love and compassion, without a healthy sense of the need for questioning and doubt.  

Tedious and Lifeless Ideology

“Faith without critical questions would turn into a tedious and lifeless ideology and infantile bigotry,” writes Tomas Halik in his book, Patience with God: The Story of Zacchaeus Continuing in Us, “or fundamentalism and dangerous fanaticism.

“But” adds Halik, a Czech theologian and philosopher, “rationality without spiritual and ethical impulses, stemming from the world of faith, would likewise be one-sided and dangerous, and could develop into cynical pragmatism or rancorous skepticism.

“…The fanaticism of antireligious hatred can be a frantic attempt to drown out the atheists’ unconscious doubts – concealed even from themselves – about their lack of faith, in the same way that the fanaticism of believers tends to be a substitute battle with their own unacknowledged religious doubts.”

That brings us to the subject of “true religion,” which, for those under 30 years old, is not principally a brand of clothing. Two common definitions of the word “religion,” according to Webster, are “the service and worship of God or the supernatural” or “commitment or devotion to religious faith or observance.”

Miss the Mark

These are probably the most common ideas of what constitutes religion but they miss the mark if you’re talking about the biblical, traditional Christian view of the word because they ignore the importance of religion as a personal relationship.

Despite the many distortions over the centuries, Christianity is not a “culture,” “organization” or even “institution,” but love and devotion for a “person.” The idea of a personal God is essential to Christianity, Judaism and Islam, but even more decisive in Christianity because of the belief in the Incarnation.

It’s true that love, as all those who’ve been in love know, can turn into a kind of obsessive fanaticism. Only “true religion,” which puts faith in context, can keep that from happening in the search for God.

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