In the second and final part to ‘The Loudest Have Least to Say’, Laura Frater and the Rev Andrew Frater discuss religious evolution, blasphemy and Thomas Aikenhead
LAURA FRATER: A religious faith can be such a life giving thing; a source of positive virtue in terms of hope, wisdom and peace. And yet, if one observes the reality of religious expression in many parts of the world today, one would have to conclude that Religion is often used as a force for evil rather than good. It’s about enslaving rather than enriching human life. Would you agree?
ANDREW FRATER: Yes, of course. However, I’m also conscious of historical bench-marks; times when people of faith secured life-changing shifts in terms of morality and ethics. For example, an end to slavery, children up chimneys, general health inequality, illiteracy and a whole host of other injustices done away with by campaigners inspired by one faith or another.
The troublesome things you talk about, however, stem from the evolutionary path that all religions are prone to take as a matter of course. A little illustration from my childhood may help to throw light on this: I can remember, as a boy, being part of a tree-house building adventure. A long established oak tree behind a friend’s garden served to house our structure. With zeal and enthusiasm a dozen determined youngsters set about with nails, wood and hammers! At first, everyone pulled together with a shared vision (visions have a habit of promoting unity!). However, once the task was completed, relational tensions began to emerge. By the end of a protracted process, we had ring-fenced the tree, had placed a guard on duty at a small entrance, and with aplomb, provided a bizarre password for all who wished to enter! Indeed, for those acquainted with the Hebrew scriptures the word ‘shibboleth’ comes to mind. In a sense, we were doing what religions have always done: marking out theological territory, building a big high wall with a professional religious class at the gate ‘qualified’ to assess who gets in and who stays out!
The drawing board stage of ideas always unites people. It’s sexier than the day to day grind of making the ideas relevant and meaningful to the world around. At that stage, evangelism can so easily become a form of persecution!
I can see what you are saying. But is the scenario you have described inevitable? Can religions not naturally evolve and develop over time?
I don’t think so. Well, not easily! It’s like Communism. Marxism had much to commend it, but ultimately it fell foul of the fact that ideas need institutions in order to trade in the world. Sadly, institutions love power structures, bureaucracies, filing cabinets and committee meetings. As a result, the means become more important than the ends. And at what cost? Well, terror! And let me just say that Christianity has little to boast about on that front. The so called righteous causes of history have left many a community scarred, both physically and spiritually. All supposedly in the name of God.
Religions love the singular, rather than the plural. One simple idea, one clearly defined creed, one single voice of authority. And you know, once that religious train is set on the historical track you can be sure there’s going to be one almighty collision. New ideas will, of course, prove to be the offending obstacle.
Religions will always be one hundred years behind the times. When did Darwin publish his theories of evolution? The Mid 19th Century? However, in some circles folk carry on the endless debate about Adam, Eve and the Fall. New ideas have always tormented those inclined to see truth as fixed and unchanging. And my goodness me, how folk have suffered!
Religions can evolve, but it’s usually whilst kicking and screaming; usually fending off those anxious to insist that the world is not flat, that demons don’t cause illness, that Hell is the product of a rather nasty religious imagination fired by dogma rather than healthy debate. On this front, the Enlightenment posed the biggest obstacle to those inclined to close their minds to the world.
The Enlightenment? I know a little bit about this from school history lessons… It was the social awakening of the 17th Century. But how is it still pertinent to today’s religious debate?
It’s crucial. There’s no going back. My New Testament Professor at Edinburgh used to say, ‘Always remember that you are children of the enlightenment’. In other words, the emphasis now lies with human reason and experience rather than traditional religious authority. Religions will always claim some form of revelation at the heart of their spiritual experiences. However, the significance of such claims must be viewed under the spotlight of modern thinking, be it science or philosophy.
As a Scottish Church of Scotland minister, can you think of a specific example; an individual perhaps, who found him or herself caught between the forces of tradition and enlightenment?
Yes, I can. A true tale from the past that should serve as an awful warning to those tempted to indulge in the art of harsh judgement; judgement shaped by the mistaken belief in absolute truth.
The setting is Edinburgh at the close of the 17th Century. As a University city, the place was awash with student debate – most of it carried out quietly and discreetly behind locked doors! Enlightenment ideas, recently imported from the Continent, were leaving their mark on the consciousness of young minds. A Newtonian interpretation of nature had taken hold in the world of science, and within the Church Scriptures were now being subjected to intensive scrutiny; miracles were challenged and prophecy reassessed. As one historian has put it, ‘the balance shifted from what God has revealed to what man has discovered’.
Into that Edinburgh scene came a young man by the name of Thomas Aikenhead, a divinity student studying at the University. One evening, in the company of student friends, Thomas found himself in a bar in the Royal Mile, just down from Edinburgh Castle. No doubt the day’s classes had raised issues worthy of discussion over a few beers! Unfortunately, by the time it came to leave the premises, tongues had been loosened to such an extent that young men in high spirits were capable of saying anything on the road home! Sadly, Thomas fell victim to this. Overheard casting doubt on the divinity of Christ, and generally questioning a literal interpretation of scripture, he was hastily condemned by so called friends and reported to the religious and civil authorities.
Within days he was charged with a capital offence: Blasphemy! Things moved quickly. Thomas was jailed. A few remaining friends pleaded for mercy, but to no avail. A rigid Calvinist dogma would ensure that this free-spirited critic would shortly pay the price. And Thomas did. Twenty one years of age, he was sentenced to death, and on 8th January 1697 he was hanged from the gallows at Leith. His final words are particularly poignant: ‘It was out of a pure love of truth that I acted… It is a principle innate to every man to have an insatiable inclination to truth’.
We should take time to absorb these words. Every religious person needs to trade in the currency of openness and acceptance. It’s fine to affirm a particular faith, but the moment that faith claims a monopoly on truth… Well… Anything is possible! Even planes into skyscrapers.
So, as a final word: What would Thomas say today, given the rise of religious extremism in certain quarters?
I think that he would encourage us to do as he did: Regardless of constraint, never lose the desire to see life afresh, and never lose the passion to follow the arguments wherever they lead. Upon these principles Civilisation depends.