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[Chalice] The Moral Confusion[Chalice]
of Religious Zealots

Presented March 15, 1981, by Rev. John W. Brigham, D.D.
Meditation - For Spring

The earth is turning now. It swings us forward through the spring. We live in anticipation of the flight of birds and the respondent land. We lean forward to hasten its arrival. We cut the branches of flowering things and bring them into the warmth of houses to bloom before their time.

Take thought now to the renewal of the inner spirit which brings your own springtime into flower. Renew your lease on the rich reward of joy that comes with beauty seen again. Be nourished with deep memories of loving care that has been yours and is still within your power to give. Walk into the new lands of tomorrow not yet marked by human feet, and keep alive the wondering hope of tomorrow's promise.

Let the living miracle which is life itself be the vehicle of discovery into the great harmony of all existing things.

Sermon - The Moral Confusion of Religius Zealots.

I have a confession to make at the outset. I did not know; I was unaware. I was utterly ignorant that I was born in a moral universe at the time of that event. No one had prepared me for this possibility in advance. Therefore I did not enter this life with an ethical philosophy. I was what I was, totally unencumbered with notions of right and wrong. I did not even know the meaning of god and evil. The words themselves were foreign to me.

It did not occur to me that I had been born in sin, nor that sinfulness was a given condition of human life.

Neither did it occur to me that I had been born to be saved or, contrarily, to be damned.

In short, I came into this life quite free of moral confusion. In a short time, a few years, this would change.

By the time even seven or eight years had passed and I had well entered into the society of my peers, whether in the classroom or on the playground, I was playing the moral game, separating the white from the black, the good from the evil. When I dredge up memories from that past, it seems to me that pain and pleasure entered heavily into the making of moral distinctions. What caused me suffering was bad; what brought me pleasure was good. Many years later I was to discover this approach to moral distinctions discussed in learned fashion by Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill, who recognized that many human ideals developed from their association with acts of bodily pleasure and relief from pain.

But physical pain and pleasure was not the only source of discoveries made concerning the good and the bad. There was an equally if not even greater source of discovery and that was the range of approval and disapproval registered by parents and older children -- brothers, sisters, neighbors. Physical pain or pleasure was not involved, but psychological factors were. Approval and disapproval, applause and silence, acceptance and rejection.

Conduct in many situations, in work or at play, in the innumerable human relationships of give and take; all entered into the developing sense of right and wrong, or moral and immoral action.

In none of this early process of moral learning was there ever a suggestion of supernatural powers that would either reward or punish. Neither God nor Devil was the author or a participant. Matters of moral conduct were concerns of personal and social distress. The justification of moral conduct was rooted in the social nature of the small community. We lived together with greater security, tranquillity, and pleasure, where no one stole from any other than would have been the case if everyone were a thief.

It was not laws or police or jails and prisons that gave strength to the moral code. It was the social health of the many families who shared life in the same neighborhood.

Morality, then, is no single thing. It is the best response we can make to allow ourselves and the persons with whom we live and must share life, to gain the greatest measure of fulfillment. There is the morality of family, of community, of playing field, of work place, of economic life; a morality of national co-existence, of a universal human co-existence.

The discovery and settling on the moral values in these many relationships has been a long, often painful, process. It is far from finished, for we are currently in a century of grave distress and anguish as we struggle to discover and set in place a morality of human life on a planetary scale. What we so easily call "foreign policy" is in truth "moral policy." For what we are blundering after is a relationship that will allow human beings to live reasonably well with one another. At the moment the tide is running out on a moral response as we turn back to drawing up the battle wagons, signaling by enormous increases in military spending that we have no present intention of pursuing programs that would raise the moral quality of human relationships in this shrinking world.

It is this memory and this background that is so clearly at odds with the so vehemently proclaimed assertions of morality by religious zealots, whether Moslem, Christian, or other. A zealot, you realize, is a fanatical partisan of some particular and limited conviction. The religious zealot is in possession of the final truth. It is "The Word" beside which no other word may stand or be compared. It must be believed. And equally important, it must not be understood.

For if the truth were understood, it would be shorn of its strength. That is why, with the religious zealot, the Truth must come in the form of Revelation. It must arrive from outside him- or her-self, not rise from any mental or intellectual effort. It is a bolt from the blue, a "Truth" with no earthly proof, and for this reason cannot be subject to earthly inquiry. It is a Truth that stands outside of, beyond, and separate from questioning, testing, or validation.

The religious zealot announces his or her Truth and exhorts the hearers to accept it with their hearts, not with their minds. In this, the religious zealot is staking out his ground in the same place that Rudolph Hess staked out the ground of his Nazi movement, when, in 1934, he told the followers of Hitler, "Do not seek Adolph Hitler with your brains; all of you will find him with the strength of your hearts."

If the Truth which the zealot announces, be it religious or political, is to gain adherents, it must be either vague or unverifiable. The religious zealot is committed to a "Truth" which cannot be proved or tested without arrival in heaven, or, at least, far down the road beyond the known life of this existence. The zealot, however, speaks of that future time with great familiarity. The religious zealot speaks with grave or enthusiastic certainty of living conditions there. He is familiar with its furniture, its roadways, its fruits and vegetables, its ruler and chief associates, and is full of assurance as to the companions to be met in its courts and gardens.

Not merely such mundane matters are known. The morality of heaven is also precisely clear to the religious zealot. This is so since only the persons of the same moral code will be there, I presume.

So long as the religious zealot keeps his message pristine and pure, uncontaminated with worldly considerations, it has a clear field, uncluttered with embarrassing questions.

"Sin" is one of the arsenal words of the religious zealot. "Sin against the Holy Spirit" is a very grave sin indeed. So long as the religious zealot keeps sin at this level, he is beyond disputation. There can be no argument, for it is not possible to discuss matters lost in such a foggy atmosphere.

But there is danger in such remote and obscure sin. The followers become restless and seek more tangible sins, something to get their teeth into, so to speak, something to war against; the sins of their neighbors are easier to get at than any sin against the Holy Spirit. The religious zealot must move his Truth somewhere this side of heaven, and give it some earthly meaning, and so the zealot announces that certain human activities are displeasing to God.

"Sin" acquires plurality and multiplicity. Sins, rather than "SIN," and as must happen, there becomes a gradation of "sins," for although all are bad, some are worse than others, and as must inevitably be the case, there are a few that are worst of all -- so terrible as to be unmentionable except in moments of desperation.

All sins, whether of the lesser or venial or greater and deadly, become the target of the zealot, although it may be noticed that the sins of which the preacher himself is guilty are rarely mentioned, and if at all in a fast, fleeting instant.

The love money, which is the root, we are told, of all evil, is rarely mentioned by the religious zealot, whose appeals for money occupy a great portion of his preaching time and daily effort.

Should this matter be raised by anyone, there are a dozen diversionary routines. A favorite within the Catholic church, which I have heard many times spoken by devout Catholics even as they protested the appeals, is, "Well, it's for the glory of God and the great good of the church."

Money raised to convert the unconverted, to train the converted to go about converting the unconverted, money raised to pray for the converted or the unconverted, and son on, are sound and convincing proposals to the faithful, since this is truly the wish of God as regularly reported to them by the person to whom the truth has been revealed.

Now the religious zealot cannot remain long satisfied to work only within the ranks of the saved. It is necessary that the will of God, as he knows it to be, must become the law of the land, of all people, whether believers or unbelievers, saved or unsaved.

The devil or devils abroad in the land must be silenced, defeated, liquidated. But first must be identified. Clearly this must be done with some care. The easiest devils to identify are those who are least likely to be locally known. Thus communists, terrorists, atheists are early on the list. Humanists, radicals, and other labels are added to swell the list. Two things are happening in this. The religious zealot is calling from his followers their spirit of malevolence, encouraging a tidal flood of ill-will. Followers are encouraged to build bonfires of records or books, since to burn persons is not presently an acceptable practice, although it was once considered to be a very edifying spectacle. Christian yellow pages are printed and sold to the faithful that they may do business only with the members of the faith, sharers of the Truth.

By and large I am persuaded that religious zealots have very little realization of the genuine moral issues that are present in the contemporary world of humankind. They see the symptoms and leap at them with all the invective and tools of their faith. Not merely with the wrath of God but with the combined wrath of all their faithful followers.

The greater the number of followers, the louder their outcry. The more noise they make, the more certain they are of being a majority; then comes the danger of overwhelming intolerance toward differences, which, strangely enough, is one of the most immoral attitudes in action. Beware the religious zealot whose single-minded morality is borne on the wings of a "truth" which permits no examination, allows no inquiry, must be accepted by the heart or in faith, but never by the discerning mind or the rational intellect.

William James, philosopher and psychologist, examined deeply into the question of morality and the course of moral values. He writes of the religious zealot in moral battle as being the strenuous warrior. "All through history in the periodical conflicts of puritanism we can see the antagonism of the strenuous with the genial moods. Every sort of energy and endurance, of courage and capacity for wrestling evil is set free in those who have an unswerving faith. They believe themselves to be in league with Eternity, and Eternity is truly an ally beyond measure."

It is difficult to penetrate to the core of the religious zealot and determine the many inner desires and forces at play. If we are to believe Martin Luther, then hate is a required ingredient. Said Luther, "When my heart is cold and I cannot pray as I should, I scourge myself with the impiety and ingratitude of my enemies, the Pope and his accomplices and vermin, and Zwingli, so that my heart swells with righteous indignation and hatred and I can say with warmth and vehemence: 'Holy be Thy name, Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done.' And the hotter I grow, the more ardent do my prayers become."

The more I have come to know human behavior, the more convinced I have become that the moral sense is a most fragile part of the individual. It is easily fractured when separated from personal judgement and put into a collective group or movement, for this calls for the surrender of personal judgement to whatever the leadership or prevalent view of the group may be. We have renounced our own responsibility to judge, and the decision of the group leadership must prevail.

It is not only the religious zealot and his movement that offers insightful evidence of this. It is a present fact in political parties, in the many institutions which our lives enter into. It is in industry and government and education as well as religion. Eric Hoffer comments on this in his book, The True Believer, when he writes: "The deindividualization which is a prerequisite for thorough integration and dedication is also, to a considerable extent, a process of dehumanization." and he adds this cryptic sentence, "The torture chamber is a corporate institution."

Moral integrity is, I suppose, firstly and finally, honesty to the moral sense that is within us. We must come to decision on the course to pursue and moral decision cannot be made for us by another. Oddly, this wisdom is given early expression in the Old Testament, where I fear it is most easily overlooked: "See, said the Lord, I have set before thee this day life and good and death and evil; therefore choose life that thou and thy seed may live."

The choice is not made by the outcome of votes in the temple or the public square. Morality does not emerge from polling places or legislatures of states or nations.

"It is not in heaven either, nor is it beyond the seas, but the WORD IS VERY NIGH UNTO THEE, in thy mouth and in thy heart that thou mayest do it."

There was a lesson of sorts that point to this in the early statements of our fellow citizens who came back from Iran after 444 days in captivity. Each of them in those days in greater or lesser degrees of isolation had to make moral decisions on his own, drawing out of the self -- denied communication with others -- out of his own resources the inner person, whatever strengths or weaknesses he found there. Each was solo with memories, experiences, training, education, making moral determination from the inner reservoir.

It is the interior character that is the judgement shaper when true moral determinations are to be made.

©1981, Rev. John W. Brigham, D.D.

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this article:
Brigham, John W. 1981. The Moral Confusion of Religious Zealots, (accessed July 4, 2020).

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