When Religions Grow Up

If part of growing up is realizing that you can’t realistically expect to get everything you want, what happens to religions when they grow up?

Is it a mark of maturity for a religion that it accepts that not everyone will (or will want to) adhere to it?

I think about Jesus and the rich man — sometimes described as a “rich young ruler” — who asked him what he needed to do to gain eternal life (Matthew 19:16-22). The man walked away from the opportunity, and what did Jesus do? Did Jesus chase the man down, berate him for his stubbornness, or threaten to take his life if he didn’t repent and convert? Not at all. Jesus let him go, and used the event as a teachable moment for his disciples.

When Christianity was in its infancy, still an underground movement, it brought in Jews and Gentiles by way of powerful testimonies and the awesome revelation that God had made a way for people to be saved and changed. Coercion never seemed to come into play, for two reasons. One, because the faith (and the nascent Church) was relatively powerless to coerce anyone to join. Second, and to my thinking more interesting, is because the faith was based on traditional Jewish belief and Judaism, being already a venerable religion, was a mature faith and one that valued being set apart, a small island of monotheistic faith in the ocean of pagan humanity.

As the capital-C Church grew into what I consider its adolescent years, and especially as it obtained official status in the Roman Empire under Constantine, it became much more belligerent. Coercion became more acceptable to church leaders, both as a means to convince people to join and as a means to enforce adherence to doctrine. (We may remember that Judaism’s early days — its adolescence, if you will — also had its coercive phase, when the Jews established themselves as a nation through military victory.)

This leads to the question of Islam, which appears to be a religion still in its adolescence. It went through an adolescent phase before, spreading through coercion and conquest and gaining worldly power that it wanted to protect and expand. Faced with mounting opposition, it retreated into relative isolation; in its recent rise to prominence (or notoriety), however, it seems again to be going through adolescent tantrums, only this time with suicide bombers and AK-47s instead of dervishes and scimitars. The question in my mind is whether Islam as a religion will grow up, will grow out of this petulant and demanding phase, and how long it may take. It seems that it will take the Muslim equivalent of Martin Luther, someone who can initiate an Islamic Reformation, in order for Islam as a religion to mature beyond the need to spread itself by intimidation. That would be a wonder to behold; remember what Luther went through, and think what a Muslim reformer would face.

It also raises the question, to me, of whether the Christian Church is growing old gracefully. It’s one thing for us as Christians to eschew violence (Jesus, you may recall from Matthew 5:38-42, didn’t go in for “eye for an eye”) and to accept that some people will hear the Gospel and remain unmoved. But it would be a shame if we became so “mature,” so insular, so content in the old-folks’-homes of our churches, that we stopped caring about and for the world around us. May it never be.

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