The Religion of the Spirit and the Campaign against Terrorism

by Robert T. Sandin

The examination of religious belief as a cause of international conflict, particularly in the Middle East, and of its possible role in the recent terrorist attacks on New York and America, is often hindered by misinformation and confused thinking. The religion of Islam is all too simplistically blamed. Fundamentalist Christians make irrelevant pronouncements about God’s punishment of American wickedness and greed. Neither approach to the problems we face is productive.

In considering how religious faith might strengthen the foundations of our common life we must learn how to distinguish between a religion of the letter and a religion of the spirit. The letter kills, but the spirit gives life (II Corinthians 3:6). That principle has been given an unforgettable demonstration in the events of September 11 and their aftermath.

Terrorists, probably motivated, at least in part, by a narrow understanding of the law of jihad, have shown how far a religion of the letter can go if it is able to exploit a high-tech competence. The service of remembrance at the Washington National Cathedral, replicated in many places throughout the country, has shown how a religion of the spirit might function in a time of national crisis.

It will never be possible to banish religion of the letter from the earth—any more than it will be possible to destroy religiously motivated terrorism. It can be opposed, however, by the religion of the spirit. Now more than at any previous time in our history the churches, synagogues, mosques, temples, and educational institutions of this country—and of other nations who are able to join us in our campaign—need to take a new initiative to bring our best critical and imaginative powers to bear in mobilizing world-wide resistance to terrorism. Religion and morality, guided by informed reasoning, can help our world as we move ahead on an untried course toward reconstruction and security.

Religion need not cause alienation; it can be a resource for reconciliation and peace-making. What often gets in the way are naive and misguided ways of interpreting the texts of ancient scriptures. The three great religions of the book (sometimes called the Abrahamic faiths)—Judaism, Christianity, and Islam—have a great deal in common. Their histories have established a number of precedents which will help them to bring the religion of the spirit to bear in the solution of human problems.

These faiths worship a God who is One: his ways are righteousness, mercy, and love. Their scriptures need to be interpreted in the light of the whole teaching of the sacred books, so that their essential spiritual intent may be drawn out of the letter to provide guidance for a new circumstance and time.

In our present national debate about what to do next we need to keep in mind that, under modern conditions, an ethics of retaliation, derived from a religious concept of divine retribution, is of extremely limited application, if it has any social utility at all. The saying is all too true: Following the rule of an eye-for-an-eye can end up leaving us all blind. Governments need to use force at times, but that force must always be restrained by justice and the rule of national and international law. Force will obviously be needed to bring international terrorism under control. But the force available in the modern world can easily create an apocalypse we cannot bear.

A common spirituality is at the core of all genuine religiosity. All religious traditions require a concept of what H. Richard Niebuhr called a "responsible self" and a means for reviewing that concept in relation to the moral judgments that must be made in social and political life. There is no reason why Judaism, Christianity, and Islam cannot come together in establishing morally justified and workable strategies for dealing with the human problems of our times, the most painful of which is now the problem of international terrorism.

Framing an educational process in moral and religious thinking addressed to this problem is urgently needed. Fanaticism, extremism, and absolutism are of no use in this process. Religious and moral subjectivism will not do the job.

The spirit of religious faith and the spirit of the American democracy and its laws can help us to stay on the long and difficult path that lies ahead of us. It is a path that leads to economic and political justice; to international interdependence and peace; to human goodness, equality, and freedom—to redemptive love. A religion of the spirit has never been more relevant to the challenge of difficult times.