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Wrangling Religions: An Interview with Charles Kimball

Kimball, chair of the department of religion at Wake Forest University and a recognized authority on the Middle East, recently told EthicsDaily.com about some of the ideas in his latest work.

Kimball, chair of the department of religion at <?xml:namespace prefix = st1 ns = “urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:smarttags” />Wake Forest University and a recognized authority on the Middle East, recently told EthicsDaily.com about some of the ideas in his latest work.<?xml:namespace prefix = o ns = “urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:office” />

You said religions tilt toward evil when they succumb to any of five dynamics. What are the “five dynamics”?

I believe we can discern five major warning signs, predictable indicators that dangerous corruption of the heart of the religion is likely. These include: absolute truth claims; blind obedience; efforts to establish the “ideal” time; when ends justify any means; and declaring holy war. 
 
In the book, I illustrate patterns of behavior in all major religious tradition under these five signs. The antidote for the corrupting patterns of behavior, I believe, can be found within the religious traditions that have stood the test of time.
 
Truth claims, for example, are central for religions. But, when people pronounce absolute truth claims, when they believe they know what God wants for them and everyone else, you’ve got a recipe for disaster. We need a more humble and honest “human” view of truth, one that recognizes we are all in a process of growth, change, learning and unlearning. The body of the book contains numerous examples across traditions and through the centuries.

How do you define “religion,” in general and its potential for evil?

In the first chapter, “Is Religion the Problem?”, I focus on the difficulty of defining religion adequately. At a basic level, religion is that arena of human awareness and action that addresses matters of ultimate concern. Religion is, of course, multifaceted. It includes cognitive, experiential, moral/ethical, ritual and other dimensions. It is individual and communal.
 
All religious systems and traditions are not equally valid or valuable. The Branch Davidian movement headed by David Koresh or the Aum Shinrikyo movement (whose members released deadly sarin gas in the Tokyo subway system in 1995) are clear examples of religious movements gone dreadfully bad. My primary focus is on the major religious traditions that have stood the test of time (Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism and Buddhism). 
 
As I explore the contemporary and historical dynamics within these traditions, the propensity for corrupting the heart of these traditions is lodged primarily with people. Some systems may be more prone to violent and destructive behavior (e.g. Christianity and Islam have horrific dimensions of their respective histories whereas the Buddhist tradition is rarely connected with violent behavior). But, the primary concern is with people, adherents in all traditions who can easily fall into patterns that pervert and distort the central teachings and promises of peace, love and justice.

What “good” can be found in exclusivism, inclusivism and pluralism?

There are various theological approaches to understanding one’s religious truth in a world of great diversity and pluralism. My argument in the final portion of the book suggests that these various approaches need not preclude one from seeking understanding and cooperating with people in other religious traditions. 
 
The “exclusivist” positions (and there are many variations within this dominant framework for understanding) need not be harsh. I illustrate this clearly with an example of a traditional Southern Baptist preacher in Tulsa, Okla., a man who was a wonderful mentor and friend. 
 
His and my theological positions were quite different. But, he warmly encouraged my study and pursuit of questions about particularity and pluralism. He preached many revivals and kept singing the final invitation hymn for 20 minutes on most Sundays. But, he also recognized that he was not God and that the Bible was full of hints and clues that God’s love extended to all creation. 

How can religion be evil and yet possess the only real hope for a peaceful world? 

My contention with respect to these major religious traditions is that they have served millions of people well for many, many centuries. People within these traditions have the teachings and resources to help fashion a more healthy and hopeful future for all of us who share our increasingly fragile and interdependent planet. 
 
At the heart of the major traditions, for instance, you find a version of Jesus’ teaching that the greatest commandment is to love God with all your heart and soul and strength, and to love your neighbor as yourself. The corollary, the “golden rule,” is also found in some form in each religious tradition. 
 
We need people in all traditions to rediscover and live out these simple, yet life-changing truths. Think of Gandhi. Think of Martin Luther King Jr. Think of yourself and how consciously you seek to live out your faith in light of these fundamental truths.
 
Jodi Mathews is BCE’s communications director.
 
Click here to read a review of When Religion Becomes Evil.
 
Click here to buy When Religion Becomes Evil.