Religion Today

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Redemption, Desire, and the Wayward Golfer: Tiger Woods and Brit Hume

It began with Tiger Woods’ late-night automobile encounter with a tree and the subsequent exposure of his philandering habits. Just when that story was winding down, Brit Hume gave it new life by injecting religion. In an editorial on Fox News, Hume called on Tiger, who was raised a Buddhist, to convert to Christianity saying, “I don't think that faith [i.e., Buddhism] offers the kind of forgiveness and redemption that is offered by the Christian faith. So my message to Tiger would be, ‘Tiger, turn to the Christian faith and you can make a total recovery.’”

You can imagine how the Buddhists felt at this nation-wide denigration of their religion. But that was nothing compared to the commentators’ anger at Brit Hume for airing religious views and advice in such a public manner. Punditry ran the gamut of everything from “how insensitive to Buddhism!” to “what about the separation of church and state?” 

Well, the last time I checked, Fox News was not a wing of the government. The notion that religion should not be intertwined in government does not prevent religion from being present in the public sphere or interfere with religious people from expressing their opinions. Like everyone else, they have the right to speak.

In retrospect, few commentators aimed to give Buddhism equal time; they were more interested in bashing Hume for his “religious insensitivity.” So Buddhist responses to Hume’s remarks received little play in the media. The rest of this column aims to help remedy that lack.

One way of expressing the difference between religions is that religions identify a problem faced by humankind and then provide a solution. Christianity defines the human problem as peoples’ sinful nature that separates them from God. It’s proffered solution is the “forgiveness and redemption,” to use Hume’s terminology, that comes from Jesus’ death and resurrection.

Buddhism defines the human problem completely differently. According to the Four Noble Truths, which form the Buddha’s fundamental teaching, life is filled with suffering (not sin). Suffering comes from desire. Since desires cannot be fulfilled, except momentarily, and the ongoing search for permanent fulfillment brings on suffering.

In Tiger’s case, his attempts to fulfill sexual desires have led not only to the inability to hold onto their fulfillment, but to the suffering of himself and his wife in their marriage, of his children, of the “other” women, and of himself on the public stage. Perhaps his golfing ability will suffer, just as the desire for female attention hindered R. Juna in the Hindu-oriented golf film, “The Legend of Bagger Vance” (starring Will Smith).

Having identified the human problem, Buddhism offers its solution, namely, the elimination of desire. It makes sense actually; if desire causes suffering, then humans can stop their suffering by stopping their feelings of desire. This  can be accomplished by following the Eight-Fold Path, a prescription of the steps towards Enlightenment.

A look at the eight steps shows that Tiger’s infidelities indicate that he is still near the beginning of the path. Step Two is called “Right Intention,” and a typical explanation of it indicates that the key point is to work against the tug of desire. A person should labor to change his or her motivations to lead away from desires rather than towards them.

The fourth step is known as “Right Action” and its explanation includes explicit warnings against the actions of sexual infidelity. Indeed, the pursuit of sexual desires outside of marriage is explicitly forbidden by Buddhism’s five “commandments.”

In Buddhist terms, then, the prescription for Tiger is not “redemption,” but a commitment to follow the Eight-Fold Path away from the suffering caused by the tyranny of desire.

Both the Christian and the Buddhist definitions of and the solutions to the human problem are framed in terms of the individual; the individual sins or suffers. In both religions, however, it should be recognized that successful pursuit of the solutions usually take place in a religious community, like a church, a monastery or a temple, not by oneself.

Wednesday, January 06, 2010

Blasphemy in the British Isles

 Last July, Ireland's Parliament passed a law against religious blasphemy by a single vote. Widely criticized within the country at the time, it came under international criticism as it took effect on Jan. 1, 2010. Much of the criticism has had the tone of "I can't believe that such a medieval (read "inquisitorial") law has been passed in the 21st century!"

 Such a response is not quite fair, since the law was written quite broadly. The 1937 Irish Constitution forbids blasphemy and despite the country's close historical ties to the Roman Catholic Church, the law was crafted to prohibit public blasphemy against all religions. Indeed, the Church was not even consulted, as became clear during last summer's parliamentary debates.

 If I were an Irish bishop, I would be worried about the bill and its impact, for the law ignores blasphemy's character as a theological category and fails to give authority to any religious body to identify blasphemous statements or actions. The law holds that blasphemy is "matter that is grossly abusive or insulting in relation to matters held sacred by any religion, thereby causing outrage among a substantial number of the adherents of that religion."

 The only authority in determining blasphemy given by the law is thus "a substantial number of the adherents." This is not blasphemy as theology but blasphemy by popular acclamation.

 Blasphemy is typically decided by an authoritative religious body and given theological definitions. In post-Reformation England, Common Law defined blasphemy in several ways, all theological. Blasphemies included: Denying God's divine character, casting aspersions on Jesus and his character, ridiculing the Holy Scriptures, and even, at times, disparaging the sacrament of Holy Communion.

 The advantage of these theological specifications is that they are clear. A person knows ahead of time what is (and thus what is not) blasphemy. The dictates are authoritative and not arbitrary.

 The new Irish law is quite vague by comparison. No specification of what constitutes blasphemy is available before someone speaks about a religion. Instead, it is only after there is a public reaction (or not) that someone can know whether they have violated the statute.

 Of course, the other frequent criticism is that the new Irish law curtails free speech, despite exceptions for artistic, academic and other purposes. Critics hold up England's Parliament, by comparison, which just a year earlier had eliminated blasphemy as a crime ("finally!").

 But this change took place only after England in 2006 instituted the Racial and Religious Hatred Act. Rather than pursue blasphemy, English law now outlaws "religious hatred," by which it means, "hatred against a group of persons defined by reference to religious belief." Attempts to incite hatred against these groups for the purpose of harming them or infringing their legal rights are thus crimes.

 There has been an important shift here in the legal approach to protect the right to one's own religious belief and practice. Rather than protecting the religion, the law now protects a religion's adherents. In some ways, it is similar to an anti-discrimination law on the one hand, and to an anti-incitement law on the other.

 Purposely or not, Britain has brought itself into line with Article 20 of the United Nations' 1966 International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. This puts it in agreement with the Catholic Church's official position on religious rights, which is to endorse the U.N.'s International Covenant, according to the Vatican's permanent observer to the U.N.

 English law and the U.N. Covenant aim to prevent people from acting on any negative feelings they hold toward another religion. The Irish law, by contrast, is a law aimed to enable prosecution. Although it forbids insults and abuse concerning sacred religious matters, it does nothing to prevent them prior to their occurrence. Thus, while English law attempts to prevent the incitement of hatred against a religious group, Irish law says: If a religious group indicates it has been harmed by a provocative act of hatred, then the provocation constitutes blasphemy.