Rev. Meredith J. Sprunger
In order to understand the origins of religious conflict, we must realize that every individual has a unique mind, personality, and religious experience. When these complex individuals in various geographic centers interassociate in their religious experience, each group evolves a different social expression of their religious experience. These characteristics of human nature make diversity and conflict inevitable in all social relationships. Since religion deals with the central values in human experience, religious conflict is charged with great importance and emotion.
An Overview of Religious Conflict
It may be helpful to take a bird’s-eye view of the major conflicts in world religions. Hinduism, the oldest of the world religions, has experienced many reform movements. Mahavira, the son of a Hindu rajah, protested against the domineering Brahman priesthood and bloody animal sacrifices. His efforts resulted in little change in Hinduism, but started another religion, Jainism. Gautama Buddha, another Hindu prince, rejected the hereditary caste system and the excessive ceremonialism of Hinduism. The older religion did not change much, but Gautama’s efforts founded another religion, Buddhism. Nanak, a second-caste Hindu, preached tolerance between Hindus and Muslims, declaring that both worshiped the same God. His efforts did not bring much tolerance between the two religions but did start a new religion, Sikhism. Dozens of other prophets have attempted to modernize Hinduism, which has resulted in significant evolutionary changes.
These new religions founded in India were also divided by conflict. Jainism witnessed a struggle between the White-clad sect in the north who wore clothes and the Sky-clad sect in the south who wore no clothes. In Buddhism there was a struggle between the followers of the Lesser Vehicle, Hinayana Buddhism, who had an atheistic religion, and the devotees of the Greater Vehicle, Mahayana Buddhism, who regarded Buddha as a divine savior. Sikhism is divided between the Quietistic Group who follow Nanak and the Militaristic Group who follow the tenth Guru, Govind Singh.
In China Confucianism was opposed by Taoism. In Japan Shintoism is divided by Sectarian Shinto, which is a religion, and State Shintoism, which is a patriotic cult. Judaism is segregated into three groups: Orthodox Judaism, Conservative Judaism, and Reformed Judaism. In Islam we have the orthodox, traditional Sunnis, the Shiites, who follow Ali, the son-in-law of Mohammed, the Sufis, who are mystics, and the Baha’i which was founded by the Bab, who claimed to be the twelfth descendent or Iman of Ali, and his disciple, Bahaullah. Baha’i has become an independent religion. Christianity, as you know, is divided into hundreds of divisions and sects. This brief and oversimplified survey of religious conflict and division in the world’s religions illustrates the basic divisiveness of evolutionary religion.
Historic Christian Conflicts
Conflicts are indigenous and pervasive in the social expression of religion. It may be instructive to examine some of the major conflicts in the history of Christianity.
1. The Apostles of John and the Apostles of Jesus. The most serious disagreement between the apostles of John and Jesus was the place of baptism in the new teachings. The acceptance of baptism was the price which the followers of Jesus were required to make in order to win the loyalty of the followers of John. A secondary question centered around the priority of repentance and belief. These characteristics of human nature make diversity and conflict inevitable in all social relationships. “John’s apostles preached, ‘Repent and be baptized.’ Jesus’ apostles proclaimed, “Believe and be baptized.”‘ (1625)
2. Abner and Paul, et al. There was a traditional antipathy between the Jews in Jerusalem and the Jews of Philadelphia. Abner disagreed with Peter and James over the administration of the Jerusalem church, and he parted company with Paul over differences in philosophy and theology. “Abner was more Babylonian than Hellenic in his philosophy, and he stubbornly resisted all attempts of Paul to remake the teachings of Jesus so as to present less that was objectionable, first to the Jews, then to the Greco-Roman believers in the mysteries…. In his last years Abner denounced Paul as the ‘clever corrupter of the life teachings of Jesus of Nazareth, the Son of the living God.”‘ (1831-2)
3. Mithraism and Christianity. During the third century A.D., Mithraic and Christian churches were in close competition. They were very similar in appearance and ritual, although Mithraism encouraged militarism and early Christianity was ultrapacific. The triumph of Christianity over the mystery cults was due to Paul and his successors’ organizational ability and willingness to make compromises with Mithraism, such as accepting the birth date of Mithras as the birth date of Jesus, and the admission of women as full members in the Christian church.
4. Gnosticism. Gnosticism was a pre-Christian syncretistic mysticism. The Gnostics believed in a “special” source of knowledge. They denied the real humanity and actual death of Jesus. Jesus’ body only appeared to be material– a view known as docetism. Gnostics taught the dichotomy of matter and spirit; matter is evil and spirit is good.
5. Marcion (Scripture). Marcion was one of the first church reformers. He protested legalism in the church, rejected the Old Testament and its God, and proposed a list of truly Christian writings to be canonized. Marcion was excommunicated in 144 A.D. and started his own church. His reform movement was largely responsible for the emergence of the Christian canon of scriptures and a united Catholic Church. The triumph of Christianity over the mystery cults was due to Paul and his successors’ organizational ability and willingness to make compromises with Mithraism.
6. Montanism (Channeling). Montanus proclaimed himself an instrument through which the Holy Spirit spoke and declared the beginning of the dispensation of the Holy Spirit. People claiming to be new mouthpieces of the Spirit announced themselves and declared the end of the world was at hand. They protested the worldliness of the church and promoted asceticism, which was later carried on in the monasticism of the Middle Ages. They were condemned by synods in Asia Minor around 160 A.D. but troubled the church for a long period of time.
7. Arian Controversy (Christology). Arius believed Christ was a lower God– not one with the Father in essence. He thought that Jesus was neither fully God nor fully man, but a substance in between. A church council assembled in Nicaea in 325 declared that Christ was one of essence with the Father. The dispute continued for more than a half century. A council met in Jerusalem in 335 and voted to restore Arius to full church member- ship, but before the formal ceremony could take place Arius died suddenly. The bitter dispute continued for decades. A church council met at Chalcedon in 451 and adopted a new creed which has ever since been regarded as the orthodox solution to the Christological problem. The Chalcedon creed declares that our Lord Jesus Christ is “truly God and truly man…consubstantial with the Father according to the Godhead, and con-substantial with us according to the manhood…in two natures, inconfusedly, unchangeably, indivisibly, inseparably, the distinction of natures being by no means taken away by the union, but rather the property of each nature being preserved and concurring in one person and one subsistence.”
8. Pelagian Controversy (Original Sin and Free Will). Pelagius believed in the freedom of the human will and denied any original sin inherited from Adam and Eve. Augustine believed humanity was contaminated by original sin, that he had been saved by irresistible grace and predestination from sin which he could never have overcome by his own strength. A church council met at Carthage in 418 and decided that Adam became mortal by sin and passed this sin on to his progeny. Children should be baptized for the remission of original sin, and grace was necessary for right living. A synod met at Orange in 529 and adopted a Semi- Pelagian position. They affirmed that humanity is under original sin and stressed the importance of grace, but rejected predestination. In spite of original sin, human- kind has freedom of will. This issue appeared again in the Reformation period under the title of socinianism. (Socinus) (Sozzini) and his Protestant followers asserted that human beings have free will and rejected original sin and predestination. Another form of this controversy in the Reformation period is known as Arminianism. Arminius and his followers protested against the Calvinistic doctrines of unconditional election and irresistible grace. They held that divine foreknowledge enables God to foresee what human beings will do, but God’s foreknowledge does not foreordain or predestine that choice. Humankind has true freedom of choice.
9. Atonement Controversy. The historic atonement controversies, as one would suppose, tend to parallel the original sin and free-will controversies. The Anselmic or Satisfaction Theory. This theory maintains that the necessity of the atonement is grounded in the holiness of God. Adam and his progeny’s sin against an infinite being requires infinite punishment. Such punishment to satisfy the divine holiness is only possible for a God-man, Christ. Christ is humanity’s substitute satisfying divine justice and holiness. We are saved by accepting what Christ has done on our behalf. The Socinian or Loving Example Theory. This theory holds that willful human sinfulness is the only barrier between humanity and God. God does not need to be reconciled or appeased, only man needs to change through repentance and reformation. Christ saves and inspires us through his noble example of loyalty to the will of God. His crucifixion is a revelation of God’s love. God’s love supersedes God’s holiness. There are many other atonement theories, but all can be classified basically under one of the above theories.
10. The Reformation Controversy and Broad Theological Positions:
- Roman Catholicism. The Roman Catholic Church holds the conviction that it is the true religion whose dogma is infallible, and therefore the church is an authoritative body demanding obedience of officials and laity. The Pope is infallible when he speaks ex cathedral as the representative of Christ on earth. The church claims that it is one in doctrine, authority, and worship; it is holy in observing God’s will, universal in its constituency, and apostolic in its ancestry. Through its seven sacraments it provides grace. The Mass is the central act of worship.
- Protestantism. While agreeing at many points with Roman Catholicism, Protestants believe their views are closer to New Testament Christianity. In contrast with the Roman Church, they hold four distinctive convictions:
- (1) the sense of immediacy in the relationship between God and man;
- (2) the concept of the universal priesthood of believers;
- (3) use of the Bible as the “Word of God”; and
- (4) belief that God works through the natural relations of human experience, rather than in rites and dogmas.
- Fundamentalism. A Reaction against the changes brought about in the church by modem science and new fields of study, such as Biblical criticism and comparative religion, was initiated when a series of pamphlets entitled, The Fundamentals, began to appear in 1909. Fundamentalists stress five doctrines:
- (1) the infallibility or inerrancy of the Bible;
- (2) the deity of Christ and the virgin birth;
- (3) belief in a substitutionary atonement;
- (4) the physical or bodily resurrection of Christ; and
- (5) the bodily Second Coming of Christ to establish his kingdom on earth.
- Liberal Christianity. While there is no set of doctrines that can be called the tenets of many mainline Christians, there are positions which they are likely to emphasize. They believe:
- (1) that Christianity is a dynamic and growing religion;
- (2) that revelation is progressive and continuous;
- (3) that God is personal and one with whom humankind may have fellowship and communion;
- ( 4 ) that emphasis should be placed on the inherent worth and dignity of human beings as children of God; and
- (5) that the struggle against evil is both personal and social. Religious faith must be carefully thought out, deeply experienced, and lived in all of life’s relationships.
- Neo-orthodoxy. A mainline theological movement which has been critical of both fundamentalism and religious liberalism, known as Neo-orthodoxy or crisis theology, subscribes to the following beliefs:
- (1 ) the Bible is the Word of God, as interpreted by literary and historical criticism;
- (2) revelation is the primary source of Christian faith. Faith has priority over reason; and
- (3) the transcendence and sovereignty of God has priority over God’s immanence. Our most reliable knowledge of God is God’s self-revelation in Christ. They emphasize human sinfulness, especially pride and idolatry. Crisis theology stresses the tragic alternatives of life. In society, compromise with evil appears necessary. Justice is always relative.
There are dozens of other religious conflicts covering areas like baptism, the Lord’s Supper, salvation, hell, sexual behavior, abortion, political involvement and action, and war. But we have probably sampled enough historic religious conflict to get a feel for the dynamics of theological, ethical, and polity disagreements. As we look at these disagreements, a number of generalizations suggest themselves.
Conflict, difference of opinion, is a constant and characteristic condition in all social religious relationships.
Authority, power, or majority opinion does not settle theological or organizational differences, but it is an effective means of social control. Often power and control are more important to participants than the theological issues. Authoritarian, fundamentalistic, literalistic, and simplistic thought guiding attitudes and behavior may facilitate short-term specific objectives, but is detrimental to long-term spiritual growth.
Truth is dialectical in nature. When extremes are emphasized, divisions occur. Consensus rather than authority or arbitrary majority coercion is the best atmosphere in which understanding is facilitated, but such dialogue usually slows and temporizes group action. The same basic truth issues tend to be raised century after century.
The greatest degree of unity and cooperation is achieved when ideals, purposes, and goals are emphasized rather than theological agreement or polity conformity. Theological balance along with broad freedom of opinion and action is most conducive to constructive relationships.
The conflicts of evolutionary religion are most effectively transcended by epochal revelation.