The Interpreters Are Fallible: A Relook At Religious Practices And Indoctrination
Yesterday was one of the worst days of my life. As I watched the video footage of an old woman of 90 years being hacked to death, I cried in my spirit and felt the heavy yoke of religious indoctrination and enslavement. Like many of you, I could not wrap my brain around such a despicable act. How on earth, especially in the twenty-first century would an old woman, blessed with longevity that is very rare in our part of the world, be stoned, whipped, and hacked to death because of the perception that she is a witch?
In the 1960s, many modernisation theorists predicted that religion would give way to rationalism. Any institution that is rooted in religion, particularly chieftaincy, was confidently earmarked to collapse in the face of the scientific-technological world. It was forecasted that religious fanaticism and reckless actions perpetrated in the name of religion would dissipate and give way to modernisation. In short, modernisation was tipped to bury religion.
But by the late 1970s, it became obvious that religion was not ready to go into oblivion, at least not any time soon. The Iranian revolution in 1979 sparked a renewed interest in religion. The so-named Middle East, the home of most of the so-called Abrahamic religions – Judaism, Christianity, and Islam – recovered its religious zest and zeal. The place became the melting pot of religious atavism and revitalisation.
Given that the Middle East is the epicentre of the Abrahamic Religions or revelatory religions, the Iranian revolution spilled over into the Region. In just a matter of a few years, the revolution – which was inspired by religious “fundamentalism” – spread to other parts of the world, including Ghana. Consequently, by the 1980s, religions like the Shi’a and Nation of Islam, founded by Wallace Fard Muhammed, had officially registered their presence in Ghana. It was also around this time that Ghanaian Christianity experienced sporadic “charismatisation”, marked by prophetism, speaking in tongues, and divine healing.
Added to the Iranian revolution was the infamous 9/11. The attack on the United States of America on September 11, 2001, instead of cowing America into submissiveness breathed new life into religious activism. The disaster renewed the vision of people to invest in religion, as human incompleteness and vulnerability were shown on the television screen for everyone to watch. The CNN and BBC announcement that America, considered the superpower of the world since the collapse of the Soviet world, was under attack vividly captured the inherent weakness of human beings.
With the illusions of American invincibility deconstructed, many individuals decided to invest in God. Churches were filled. Spirituality, however we define it, surged. Religious functionaries, including those with the acclaimed capacity to interpret religious texts on eschatology, became celebrities. There was also neo-traditionalization of indigenous religions. Scholars reconsidered the modernisation theory and renewed their interests in writing about religion.
Since the group of men who attacked the United States claimed to have been inspired by religion, popular and academic discourses explored the centrality of religion in human civilization. In the end, the world came to the solemn conclusion however grudgingly that religion could not be taken for granted. Religion needed attention if human civilization is to last.
So far, I have argued that religion is central to human life and it cannot be wished away as a fad and figment of the imagination. It is also important to highlight that religion gives inspiration and hope to people to live. It helps human beings to make sense of the “mysteries” of the world. In other words, we ascribe meaning to and from life largely from the perspective of a religious belief. Religion, therefore, is a major worldview to many people.
Notwithstanding the socio-psychological importance of religion, I want to highlight a few of the areas where religion – defined as a form of indoctrination based on either atheism or theism – can harm human life. As a Christian, I must say that Christianity is not a religion qua religion, as identified by Karl Barth (1886-1968), a Swiss reformed theologian. Christianity is a relationship that God establishes with His elect through Jesus Christ. The Holy Spirit seals the relationship.
This means that in Christianity salvation is the work of the Triune God alone. God the Father appoints us from eternity (Ephesians 1:4), the Son purchases our salvation (I Corinthians 6:20), and the Holy Spirit seals it (Ephesians 4:30). As we build a relationship with the Triune God, our lives are expected to be transformed. We are to live exemplary lives as the salt and light of the world (Matthew 5:13-16). It is not about mindlessly following some religious rituals and laws. It is about being transformed to excel in every aspect of life – education, politics, science, business, and interpersonal relations.
All this means that we are freely saved by grace alone, through faith alone, and in Christ alone. We are not saved by observing any rituals or sacralising a particular day. Our salvation is essentially and entirely based on what Christ has done for us; not what we are able to do for ourselves. Left to us, we will never love Christ. Left to us, we will never identify with Christianity. Left to us, we will hate the things of God. This why in Christianity, we did not love God, but God loved us. We were enemies, but God befriended us. We exercised our freewill against Him, but He graciously saved us. And He will graciously keep us in Him until the end of our earthly journey (the eternal security of our faith – Philippians 1:6).
Unfortunately, many of us have reduced Christianity to religion – seeking to please God with deified rituals. We reduced the freedom we have in Christ to achieve excellence in life with irrelevant religious rituals and observations. We have sacralised some rituals, including days of worship and made it the centre of religion. Consequently, many religious people have become ardent keepers of religious rituals and yet their contributions to human life is zero. They are Christians on either Saturday or Sunday and on Monday, life returns to the ordinary. The reduction of religion to rituals implies that we must all pretend to be religious. Politicians are religious when they want vote; men are religious when they want a woman and so on.
This partly explains the paradox in Ghana: why is there so much corruption in Ghana when about 90 percent of the population claim to be religious? How come that a country with an overwhelming Christian population, we are almost retrogressing on a daily basis? How come we cannot account for the progressiveness that Christianity inspires? Why are we not excelling in science and technology? Why do we perform poorly in school?
I will considerably say that we have underperformed as a nation because of religious indoctrination. We pretend to follow Christ and yet, we do not know what it means to be saved. We reduced being saved to keeping a set of laws: don’t eat this and that; don’t pray in that language; don’t work on a particular day and so on. We have sacralised rituals at the expense of godly living that brings about excellence in life.
I was so sad that a friend of mine, whom I considered level-headed, could not go beyond religious indoctrination to look at how Christianity transforms life. This friend of mine was complaining that Seventh-day Adventist students are being forced to write exams on a Sabbath. I could not understand why we have allowed some religious superficiality to blindfold us. I simply could not understand why a graduate of a public university who has also acquired a degree in theology (which theology, though?) could not understand the simplicity of our Christian faith and the freedom we have in Christ to excel in life.
I could not understand why a rational and mature human being would privilege the keeping of a particular day sacred, which as it were does not bring salvation to anyone, the future prospects of the students. In my perplexity, I texted one of my friends who is also a Seventh-day Adventist member the following:
“I don’t know the problem he (the one advocating that the state should not allow SDA students to write exams on the Sabbath) is addressing: is it that the pupils will lose their salvation when they write exams on the Sabbath or it will just be an infraction of a religious duty? If writing exams on the Sabbath is inconsequential to salvation, why the hue? If it is consequential to salvation, then what happens to salvation by grace?”
To some extent, I understood my friend who was protesting against SDA students being asked to write exams on the Sabbath. This is precisely because he has spent his entire childhood and adulthood life on reading commentaries and opinions about the Bible instead of him reading the Bible independently. He has spent his entire life believing that Ellen G. White was a prophetess, whose insight on the Bible must be treated like a little light to the Bible. Like many SDA members, he spends every Saturday studying commentaries on the Bible, instead of asking critical questions and allowing the Bible to speak for itself.
We might think this is only a challenge with the SDA church. It reflects in many pseudo-Christian churches, including the Jehovah’s Witnesses, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. It could be found among the historic and Pentecostal and charismatic churches. It is almost as if we have all become gullible in the face of religion. It is also as if we leave our thinking at home when going to church. We have outsourced our thinking capacity to a few individuals who claim to have mastered Biblical hermeneutics.
In 2008/2009 academic year at the University of Cape Coast (UCC), a group of students belonging to one of the famed charismatic churches in Ghana failed en mass because these students thought faith was enough. They had been deluded by their religious leader that they have to spend time praying and trusting God instead of studying diligently, alongside. The end was an academic disaster.
While I was a student at the UCC (2004-2008), one of my roommates who was three years ahead of me and a member of the SDA church graduated with a Third Class. This agricultural science student was very brilliant, who entered the UCC after he had gone through the college of education. He had converted from Catholicism to Adventism. As a convert of the SDA church, his zest and zeal for keeping the Sabbath holy were unapparelled. He never read or studied any of his books (apart from SDA books) on the Sabbath. He never wrote quizzes (mid-semester exams) and exams on the Sabbath.
Unfortunately, he was at the UCC when writing quizzes and exams on a weekend was non-negotiable. In the end, his religious fanaticism ruined his academic success. His zest for keeping the Sabbath holy became his aporia. The last time I met him in 2013 in Accra, he had left the Adventist church and joined a charismatic church. He could not do his postgraduate studies in agricultural science with a Third Class. He had to veer off into another area of study.
As a young man and Christian, I approach every Bible commentary with one goal in mind: the interpreter is fallible. I hold the Bible to be the only inspirational and infallible book to guide my life. Certainly, I have been inspired by some Christian authors, but one thing I do is that I do not allow any of these Christian authors to determine my understanding of the Bible. I admire individuals who spend their entire lives studying the Bible and writing a commentary on it. But try as they do, they are still human beings and are susceptible to making grave mistakes.
It is rather sad that many of us are unwilling to admit that some of the Christian authors we read (including a few of them like Joseph Smith of the Mormons, Ellen G. White of the SDA, and Charles Taze Russell of the Jehovah’s) made grave mistakes with some of their interpretation of the Bible. This is precisely because we have deified them and made their writings inviolable and equally important like the Bible.
This posturing is in clear violation of the Bible. The Bible does not have a high view of man as a god, neither does it have a low view of him as a dog. The Bible’s image of man is a creature of God who had fallen into sin and whose reasoning faculty has suffered a dislocation. But the Bible sees that the only means of salvation is for God to save man. Yet, whether pre or post-salvation experience, the Bible does not threat the reasoning capacity of man as sacrosanct. That is why the Bible expects us to set Christ apart as Lord in everything, including our interpretation of the Bible (I Peter 3:15a).
Related to the above is the fact that there is a democratisation of the gift of priesthood in Christianity. The Bible is very clear that every Christian is a priest to the glory of Christ (I Peter 2:9). This means that every Christian has equal right to appear before God through Christ. No man has been given the right to mediate between his fellow man and God. The only mediator between God and man is Jesus Christ (I Timothy 2:5). This includes the fact that we all have equal access to God’s Holy Spirit to understand the Bible.
The Bible is also written in a language that every Christian must be able to understand and apply to his life. Most importantly, the Holy Spirit who is given to all Christians who possesses the faith, helps every Christian to understand God’s word. He is our only trusted teacher (John 14:26). He is the only one we can trust to give us insight into the Bible.
I pray that a time will come when Christians from all denominations will understand that no interpreter of the Bible (regardless of their pedigree and outrageous claims they made/make) can claim to be the infallible and final authority of the Bible. We must be guided by the Holy Spirit alone to understand and apply the wisdom of the Bible. In the end, what I want you to take from this journalistic article is that while the Bible is infallible, the interpreters of the Bible (including the revered founders of your Christian denominations) are all miserably fallible.
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