Believers can accept doubt

SATURDAY MAILBOX

March 22, 2003

I am puzzled and troubled by Gordon Livingston's assertion that "Deeply religious people are, by definition, certain that they are right about life's large questions" ("True believer's moral certainty leads us astray," March 16). Has he never met the many deeply religious people who recognize the ambiguities of life?

And how can he think of suicide bombers as "deeply religious?" The fact that they believed their actions to be "profoundly religious" hardly qualifies them as "deeply religious" people - only as tragically misguided.

He equates "deeply religious" with self-righteous, fundamentalist and fanatical. But if he is going to blame religion for the great evils done in God's name over the centuries, it's only fair to credit it also with the good done by those who feed the hungry, build houses and help prisoners.

The "deeply religious" people I know are thoughtful, caring and passionate about both justice and mercy. They acknowledge life's ambiguity without letting it paralyze them. We may know we have, say, only a 60 percent chance of being right - yet we have to act on our beliefs, recognizing we might be wrong and remaining open to learning.

Mr. Livingston equates "religious belief" with "complete confidence about ... a particular deity ... and God's will." Surely he knows better. It is an ancient spiritual truth that God is bigger than any human understanding about God.

I share Mr. Livingston's fear of "true believers," but hope he will not use that label to write off everyone who takes his or her religion seriously.

John P. Manwell

Baltimore

Gordon Livingston's psychoanalysis of the motives behind President Bush's decision to lead the nation to the brink of war with Iraq bordered on religious bigotry and was not worthy to be printed in the commentary pages of a great newspaper - which explains why it was printed by The Sun.

Mr. Livingston, a psychiatrist, describes President Bush as obsessed with Iraq and declares that his decisions regarding Iraq are driven by the combination of the myth of the Old West and Bush's "Southern" (a code word for "ignorant") religion. He goes on to equate the president's faith with the faith of the Sept. 11 terrorists as "fundamentalists of dissimilar faiths resemble each other in their conviction that they have a monopoly on the truth and in their intolerance of those who believe differently."

How did these disparaging, condescending and offensive remarks advance the debate about whether our nation should go to war with Iraq?

The commentary was merely a vehicle Mr. Livingston used to deride Christians.

Steve Bailey

Towson

Gordon Livingston incorrectly equates religion with President Bush's motivation to rush to war.

While the president's religion obviously plays a key part in his outlook, voices opposed to war in Iraq are coming loud and clear from religious folks.

Moreover, it is simply inaccurate to say, "Deeply religious people are, by definition, certain that they are right about life's large questions."

Indeed, the great religious traditions consistently teach humility in the face of life's questions.

I have enjoyed and respected Mr. Livingston's columns in the past. This time he disappointed me with his oversimplifications.

Arthur Dan Gleckler

Baltimore

Gordon Livingston proposes that Mr. Bush's call to war is religious because it is informed by an interpretation of reality in which cosmic forces of good are pitted against cosmic forces of evil.

But while Christianity does maintain that a cosmic conflict is constitutive of human existence, it holds that this conflict plays out in the hearts of every person. That is what is meant by the doctrine of Original Sin.

Thus, the imputation of pure goodness or pure evil to any one person or group is simply precluded by Christian belief. For this reason, various Christian groups have strongly criticized Mr. Bush's tendency to paint the world in polarities.

It is also noteworthy that Mr. Livingston appeals to principles of just war as a moral counterbalance to the allegedly violent logic of religion.

In fact, the principles to which he (and Mr. Bush) appeals were developed in the Christian tradition as an application of Jesus' command to "love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you" (Matthew 5:44).

That obligation drove the development of a practical theory that aims to strictly limit the use of violence in those situations where love of our unjustly attacked neighbors calls for their defense.

In contemporary usage, however, these principles have been unhinged from this framework and are often used to promote the interest of nation-states.

But the co-option of just-war principles is but the first stage in a process that ends in the belief that nations don't need moral reasons for going to war.

It is a process that is fueled, in my judgment, by the ideas of those like Mr. Livingston who suggest our communities are better off with less religion, not more.

Stephen D. Miles

Baltimore

The writer is a professor of theology at Loyola College.

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