In his review of Karen Armstrong’s new book, Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life, Richard Holloway (Episcopal [Anglican] Bishop of Edinburgh 1986-2000) raises issues of some importance for the way that religions like Christianity and Islam bear on important moral questions such as the social approval of homosexuality and the right to die. Though he does not mention the right to die in this review, he raises an issue which is vital to understanding the traditional Christian response to suicide and assisted dying.
Both Christianity and Islam, Holloway explains, are redemption religions:
Christianity and Islam are redemption religions, not wisdom religions. They exist to secure life in the world to come for their followers and any guidance they offer on living in this world is always with a view to its impact on the next.
This is the key. It is something, Holloway tells us, that was brought home to him with special force at a meeting of Anglican primates (head bishops of church provinces). In his words:
At a meeting of primates of the Anglican communion, I was accused by one archbishop of filling Hell with homosexuals, because I was giving them permission to commit acts that would guarantee them an eternity of punishment, for no sodomite can enter Heaven.
In other words, life here is seen primarily as a preparation for eternity, so we must avoid everything which the guardians of eternity disapprove. The guardians — the bishops and archbishops, the imams, popes and ayatollahs — have an inside track into knowledge of those things forbidden by the ruler of eternity, such that, whoever indulges in those things, shall not enter into the joy of the one who rules eternal destiny, but will be sent instead to a place of torment, there to languish in tortures unending.
From this standpoint, taking one’s own life, or asking for it to be taken in order to evade suffering at the end of life, is an offence so grave that it deserves the punishments of hell. As I pointed out in an earlier post, to welcome death, to invite it, even in the face of intolerable suffering, is to say that chaos has won out over theos. Seeking to escape intolerable suffering is held to merit an eternity of suffering even more horrible, a place prepared for us by none other than Love itself, for God is Love, and Allah is forgiving, compassionate.
Not only is compassion not at the heart of religion as Karen Armstrong claims that it is, but, to the extent that it is, this has not stopped religion from including, within the scope of divine compassion, the horrors of hell,
… the worst idea that we poor humans ever had, a virus in the brain so soul-destroying and yet tenacious that one wonders how we will ever be able wholly to rid ourselves of it. (The Old Creed and the New [SCM Press, 2006], p. 11)
Redemption religions include an account of the fate that awaits those who are not redeemed, a fate so horrible that not even the worst sufferings that flesh is heir to can compare with it. And then we are told that if we do not endure until the end, submitting obediently to the cleansing flames of suffering, we will deserve sufferings even more horrible to be endured forever.
This cynical blackmail is at the heart of too much religion that speaks the language of love, forgiveness and compassion. It reveals much, but the thing that it reveals most starkly is that religion is a purely human project, designed to empower some at the expense of others, and to place unaccountable power into the hands of religious leaders. With that power they terrorise the weak and the lonely, they take advantage of the vulnerable and the afraid, they exalt suffering and sanctify cruelty. Voltaire was right: “Écraser l’infâme!”