Presumptuous Sins (2)

Pope Francis

Pope Francis

‘Who can understand his errors? Cleanse me from secret faults. Keep back Your servant also from presumptuous sins; Let them not have dominion over me. Then I shall be blameless, and I shall be innocent of great transgression.’ Psalm 19:12-13 (NKJV)
ALAS, too many people of faith, aware of only an aspect of God, choose to behave like the Five Blind Men of Hindustan in the poem of that name.

Two, presumptuousness indicates foolishness. In the realm of religion, even if it is granted that there is much we know, there certainly is much more that we do not know or understand. For example, irrespective of the height of spirituality, no one knows the mind of God. (Isaiah 55:8-9). Even Jesus admitted this in Mat.24:36; Mk 13:32. These being so, we can only think, speak, and act only to the best of current knowledge.

To assert only to the best of current knowledge is indeed what makes Science such a beautiful and ever growing field. ‘Scientific knowledge, writes psychoanalyst Erich Fromm in Man for Himself, ‘is not absolute but optimal; it contains the optimum of truth attainable in a given period’. Carl Sagan reinforces the scientific method as a never finite search for certainty by stating that ‘Science is a way of thinking much more than a body of knowledge’.

Science disallows closure. Instead, the spirit of inquiry that animates that field of study drives a continuous revision of known ‘truth’ in order to correct error. One may also add that the scientific spirit it is a courageous spirit that, on the one hand, is not afraid to interrogate its assumptions and conclusions, and on the other hand, persistently questions conventional wisdom and debunks received opinion. In its open-minded search for the truth – or should I say Truth – Science is humble enough to correct what was asserted but later found to be wrong. It is in this particular respect that Religion must not be afraid to adopt the methods of Science. According to a Hindu saying, Truth is one, though men call it many things. I believe in the unity of all knowledge and so, I imagine that, somehow, sometime, Science will, through its own peculiar painstaking, long winding human methods come round to discover the verity of the core principles and beliefs that Religion has all along postulated. Consider for example that, as far back as 700 B.C. or so, the prophet, Isaiah, intuited, or more correctly, discerned by Spirit that the earth was round (Isaiah 40:22). But it took Science many centuries later to discover this fact of Nature by sight.

Or, we may ask how Apostle Paul knew that there are ‘worlds’ beside this one (Heb. 11:3). Now scientists are close to agreeing on the existence of hyperverses, which are other universes with characteristics completely different from our own.  Whereas such men as Isaiah and Paul knew the truth by spiritual discernment, scientists now know it by sight. Astronomer Robert Jastrow, as quoted by Fred Heeren in his book, Show Me God (1997), comments on this thus: ‘For the scientist who has lived by his faith in the power of reason, the story (of Creation) ends like a bad dream. He has scaled the mountain of ignorance; he is about to conquer the highest; as he pulls himself over the final rock, he is greeted by a band of theologians who have been sitting there for centuries’. Colin Wilson (1984), also writes, correctly in my view, that ‘natural knowledge – the knowledge with which physics and mathematics are concerned – is only a fraction of real knowledge. I believe that intuition (some term it ‘hunch’ or gut feeling’) is actually spiritual knowledge and is the deepest, most accurate form of knowledge. (1 Cor. 2:10-11)

The Jews, convinced by their claim of certainty as the chosen people of God (Deut. 7:6), who must not ‘keep company with or go to one of another nation’ (Acts 10:28, 11:2-3), rank high among the most presumptuous and prejudiced people on earth. However, the Lord was quick to remind them in Deut. 7:7-8 that there was nothing exceptional about them; that of His own sovereign will did He choose to keep the oath, which He swore to their fathers. So much then for a people’s conceit!

Against the backdrop of the very large claim to — or should I say privatisation of — God by the Jews, it is, firstly, a paradox that they were at times – and still are I would say – as ‘defiant and obstinate’ toward God as they come (Ezekiel 2:2-5,TJB). Secondly, they failed miserably – and still fail to date – to recognise His only begotten son or acknowledge His ministry. A third paradox is that, as evident from Acts 11: 19-21, the disciples dispersed from Jerusalem to as far as Phoenicia, Cyprus and Antioch ‘preaching the word to no one but the Jews only’. Interestingly, the fertile ground that received the message of salvation was the Gentiles – then and even now. Hans J. Morgenthau writes, albeit in a different context, of the tragic contradiction of human existence. I think that in respect of religion, the Jews are a good example of this.
Beyond the narrow, presumptuous and prejudiced ethno-religious worldview of Judaism, however, Christianity elevated faith to the level of the oneness of mankind. Peter, the foremost church father admitted to the Roman centurion Cornelius that ‘in truth I perceive that God shows no partiality. But in every nation whoever fears Him and works righteousness is accepted to Him’ (Acts 10:34).

The knowledge of and reverence for God by all peoples on the one hand, and the love of God for all peoples (who are of course His creation) on the other, is evidenced by the following examples: Cornelius a ‘Gentile’ (imagine the connotation of such contempt-laden word!) qualified to be described as ‘a devout man and one who feared God with all his households, who gave alms generously to the people, and prayed to God always’. (Act 10:1). (See also:  Job: 1:1).  Job, was not a descendant of Abraham, he was a citizen of Uz, a place, according to Smith’s Bible Dictionary, located ‘north of the southern Arabians and west of the Euphrates…adjacent to the Edomites of Mount Seir.  Melchizedek, the king of Salem is described as ‘priest of the Most High God’ (Gen. 14: 18; Heb. 7:1-4). Certainly not a Jew, Smith’s Bible Dictionary writes of the king-priest of Salem thus: ‘… this Canaanite crosses for a moment the path of Abram, and is unhesitatingly recognised as a person of higher spiritual rank than the friend of God’.

Indeed, The Eerdmans Bible Dictionary goes as far as to write on Melchizedek as follows: ‘Abraham’s acknowledgement of the legitimacy of Melchizedek’s priesthood becomes an argument for the priority of that priesthood over the “descendants of Levi” (vv4-10).  The messianic ruler of Psalm 110 is therefore, a priest of a line prior to the Levitical priesthood (“after the order of Melchizedek” …’ The Book of Jonah states that the man was sent to the thriving but sinful Assyrian city of Nineveh to warn them of their impending destruction unless they changed their ways. These ‘Gentiles’ did and were spared.  Peter Vardy’s comment on this is instructive. In his book The Puzzle of Sex (1997), he wrote that ‘the Book of Jonah…records the rejection of the insular theological attitude of Israel’s prophets who saw God as their own God who was not concerned with any other nations of the world…the story unfolds showing that Israel’s God is of the whole world and concerned with all people…’

Allport (1958) said that religion ‘makes prejudice and unmakes prejudice.’ He explained further that religion fuels prejudice firstly because each claims the ‘absolute and final possession of Truth’, secondly, each religion ‘usually stands for more than faith, – it is the pivot of the cultural tradition of a group’. This, Allport terms ‘the ethnocentric and self-exalting reference’. Bishop T.D. Jakes, in a sermon, opined that the problem of religion is that it teaches a limited point of reference for God’. As said earlier, some religions such as Judaism, have, by presumptuousness, ‘cornered’ God. On the other hand, as well put by Roy B. Zuck (1997) in The Speaker’s Quote Book, the universality of creeds, the ‘sublimity of religious ideals’ – love for all, brotherhood of mankind-, and a pervasive urge toward a practical application of these fundamental convictions (do unto others as you would them unto you) tend to negate the principle, and erode the practice of prejudice. In this regard, it is worthy of note that ‘all seven of the great religions of the world have (love-centric) golden rules’. ‘Therefore, whatever you want men to do to you, do also to them, for this is the law and the Prophets’ (Mat.  7:12, NKJV). George Kaitholil (2003) in his book We Are One quoted the following:

Not one of you is a believer until he loves for his brother what he loves for himself” – Islam, Forty Hadith of an – Nawawi 13; “A man should wander about treating all creatures as he himself would be treated” – Jainism, Sutrakritanga 1:11:33; “One should not behave towards another in a way which is disagreeable to oneself. This is the essence of morality” – Hinduism, Mahabharata, Anusasana Parwa 113:8; “Regard the sorrows and suffering of others as yours and hasten to assuage them” – Zoroastrianism, Avesta; “Comparing oneself to others in such terms as: Just as I am so are they; just as they are so I am, he should neither kill nor cause others to kill” – Buddhism, Sutta Nipata 708.

Is there a justification for a Christian denomination or sect to claim superiority of creed, doctrine practicality or godliness over another within the same faith?  Certainly not because Isaiah 64:6 effectively denies any man the right to claim a spiritual high ground; obviously no, if Apostle Paul, a most erudite thinker and explainer of the faith is to be believed in 1Cor. 1:10-13; Romans 12:3-6; and 1 Cor.12).

Is there a justifiable reason to be presumptuous and/or prejudiced about oneself or about others, be it on the bases of personal qualities, or claimed religious, political, cultural, or any other form of superiority? Put differently, and going by the meanings and associated words listed above, should any one claim in these matters, the right to pre-judgment, to arrogance, to superiority over another, to, in short, ‘overweening confidence or self-assertion…beyond the ordinary bounds of good breeding, respect, or reverence’? I do not think so (Eccl. 7:20; 1 Cor.10:12); most certainly not in matters of spirituality, especially if we keep in mind the prophet Isaiah’s declaration that ‘…we are like an unclean thing; all our righteousness are like filthy rags…’  It is true that some things –and some people- are, in one way or other, superior to some others, but I insist that there are no people or things completely, faultlessly superior to another because, to borrow from Shakespeare, nothing is totally good or totally bad, thinking only makes it so.

The diversity of race, creed, colour and cultures exemplifies the diversity that permeates all of Creation.  But no one will deny that everything is beautiful in its own time and place? (Eccl. 3:11) No one will deny that the totality of Nature constitutes a fine balance and a holistic beauty?  The propriety of the diversity and different levels of peoples and things can be understood better through the following Betty J. Eadie account of her near- death, life- after- life experience, in Embraced By The Light:

I wanted to know why there were so many churches in the world. Why didn’t God just give us only one church, one pure religion? The answer came to me with the purest of understanding. Each of us, I was told is at a different level of spiritual development and understanding. Each person is therefore prepared for a different level of spiritual knowledge. All religions upon the earth are necessary because there are different people who need what they teach. People of one religion may not have a complete understanding of the Lord’s gospel and never will have while in that religion.

But that religion is used as a stepping-stone to further knowledge. Each church fulfills spiritual needs that perhaps others cannot fill. As an individual raises his level of understanding about God and his eternal progress, he might feel discontented with the teachings of his present church and seek a different philosophy or religion to fill that void.  When this occurs, he has reached another level of understanding and will long for further truth and knowledge, and for another opportunity to grow.  And at every step of the way, these new opportunities to learn will be given.
The original version of this paper was presented at the monthly Surulere Prayer Breakfast Meeting.

• Francis Onaiyekan is not same person as the Catholic Archbishop of Abuja, John Olorunfemi Cardinal Onaiyekan, as we wrongly promoed two Saturdays ago.

Having received this knowledge, I knew that we have no right to criticise any church or religion in any way’ …Very special people with important missions have been placed in all countries, in all religions, in every station of life, that they might touch others’ (Betty J. Eadie, 1992)
In What is A Man: 3000 Years of Wisdom on the Art of Manly Virtue edited by Waller R. Newell (2000) is a story titled, There Was a Time When Our Forefathers Owned This Great Island’, in which the native American leader, Chief Red Jacket, is recorded to educate a group of Christian preachers on the validity of the religion of his people as well as the idea of a God- ordained variety in Creation. Red Jacket said to the white men who came to convert his people to their different denominations of the same faith:

Brother, you say there is but one-way to worship and serve the Great Spirit. If there is but one religion, why do you white people differ so much about it? Why not all agree, as you all can read the book?
‘Brother, we do not understand these things: we are told that your religion was given to your forefathers, and has been handed down from father to son. We also have a religion which was given to our forefathers, and has been handed down to us; it teaches us to be thankful for all favours received, to love each other, and to be united: we never quarrel about religion.

Brother, the Great Spirit made us all: but He has made a great difference between His white and His red children: He has given us different complexions and different customs. To you, He has given the arts; to these He has not opened our eyes. Since He has made so great a difference in other things, why may He not have given us a different religion? The Great Spirit does right: He knows what is best for His children…’ (cf: Romans 12: 3-6; 1Cor. 12: 4-30).

I believe that on such belief- based issues as culture, politics and religion, no one should claim to occupy the pedestal of superiority. The Yoruba people say that ‘Bi a se nse ni ile wa, eewo i’bomiran’ meaning that the custom of a certain place is an abomination elsewhere. For example, some people regularly consume cow meat -including the ponmo- and with gusto to boot. Elsewhere, they revere cows as holy animals. Some people consider lizard a delicacy, others do of dog meat; but some other people will not even think of it.

In the realm of political culture, we see that it is presumptuous, arrogant, and prejudicial of the quality and efficacy of other political systems to assume that one size -say western-type liberal democracy- fits – all peoples on earth. It is presumptuous to think that every man who takes an oath of office will abide by it. No, for as the Greek tragic dramatist, Aeschylus, said, ‘It is not the oath that makes us believe the man, but the man the oath’. It is presumptuous – and in fact erroneous- to hold that Africa is a dark continent and Africans are primitive. If, for a moment, we could grant credibility to Darwin’s Theory of Evolution, pray, who designed and used the first tools (technological devices) and where? Africans did in Africa. Who developed agriculture and domesticated animals? Africans did in Africa.

And it is from these fundaments that subsequent achievements derived. Isaac Newton, a great scientist but neither presumptuous nor arrogant, admitted that ‘if I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants’. Indeed, if these had not been done, early man would not have survived starvation and many dangers of the environment to be able to migrate over time to other continents. In sum, there would have been no human race at all.

The original version of this paper was presented at the monthly Surulere Prayer Breakfast Meeting.

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