We inhabit a world of “isms.” There’s fundamentalism, which preaches black and white, and relativism, which preaches only grey. Pluralism tells us that differences don’t matter, while sectarianism insists that difference is everything. Individualism asserts the good of the one, tribalism the good of many.
As you may have guessed, an ism is a worldview, a philosophy, an ideology, a set of beliefs. Seeing the ills of society and the world, someone with the best of intentions comes up with an ism to make it all better.
At first glance, the ism looks quite appealing, mostly because it offers an all-encompassing solution to a big mess. The ism basically says, “If only we could do such-and-such, everything would be better.” If only certain laws could be changed, if only people could be educated well enough, if only everyone could just follow these principles, all would be well. Wars would cease. Hunger and poverty would be eradicated. People would be happy. Simple.
But that’s exactly the problem with isms, the fatal flaw that makes them the curse of the human race and potential source of our self-destruction. You see, even the most sophisticated ism is just too simplistic.
I read recently, for example, that the World Trade Center contained an Islamic prayer room that was a regular place of prayer for numerous Muslim staff and visitors. The room was, of course, destroyed in the terrorist attacks of September 11th, along with some of those who worshiped in it.
The fact of this prayer room was lost on the attackers. They didn’t see the realities of the people who worked and played and prayed in the World Trade Center. Instead, enslaved to their ism, they saw the whole building and those within it as nothing more than a giant symbol of American Capitalism.
That’s the problem with isms. In their quest to make the world a better place, they end up oversimplifying it. And in oversimplifying, they dehumanize. They reduce the multifaceted richness of human life to mere abstractions, lifeless ideas in the grand scheme to fix the world.
How can we respond to this destructive impulse? I have often voiced my conviction that Christianity properly understood is not merely another set of beliefs, an ism built on morality, the idea of God and the afterlife. Rather, I would argue that Christianity is the end of religion, a radical, transformative reality in which a loving God and His Creation are reconciled and reunited.
At the heart of Christian “non-religion” is the Person of Jesus Christ. In this Jewish male, who walked in Palestine two thousand years ago, who possessed a unique appearance, personality, culture and language, who had a particular way of walking and talking—in this person, Christianity says we meet the eternal, inconceivable, unapproachable God, Maker of the galaxies and atoms.
This strange and radical proclamation has some very real implications. If a unique and complex human being was the heart of God’s self-revelation to the world, then the solution to the suffering of society, and the problems of the world as a whole must take place on a personal, human level. In short, the antidote to isms is a loving and intimate relationship with others.
Rather than saying, “If only so-and-so could just learn to live according to these principles,” our challenge is to meet and accept each person, exactly as they present themselves to us. Rather than expecting people to behave in certain ways because they come from a certain culture or adhere to certain beliefs, we must strive to understand them as whole persons, their language, their story, their struggles. Rather than demanding cooperation of others because we believe we are right and know best, we need to work slowly and painstakingly to build their trust through loving and selfless service, without expectation.
And if our conviction calls us to proclaim to others the Gospel we have received, we need to avoid the temptation to cajole, bribe, manipulate or coerce them into sharing our faith. We must learn to step back and allow the God in whom we believe to draw others to Himself, in His own time and manner.
Since the early Middle Ages, western societies (and those eastern societies we have influenced by our thought) have been marked by a reforming spirit—an impulse to make the world better by applying certain ideals and principles, by enacting certain manifestos in the form of revolutions, or by staging social, political and religious revivals. We are easily tempted to adopt isms, with tragic and bloody consequences that are even now playing themselves out across the globe.
If the Gospel has anything to say to us now, it is this: reject the temptation of isms. Reject the theoretical solutions that appear easy and elegant. Stop trying to reform the world with our systems of thought, philosophies, ideologies, and even our religions. Instead, take the time to meet and love our neighbours—the unique and complex human persons we encounter day by day—in whom we can also meet, if we desire it, the God who came to meet us in a human being.