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Caught in the Middle: When Dogmas Die and Traditions Thrive

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Many Armenians living in the Western world, but also our compatriots in Armenia, acknowledge secularism while being attached to a whole range of religious traditions. How can that be? We never discuss the role of our church, and thus religion, publicly, and we hardly question the church’s role in our modern lives.

In Jean-Paul Sartre’s sorrowful words, “There is a space reserved for God inside each man,” which must be filled with meaningful content that will enable him to find a purpose in life.

This is not just a philosophical question that needs to be tackled, but an urgent matter that has to be addressed. We are living in an environment where religion is playing more and more of an important role in politics and public life, especially in our immediate neighborhood, both in the diaspora and the motherland.

Just take a quick look at what’s happening in the Middle East, and you will understand that Christianity is being targeted. Look around you in the Western world and you will see how we are more and more absorbed by different sects, but also atheism.

Caught in the middle, we are still preoccupied with basic human needs, both physical and spiritual. The human need for comfort and the desire to understand the meaning of existence still haunts us. How do we cope with that? Could it be why Armenians are moving away from their national religion? Is there an explanation for the conundrum of being an atheist, and yet hanging on to religious traditions, from baptisms to funeral services, weddings and celebrating Christmas and Easter?

The American writer Nicole Krauss (who received William Saroyan International Prize for Writing in 2008) has a fine illustration of what I mean. In her debut novel Man walks into a Room (2002), the story’s young protagonist Samson is visiting a synagogue with his elderly relative Max, a Jewish refugee from Germany. After they pray together, Max explains to Samson that there is no such thing as God. So why are they still they coming here? Wonders Samson.

“To remember,” replies Max.

If you ask, the majority of Armenians who rarely (usually only in connection with the holidays) believe they have reason to attend a church service would probably have the same response as Max from the novel: Very few would invoke God as the reason for the church visit. Many would probably define their stance in the same way as French philosopher André Comte-Sponville: I am a faithful atheist—atheist, because I do not believe in any God; faithful, because I acknowledge my membership in a particular tradition, a certain history, and to certain values that we inherited from our ancestors.

Rarely, except for Christmas or a wedding or funeral, do we “faithful atheists” seek the church, this “spiritual place,” to be reminded of who we are and who we want to be, of a dimension that would otherwise hardly have room in our everyday, rational life.

Being “religious” today, and, for most of us, in secularized parts of the world, is not necessarily an issue of adherence to religious dogmas and traditions, nor is it about perceiving the “sacred texts” as a divine message. I wonder, could it be possible to remain a convinced atheist and still find religion useful, interesting, and consoling, so much so that one can afford to play with its ideas and practices in the secular world?

What’s lacking in our community is this kind of approach in modernizing our societies and church.

Religion in much of the world is still an important force governing society. In recent years, religion has taken us unawares. The rise of the “moral majority” in the U.S., the Islamic Revolution in the Arab world, the growth of religious parties in Israel, the power of Catholicism in Poland and the African continent, all run contrary to the basic thesis that modernity and secularization go hand in hand and can almost be regarded as synonyms. Instead, and against all prediction, religion has resurfaced in the public domain.

An important voice has been Jonathan Sacks, a professor at the University of Essex, who developed the idea of moral ecology. In his book The persistence of faith: Religion, morality, and society in a secular age, Sacks discusses the role of religion in modern life. He points to the attitudes necessary for society’s wellbeing and affirms that it cannot be created nor maintained through political means. This “moral ecology” can best be nurtured only by religion. Neither the individual nor the state—two key concepts in the secular world—has proven to be suitable foundations and guarantors of a moral society, he argues. Only an ethical stance that includes the absolute (many of us call it God) will put man at the center and give him a unique dignity and joy. This approach allows us to build a world that is more human than that in which human beings, nations, and economic systems have become gods.

A good society has its own ecology that depends on multiple sources of meaning, each with its own integrity. With this we come to perhaps the most profound truth of the Armenian Christian Church and its ethics—that ethic has been based on justice, compassion, and a respect for human dignity, guiding our societies.

Good conduct was not dependent on governments, laws, police, inspectorates, regulatory bodies, civil courts, or legal penalties. It was dependent on the still, small voice of God within the human heart. It was part of our character; it was a virtue and a sense of obligation. Our families devoted immense energy to educate the young in the ways of goodness and righteousness.

A moral vision, a clear sense of right and wrong, is present in our stories, in the texts that were read, the prayers we were taught, and the rituals the church performed.

These were the standards our community expected of its members.

Today, at least for many of us, God might be dead or invisible. But the experiences that made man create God in the first place are still very much real. That is why most of us, while announcing our choice to be secularists, continue to adhere to certain religious traditions. This paradoxical yet somehow functioning equilibrium turns complex with the ongoing debate about the role of religion in society. Religion seems to have returned with a revenge. It is a difficult discussion in a time when religions’ most extreme expressions dominate. We are drowning in news reports from parts of the world where a suicide bomber detonates his charges in markets and mosques, where churches are burned down, where women are discriminated against, where homosexuals are executed, and writers are tortured for their words—and all in the name of one or another god.

Our modern time seems to be a breeding ground for God’s relentless warriors. Fortunately, there is also room for the uncompromising atheist who upholds secular society, where religion is every citizen’s private matter and not allowed to affect the social order or political decisions.

Atheism is still a minority belief in the world, but there is a great interest in it. Hyman, a professor of philosophy of religion at Syracuse University, explains that this “fervor” in atheism can be seen as a mirror image of the religious awakening in many secularized societies. Atheism has been radicalized, he says, not least as a result of (and response to) violent religious fundamentalism, with its unabashed ambitions to influence the values of society.

The disagreement between atheists and believers of God is hardly about whether a personal God exists or not. Therefore, the atheist’s firm denial of the personal God is as knocking on an open door. The same applies to today’s atheists who continue to reject God, arguing that science has in a compelling way, once and for all, shown that atheism stands for truth. Just claiming atheism to be “true” reveals that it still stands in the shadow of the God it denies.

To conclude, belief in a god’s existence is more than anything else a matter of affirmation of a spiritual dimension in our life. In Jean-Paul Sartre’s sorrowful words, “There is a space reserved for God inside each man,” which must be filled with meaningful content that will enable him to find a purpose in life.

It is in this philosophical abstraction, rather than in a personal relationship with a god that has turned into worship, that as a modern and secular person, I feel at home.

5 Comments on Caught in the Middle: When Dogmas Die and Traditions Thrive

  1. avatar Viken Evereklian // December 11, 2012 at 8:59 pm // Reply

    Christianity is about Jesus Christ.In John Ch.3:3 Jesus declared that every man or woman must be “born again” to inherit the Kingdom of God.Conversely,any person not born again is destined for an eternity in a place called hell.
    Most churches today either do not believe or do not understand this truth.The Armenian Apostolic church sadly is one of them.Church services on Sunday seem to consist of empty,ritualistic repetitions of traditional texts and music.
    In the Book of Revelation,Jesus has very harsh words for such unfaithful churches.On the Day of Judgement,many who thought they were forgiven by God will be in for a tragic awakening,and our so-called church leaders will have to explain to a wrathful God why they did not preach the word of God and thereby save souls from the wrath of God.

  2. Viken,

    I do not experience the Armenian Apostolic Church as you do, so I challenge your flat assertion that it is an empty place.

    The Church was founded by, and is still led by Jesus Christ. Christ also established Holy Etchmiadzin. That Armenian Church has been the central organizing principle of our spiritual and moral lives, it is not just a place, like the Pantheon, with an interesting religious history and appealing architecture.

    I started attending the Church because I recognized that the gifts of the spirit you and I share with all humanity, such things as love, and an appreciation, even a thirst for beauty, truth and justice, are not the products of evolutionary biology, but are instead from God.

    Our Church’s use of classical language certainly makes worship more difficult, but you get out of an experience what you put in. You must prepare for Communion, and not just be a passive consumer of entertainment. Moreover, the world-wide use of the same language and Liturgy is a bond among all the living and the dead.

    Give our Church a fair chance, with an open heart.

  3. avatar Khatchadour Boghossian // December 22, 2012 at 11:32 am // Reply

    I can’t believe that there are people who call themselves born again christians, armenian or non Armenian, who believe that because of the only fact that they have accepted and proclamed, like Viken, that they are saved, and the members of the Armenian Apostolic Church who simply don’t declare that they are born again or saved, and that they will go to heaven, and thos who are not saved to, hell, like all the members of the Armenian Apostolic church, are christians who will most probably go to hell, where they want to send those who are so called not saved christians. This approach is a blasphemy, since Jesus Christ taught us not to judge others, as he told the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector. It’s just simple as that. How can you judge other christians that you don’t know. Viken, I hope that as a saved christian you sometimes take time to confess your sins, since, believe me that you are a sinner, whether you like it or not, and don’t feel bad about it, because all human beings are sinners. Be a good christian, a good man, worthy of being created in the image of God. That’s it.
    I am not an atheist, but I highly appreciated the article of Suzanne Khardalian, because it was an excellent presentation of the situation in today’s world, it is an excellent analysis of human life and believes in today’s troubled world.

  4. avatar You Heard It From Me // January 8, 2013 at 5:47 pm // Reply

    I will reserve my harsh judgment on this article, but I will make the observation that the author seems to obviously be an Atheist, although going about it carefully. Her conclusion is to support separation of church and state. I will remind everyone here that this is an alien concept for our culture, and its implementation would be yet another contribution to our weakening and hostile takeover by other groups.

  5. Hello
    I just like to add to Viken’s comment I was born into a traditional Armenian family my parents believed that you are baptised as a child and saved and yes just like the article turn up to church at weddings funerals baptism Christmas and new year I thought I was Christian however through tragic things in my life at my lowest point I encountered Jesus Christ and understood membership to a church or child baptism does not save you it took humility of genuine repentance and asking Jesus to come into your life be baptised with the Holy Spirit which transforms your mind and enables you to live above sin and if you do sin your recognise quickly and repent so you don,t live in Sin and be indifferent to it what is Sin ??? it’s not just killing and. Stealing the bible says if you hold anything against someone who has sinned against you your sins can’t be forgiven so resentment unforgivness is sin the bible does not elevate one sin above another so every sin will separate you from Jesus so I did recognise that. Even though I did not kill steal but I did get easily offended and had unforgivness towards certain people only when I repented and received the Holy Spirit it enabled me to change my old nature and be more Christ like there are many scriptures which show that it is not just mental belief that that Jesus is the way you have to live it and it is a life style 100 percent committed to Jesus and have relationship with him yes that right Jesus does speak to those who seek him give up their life and live for him and according to his will that is what Viken’s is referring to when you are born again you live for him Jesus said if you love your souls more than me you don’t deserve me so there is a cost to following Jesus Viken’s is not judging he is trying to show the truth unfortunately the Armenian church teaches that child baptism saves you there is no such thing on the bible the bible talks about repentance of sin as an adult or accountable age and then you are water baptised repentance is from secular life where God not placed first in your life and your sin nature you have and only then are all your sins forgiven and you receive the Holy Spirit and you are saved and walk on the narrow road .
    Concerning the bible saying not to judge that is taken out of context so many times by people when they get offended the scripture reads 1corinthians 5:12 you don’t judge people who don’t call themselves Christians but judge your brother or sister in Christ if it is required it is not about condemning but being able to discern the person is not walking in truth and gently correcting them my comment is not to offend but to make you think about what is true christianity and separate it from tradition culture and cultural pride as for any church leadership there is great responsibility. For the leadership tdo have close relationship with the Holy Spirit to make sure that they are not deceived by the devil and if the leadership is blinded to the truth then it is the blind leading the blind and deceive many people that they are saved I hope. This provokes you to search for the Truth because if you seek God with all your heart you will find him and it is amazing walk and transformation scriptures come alive
    Blessings Suzanna Harroothunian

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