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Sunday, 30 November 2008

An angry God breeds an angry man

In the late 17th Century, England and America were pretty tough places to live. Aside from the political turmoil, their quality of life was not something to write home about. However one interesting aspect of what people were writing about was the casual violence of civil society, from the beating of wives, children and servants, not to mention duels, fights and thrashings. That these would even involve the clergy was not seen as in any way shocking.

Can you imagine our clergy being violent today? There are few images today that would correspond. We may smile at the notion of the boxing priest training the kids in the inner cities of Ireland and America, or recognise the liberation theologians of Latin America taking up arms in defence of the poor, but in these cases the violence is strictly disciplined and codified. Basically, our priests and ministers do not brawl in the streets.

But so it was, according to historians like Carol and Peter Stearns, quoting from diaries and letters of the day in their book 'Emotion and Social Change: Toward a New Psychohistory'. It is fascinating to see how so many diarists of the day did not recognise anger in themselves and it is only as the century draws to a close that a self awareness burgeons and that the same behaviour begins to perceived through an angry lens. The act of writing appears to have helped foster a clearer reflection of our nature.

Amongst the wonders such a spyglass through time brings is the appearance of a relationship between how God was perceived and the society that worshiped him. In the 16th Century the Christian God was in many ways a wrathful figure, and any transgressions and misfortunes were widely seen as the justice of a Lord angered by even trivial misdemeanours.

An angry God and an angry population. It does not surprise to see such a correlation. Nor does it surprise to see that when preachers tempered God's wrath with his mercy, that there appeared a decline in casual civil savagery. Particularly when allied to the greater self reflection of a more widespread written word.

Of what use is such insight today? It is harder to see things in such monolithic terms today as our notion of God has become refracted through innumerable lenses and society's values appear on the surface atomised. And yet it is undeniable that those aspects of the Christian and Muslim faiths that are fundamentalist - that seek a more literalist approach to their sacred texts - are in many ways angry creeds. Theirs is the call of violent jihad (as opposed to the more peaceful definitions of jihad) or the threat of hell to all sinners.

Is it any wonder that an angry God begets violence in its believers? Any jealous or intolerant God will give rise to such emotions and we must suffer their impact under the banner of a righteousness that is entirely debatable. If those Gods are Gods of love and compassion their followers might do better to emphasise such things for the benefit of all who must endure the casual civil savagery of our societies.

It may not be the sole cause of violence in our world, but all causes must be tackled at their roots.

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