Clayton calls on Chautauquans to find their radical voices

Philip Clayton, provost of Claremont University and dean of Claremont School of Theology, speaks at the Hall of Philosophy Thursday afternoon. Clayton discussed the two sides of radicalism in religion. Photo by Adam Birkan.

Mary Desmond | Staff Writer

Philip Clayton, provost of Claremont Lincoln University and dean of Claremont School of Theology came to the Chautauqua Institution to convert Chautauquans into radicals.

“I’m going to encourage you to be radical, to find your own radical voice. Everything I say has the goal of helping you to find the form of radical optimism that you have to offer,” Clayton said Thursday in the Hall of Philosophy.

During Week Eight’s fourth Interfaith Lecture on the theme “Radicalism: Burden or Blessing?,” Clayton discussed the two main facets of modern day religious radicalism in a lecture titled “Suicide Bombers and Barefoot Prophets: The Faces of Radical Religion in the Early 21st Century.”

In the past decade, the United States has come to terms with new versions of radicalism, but nothing has been more radical or struck at its heart more than radical religion, Clayton said.

With the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, America was confronted head on with a virulent strain of religious radicalism.

“I feel I need to start with that darker side before I encourage you to be radicals yourselves,” Clayton said.

He highlighted the religious radicalism in Islam that provoked the terrorist attacks when he read the terrorists’ final night instructions that were performed on Sept. 10, 2001. The first instruction was to “renew the covenant with God,” the second was to understand all part of the plan and “expect reaction and resistance from the enemy.” The third was to read the 9th sura, the sura that discusses how to treat nonbelievers and is the only sura that does not begin with “In the name of God, the compassionate, the merciful,” Clayton said.

Clayton also read from a letter written by the Hamas in 1991 that was written to encourage suicide bombers, he said. The letter read: “The whole world is persecuting you and the satanic powers ambush you. The whole world is your front, and do not exclude yourself from the confrontation. … You live as a dead man. We stand at the crossroad of life or death, but life without martyrdom is death. Look for death and you are given life.”

Words of violence are not specific to Islamic texts, Clayton said. In the Old Testament, Psalm 137 reads, “How blessed will be the one who seizes your little ones and dashes them against the rock,” he said. In the U.S., people like Eric Rudolph, a man who planted four bombs which killed two and injured 150, found inspiration for violence in his religious beliefs, Clayton said.

“What frightened me the most as I researched this talk  is an American after-school program that meets in classrooms after school called the Good News Club,” Clayton said.

The Good News Club is an afternoon program run by the Child Evangelism Fellowship. It is offered as an after-school program at 3,200 public schools and caters to children ages 4 to 12. In this year’s curriculum, the second lesson is the story of Saul and the Amalekites. The section taught in the lesson reads, “Now go, attack the Amalekites, and totally destroy all that belongs to them. Do not spare them; put them to death, men and women, children and infants,” Clayton said.

In the teaching manual, teachers are instructed to say, “That was pretty clear, wasn’t it,” upon reading those verses, Clayton said. The lesson also reiterates that the Amalekites were killed because of their religious beliefs.

“So the lesson here, if God tells you to kill nonbelievers, he really wants you to kill them all, no exceptions,” Clayton said.

The last line of the curriculum laments that Saul never asked God for help in obeying him in the assigned task, Clayton said.

Those radically violent behaviors and teachings produce the idea that religion is purely a source of evil, violence and hatred. That is the argument of New Atheists like Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens. In his book, God is Not Great, Hitchens wrote, “religion poisons everything.”

That sentiment is appealing in light of the stories about suicide bombers — and clubs such as the Good News Club — but those violent stories only show one side of religious radicalism, Clayton said.

“Religion through the ages has always had two sides. Yes, there are the suicide bombers, but there are also the barefoot prophets,” Clayton said.

The Prophet Amos said, “Seek good, not evil, that you may live.” The author of James said that religion is found in loving and aiding orphans and widows in their times of need.

To think radically means to get down to the level of your worldview, and if you’re not there yet, you’re not radical.

— Philip Clayton

“The deeper religious radicalism is an ethical radicalism,” Clayton said. “Its heart lies in the call to compassion and nonviolence and even more in the lives of those people, who, through the ages, have walked the walk of compassion and nonviolence. Here, I suggest, is the kind of religion our world desperately needs.”

Clayton cited Monday’s morning lecturer, Carlin Romano, and said that radicalism must be comprehensive and done holistically. Clayton said if a person combined Chautauqua’s Week Eight morning and afternoon lectures, they would be able to synthesize the essence of the talks into a few main points. The first point is radical beliefs are on the worldview level.

“To think radically means to get down to the level of your worldview, and if you’re not there yet, you’re not radical,” Clayton said.

Radicalism must be deep-rooted, it must blend ideas with actions, Clayton said. Radicalism usually comes with costs, whether they are financial or personal. Acts committed in the name of of ethical radicalism must be ethically sound all the way through.

“In short, to be really radical is to be truly transformative, and where do you find the transformation that goes all the way down? True religion or what we might call ethical religion.”

Jesus taught an ethical, transformative and radical religion, Clayton said. However, Clayton is unsure of whether the U.S. can return to the radical nature of Christianity. Religion in the U.S. may have become too institutionalized, he said.

Today, when he hears the name Jesus, Clayton cringes, he said. It automatically makes him think of the NRA, the religious right and the kinds of people who want to exclude Muslims and Jews. For religion to be ethical religion in the U.S., people must throw away all exclusionary notions, Clayton said.

“I would like to suggest the radical idea of letting it drop all together. What if ethical religion was a win-win, and what if we found in each other’s prophets an inspiration for how we live today,” Clayton said.

There were three very radical ideas associated with Jesus Christ: the idea of the topsy-turvy God, the upside-down ethic and the inside-out Church.

The nature of the “topsy-turvy God” can be seen in the prayer said by Mary, when she said: “My soul glorifies the Lord, my spirit rejoices in God my savior. He has performed mighty deeds; he has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts. He has brought down rulers from their thrones but has lifted up the humble. He has filled the hungry with good things but has sent the rich empty away,” Clayton said.

“That’s the meaning of this Jesus event: not a gilded altar, but one who sends the rich empty away,” he said.

To understand the notion of an upside-down ethic, a person just has to look to the Beatitudes, where the poor, the sick, the meek and the hungry are all considered blessed and all promised the Kingdom of God. The people who are well-off, sated and happy are promised the opposite. Jesus turns our human understandings of what is good and sought after on earth upside down, Clayton said.

The idea of the inside-out church refers to a church where the glory is not restricted to the inside of a four-walled structure, but turned outward to be shared and discussed with all the world, he said.

“Religion most certainly presents these two faces to the world: the face of compassion and the face of destruction,” Clayton said.

The two faces reflect the duality of humanity; people have the capacity to be good or evil. It is often asked whether human beings as a species are more inclined to be good or evil, Clayton said.

There is a story in the Buddhist tradition, wherein a great king asked a Buddhist monk which was greater: good or evil. The monk replied, “Good is dominant; evil less so.”

When the king asked the monk why, the monk answered: “Sir, someone doing evil is remorseful, but someone doing good is not remorseful; free from remorse, he becomes glad; from gladness comes joy; being joyful, the body is tranquil; with a tranquil body, one is happy; the happy mind comes concentrated, and one who is concentrated sees things as they really are, and so it is that good is dominant,” Clayton said.

In Jewish literature, there is a radical idea in the phrase tikkun olam, Clayton said. It means “repair the world.”

Jill Jacob, a Jewish author, recently wrote, “Tikkun olam means fixing large problems while believing our actions can have a positive effect on the greater human and divine world,” Clayton said.

In her writing, Jacobs alludes to the idea that repairing the world means building a world where the idea of God, the divine presence, is more available, more visible, Clayton said.

Thinking radically means people are thinking outside of the commonly accepted framework of ideas; it is frightening and requires courage, Clayton said.

Clayton concluded his lecture with examples of radical thought and action. The first comes from a biography of William Sloane Coffin, a Christian activist. Coffin was arrested along with a group of others while protesting the war. As the arrested protesters sat in jail, frightened about what would happen next, they heard Coffin’s loud voice singing out a hymn, and, one-by-one, all of the arrested began singing with him, and all fear dissipated.

Photo by Adam Birkan.

His next example came from Mother Teresa, who said: “I was called to Calcutta. I walked out my door. I walked along the street. I found a man who was dying. I put him on my cart. I rolled him back to our home. I washed his body. I held his hand. He died. I prepared him for the funeral pyre. I took his body to the cremation point. We had him cremated, and I came home. I walked out the door, and I found a man who was dying, and I did that about 40,000 times,” Clayton said.

“Is it radical, it’s a repeated action with a simplicity, and yet, the radicalness is just recognizing, ‘There’s human need, I’m going to respond,’ ” he said.

Recently, when Clayton was in India, he met a Jain, a member of a faith that teaches people to do all they can to lower their impact on the earth and their responsibility for any violence. The Jain was embarking on a 375-mile pilgrimage with nothing on in the middle of winter. When asked what would happen if he died along the way, the Jain replied that he would die.

“Here’s an act of trying not to create more violence, even to the point of the cessation to his own life,” Clayton said.

“I’ve encouraged you in these minutes to find your own radical voice and actions. To be the change you wish to see in the world,” Clayton said.

Gandhi once said, “If we could change ourselves, the tendencies of the world would also change.”

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  1. Lecture at Chautauqua Institution on Radicalism – Reimagining the Future of Faith

    […] I recently had the privilege to deliver a talk at the Chautauqua Institution as part of their nine-week long summer lecture series. Each week has a theme, and my lecture was during week eight, the theme of which was “Radicalism.” The Chautauquan Daily, the official newspaper of the Chautauqua Institution, has an article about my lecture, and you can read it by clicking here. […]

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