Veritas Forum fosters religious dialogue

Friday evening in Goodrich Hall, Professor Richard Elphick of Wesleyan University lectured on the question, “Is Religion Dangerous?” The lecture was the introduction to this year’s iteration of the annual Veritas Forum on “life’s hardest questions and the relevance of Jesus Christ to all of life,” according to the Veritas website. Recent years included debates between the College’s Michael Lewis and Oxford University’s Stephen Tuck on the nature of truth and belief, and between Professor Colin Adams and Ian Hutchinson of MIT on the relationship between religious belief and reason, while this year had a single speaker as an introduction to an open forum and smaller discussions over dinner.

Elphick, co-chair of the College of Social Studies and professor of history at Wesleyan, drew particularly on “the confluence of Christianity and Apartheid in South Africa” for discussion, following his recent book The Equality of Believers: Protestant Missionaries and the Racial Politics of South Africa, among other research in the area. He started by stating his goal, to “give [the audience] a taste of what the Christian faith can bring to the table,” and to “rigorously examine each other’s world views together.” He then curtly answered the forum’s question, “Yes. [Religion is] very dangerous. It’s a very important force in history.”

He then mused on why the question was being asked in the first place. “You probably suspect,” he said, “that religion is perceived to be dangerous to people … with enlightenment values.” He refined his discussion to only monotheistic religions with a god who has goals and means, and then launched into his first example.

“Those of us who are Americans, particularly who are white,” he said, have had their lives “enriched by slavery.” Capitalist slavery was sponsored by Christians, and was a “particularly mean and vicious form” of slavery. Christians in this part of the world thus have a shameful heritage, according to Elphick. On the other hand, he argued, the only place that has generated a broad movement to abolish slavery has been the Christian West, and while he acknowledged the importance of enlightenment secular thought and economic factors, he argued that “most of the energy came from religious people.”

Roughly the same argument was made about the role of Christianity, and particularly the Dutch Reformed Church (DRC) in South African Apartheid. The DRC, the church of the Afrikaaners, or white South Africans of Dutch descent, “defended the apartheid regime” through its final years, so when the regime collapsed, the “world saw it as a victory of enlightenment values over … bigoted Christians.”

Elphick argued that it was much more complicated than that. DRC missionaries started working in South Africa in the early 19th century, and by the 20th century black South Africans were overwhelmingly Christian. “Almost all education for black people” came from mission schools. The white people in South Africa were “deeply uneasy” with the situation of their country, where they held power over a much larger population. The DRC in the 1930s felt it had both “an obligation to look after white people,” as it was their church, and an obligation “to spread the gospel to black people.” In what they saw as a solution to this contradiction, they established the ideology of apartheid to give black people a separate space in which they could develop without impeding on the lives of white South Africans.

The National Party picked up this idea, was elected in 1948, and imposed this system. At this point the “DRC became the apologists.” On the other hand, “a lot of the activity against apartheid was led by Christians,” meaning Christian society as well as individuals like Bishop Desmond Tutu. Elphick’s argument is that “the racial order collapsed because the Christian ideal of equality prevailed” over the actual Christian people themselves.

Synthesizing the two examples, Elphick noted that both slavery and apartheid, which are easy targets that everyone ahbors, “have been used to discredit Christianity,” but his story is much less negative. “We easily see the hypocrisies of religious people,” he said, but “we don’t see the role of the religious idea,” citing, in particular, the idea that all those who accept Jesus are brothers and sisters. Furthermore, we do not see religion’s roles in our own platforms. Thus, monotheism is both dangerous and helpful, comforting and uncomfortable. Elphick cited two statements by Jesus that he wished were not in the Bible, but argued that as a Christian he had to grapple with them anyway. “Find a religion that you can trust even if it presents you with uncomfortable ideas.”

In the following question and answer period, Elphick responded to questions about how he grapples with those ideas he does not like, arguing that usually the “central Christian tenet” of equality can override the parts that are less pleasant. After a question about the similarities between Israel-Palestine and Apartheid, he said, “I’m going to largely evade the question” because “I don’t think this is the setting for this question.” Finally, when asked what power structures the Christian faith is dangerous to, he answered, “Us.”

Following the question and answer period, the audience was served food from Spice Root and assigned discussion leaders from groups like the Williams Christian Fellowship, the Williams Muslim Students Association and the Williams Secular Community. Many tables stayed for a full hour or more as they delved deeper into questions of faith.

  • Norman Birnbaum 46

    Sounds as if it was indeed a stimulating talk by an interesting thinker—your Williams generation is fortunate in events like these. I am not sure that religion is dangerous to people with Enlightenment values. The Enlightenment had a large influence on many in the Churches (and on Reform Judaism)—and to this day, large possibilities of dialogue open the way, by confrontation and contradiction, to the deepening of Enlightenment values in encounters with religion. One of the positive aspects of Enlightenment is an acknowledgement of the limits of certainty. There are religious experiences inaccessible to the usual Enlightenment sensibilities—perhaps something can be learned from these.