Many people go through a time in their lives when one could say that they "discover" religion. They come into contact with a faith that rejuvenates their life, that gives it direction, that answers their deepest questions about identity and purpose.
It is often an exciting time for the individual, but it can also be a vulnerable time. This is a period when people are likely to jump into things whole hog. It can be a time when one is filled with the fire of zeal. This happens not only with religion but can occur when people form a commitment to any cause. This zeal or fervor brings an energy to the organization they've come in contact with.
But this zeal is vulnerable. It is, at times, open to manipulation. Sometimes zeal feeds on anger and a frustration with life. This is why at times an untempered zeal can be manipulated by others and channeled into forms of extremism. Today's front-page article on the elements that radicalize some followers of Islam illustrates this tendency.
The founder of this paper, Mary Baker Eddy, was conscious of both the virtue and danger of zeal as can be seen in the contrasting spiritual definitions she provides for the word in the Glossary to her book, "Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures."
The first definition she gives of zeal is: "The reflected animation of Life, Truth, and Love." This speaks to the energy and dedication many feel as they encounter a religious teaching that feeds their deepest spiritual roots. Their life is empowered by spirituality; they give their all to a living faith that animates their life.
The second definition reads: "Blind enthusiasm; mortal will" (page 599).
These are the elements of zeal that breed intolerance, and, as seen in today's front-page story, can lead to violence. Mrs. Eddy wrote earlier in Science and Health; "Human will is an animal propensity, not a faculty of Soul. Hence it cannot govern man aright" (page 490). Violence, terrorism, intolerance never heal the anger and frustration that those alienated from society feel. They simply add fuel to the fire.
Driven by blind willfulness, people commit grave evil acts in the belief that they are doing good. The Apostle Paul refers to this mental state in the Bible in the book of Romans. He explained, "To their zeal for God I can testify; but it is an ill-informed zeal. For they ignore God's way of righteousness, and try to set up their own, and therefore they have not submitted themselves to God's righteousness" (Rom. 10:2, 3, Revised English Bible).
When we recognize that zeal can be funneled in two directions, we can see how important it is that we have wise spiritual guides. The wise guide doesn't quench zeal. Neither does he or she ignore the social and economic or family ills that may have spurred someone's search for solutions and led them to their newfound faith. The honest and genuine spiritual guides do not manipulate others to achieve their own ends.
One can serve God with one's whole heart and soul and mind as the Bible and other Scriptures demand without becoming an extremist. Christ Jesus gives Christians the ultimate example of a life unreservedly dedicated to God, and it is important to observe the fruits of that life. It is notable in its healing force, its unreserved compassion for humanity, its triumph over the worst passions that strove to destroy him.
Genuine spirituality is a vital food for life. It opens the door to healing, to a resurrection of hope - and provides a sound basis for hope. Spirituality reveals a means for addressing and resolving injustices. Spirituality doesn't lead one to ignore evil; it addresses it, and leads one in paths that eliminate it. Spiritual methods of dealing with life's severest challenges never lead in a direction that causes more violence or intolerance in the world.
The call comes to everyone to embrace a righteous zeal, to nurture a passion for justice. As we recognize that the power of God works in individuals' lives only for good, we begin to have the spiritual tools, the spiritual understanding, that enable one to neutralize an unrighteous zeal. Our times call for dedicated spiritual workers who can counter the influences that would lead young men and women down roads of destruction. Their lives will become, as Jesus declared, lights unto the world. They will help the disaffected find a road to genuine progress, healing, and spirituality.