Eid-ul-Azha is not quite over yet. Many still stretch their off-days as they visit their home villages or relatives elsewhere for a few more days. So, I dare say, I may be allowed to reflect a little more on religious issues and sacrifice, without being seen as a preacher.

I will write about fashion, faith and religion, and also sacrifice and love, the key concepts of the latest religious feast.

When I write about fashion today, it doesn’t have much to do with clothes. Today, my focus is our mindset, our way of thinking ‘for the time being’, and especially as related to faith and religion. Fashion and trends are also important in religious and cultural fields, as in all other fields of human activity and behaviour. Theologians and orthodox believers may not always like to admit it, yet, it is there, both with regards to how we understand doctrine and dogma, and with regards to moral and ethical issues.  Unwittingly, we all grow into the religion and culture we belong to. We conform rather than question, we do what we are told, we don’t rug the boat – we sit quiet in the big ship on the voyage of life. If we dare to rug the boat, we must do it only when the water is smooth, notably in company with close friends that we are certain we can trust. And then, to ask questions is not being less faithful. Often, it is the opposite; only those who have reflected deeply will formulate their questions and ask for views from friends, lay or learned.

Fashions and conventions change over time; geographic spaces, subgroups, communities, and so on. Anthropologists will tell us that there are variations and commonalities in human behavior, what is ‘in’ and what is ‘out’. There are rules everywhere.

Much of what we do in everyday life is separate from religious reference and justification. But in other fields, religion is used to justify how we should behave, speak, think, dress and more. This is perfectly all right much of the time, but not always. We should note that often rules are cultural, not religious, and they may be outdated. For example, gender relations have changed tremendously all over the world and all religions seem to have some difficulty in keeping up with these changes. Last week, Pope Francis took up these issues since he realized that the Catholic Church has been left behind people’s values and practices in many fields. Christianity, Islam and the other religions should be ahead of, or at par with people in their thinking about social values, indeed when new values lead to greater equality, fairness and a better life for all.

About fifty years ago in 1972, the Oslo-bishop that time, Fridtjof Birkeli, the ‘primus inter pares’ of the bishops of the Norwegian state church, was secretly forced to resign by the ten other bishops, due to ill health, they said. No newspaper wrote about the scandal. The bishop’s sin was that he had developed an intimate relationship with his fiancé from his youth, while he was still a married man. His former fiancé, who had been married and lived abroad, had become a widow and had returned to Norway. The bishop and his wife did not want to divorce, and that would in any case have forced the bishop to leave his service in those days. Yes, it was an indiscretion, and it was unconventional in Norway, but should human beings judge another man so harshly?

A new book about the bishop, written by Tomm Kristiansen, was released a few weeks ago. Sadly, the author, who is a liberal journalist, as far as I know, agreed with the bishops who forced the Birkeli to resign. Instead of questioning their decision, he conforms and bows to power – he went with the flow, the ‘moral fashion’ of the time.

Let me also give another example from the same time. Fifty years ago, and even further back, many Norwegian missionaries were sent to Madagascar, Cameroon, and other faraway countries, mostly in Africa. It was common to leave the children behind. The duration of each term in the ‘mission field’ was usually seven years, sometimes more. (British colonial administrators followed a similar pattern, leaving their children in boarding schools in the UK while they worked for the Empire, and they were not even guided by any sacred calling.) 

The Norwegian missionaries’ children were placed in an institution at home, not with relatives. When the parents finally returned, the children would hardly know them. Furthermore, it has come to light that there was abuse of many kinds in the children’s home; many adults must have known about the abuse, but said nothing.

In missionary couples, the husband would usually have a missionary calling, but not always his wife. Yet, it was taken for granted that she too would sacrifice in the name of their faith. They were victims, and the children were indeed victims. A new book about this sad and strange history has also been published in Norway this autumn, authored by Lene Ask, where she has summarized letters and made pencil drawings based on old photos, documenting aspects of history. I must underline that this is history, and the practice is now long gone. Missionaries are fewer today, children go with the parents, home visits are more frequent, and communication is very different in our time.

Both the above examples illustrate that we must be careful in the way we use ‘our religion’ in our own lives, and how we force others to follow what we believe is right. Our standards and understanding, which belongs to a specific time, may not be right. Our understanding of sacrifice in the name of our calling may inflict suffering on others. In certain ways, the moral fashion and trends that were followed in the above examples were right and accepted by most. But they were also entirely wrong.

How many similar examples can we find today – in Norway and in Pakistan? Do we see the wrongs we do, or do we just go with the tide? And are we courageous enough to think for ourselves when religion is used to justify practices, which often just belong to time and culture, rather than to sacred faith?

    The writer is a senior Norwegian social scientist with experience in research, diplomacy and development aid.