Page last updated at 02:19 GMT, Thursday, 14 January 2010

Faith Diary: Tiger's choice

By Robert Pigott
BBC Religious Affairs correspondent

Tiger Woods has - without meaning to - sparked off a debate about religion and freedom of speech.

Tiger Woods
Taking a break from Golf, but should he take a break from Buddhism?

What he has described as his "transgressions" - and the heavy price he has had to pay for them - prompted one prominent America commentator to suggest that Woods might do well to convert to Christianity.

Brit Hume was part of a television panel asked what advice they'd give to the errant golfer.

Mr Hume responded: "He's said to be a Buddhist.

"I don't think that faith offers the kind of forgiveness and redemption that is offered by the Christian faith."

The deluge of astonished outrage that landed on Mr Hume has prompted others to ask whether it is possible in the United States to promote your own religion or criticise another, or even have any sort of public discussion about religion.

It has also directed attention to the rival claims of the two faiths.

Brit Hume's defenders insist that what he said was at least defensible given that Christians believe in a personal God who forgives sins and redeems individuals while Buddhists do not.

Buddhists have been quick to clarify their beliefs.

They accept that although they do not include a supreme being able to forgive people, they point out that the religion doesn't have a concept of sin anyway.

It teaches that suffering - such as that afflicting Tiger Woods now - is partly the result of ignorance of the way the world works.

That ignorance leads people into actions - including marital infidelity - that take away peace of mind.

That, according to Buddhists who have blogged on the subject, means that Tiger Woods should be able to recognise his responsibility for his actions and the suffering caused by them (the concept of karma), and to change the way he behaves in future.

THE FALL OF A "HEAVENLY MESSENGER"

The fall from grace of Iris Robinson in Northern Ireland has focussed attention on the redemptive power of Christianity.

Mrs Robinson - whose Christian name was inspired by the minor Greek goddess Iris who was the special messenger of Hera, the patron of marriage - has admitted that she is "completely ashamed" by her affair with a 19-year-old man.

She acknowledged that her adultery has, as she put it, damaged her "profession in Christ".

But she insisted: "I am comforted that He was able to forgive even me."

Such has been Mrs Robinson's high profile as a fiercely traditionalist evangelical Christian - as well as a leading Democratic Unionist and wife of the party leader - that her conduct will have a far-reaching impact.

Both Peter and Iris Robinson are born-again Christians, who belong to an evangelical church.

Greek goddess Iris
The Greeks believed that Iris was the messenger of the goddess of marriage

Mrs Robinson had achieved a particularly high profile as a critic of homosexuality.

Speaking on a BBC programme she described homosexual practice as an "abomination", adding that with help, gay people could be "turned around".

One prominent Free Presbyterian, the Rev David McIlveen, acknowledged on BBC Radio Ulster's Sunday Sequence that Mrs Robinson had damaged the reputation of traditionalist evangelicals, and, by extension, their opposition to homosexuality.

Another guest on the programme - Gladys Ganiel of Trinity College in Dublin - has suggested that the impact on conservative evangelicals could be even more profound, driving some of them out of politics altogether.

Dr Ganiel said "pietist" evangelicals - those who had decided that the world of politics was simply too grubby for Christians to take part in - could be reinforced by Mrs Robinson's demise.

In her research with Dr Claire Mitchell of Queens University in Belfast, Dr Ganiel had interviewed pietist evangelicals who already see power-sharing with Sinn Fein as morally questionable.

Some believe that we have already entered the "end times", and that Jesus will shortly return - which means that playing an active part in politics is redundant.

Dr Ganiel speculates that other traditionalist evangelicals might transfer their backing to the Traditional Ulster Voice party led by Jim Allister, which opposes power-sharing.

Such a trend, says Dr Ganiel, could diminish the influence of evangelicalism inside the Democratic Unionist Party, and within unionist politics as a whole.

EMBARRASSMENT BY ASSOCIATION

Conservative evangelicals in Northern Ireland may be holding fast to a traditional reading of the Bible, but elsewhere in the world progressive Christians are reinterpreting ancient texts.

For example, the Lutheran Church of Sweden saw no scriptural reason to prevent it ordaining its first openly gay bishop in November.

Eva Brunne, a lesbian, was consecrated Bishop of Stockholm in Uppsala Cathedral, thought of as the mother church of the world's largest Lutheran denomination.

The Church of Sweden - which has an agreement under which it can share ministers and services with the Church of England - has also approved full church marriages for same-sex couples.

Some of the strongest criticism of Bishop Brunne's consecration came from Lutherans in Africa.

The leader of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Kenya, Archbishop Walter Obare, condemned "in the strongest terms this unfortunate and unscriptural development".

The Anglican Communion - the roughly 80-million strong association of independent Anglican churches around the world - experienced similar tensions when its progressive American branch elected a gay bishop in 2003.

Traditionalists, largely in the developing world, reacted angrily to what they regarded as the distortion of their shared faith.

They said they were personally compromised by the actions of the Episcopal Church in the United States.

In a globalised world it seems that it's just as easy to embarrass your fellow church members on the other side of the world, as it is those who live in the same province of the UK.



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