Written After Midnight

Sleep-Deprived Ramblings

Ahab Syndrome

I’d like to take a moment to discuss a problem I’ve observed among my religious peers; A problem I’m going to term “Ahab Syndrome”. I don’t intend this for extremists, although I think Ahab Syndrome often leads to extremism. Instead, I’m talking about what happens when we in the Christian world get out priorities mixed up.

There is a strong current in Christian thought that the highest virtue is zeal, or devotion. The more passionate and insistent a person is about their faith, the purer the soul, and the closer to God. The problem with this, that I’ve observed, is that it often obscures critical thought on how our actions effect others. When a religious individual causes a disturbance, or does something offensive, it is not uncommon to hear members of our community say things like: “Let it go, she means well” or “He’s misguided but his heart is in the right place”. This is just a figurative example, but I have seen a real trend towards regarding intentions as more important than actions; especially if those intentions are religious in nature.

There are several problems with this attitude that merit discussion; A major one is historical. The briefest glance at history shows us the damage that unquestioned religious zeal can do. The Spanish Inquisition, the Marian Persecutions, the brutal execution of William Tyndale, and countless others. Even in modern times, we find groups like the WBC, and incidents like the persecution of Jessica Ahlquist.

Granted, it would be unreasonable to claim that some of these incidents were devoid of political motives, but unquestioning zeal will always act as a catalyst for disaster, regardless of what the object of devotion is. Many otherwise normal people partook in these events, and many of them did it with the assurance that they were defending the Good and True. A point well worth considering when we grapple with religious issues in our modern society.

A second problem with this attitude, from a purely religious standpoint, is biblical. It is spelled out in the clearest possible language that zeal is not of itself a virtue. “It is not good to have Zeal without knowledge.”1 In other words, blind devotion without applying consideration or research to our actions is destructive. This is not an obscure passage or difficult concept. Less often-cited is the scathing critique that Jesus leveled at the religious leaders of his day: “You shut the kingdom of heaven in men’s faces…. You travel over land and sea to win a single convert, and when he becomes one, you make him twice as much a son of hell as you are.”2 Severe words for a severe problem.

Christianity is specific ideology about the world and what it means to live in it. As practitioners of that ideology, it is our responsibility to put thought and effort into our stances on its teachings. It is our responsibility to avoid the pitfalls of elitism and arrogance, instead of attacking our critics. But more than anything, it is our responsibility to consider how we apply this ideology in our lives. We have a history of some of the most violent and appalling acts of cruelty. It is because of that history that we must subject ourselves to the most careful self-examination, and sharply question our actions. It would serve us well to remember, (as C. S. Lewis once pointed out,) that in Christian mythology, it was never bad fleas that became devils, but bad angels.3

1Proverbs 19:2. NIV
2Matt 3:7, 23:15. NIV
3This is a paraphrase, not a direct quote

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2 thoughts on “Ahab Syndrome

  1. pgdraper on said:

    Jaime, thanks so much for writing this piece. I was unfamiliar with the Ahlquist case, and reading the litany of threatening comments and tweets is appalling and sad. Beyond the self examination you describe, what do you believe should be our response to “zeal without knowledge” within the Christian community? What should Ahab have done differently?
    Please keep writing.

    • jaimewise on said:

      Personally, I think a large part of the problem is isolation. Obsession grows very rapidly in small environments. It’s easy to build mistrust or hostility for people you don’t interact with regularly. It’s also easy to build an image of yourself as ‘correct’, if your group is the only one you associate with. (“Nightfall” by Asimov is an excellent short fiction on this subject). I think if Ahab had spent more time on land, away from his community of sailor’s, he would have gotten a reality check on his obsession.

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