The title is Rabbi Lord Sacks’, who writes that “the battle against Al Qaeda, Al Shabaab, Boko Haram, Isis, and their myriad mutations, will be the defining conflict of the next generation.” His thesis is both simple and grand: The ideas that drive these groups are religious ideas, embodying a seventh century Islamic Apocalypticism; consequently, what is required are religious ideas that can engage and overwhelm the ideology of these groups. Rabbi Sacks has devoted his new book, Not In God’s Name, to this conversation of ideas.
As far as I can discern, Rabbi Sacks’ concern is totally absent from Christian churches today. Thinking and its by-product, coining ideas, are not high on the churches’ agenda.
We are geared up to condemn the jihadist groups, to label them as evil, to mobilize military forces against them, and to affirm “moderate” religious groupings. These responnses are not constituted by any new ideas, nor by religious ideas. If ideas can be said to underly our responses, they fall into three forms: (1) we are good, our opponents are evil; (2) “moderate religion” is better than “extremism”; (3) if we don’t destroy them first, they will destroy us.
These ideas may be factually true, but they are not ideas likely to turn the tide of history in ways that we need today. The challenge posed by Sacks is formidable and also intriguing. More than gut-level responses, it calls forth serious theological and philosophical thinking. I have no high pretensions, but I have, after all, devoted my life to such thinking, and I feel some responsibility to take the Rabbi’s proposals to heart. In this installment, I shall focus on one such idea: Religions must grow beyond their present sect-like thinking and behaving.
Religion is not essentially sectarian, but rather universal, and while it takes innumerable distinctive forms, religion is a network or league of equally sacred individuals and communities. These communities are dedicated to discerning and obeying what they perceive as the deepest and truest in life. All religious people are kin in their commitment to foundational values. The burgeoning inter-faith movement is a witness to this new understanding.
Why do I say this is a new understanding? After all, over two hundred years ago–in the late 1700s–Gottfried Lessing wrote his play, Nathan the Wise, whose centerpiece is the Parable of the Three Rings. Briefly, the parable symbolizes the religions of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam as three identical gold rings, which are bequeathed by a father to his three sons. Since the rings are indistinguishable from one another, when the sons seek to determine which ring is the original, they are told that the quality of each ring is found in the life of the wearer, whether or not it is lived in ways that are pleasing to the father.
After two centuries, this idea has scarcely taken hold among the various religious communities. So far as I know, none of the world’s religions acknowledges equal status to other religions. Each of the major religions has constructed a narrative to explain the other religions, and each is accorded inferior status–only “our” religion is the truest and most revealed religion. My own Lutheran Church emphasizes ad nauseum the uniqueness of Lutheranism. We do not inculcate our children with knowledge of what they share with other Christians, let alone other religions, but rather with their distinctiveness from the others. Every Protestant church has a theory of how and when Catholicism ceased being the true church, and Catholics can reciprocate. Similarly, every religion has a theory that explains its superiority to others. No religion has a doctrine describing the equality of other religions–in other words, no parable of the three rings.
In proposing this idea of religion, I am focusing on an idea that, while it is held by many who do not identify themselves as religious, has hard going among the religious. Much hard work is required before the idea of the equality of religions takes hold among religious folk. But unless it does take hold, the opinions of the non-religious world will not amount to much.
In the present situation, each of the religions is in effect behaving as if it were a sect–even though they would vehemently deny the fact. A sect is a group that accentuates its identity–at times, even obsessively–and constructs clear and complex procedures for relating to other groups. Such a group considers itself to have a quality of truth that is higher than that of its peer groups, and it has a clear sense of how it has come to possess its truth–often rooted in a designated lineage that leads back to divine revelation. Sects not only believe that good fences make for good neighbors, they also insist that the fences be well-built.
The stakes are high for a sect, because it has a vision of truth and it strives to remain faithful to that truth. Religious communities are not essentially self-seeking or self-aggrandizing, even though some of their adherents may be just that. These communities are sincerely devoted to a truth that transcends their immediate existence–truth that is ultimately rooted in God or in what the group believes is the ultimate reality. Each community believes that relationships with other groups will alter their identity and, in some sense, dilute its truth.
The real challenge for a religious community is to define its truth in such a way that the truth is enhanced, not diluted, by relationships with other groups. Such re-definition is a serious and difficult matter; it requires intellectual, theological, and spiritual depth, together with the will to change.
To speak personally, I have never believed that the significance of Jesus in my life is anyway compromised by what other people believe about Jesus. I think of Jaroslav Pelikan’s book, Jesus through the Centuries, which describes many views of Jesus that have been held through the centuries–from Thomas Jefferson’s humanistic image to the high sacramental beliefs of Saints Thomas Aquinas, Bonaventure and Bernard of Clairvaux. Similarly, I do not believe that my devotion to the sacrament of Holy Communion is cheapened by the fact that others who stand around the altar with me have differing understandings. In the 1950s, my wife was a representative of our denomination to a large ecumenical assembly. When it came time to receive the sacrament during a worship service, our presiding bishop issued the communique that none of our delegation was permitted to go to the altar, because there were worshippers there who “don’t have a correct theology of the sacrament.”
Is my Christianity cheapened if I believe that God has spoken just as authentically through Muslim or Hindu traditions? Or if I believe that I have something to learn from Jews and Buddhists? I have often wondered how Christians can believe that their God of love would consign billions of people to error, simply because they had not heard about Jesus.
As long as the religions of the world act like sects, denying equality to other religions, the Muslim jihadist sects are confirmed in their belief that they are in competition with the other sects and that they are destined to win the competition.
What lies beyond the sect mentality? I wrote above that religion is dedicated to discerning and obeying what is deepest and truest in life. I propose that this working understanding of religion
begins, at least, to get at the task of framing the new ideas that Rabbi Sacks speaks of. The point here is not that the Jihadists are not truly Muslim or that they are opposed to Christianity or Judaism or any other specific religion. The point is that the Jihadists are a threat to the human consensus of what is deepest and truest–as witnessed by all the world’s religions in concert. Making this point forcefully and in concert is the challenge to all religious communities and individuals. Of course, each religion will state this consensus from its own body of wisdom or revelation. When this consensus is clearly and forcefully asserted, then the Jihadists are put in their place as they should be–they are anti-human. Not anti-capitalist or anti-western or against any specific religious community, but in opposition to the human understanding of deepest truth.
When such a statement is made, non-religious people who stand for true humanism can and will join with the religious consensus. As long as the religious communities speak and act as sects, the broad range of humanists have difficulty declaring solidarity.
What I have written here is but a rough draft and a personal attempt to comprehend a challenge that demands enormous intellectual and spiritual effort for its resolution. But it is high time for the religious communities of the world to give attention to ideas, and ideas that are helpful in meeting basic challenges that face the human community in general. Pope Francis has taken such a step in his recent encyclical. It may be that my feeble attempt here can also be of use in our facing the challenges of the environment, as well, since the environment is also a defining issue for our time. But that requires a different discussion.