Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Worshiping Different Gods

I have a confession to make. In the context of interfaith relations between Jews, Christians, and Muslims, I really don't like it when people say "we worship the same God."* In part, it's because I have no idea what this statement means or how it could be verified. At what point does adding Jesus into the mix (or name your other sectarian division) mean the God has changed? No matter how you slice it, the theology in this debate seems like it is being driven by the politics (whether the politics are "we're all fellow-travelers on spaceship Earth" or "I'll be damned if I share anything in common with those evil Muslims/Christians/Jews").

But the bigger problem is that making "the same God" the trump card argument for interfaith solidarity doesn't exactly inspire much confidence in our ability to respect those religions who unquestionably worship different Gods (Hindus, for example), or those that don't worship God at all (atheists, many Buddhists). I really do wonder what Hindu-Americans think when they hear progressives make this argument as the centerpiece of their calls for religious tolerance. It must be profoundly alienating at best, deeply worrisome at worst.

The better thing to say is that it doesn't matter whether Jews, Christians, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindu, Atheists, or anyone else share a God in common or not. We're all entitled to respect, we're all entitled to be treated equally, and we all should be free to practice (or not) our faiths as we see fit. A constructed sameness of the Abrahamic faiths -- if it even is real -- is worse than unnecessary, it's deeply harmful and exclusionary.

If one does want to make an argument of this sort, I vastly prefer the Talmud's formulation, as articulated by Rabbi Morris N. Kertzer
The Talmud tells us: “The righteous of all nations are worthy of immortality.”
....There are many mountain tops and all of them reach for the stars.
* Needless to say, I do not support any forms of retaliation or sanction against persons -- particularly academics -- who do make this argument.


Mordy said...

Within Jewish tradition of course there are meaningful distinctions that are produced by this question. The most famous example is Maimonides who believed Allah and the Jewish God were similar enough that a Jew could enter a Mosque, but a Jew could not enter a Church (which was avodah zara). Muslims believe that Jews and Christians are both people of the book (and at various times that has had jurisprudent significance within Islamic society). Until Vatican II, afaik, there was no way for anyone to enter the Catholic Heaven without accepting Christ but now Jews can enter heaven through a mysterious process that does not involve faith in Jesus. I agree with you though that from a secular humanistic perspective the question is meaningless (except as a polemic). Maybe there are pragmatic reasons though to emphasize commonalities when doing conflict resolution work - can Islam and Judaism form meaningful ties through their shared monotheism? Um. Seems likely but maybe worth a shot?

P.S. Unrelated but I was hoping I could solicit your thoughts on attempts to co-opt Jewish identity? In particular I'm thinking about the Nigerian gentleman who explained to me today that white Jews are fake Jews and blacks are the real Jews. He had an entire script of pseudo-historical evidence and poorly translated scripture that I assume he didn't come up with himself. In my experience this is exclusively a black African phenomenon but in some ways Islam and Christianity are the original co-opters of Jewish identity. In many important ways Palestinians have tried to co-opt Jewish identity for themselves and deny it to Jews (like in their appropriation of the Shoah). I was going to say that thank God they've at least never tried to claim that they themselves are Jews but that is actually the covert claim resting behind the argument that Jews are Khazar fakes and the Palestinians are the descendants of the ancient Israelites. To all these people I would ask the same thing I asked this fellow from Lagos this afternoon: "What's the end game here? Do you want to stop eating shellfish and working on Saturday? If not, why exactly do you want to be the Jews so badly?"

Matt said...

Claiming to be "the real Jews" is not unique to any one group. Google "Christian Identity" and "British Israelism."