One world, one tribe, one church?

February 20th, 2017
by Chris

There is a strong Biblical theme involving the eventual vanishing of boundaries between tribes and nations, as this meditation on Joel indicates. It is one aspect of the current of seeking justice which pervades the scriptures, particularly the prophets; the foreigner is one category of the oppressed who are singled out for particular care and protection.

In the New Testament, Jesus then takes steps to invalidate tensions due to people’s occupations, consorting with tax collectors and a repentant courtesan, due to their nationality in the tale of the Syrophonecian woman and even if a member of an occupying enemy nation, in healing the servant of the Centurion, and finally due to their religion in the parable of the Good Samaritan (and in that case it is important to note that the Samaritans were completely beyond the pale, as they practiced what Jews regarded as a perversion of Judaism in an immediately neighbouring area with a long history of violence between the two communities). Paul just sets another seal on it in Gal. 3:28 by denying not only differences between Jew and Gentile, but between slave and free and even man and woman.

Indeed, Alain Badiou (who is at least nominally atheist) wrote a book called “St. Paul; the Foundation of Universalism” in which he explores universalism as an “event”, something which breaks apart the existing structures and leads to new possibilities. New possibilities like seeing every other human being as your neighbour, or your brother or sister. Although Christianity has not generally been very good as regarding all of humanity in this way, the long ascendance of Christianity in Europe eventually gave way to a secular liberalism, and frankly I don’t see that any committed Christian should object to the end result of that, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

That isn’t an ostensibly Christian document, but it does, I think, encapsulate a large amount of how, as Christians, we should treat others.

Now, I can occasionally dream that in the future, following Jesus might become something truly universal, and that this might at least to some extent solve our problems of tribalism and the attendant violence and prejudice. Christianity is not, however, the only universal religion – all the Abrahamic faiths are at least potentially universal (though Judaism makes it rather more difficult than others to become part of their conception of the “people of God”), as are Buddhism, Taoism and the more philosophical schools of Hinduism, such as Advaita Vedanta (and multiple others).

There are problems, however. The other major world religions have their own very faithful adherents, for a start, and a sizeable proportion of Christians have (as I mentioned in a previous post in this series) fixed on one of them, Islam, as “the enemy”. Yes, I know that most of us are careful to say that the enemy is radical Islam, and particularly radical Islam of the Salafist variety, but the way we actually act indicates that we regard every Muslim as a potential terrorist – witness all the restrictions on refugees from Muslim countries, who have a massive claim on our compassion even without considering that our Western governments have contibuted in greast measure to the fact that they cannot feel safe at home.

It may come as a shock to some, but I would actually have no major problem in saying the Shahada, just as I have no major problem saying “Jesus is Lord”. Some American Christians have, indeed, recently been suggesting that they could do likewise in a show of solidarity with Muslims terrified by President Trump’s noises about Muslims and the upswelling in persecution which goes along with it. I have read the Quran (OK, in translation), and while I could nitpick about some of the passages in there, there is nothing worse than, for instance, the Biblical attitude to Amalekites, and the general tenor of it is far more universalist than the general tenor of the Bible if you include the Hebrew Scriptures. Islam is capable of expressions which I consider more Christian than most of what I hear from Christians these days, as witness this address on the Quebec Mosque killings (which reminds me of, for instance, the Amish reaction to their own massacre some years ago). I rather treasure the comment of one Muslim in a thread some years ago, after I expounded a thoroughly Christian concept of submission to the will of God, that I was a “good Muslim”. How could I do otherwise, given the eleventh step “Sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God, praying only for knowledge of his will for us and the power to carry that out”? To call me a “Good Muslim”, however, requires a broadness of definition very few Muslims would agree with, but “al-Islam” is “the way of submission”…

(For the avoidance of doubt, I am not actually likely to jump ships in that direction, for two reasons – firstly, Islam takes a very dim view of what it considers “apostates”, and I tend to manage to be heretical in any system I participate in, and secondly, bacon…).

Is there any possibility of true universalism without the supremacy of one of the universalist religions (all of which are a part of one or more tribal identities)? My rationalist friends would say that any such endeavour should not. However, they would replace religion with another philosophy (as far as I can see, humanity cannot form a viable tribe without some unifying philosophy), and pretty much any such philosophy is likely to be anathema to some people subscribing to any religion. I would also problematise such an endeavour on the basis that it would give no place to the spiritual side of human nature, and it is (to my thinking) exactly that spiritual side which is likely to bring people to consider themselves part of a greater whole, namely humanity, or that it would try to elevate the philosophy in question to a level which it is unable to bear (such as the way Communism used to be viewed by many in the last century).

I have a lot of sympathy with Karen Armstrong, who has described herself as a “freelance monotheist”, having started out Catholic, gone through a period of atheism and then studied Judaism, Islam and Buddhism in depth. I am, however, very sceptical that her path is one which could be followed widely, let alone universally. Granted, I know people who regard themselves as Christians and Buddhists, Christians and followers of Vedanta and am even aware of one or two who claim both Christianity and Islam; this is not to dwell on “Messianic Judaism” which strives to combine Christianity with Judaism, but without any significant Jewish membership – it is unfortunately little more than a covert Christian evangelism project, and I am very much not in favour of trying to convert anyone who already has a well-functioning faith (or philosophy). They, however, are probably all going to remain outliers, and all of them would be rejected by significant proportions of their chosen faith traditions, even those who claim “Buddhism plus” or “Vedanta plus”, neither of which is religiously exclusive, at least in theory.

There is perhaps more traction to be gained from finding a non-religion-specific philosophy which, however, doesn’t tread too heavily on any religious toes, and leaving the various faiths to accept minority status in the wider community. That is, let’s face it, what the American experiment attempted to do in the First Amendment to the Constitution. OK, I will grant that I don’t actually think the Founding Fathers intended anything more than preventing the various sects of Christianity which were dominant in one or more of the signatory staates from becoming the religion of the whole country (as most of them had at that point a lamentable record of oppressing people from other denominations, which is probably what the Pilgrim Fathers were hoping to create), aside perhaps two or three who had a more wide-ranging objective. (Incidentally, any of my more conservative readers who are happy with my strict construction here should note that I do consider the constitution needed to develop to meet changing circumstances, and the procedure for amendments is inadequate for that because too difficult, so while I wince slightly at the way legal decisions have gone, I think it was necessary; they should also note that using the same principles I would interpret the second amendment as allowing the restriction of any ownership of firearms to members of the armed forces, police or National Guard – and I might argue about the inclusion of the police!)

I do not here mean to suggest that the rest of the Constitution is a viable model for the world in general, perhaps with the inclusion of the Declaration of Independence,by the way. There are good features and bad ones about it, and current events strongly indicate to me that it’s system of governing is broken. I would suggest that the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is rather closer to the ethos I would like to see as universal.

That would, of course, mean that all the religious tribes would have to accept being minorities, at least unless and until one of them managed to secure a worldwide majority. Looking back at history, Judaism has managed to do this for a very long time; Christianity had its greatest expansion as a persecuted minority and Buddhism has done very well as a minority religion too. I can’t see this status as being bad for them – and, indeed, the keenness of the Pilgrim Fathers for setting up their own theocracy and persecuting others does make one wonder whether it is in any event very good for anyone else (more recently, Burma/Myanmar is an unpleasant reminder of how even the very peaceful Buddhism can be unpleasant when in effective control of a state).

But I still dream of the day when we can add to Paul’s words in Galatians:-

“There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, nor is there Christian, Muslim or Jew, Hindu, Buddhist, Jain or Sikh, Taoist, Animist or Confucian, Wiccan or Pagan, Discordian, Agnostic or Atheist, for you are all one in Christ Jesus”. (Italics my addition).

It would be nice if we could start with having that viewpoint throughout the many Christian denominations… there are huge numbers of Christian tribes, many of which consider other Christian tribes as the great enemy (rather like Jews and Samaritans). Can we start there?

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