Thursday, March 3, 2016

The Unity of God...and Other Controversies

As part of our offering of Adult Education opportunities at Shelter Rock, I have spent seventy-five minutes every Friday morning for the last year and a half teaching two of Abraham Joshua Heschel’s books, Man Is Not Alone and God in Search of Man. (The class is from 7:45 to 9:00 AM and all are welcome.) Both books were published more than half a century ago, Man Is Not Alone in 1951 and God in Search of Man in 1955, and both together—they were written separately, then marketed as companion volumes—constitute, at least in some sense, Heschel’s revision of Judaism (and religion in general) in light of the Shoah.

Perhaps that’s an unfair way to evaluate the books—Heschel doesn’t mention the Shoah other than obliquely in either book—but for a man as profoundly affected, including deeply personally, by the fate of European Jewry to have published these two books within the first post-war decade makes it almost impossible for me to read them any other way. They are complicated books too—well-written in Heschel’s occasionally too-florid English prose (English was, after all, his fifth or sixth language), sometimes a bit convoluted in terms of their inner logic, passionate and vivid in their rhetorical flourishes, and—at least in places—as dense as dense prose gets. And yet for all that, the books have withstood the test of time amply and well: even six decades after they were first published, they retain their rich vibrancy and their contemporary feel. I read them first when I was still in college—it was the same summer that I read Robert Pirsig’s great Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance and Thomas Merton’s The Seven Storey Mountain, so a very important season for me intellectually and religiously—and was beyond enthralled. Heschel died during my junior year of college, so I can’t say that my decision to enter the rabbinical school at JTS was motivated by my desire to study with him directly. But it would be more than fair to say that my emotional involvement with his books and his legacy made me feel that the school in which he taught was the one I wished to attend. And even though he himself was long gone by the time I finally arrived to begin my studies, there was more than enough of his spirit present in the institution still to convince me I had made the right choice.

Material we’ve been covering in our class provides an interesting backdrop to the story of Larycia Hawkins, the professor at Wheaton College in Wheaton, Illinois, who lost her job just last month after stirring up a huge controversy by choosing to wear a hijab—the Muslim woman’s head scarf—to work. Wheaton College is a four-year Christian liberal arts college near Chicago that self-defines as existing within “the evangelical Protestant tradition” and is well known, among other things, for having itself having served as a “station” on the Underground Railroad for slaves escaping from the antebellum South and, later, for graduating the first black person to earn a college degree in the state of Illinois. So the school itself has a noble history, but what was interesting to me about Professor Hawkins was that she wore her hijab not as a sign of her own identification as a Muslim—she herself is apparently a deeply committed Christian—but as an act of solidarity with Muslims in our country who, she believed, are widely and unfairly condemned holus-bolus as terrorists or terrorist-sympathizers regardless of their personal politics or beliefs, and who could only benefit from a friendly outsider expressing her solidarity with them.

Whether she was behaving courageously or foolishly (or both) is hard to say. But what interests me—particularly in light of our eighteen-month-long reread of Heschel’s books—is specifically her justification for standing with our nation’s Muslims despite her own religious affiliation elsewhere: because Christians and Muslims worship the same God, she explained, the differences between their religions are all matters of detail not of profound principle. Presumably, she would say the same about Jews, the third leg of that particular stool. And there is admittedly a certain inner logic to her thinking on the matter: if there is only one God, then by definition must not all who worship the one God be worshiping the same God? And if we are all worshiping the same God, then must not the differences between religions just be cosmetic in nature, somewhat in the way the cuisines of different countries appeal to the palate differently and have differing flavors and textures, but are ultimately all fashioned from some combination of fats, carbohydrates, proteins, water, vitamins, and minerals?

It sounds like so much innocent theological theorizing, but the international brouhaha that erupted—and that ultimately cost Professor Hawkins her job—suggested that she had somehow touched a deep nerve. In an essay in The American Interest, Peter Berger wrote the other week about a kind of counterpart decision by the highest court in Malaysia, which last month upheld a legal ban against Arabic-language Christian publications using the Arabic word for God, Allah, to refer to the God Christians worship. Failing to be impressed by the argument that the God of Christianity and of Islam must be the same God precisely because there is only one God, the court determined that the triune God Christians worship may never be referenced with the same word Muslims use for “God” because Christian dogma so distorts the absolute monotheism that Islam inherited from Judaism that the resultant deity, whatever pedigree it bears theologically or philosophically, simply is not the undifferentiated, wholly unified God revered by Muslims and, presumably, Jews. (To see Peter Berger’s essay, which I enjoyed very much, click here.)

Heschel falls directly into this debate in the earlier of the books, arguing that most people are moved to easily moved to piety through the cultivation of the sense of wonder, of absolute amazement (he calls it “radical” amazement), that derives directly from the humble contemplation of the grandeur of creation. And that that sense of faith in the Creator that derives directly from the contemplation of creation is the core concept of all religious thinking untainted by self-interest.

If that is so, then, the world’s religions—or at least those that are monotheistic in nature and do not fall prey to the pagan inclination to ignore the Creator and instead to deify creation itself—are all variations on the same theme. I remember reading somewhere that the difference between vanilla and chocolate ice cream—for all they taste different and look different—is some minuscule amount of flavoring, but that the chemical make-up of all flavors of ice cream is more or less exactly the same. Is the same true of religions, that they have different flavors but are essentially the same thing? In the first of his books, that’s approximately what Heschel suggests. And that is exactly the assertion that got Larycia Hawkins in so much trouble. The New Testament quotes Jesus as unambiguously saying just the opposite, that “no one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6). Professor Hawkins would no doubt wave that away as a bit of chauvinist rhetoric in the New Testament’s most anti-Jewish gospel that can and should be ignored, or at least set aside, by serious Christians. Her employers, equally clearly, did not agree. But what would Heschel have said? That’s the interesting question for me personally! 

In God in Search of Man, Heschel takes an entirely different approach, writing primarily about Judaism and attempting vigorously to counter the suggestion that religions are exactly like flavors of ice cream that are different solely because flavoring makes them taste differently but not because they truly are different in any truly meaningful way. That surely was not what Heschel wanted to believe, nor, I’m sure, was it what he did believe. And God in Search of Man is his effort to explain himself more clearly on the matter.

It is fascinating to me that no ancient language has a word that corresponds to what moderns mean by the word “religion.” (The Latin word religio, from which our English word derives, means something more akin to “piety” or “devoutness.”) I’ll write one day about the interesting phenomenon of things that seem so obviously to moderns to exist not having been named in antiquity because they didn’t strike the ancients as existing at all—the fact that there was no words for what we mean by “homosexuality” or “heterosexuality” in ancient times is my most interesting example, but there are also many others—but for the moment let’s consider religion in that light: as something that clearly seems to us to exist, yet which no one named in ancient times. Indeed, the notion that religions were things you could have one or another one of is a particularly modern idea that emerged from the study of comparative religion as it was first instituted in the nineteenth century in European universities. That specific way of thinking yielded the notion that the features of religion could be reasonably described in terms of other religions as well, the kind of thinking that leads to thinking of Ramadan as the Muslim Lent or of Easter as the Christian Passover. But what if the basic notion itself were flawed? There’s also no word for Judaism in ancient Jewish sources, by the way, and for a very interesting reason: because it did not strike the Jews of ancient times as even slightly correct to describe the relationship between God and Israel—and all that that relationship entails in terms of ritual, ethical, spiritual, and liturgical obligation—not as an elaborate, intensely sacred covenant but rather as a mere “ism” among countless others. That there are different religions in the world is true in the sense that countless cultures have evolved their own frameworks for spiritual development. But these spiritual systems exist on their own grids and in their own terms; they are specifically not each other’s equivalents in the way the world’s languages—or the world’s ice cream cones—essentially all are.

To wonder which of the world’s religions is superior to which other ones is thus itself almost a meaningless question, something like asking whether a chain saw or an oboe is the better “thing.” Both, surely, are things—they exist in the real world, they perform functions, they can be in good repair or broken, they are made of some combination of wood, metal, and plastic—but the comparison makes no real sense because they are not each other’s equivalents in any other sense at all. And the same can reasonably be said of the world’s religions—that they are not each other’s equivalents in any truly important way and so cannot meaningfully be compared, evaluated, and hierarchized merely because they respond to some of the basic needs of human beings to find meaning in life and solace in faith.

All that being the case, the firestorm of criticism Professor Hawkins was forced to endure was interesting for several reasons. First, because it is vaguely amusing that these ideas can still fire up so many people so passionately. Secondly, because the idea she put forward to justify her hijab was fully justifiable, there being only one God, but at the same time incapable of demeaning the adherents of any specific faith…most definitely including her own. That she was demeaned unacceptable as a faculty member as a result of her remarks about the oneness of God suggests a basic insecurity that demeans her former institution and suggests an unseemly uneasiness with the unity of the very God the faithful of all religions attempt to know…and to serve.

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