Wednesday, May 04, 2005

The Scarlet "U"

Below are some extended thoughts on pluralism, framed as an engagement with one its most articulate advocates, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks. Responding, I think, to Samule P. Huntington's The Clash of Civilizations as well as 9/11, Sacks wrote The Dignity of Difference in 2002. He calls a plea for "tolerance in an age of extremism." I commented on the book briefly before, this time will be anything but brief.

The Good Stuff
There's a lot to like about the book. For example, its appreciation/critique of globalization is persuasive. "Morality," Sacks reminds us,
"belongs no less in the boardroom than the bedroom, in the market-place as much as in a house of prayer."
No argument there. McDonald's is no perfect company (yes, that was an understatement), but before we boycott Ronald we should recall that
"No two countries who have a McDonald's have ever fought a war against one another"
(minus the NATO campaign in Kosovo that is, but the point I think stands). Trade is good. War is bad. We should promote the virtues necessary for the first and not the second. In other words, the future may present us with a choice between trade or war with China. I pick trade.

The book discusses theology as much as economics. And in doing so it does not capitulate to relativism (as a cheeseball title like Dignity of Difference might lead one to believe). How could one call the book "relativist" when for Sacks, "the human project is inescapably a moral project"? How could the book be dismissed as another vacuous plea for ambivalence masked as "tolerance," when Sacks insists "something far stronger than toleration is required" in order for us to survive?

Here is Sacks' recipe for the postmodern world:
"Absent religious faith, add the failure of the 'Enlightenment project' to create a universal ethic, and the result is moral relativism - a way of thinking (or rather, refusing to think) about life choices that may be suited to a consumer culture, but one that is wholly inadequate... to the challenge of assertive ethinicities and exclusive belief systems."
Rather than accepting the recipe, Sacks insists on the missing ingredient of religious faith. Though the Enlightenment predicted that religion's
"public roles was at an end... The strange fact was, however, that religion refused to die. What has emerged is, in George Weigel's phrase, the 'desecularization of the world.'"
In other words, the lunar eclipse is over, and what do you know, the sun was there all along. Contrary to the claims of generations of European intelligentsia, God is not going away. Religion is back (even though it never really left). And therefore, as Sacks puts it, the book is a "a theological basis for respect for difference, based not on relativism but on the concept of covenant."

And so, deeply respectful of religion, he then sets out to give us religious folks a lesson in successful twenty-first century planetary cohabitation. But he does so by establishing a, shall we say, "New Covenant" with all world beliefs.

The Not-So-Good-Stuff
"The paths to salvation are many," the Rabbi explains.
"There are multiple universes of wisdom, each capturing something of the radiance of being and drefracting it into the lives of its followers, not refuting or excluding the others, each as it were the native language of its followers, but combining in a hymn of glory to the creator."
If the religions of the world therefore can just accept this idea (an idea which is arguably itself a religion) then there is hope.

Sacks' motivations are of course laudable. He doesn't want us to kill each other. Good for him. But here is his means of avoidance: God, Sacks writes,
"has given us the means to save us from ourselves... we are not wrong to dream, wish and work for a better world."
At such points the book, in my estimation, tends to degenerate into a well documented and sophisticated version of Can't we all just get along?

Despite my disagreements however I still can call Sacks' argument successful, because he is Jewish. He writes, "The God of the Israelites is the God of all mankind, but the demands made of the Israelites are not asked of all mankind." This is true enough. He concludes, "There is no equivalent in Judaism to the doctrine that extra ecclesiam non est salus, outside the Church there is no salvation."

Ah but you see, I'm not "in Judaism" (unless you count graftings, but more on that below).

The Christian Problem
What happens when the religion you profess is founded upon the fact that it is for everyone, as Judaism is not and Christianity very much is. In fact, one could make the case that the universal character of the Christian faith is the point of the New Testament (or at least of Luke, Acts, Galatians and Romans). Scholars often refer to the "sociological miracle" of the first century that resulted when the tribalized Roman world found unity in diversity in one new social body - the Church. The diversity that Sacks is seeking on a global scale may be contained by design within the Christian faith.

This ideal has of course often failed to be realized. But I don't see how anyone could convincingly argue that it's not in the charter.

Allow me to quote an earlier post of mine (such vanity that one):
"A Christian cannot follow suit [with Sacks' book], unless of course the charge to 'baptise all nations' actually reads 'baptize some nations' or the promise that 'every tongue shall confess and every knee shall bow' actually reads 'some tongues and some knees' or the assurance that 'Christ shall be all in all' actually reads 'Christ shall be some in some."
I can therefore read Sacks' book, learn from it, and strongly recommend it as a thoughtful perspective on globalization from a man both deeply intelligent and religious. But the very universal insistence that there can be no universal is a part I can't sign on to. Nor can a good Muslim. Nor can a good Marxist. And Christianity names itself among these as a universal religion with a truth to be offered to everyone.

The Jerk Problem
Granted, Christians with whom I share this conviction are unnecessarily abrasive in the way they share it, not to metion their bundling up lots of "extras" with the universal message that are by no means universal. This is a stategic disaster, amplified by the fact that these are the Christians repeatedly called for interviews on CNN. The desire to distance oneself from such rhetoric may be a reason why Sacks' rhetoric is so alluring. Who wants to be one of those jerks who thinks their way is the only one? To an extent then I think The Dignity of Difference could potentially provide the service of cooling off some hot-heads. But that being said, bathwater is bathwater. In this case the baby is the conviction that Jesus Christ is for everyone. Only one of them needs to go.

If however, the cooling off of a hot-head leads to a burning out (as can often be the case), then what are we Christians good for? I think gentle Jesus had some thoughts on that. Or, if you prefer, here's an earlier version of the saying, which concludes with a helpful admonition to not be a jerk: "Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with on another" (Mark 9:50).

Enter the Trinity...
Fortunately the role of a Christian in the twenty-first century doesn't have to just be a "no" to unchecked pluralism. In fact, the easiest way to lose the battle would be to think we've "won" if we stopped with that. Christians have the much more exciting task of unpacking just what kind of "universal" this is.

Sacks says that "Unity in heaven creates diversity on earth." But a Christian does not believe in mere unity in heaven, but a diversity in heaven (the Trinty) that, strangely, can creates a unity on earth.

Sacks is concerned that we make space for one another in our dialogue, and this is of course a genuine concern. So much so that even God has followed Sacks' advice. Explains one theologian,
"If letting-be belongs to the nature of infinite [that is, God's] freedom - the Father lets the Son be consubstantial God, and so forth - there is no danger of finite freedom [that is, human freedom], which cannot fulfill itself on its own account... becoming alienated from itself in the realm of the Infinite."
More of the same can be found here. If within the Trinity itself God has already permitted a diversity amidst Father, Son and Spirit - then there is no risk in humanity losing our distinctions (individually or even nationally) by participating in the life of this kind of God. To put it elsewise, if the "Absolute" is in itself diversified, then the postmodern prejudice against "Absolute Truth" has no beef with the Trinity.

The Trinitarian understanding of God is not that God is so "free" that he has to flex his infinite, absolute freedom leading to a Jean Paul Sartre's infuriated protest. God's freedom is well beyond the kind of smothering "divine" liberty that the existentialists abhorred. God is so free in fact that he can even give the different persons within his Godhead freedom - so free that he can even give his own creatures freedom to rebel against him. He is free enough to give them the choice to accept, or not accept his reconciling love.

Similarly, the Trinitarian understanding of God is not that God is so "powerful" that he has to flex his infinite, absolute power so mightily that it would threaten Nietzsche enough to have to compete - God is well more powerful than that. God has no need to be "macho" (which usually a sign of weakness anyway). Instead God is so powerful that he can become a creature among his creatures, allowing himself to be tried and condemned as a criminal before in a gesture of suffering love.

Such is the "freedom" and "power" of the Trinity. So free and powerful it can be bound helplessly to a cross. One might suggest a concept of God like that can afford to be universal.

Furthermore, the Trinity has a bizarre ability to appropriate.
Father: The transcedent greatness so beautifully expressed by the Platonists and Stoics, not to mention the holiness and demand for obedience of Islam is contained withing the majesty and mercy of the Father. Furthermore, the infinite nature of God is certainly large enough to swallow Buddhism's nirvanna, while personalizing it at the same time. It is not by accident that Christian and Buddhist monks have much in common.

Son: The particular historical engagement of God's dealings that Judaism emphasizes so well is of course preserved (and fulfilled) in this very Jewish Savior. Also, the anthropomorphic inisigts of Paganism are, not abandoned, but both cleansed and dignified in the Incarnation - which is not myth however, but fact.

Holy Spirit: It's not that Pantheism or Hinduism are without significant insights into the nature of God. But in the Perons of the Spirit the legitimate insights of God's presence (not indentity) in all of nature, and his infilling (not possession) of the believer are not only corrected but fulfilled.
One again, a God-concept like this can afford to be universal. And one should have enough confidence in it that there's no need to be a jerk in presentation. The Trinity: It sells itself!

What this doesn't mean
1. This doesn't mean Christians have God figured out (unless you can explain the Trinity to me). Nor do we have the whole story. We have the clue to the whole story.

2. This doesn't mean you'll find a "Gone Crusadin'" sign on my door. (But that being said, I found this review of interest.)

3. This doesn't mean I insufficiently understand the postmodern critique. I like the postmodern critique, and simply think the Trinity survives it. Proclaming omnipotence-crucified strikes me as the best way to combat Lyotard's legitimate fear of "totalizing power." Deconstruction: Not too threatening to followers of a God who already deconstructed himself. Shouldn't concepts of God that don't end up in suffering love summon the pomo-police before this one does?

4. This doesn't mean that a Christian knows who's "going to heaven" and who's "going to hell." We are continually told that there will be a lot of surprises about that. Perhaps the people who should be most worried in fact are Christians. But still, the very universal message must go out.

5. This doesn't mean that I'm presenting one particular church as the chief representative of the universal way of Jesus Christ. Both Catholics and Orthodox Christians make that claim, I am not doing that here. For better or for worse, I'm Protestant.

6. This doesn't mean I'm anti-Semitic. Supercessionists are regretfully uninformed of a mystery. The next verse even reads "All Israel will be saved" (11:26)!
So there you have it. I'm a Universalist. I wonder, does this kind of faith, with the above qualifications made, still fail the Sacks' test? This is, as I understand it, Chrisitianity packaged without the sodium reduction. Should it be taken off the shelves? Is it a threat to a balanced cultural diet?

I hate to sound like a reactionary, but sometimes it seems an
Adulterer would have an easier time than a Universalist nowadays. So if you've read the novel I guess the only question left is whether the "U" goes on one's shirt or one's skin.