Unwilling Self-Negation on the “Myth of the Judeo-Christian West”

[Am reposting this because I've added some eye-opening passages from key prayers of Islam, Christianity and Judaism.]

Ali makes some intriguing observations about the “myth” of a Judeo-Christian West.

A particularly stimulating claim is that there is no unified Judeo-Christian religious tradition because Jews have for much of recent Western history been advocating–as an understandable defensive tactic by a vulnerable minority in Christian societies that were steeped in anti-Semitism–secularism that goes (or, at least until recently, went) against the grain of Christian thought in fundamental way.

Furthermore, the legacy of Jewish thought in the West reveals that almost the entire corpus of great Jewish thinking has tried to pull the West towards secularism, and towards abandoning a scripture-centric or revelation based society. Jews recognized fairly early that if the society was guided by revelation, it would be run by the Christian interpretation of God, and as such, Jews would be presumptively ostracized.

He also argues provocatively,

The only thing Judeo about Christianity is its acceptance of the Old Testament (and there is nothing Christian about Judeo). After that, Christianity has not exactly been very receptive to the Jews. It has not, in fact, been very receptive to the Old Testament either. To this day the American South is full of Churches where the pastors will more than casually tell you that the Old Testament is a book of war and anger and the New Testament is a book of love (thereby suggesting that the Christians are compassionate from the get-go, while the Jews have to overcome their book to be so).

I wouldn’t put it that starkly, but I think he’s on to something.    When discussing the place of Judaism in Christian tradition, Christians rarely acknowledge how much of Jewish tradition they reject, how radically they depart from the Jewish worldview, and how problematic their readings of Judaism are to Jews.

I mean no offense to Christian readers out there, but I think this is the result of the complex (some might argue “schizophrenic”) relationship with Judaism established by the early Christians.  Perhaps it was inevitable since they needed to compete with (which in practice generally means to discredit) a rival religion while also invoking its tradition to give their new creed intellectual respectability and historical roots.  Judaism was the establishment against which they rebelled, and they had to simutaneously coopt and repudiate it.  For centuries, Christianity consciously defined itself in opposition to Judaism and Jews at the same time that it claimed their patrimony, a rather curious and conflicted state of affairs.

In a different world with a different distribution of power, I think Jews would have objected loudly to this, but in the world we know Jews have had to allow the icons of their religious tradition and identity become so taken over by gentiles, so monopolized by outsiders to their tradition, the reading of Jews of the Jewish scripture and tradition has been relegated to a footnote in history for the majority culture.

I also would like to know how the many Christian theologians through the ages who argued passionately that “the Jews” were Christ-killers and Christ-rejectors would feel about this grand tradition.  Assuming they’d accept the possibility of a Judeo-Christian tradition, they’d probably it zero-sum game, with Christians having assumed the birthright of the Christ-killer Jews.  What, their anti-Semitic views don’t count in your conception of the Judeo-Christian tradition?  Hmm.  What’s this grand tradition based on then, post-Enlightenment thought?  How can one wax about an ancient tradition while ignoring the ideas of many of its earlies and most important thinkers?

Anyway, back to Ali’s post.  One commenter argued that Ali had overlooked the significance of the frequency with which the stories of sin and punishment of the Tanakh, or Hebrew Bible[*], are invoked in American churches, but I think this misses the basic point that the prevailing Christian reading of Jewish history and thought greatly shortchanges Judaism in order to establish the superiority of (and therefore the need to convert to) Christianity.  As I’ve noted before, the concepts of Divine Love, Compassion and Forgiveness are often implied by Christians to be alien to the Old Testament (tell that to the Israelites, who keep sinning and getting forgiven).  And to Islam, for that matter, despite the fact that such sentiments are repeated constantly in the Quran.

My problem with the prevailing notion of Judeo-Christian tradition is different from Ali’s.   I find it doctrinally inconsistent and politically prejudiced today.

On the doctrinal plane (i..e, as opposed to the politico-cultural one that Ali is bringing into the discussion), the beliefs and values shared by Judaism and Christianity and which distinguish them from other world religions apply in spades to Islam.  By any theologically and philosophically rigorous standard, the Western religious tradition is made up of Judaism, Christianity and Islam.  You cannot exclude Islam without repudiating the criteria upon which this link is made in the first place.

In fact, doctrinally speaking there is a inner core to the Western Tradition which could be termed the “Judeo-Islamic tradition”.   Christianity is by definition excluded from this tradition due to its ambiguous conception of monotheism (i.e., the Trinity, which ascribes to God a son) and its rejection of the authority of the Law in daily life (i.e., halakha/sharia), which have very radical implications and which both religions’ orthodox traditions would consider rank heresy.

Speaking of the Trinity, if we’re going to start arbitrarily restricting membership to the club of Western Religious Tradition, Christians might do well to ponder how similiar the Trinitarian conception of monotheism is to that of some forms of Hinduism (Christian explanations of how the Trinity is monotheistic sometimes bear an eerie reseblance to Hindu discourses on the different aspects of the one True Reality), and how dissimiliar both are to the strict conceptions of monotheism found in Islam and Judaism.    We’re talking about a religious tradition here.  What’s a more decisive criterion for inclusion than its conception of the Divine?

Still not convinced?  First, look at the Islamic statement of faith, Laa ilaha il Allah Muhammadur Rasul Allah (“There is no god, but Allah and Muhammad is His Messenger.”) or the Al-Ikhlas or “Unity” chapter of the Quran:

In the Name of Allah, the most Compassionate, the Merciful
Say He, Allah is One.
Allah is independent of all beings.
He begets not,
Nor is He Begotten.
And there is no creation equal to Him.

Now, take the Shema Yisrael, Judaism’s most important prayer, which begins:

Hear, Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is One
Blessed be the Name of His glorious kingdom for ever and ever
And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might.


Or Maimonides “Thirteen Articles of Faith“, the first 5 of which are:

  1. Belief in the existence of the Creator, be He Blessed, who is perfect in every manner of existence and is the Primary Cause of all that exists.
  2. The belief in G-d’s absolute and unparalleled unity.
  3. The belief in G-d’s noncorporeality, nor that He will be affected by any physical occurrences, such as movement, or rest, or dwelling.
  4. The belief in G-d’s eternity.
  5. The imperative to worship Him exclusively and no foreign false gods.

Now, compare the foregoing texts to some preeminent statements of Christian faith.

The Apostles Creed begins as follows:

I believe in God, the Father almighty,
creator of heaven and earth.

I believe in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord.
He was conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit
and born of the Virgin Mary.

Or the Nicene Creed, which begins in the same vein:

I believe in one God, the Father Almighty
Maker of heaven and earth, and of all things visible and invisible:

And in one Lord Jesus Christ,
the only-begotten Son of God, begotten of the Father before all worlds;
God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God;
begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father,
by Whom all things were made:
Who for us men and for our salvation came down from Heaven,
and was incarnate by the Holy Ghost of the Virgin Mary, and was made man,

More similiarities between Islam and orthodox Judaism are revealed in the remaining text of the Jewish prayers, especially concerning religious practice and ritual.  (One particularly interesting parallel is how both Jews and Muslims have interpreted a verse in their scripture to mean that they are literally to wear a prayer close to their hearts.  Just as some Jews have worn the mezzuza as an amulet based on a literal interpretation of a line in the Shema, so have Muslims worn Qurans as amulets based on a comparable line in the Quran concerning keeping Allah’s words close to one’s heart. )

So, explain to me again by what religious standard Islam is the odd man out.  Obviously the reason for its exclusion from the Judeo-Christian religious tradition can’t be theological, as it is far closer to Judaism theologically than Christianity.

Now, my aim is not to attack anybody’s faith–I have great respect for Christianity–but simply to point out a doublestandard in how Islam is painted as alien to the Western religious tradition and encourage Christians to be open to the concerns of Western Muslims at their exclusion from the pale of Western religion.

Now, I realize that Judaism has evolved greatly and that the views on halakha of many contemporary Jews are ironically much closer to those of Christians–much more “antinomian”, if you will–than those of Muslims, but it seems to me that if we’re intellectually honest we will concede that this is a more recent historical development, and that here we’re actually talking about second, newer and rather eclectic notion of the “Western tradition” that is quite distinct from its predecessor.  We can’t invoke “the tradition” while we ignore its most fundamental and longstanding characteristics.  These aren’t trivial points.

Finally, I would contend that in our era of Muslim bashing and apologia for Empire, the term “Judeo-Christian” can be  employed for a new and sinister end, as a fig leaf concealing the imposition of Christian Western cultural and social values.  Sure, today Jews contribute  disproportionately to the development of these values in the public square, but I think it debatable as to whether they do so qua Jews.   All the “Judeo-Christian” talk we hear from Western hardliners reminds me of the media’s dutiful reports on the actions of “Coalition Forces” in Iraq and the decisions of the “International Community” despite the fact that the reality is that today Washington is generally imposing its will unlilaterally.

The comments on Ali’s post are also worth reading.

I should note that I firmly believe in the deep spiritual kinship of Islam, Judaism and Christianity.  Greater awareness of the common foundations of the Abrahamic tradition is greatly needed, among adherents of all three religions.  For me, these great religions are allies against the forces of nihilism, materialism and other spiritual ailments.  One of the enduring tragedies of modern Islamic reform efforts is how they have failed to generate any popular debate about simplistic, dehumanizing attitudes towards Jews and Christians (and even though the Quran provides ample ammunition for a broader vision of spirituality that includes Jews and Christians).

The problem is when we allow prejudices to justify distortions of the facts, of the shared religious history of Jews, Muslims and Christians.

An aside:  I try to avoid the anachronistic and tendentious terms, “Old Testament” and “New Testament”, as they foist upon non-Christians a host of apriori Christian assumptions.  To label them thus, without any explanation or qualifier, is to assert the Christian view of human history culminating in the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus Christ; in other words, calling them that is basically to talk like a Christian.  Which is fine if you’re a Christian.  I’m not.

Obviously, these terms have rich cultural and literary resonances and I fully and respectfully understand why Christians would use these convenient terms automatically in daily conversation, but we must concede that they aren’t neutral or objective. I would argue that their automatic usage even today inthis era of diversity is an indication of the extent to which a Christian worldview continues to be subtly imposed on religious minorities in Western societies.

Imagine if Muslims insisted everyone refer to the Gospels as the “Corrupted Injeel“.The implications are comparable.  While I am not offended by these
terms, I do think their assumptions need to be openly acknowledged in a modern, multi-cultural and tolerant society.  If we’re serious about
dialog, we should strive to use language that is not inherently prejudicial.

  • http://musicalchef.blogspot.com musicalchef

    Interesting post. I guess the Judeo-Christian tag really just refers to who controls things in this joing.
    I had a question. I’ve seen “God” written as “G-d” a lot lately. What is that for? Just curious.

  • http://abusinan.blogspot.com Abu Sinan

    Great stuff Svend. My issue with Christianity, and I come from a Christian background, is how the religion and the people pick and choose, then often add new stuff.
    There is no scriptual basis for the trinity and many early Christians denied it. The Trinity, in my experience, is one of the leading issues for Christians who convert to Islam.
    Picking and choosing of what is written in the New Testament bothers me as well. Jesus says that “not one jot or tittle of the old law shall change until earth and heaven come to pass,” yet the vast majority of Christians ignore the old law. They point to a dream that a disciple had where pork was on a table and God told him that all of this is good for you.
    This man was not a prophet, certainly not God, yet his views are put before Jesus, a prophet(or as they believe God himself)? There is a litany of such things.
    The New Testament says that women who go uncovered are a shame. Women that have questions in church should wait until they get home and ask their husbands rather than raise their voice in public.
    Like one Western commentor said after 9/11, if Jesus came back today he’d feel more at home in a mosque than a church.

  • thabet

    Here’s an article you might be interested in. It looks at the similarities between Islamic and Judaic practices.

  • http://abusinan.blogspot.com Abu Sinan

    Musical- There is a belief in Judaism that the name of God is too holy to write. Hence Jews will often never completely write the name of God and will skip a letter or two.
    This isnt something I agree with. The name of God, as such, is something that we have come up with. God, as we know Him, doesnt, I believe, have a personal name as we would know it. God is too all emcompassing for that.

  • http://akramsrazor.typepad.com svend

    Thanks for the great comments.
    Abu Sinan, I obviously agree, though I’d phrase it differently. I wouldn’t say that there is *no* scriptural support for the idea–”support” meaning some passages that could be interpreted in a way favorable to the idea–but that there is very strong evidence for a “Jewish” (and also Islamic) reading of Jesus. My biggest problem with Christian readings of the Gospels isn’t that they find the Trinity there, but rather that they treat this debatable conclusion as self-evident. Even if they’re right and we’re wrong, it isn’t.
    re: “G-d”
    Not that I’m an expert, but I know that there’s a longstanding tradition in Judaism to
    1) It’s sinful to utter God’s real name, which can only be used by the High Priest in the Temple;
    2) Its pronunciation has been lost. Now, we only know its consonants, YHWH. [Hebrew, like Arabic, is written without vowels.] (Often called the Tetragrammaton.) That’s where we get “Jehovah” and “Yahweh”, which are speculation on how to pronounce the Tetragrammaton.
    3) Judaism, like Islam, has a prohibition on allowing God’s name to be mistreated (e.g., put in the trash), so it makes sense to minimize that risk by not writting it out fully.
    4) Jews use alternate names, divine titles, instead of “God” where possible. For example, in prayers they say Adonai (“Lord”, using it even when reading aloud Biblical passages that employ the name “YHWH”) and in conversation will say Hashem (“Name”).
    I’ve noticed a trend among African-American Muslim publications (e.g., The Muslim Journal) to use the “G-d” notation, presumably because of the Jewish style. Can’t hurt to be extra careful and respectful, even if I’m not sure it’s required from an Islamic perspective.
    BTW, this Wiki entry says that this is a practice of the Chabad, a branch of the the ultraorthodox Hasidic tradition.
    Have long been quite interested in Hasidism, btw. I find their mix of strict traditionalism, mysticism, and intellectualism fascinating.

  • http://profile.typekey.com/dbrutus/ TM Lutas

    Christianity, as religion, started with the miracle of Pentacost. Until then, there was Jesus, his preaching, his prophetic ministry, his instructions to the apostles, but there was no Church. With the descent of God’s Holy Spirit on the apostles, an institution was created that was filled with men, fallible men, but protected by God from certain forms of error. It was this God filled institution that created the Bible, picking among the two extant versions of the Jewish scriptures and deciding which books were part of the christian canon, which were of value but not to be included in the Bible (a good example is the Didache) and which were to be rejected as false.
    If you don’t know about Pentacost or you don’t get what Pentacost is, then you will be hopeless in the project of understanding christianity. This has led to rather unconvincing islamic critiques in my experience.
    As for the Trinity, I would say that we do not have appropriate words for what God is. He is unique and beyond our ability to directly perceive Him in all his glory. So we do our best, stretching role words like Father, Son, Holy Spirit into talk of persons of one substance. But we are really blind mutes feeling the elephant.
    God *is* one. But believing in the divinity of Jesus (as christians do) without creating the Trinity leaves one with the distinct impression that God is mentally ill, a blasphemy. Believing in the prophethood of Jesus without divinity is similarly unsatisfying (though I know that muslims are satisfied with just that) because Jesus is rather clear about his divinity in our scriptures (sorry, just can’t believe that the “lying scribes” got to all the copies). Trinitarian christianity is what you’ve got left after you’ve run down the rest of the possibilities and found them dead ending.

  • http://akramsrazor.typepad.com svend

    Thanks very much for the instructive comments and background, TM.
    I hope my comments didn’t offend you in any way. I believe that in a diverse society it’s best to be up front about theological/religious disagreements rather than censoring oneself for fear of misunderstandings. So long as disagreements are expressed respectfully and constructively (which was my intention), I think we’re all the better for the discussion.
    I’m familiar with the Pentecost and the gifts of the spirit that occurred there according to Christian tradition. Whether I “understand” that fateful event is no doubt debatable from a Christian perspective, given that I’m not a Christian. Which is quite understandable.
    Now, my purpose in commenting on this topic was not to critique Christianity or Christian faith–not that my opinion of them should or is likely to make a whit of difference to any Christian–but simply to highlight what I consider to be a harmful doublestandard.
    I’m sure you’re aware how hard some elements of the American political spectrum are working to banish Islam from discussions of the Western religious and historical tradition of which it is an integral component and you probably understand the motivations there far better than I. There’s nothing innocent about this rhetoric. In some people’s hands, the category of “Judeo-Christian” has become a tool for reinforcing prejudices and fears about Muslims without acknowledging their real agenda.
    I don’t really mind people voicing their concerns about Islam. In fact, I expect it, as otherwise they’d probably be Muslim. But I demand that they do so in a way that is reasonably intellectually honest and historically grounded. They can’t invoke this imaginery, utterly ahistorical Islam-free Western religious tradition.
    re: the Trinity
    While I obviously don’t subscribe to the belief, I agree with your explanation. Language is inadequate for expressing so many relatively mundane things, so of course it will fail us with the Divine. One could argue that the only way to capture His truth is through paradoxes (e.g., the notion of a triune godhead, and one that includes a father and son who are “coeternal”).
    My point certainly wasn’t to attack those beliefs, so much as give Christians a taste of how it feels to be on the receiving end of these uncharitable and simplistic interpretations. Obviously, there’s a world of difference between Christian theology and Hindu theology, but I think my comparison was no more unfair than the way Islam’s profound simliarities to Christianity and especially Judaism are swept under the rug due to contemporary Western prejudices.
    I don’t agree with your reading of the Gospels, which probably isn’t a surprise. First, like a number of Jewish scholars and even some Christian ones, I find the Gospels much more “multi-vocal” concerning the critical questions upon which Christian faith is based. Second, I do not accept the unspoken epistemological assumptions which are often taken for granted by Christians (e.g., the notion that we have sufficient evidence to warrant accepting on face value a report of an event that defies all know laws of nature and science, ie the Resurrection). I don’t think these assumptions are self-evident truths, at least from a purely logical perspective.
    But this shouldn’t be a shock given that I’m not a Christian.

  • http://www.snappingturtle.net/jmc/tmblog/ TM Lutas

    svend – The reason I brought up Pentacost was because of Abu Sinan’s less than informed characterization of St. Peter. Certainly, St. Peter was not God. He was, however, part of the continuing miracle of Pentacost and he did have the right to say what he did in light of that miracle and the specific powers that Jesus gave his apostles and they passed on to their successors. One of those miraculous things that come out of Pentacost is the Bible itself.
    I think that you are mistaking the treatment of muslims for something that it is not. The history of jews in the US is longer than the history of muslims and, frankly, I think that if you were to look at the problems jews faced in this country and compared them to what muslims faced, I do not think that you would like to trade places. You face no restrictions on entry to schools and jobs and the quantity and virulence of bigotry in this century compared to the 19th is thankfully much lower. Historically, the new guys on the block get knocked around in this country until they prove themselves loyal and useful. Even very old minorities like the germans can have a real downgrade in treatment if there’s a war with the old country (see WW I and WW II).
    So muslims are in a bit of a tight spot, admittedly. Based on my review of US history, you guys are doing better than average for minorities in this situation. Better than average still sucks.

  • http://akramsrazor.typepad.com svend

    Thanks, TM.
    Well, the way I see it all bigotry is wrong and to be denounced regardless of the prevalence of comparable problems in the past, and these increasingly widesrpread prejudices are not only being downplayed but sometimes held up as “pragmatism” or defense of “Western tradition”, which makes them especially doubly concerning.
    One way we’re not doing better is that today prejudices against us are being clothed in idealistic-sounding rhetoric. That’s dangerous. In the past, bigots didn’t wrap themselves in universal values while advocating the disenfranchisement of those they hated.
    Also, I think these prejudices and doublestandards are dangerous for us all, as they encourage us to pursue boneheaded policies that doom “us” to needless conflicts with “them”.