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.

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