Arrogant Monotheism

Let’s be up front. There is something about the self-understandings of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam that can sound pretty arrogant.

In an interfaith dialogue event last night I heard the Jewish representative explain how Israel was called to be a “light to the nations,” a moral and spiritual example calling people to return to the covenant God made with all humanity through Noah. The Christian representative explained that Christians call all people to the truth Christ most fully and uniquely represents. And the Muslim representative explained how although there have been many prophets, Muhammad is the final prophet, the Qur’an the primal, complete, and final revelation, so that all humans should follow Muhammad and his teaching.

So I asked them all: Does your religion have anything to learn that is spiritually or ethnically substantial from other religions or people outside your faith? The answers were effectively, “no.” Each religion as a religion is self-sufficient and complete, and either fully encompasses or supersedes all other religious truths.

In one sense this is a problem for all religions. Clifford Geertz has observed that religion, by definition, gives meaning by offering a complete and satisfactory system for explaining reality. For a religion to admit incompleteness is in some sense to undermine its own credibility as a provider of meaning.

The exception might be those religions whose explanation of reality includes the inability of any human or group of humans to grasp reality in a single lifetime so as to achieve whatever end for human life the religion believes in. Usually these religions (notably Hinduism and Buddhism) locate present reality in the midst of endless, recurrent, or multiple universes, and posit multiple lifetimes to obtain the wisdom necessary to relate to transcendent reality. There is always a potentially inexhaustible supply of revelations and religious teachers both before and after any particular human life or community. (I should note that this doesn’t necessarily give these religions a pass on arrogance. For although they acknowledge the incompleteness of religious knowledge, they regard this belief in the incompleteness of all religious dogma as a higher and greater truth than the assertion of completeness found in monotheistic religions.)

The so-called Abrahamic faiths have a particular problem. First they either reject or at least do not acknowledge the idea of multiple lifetimes in an endless universe or plenitude of cosmos. And each of them believes that within a temporally bounded creation God reveals God’s self as fully as possible at specific historical times through specific communities. Thus their followers typically profess to believe that the fullness of what God wants humans to know is found in a specific, bounded, community. The community is then responsible for representing God’s truth to those who were not part of the initial revelation.

This belief, by the way, isn’t just a matter of self-assertion. It is rooted in a specific belief about the nature of God in relation to all humans in history. To grasp that God cares for and about individual humans and communities you must grasp that God loves specific humans in specific communities and situations. A God involved in human history is a God involved in particularity and human distinctions. When this God reveals God’s self the revelation will be unique rather than generic or metaphysical. And if one revelation is both unique and complete then it isn’t hard to see that to some extent other revelations, if they exist at all, are not complete.

Hence an attitude of arrogance is hard to suppress. We who have received the revelation may not each know it all, but as a community that possesses then entire revelation we uniquely know all there is to know about God. You others may have some knowledge of God, but it is either generic and incomplete (a typical Jewish or Christian idea) or limited to a specific cultural moment (a typical Muslim idea), or both.

At our dialogue session the Jewish representative hinted at a line of teaching that overcame this arrogance through a particular line of reasoning associated with Abraham Isaac Kook. One finds a similar line of reasoning in Islamic thought, particularly that associated with mysticism, although it wasn’t mentioned at the dialogue session. In any case both are outside the normal bounds of Jewish or Muslim orthodoxy.

But I can’t speak for these traditions. As a Christian it seems to me that we must first confront the potential for arrogance arising from our theology of revelation, and how deeply it is rooted in our concept of God and God’s relationship with humanity. And we must then deconstruct the sources of this arrogance, asking if we have really understood what it means to claim that Jesus is God incarnate, the Christ, who is bound through history to a single, distinct, community in a unique way. I’ll take this up in the next blog.

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