Cross-post: One God, many peoples I: JudeoIslamic universalism

This is the first of a 4-part series.  Please comment at the Orthosphere.

The reactionary blogosphere is largely a debate between Christians and secular or pagan antiliberals.  Thus, we argue a lot about whether Christianity is to blame for unleashing anti-cultural universalism and egalitarianism on the world.  The related but deeper question is what spiritual forces, whether or not they are distinctly Christian, have driven these movements. I’d like to start this little investigation by inviting a couple of interesting outsiders to have their say, reserving my own arguments for later.

First, here’s historian David Levering Lewis lamenting the victory of Charles Martel at Tours:

Had [Muslim general] ‘Abd al-Rahman’s men prevailed that October day, the post-Roman Occident would probably have been incorporated into a cosmopolitan, Muslim regnum unobstructed by borders … one devoid of a priestly caste, animated by the dogma of equality of the faithful, and respectful of all religious faiths … [T]he victory of Charles the Hammer must be seen as greatly contributing to the creation of an economically retarded, balkanized, fratricidal Europe that, in defining itself in opposition to Islam, made virtues out of religious persecution, cultural particularism, and hereditary aristocracy.

How about that?  Islam=equality, cosmopolitanism, and tolerance.  Christianity=particularism and hierarchy.  That’s the common wisdom among historians.  Not all monotheisms are the same, and if group loyalty is what you care about, you’re much better off with Christianity.  For their part, Muslims seem to be proud that their faith and its law teach individualism and equality, that it dissolves national and ethnic boundaries.

Second, listen to David Goldman, a.k.a. “Spengler”:

Tribal warfare is the bane of human society. During the 40,000 years before the dawn of civilization, some anthropologists estimate, two-fifths of males who survived infancy died in warfare. The great empires of the Near East and the West failed because they enslaved the peoples they conquered rather than integrate them. European Christianity offered a compromise: the ethnicities that occupied Europe after the collapse of the Roman Empire would join a universal Church in the spirit, but keep their ethnic nature in the flesh. Ultimately the flesh overwhelmed the spirit, and ethnocentric nationalism provoked the terrible wars of the 20th century.

Chinese civilization offered a different model: it integrated innumerable ethnic minorities into a unified culture centered on a written language and literary tradition, and offered the opportunity for advancement to everyone who came under the umbrella of this culture. Unlike Rome, it did not enslave subject populations to work giant estates, but emphasized the extended family as the fundamental unit of society.

What distinguishes Israel from all the other peoples of the ancient world west of the Indus River? Uniquely, the ancient Hebrews believed that their nation was defined not by ethnicity and geographic origin but rather by a code of practice given by divine mandate.

The Jews are not an ethnicity but a people defined by a partnership with the Creator God, in which they are obligated to recognize God’s presence in the details of their daily lives, and empowered to help in the work of creation. Individuals of all races can be adopted into this nation by accepting its responsibilities; in today’s State of Israel one sees hundreds of thousands of black African Jews from Ethiopia, as well as Jews of all ethnicities.

The Jews are not an ethnic nation but a multi-racial family. The Jews were the first people to apply the same laws to the foreigner as to the home-born. Indeed, they are commanded to love the stranger in the same way that the love themselves, because they were strangers in Egypt. It is a particular nation-indeed, a “nation apart”-that nonetheless has a universal purpose for all of humanity. The Jews are “the paragon and exemplar of a nation,” the German-Jewish theologian Franz Rosenzweig wrote a century ago.

What the Jews have in common with the Chinese, therefore, is a sense of loyalty to an ancient tradition that defines the obligations of each member of society and puts the family at the center of social life, as opposed to a mere tribal and ethnic loyalties. These are parallel ways of rising above tribalism.

Again, it is the Christians who have failed to rise above tribalism where now the Jews and even the non-monotheistic Chinese have succeeded.  I find it fascinating how a Jew and a Christian can characterize the same fact in opposite ways.  Christians would say that our faith has overcome tribalism because people of all races and tribes can become Christian, whereas for Spengler this same fact proves Christianity does not overcome tribalism, because after baptism ethnic loyalties are not erased.  Suppose one were to accuse the Jews of being themselves a tribe–the biological and adopted descendants of Abraham–of not having entirely transcended the ideology of ethnicity or the ideology of having a geographical homeland.  Such accusations neglect the genuine moral horror the Jewish people feel toward ethnic particularism outside their divine covenantal context, as seen for example in their leadership roles in the Frankfurt School and American civil rights movement.  True, Jewish theologians and sociologists often claim that Judaism maintains the value of the particular and non-universal in basing itself on the particular calling of Abraham, but this is particularity defined against established “universalizing” Christian or European cultures.  So again, the meaning of “defending particularity” is nearly reversed between us.

Christianity would seem to be the odd man out, surrounded by Muslim and Jewish (and maybe even Chinese) paths of universal brotherhood.  Readers are always offended when I suggest that Muslims and Jews are more similar to each other than either is to Christianity, that we are much more “pagan” (hopefully in a good way!) than the other two great monotheisms.  However, my impression is that our Elder Brothers agree with me.  Consider the controversy over Catholic prayers for the conversion of Jews.  In a letter defending their decision to cancel their participation in the Italian Bishops’ Conference’s “Day for the exploration and development of dialogue between Catholics and Jews”

In their reply, Laras, Luzzatto, and Nahum concluded: “It should be remembered that relations between Judaism and Islam have generally been more productive and serene than those between Judaism and Christianity.”

History has its indelible influence. But revisited today, in the thick of the war in Gaza, this tribute to Islam and this swipe against the Church sound surreal.

(This was 5 years ago–another war in Gaza.)  (Also, I think these interreligious stunts are a waste of time, so I’m ironically on the Jews’ side on pulling the plug.)  It may sound surreal to Sandro Magister, perhaps, but to many Jews, Muslims really are a more natural partner than Christians.  Let us not dismiss the wisdom of our Elder Brothers.  Let us ask what makes Christianity unique among monotheisms.

15 Responses

  1. I am not posting on the Orthosphere because I can no longer tolerate that place. Bonald, I am posting here because, even though I disagree with you, I respect your intellect. Of course you can always delete my comment.

    Let me start with universalism. The word “universalism” was actually the name of a Protestant group. This was the first truly universal religion and a good indication that universalism and liberalism come from Christianity.

    Islam and Judaism are not universalist at all. So then what is the real issue here? The real issue is what criteria is used to define a tribe, or as Jesus asked, who is your neighbor. Primitive people tend to be racist and define the tribe by race. Much of today’s Right is like this, and, unfortunately, Rabbinic Judaism is like this. That Jews come in all colors is irrelevant. What matters is that tribal membership runs in bloodlines which is clearly true of Rabbinic Judaism.

    The Old Testament produced a new definition of tribe. When Ruth joined the Israelites, she agreed that their god would be her god and their people would be her people. This was the criteria for tribal membership of the Israelites. Race was repeatedly rejected in the Old Testament as a criteria for tribal membership. Unfortunately Judaism has completely lost sight of what the Old Testament was trying to say. The Israelites were very tribal but also anti-racist. It was a tribe defined by religious morals. Jesus understood this and made this point in the good Samaritan story, a story that Christians seem to universally misunderstand. Mohammad also understood this point and he saw first hand the problems with clan loyalty that ran in bloodlines. So Islam follows the example of the Israelites of being very tribal but also non-racist. Unlike most Christians, Muslims seem not to have lost this concept.

    Christianity itself is very varied. The worst form of Christianity is Catholicism. Catholicism puts hierarchy above morals. Because of the consistent lack of morals in the Catholic world, religious morals couldn’t define their tribe. So the compromise was nationalism under Catholicism. Racism was tolerated while the Catholic Church defended itself by being the world’s most intolerant religion of other groups. This produced the well named Dark Ages which only ended when the Protestants freed themselves of Catholicism. Protestantism itself was very unstable and produced a great culture in its early years, but evolved into Liberalism and is now a horror very similar in many ways to Catholicism.

    Early Protestantism was the best form of Christianity and quite possibly the best religion in human history. But it is virtually gone now. The only remaining forms are traditional Anabaptist groups that are very obscure. So the best nontrivial form of Christianity today is Eastern Orthodox. Eastern Orthodoxy also compromises somewhat with nationalism, but in a more reasonable way than Catholicism does. Eastern Orthodoxy is more focused on preserving Christian principles than it is on political power and raw numbers of followers. So Eastern Orthodoxy is tribal in the good sense of the word. It is not focused on race and compromises with nationalism as needed. And it is less hierarchal than Catholicism. So my advice to decent Christians is to join Eastern Orthodoxy.

  2. That’s got to be one of the goofiest things I’ve ever read, Franklin. Do you have any evidence to support your claims?

  3. Marissa, I would be glad to answer any specific questions. Which of my claims would you like me to provide evidence for first?

  4. For one thing, the claim that “Catholicism puts hierarchy above morals” is risably false.

  5. Bonald, can you give me an example of the Catholic Church putting morality above hierarchy? I can give you as many examples as you want of the reverse.

  6. It does no good to give me examples of clergy behaving badly (although if you’re claiming that clergy never behave morally, that would be so silly that I wouldn’t bother refuting it). You are making a statement about dogma, and Catholic dogma is clear that neither secular nor ecclesiastic rulers have any authority to overturn either natural or divine positive law. In fact, the orthodox understanding of the positive law made by authorities is that its power comes entirely from natural law and serves only to specify its application to a particular society (where the law needs such additional determinations). “An unjust law is no law” is a commonplace observation among the scholastics.

    So, for example, the pope has no power to dispense from the natural law, for example by granting a dispensation for rape, adultery, abortion, etc. The pope has no power to dissolve a valid marriage.

    Have there ever been abuses of power in the Church? The fact that a Catholic can entertain the question, whatever the answer, proves that we do not regard the hierarchy as being above morality, or else the question would make no sense. We would never say that God has abused His power, because He really is above morality.

  7. I am not making statement about dogma, I am talking about practical action. If there was a law saying that the pope may not eat dirt, and the pope doesn’t eat dirt, this proves nothing because he has no reason to want to eat dirt, so there is no conflict. I don’t see any reason why the pope would want to give a dispensation for rape, adultery, or abortion either, so this is the same idea. My question is, when has there been a practical example of a conflict between papal power and morality where morality took precedence?

    That the Catholic Church is currently willing “entertain the question” is a practical means to power, not a result of morality. If it wasn’t willing to entertain such question, it wouldn’t be taken seriously in the modern world.

    I give the Eastern Orthodox patriarchs a lot of credit for never trying to grab absolute power over the whole church and for recognizing the importance of the consensus of members of the church for validating decisions of the leadership.

    While I am willing to debate Catholicism, and I sincerely hope you eventually convert to Eastern Orthodox, my main point here is about your blog post and why I think the idea of “JudeoIslamic universalism” is wrong.

  8. “I give the Eastern Orthodox patriarchs a lot of credit for never trying to grab absolute power over the whole church”

    Isn’t there a saying about a little knowledge of history being worse than no knowledge at all?

  9. I’m very familiar with Spengler’s work. Actually, it’s a bit of dodge to say that Jews are familial minded while eschewing nationalism and kinship. Since Jews view everything under the rubric of family, it just begs the question of whether kinship structures are part of family are not, and how those forms function in the groups in question. If Grace perfects Nature, which is undeniable, and men have natures, then ethnic stock is not something that can be universalized away, either in theory or in managed practice. This is a case of any stick being good enough to beat the “dead horse” of Christian-paganism. They may only succeed in beating it back to life.

  10. Regarding the above discussion, I think hierarchy and morality are inseparable. If there are higher parts of human nature that have dominion over the lower parts, then there are higher human beings who should guide lower ones.

  11. “I give the Eastern Orthodox patriarchs a lot of credit for never trying to grab absolute power over the whole church”

    This is antithesis to what Jesus taught though. He did not gather 12 disciples just to make each one autonomous. The bible is full of hierarchies and structure, whether it’s the Creationngels, or the priestly line in the OT.

  12. “Creation, angels,”… is what i meant to write, on the previous post, but my phone hit enter too soon.

  13. Mr. Smallwood,

    That’s a very good point about the boundary between tribalism and ethnicity being fuzzy. How widely are we allowed to carry loyalty to extended family before it becomes “racism”?

  14. Franklin,

    Practically speaking, it would have helped the Church a lot when trying to convert the Northern pagans if we had felt free to issue dispensations for incest and bigamy. I agree, though, that we’ve gone off the main topic.

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