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.
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