Monotheism doesn’t mean ‘we’re No. 1’
HERE WAS last weekend’s record of work done in the name of God: A Texas pastor says voters should reject any candidate who is not “truly a believer in Jesus Christ.’’ Israeli zealots in Jaffa vandalize Muslim and Christian cemeteries. In Cairo, Islamist mobs, having attacked the Israeli Embassy last month, attack Coptic Christians, leaving more than two dozen dead. Praise the Lord. Hallelujah. Allahu Akbar.
These three incidents - involving American “values voters’’ bigotry, the Israeli-Palestinian territorial dispute, and unresolved power struggles in Egypt - are not equivalent. But they are alike in revealing what happens when embers of earthly conflict are fanned into flames by the heavenly justification of a twisted monotheism. Jews, Christians, and Muslims believe that there is only one God, but that faith is often taken to mean that there is only one truth. The three monotheisms have all been heard to declare, “We have that truth; you don’t.’’ Those who do not affirm that truth are infidels, deserving of rejection. Thus: Mormonism is a cult; “Death to Arabs’’ was scrawled at the Jaffa grave sites; Coptic Christians and Jews whose roots go back thousands of years have no place in today’s Egypt.
Ironically, the three religions that define themselves around God’s oneness have aimed their contempt more toward one another than toward any other groups, from polytheist to pantheist to atheist. Far-right evangelical Christians take more umbrage from fellow Christians who, in their view, believe wrongly (formerly Catholics, lately Mormons) than they do from infrequent churchgoers like Ronald Reagan who nonetheless proclaim their faith loudly. Christian anti-Semitism has been lethal because Jewish rejection of claims made for Jesus cuts far more deeply than the denials either of ancient paganism or modern secularism. Jews and Muslims are locked in furious conflict over Jerusalem because of a shared reverence for its holiness.
Abraham is remembered as the founder of monotheism, and much is made today of his being the common father of the “Abrahamic religions.’’ But sibling rivalry can be the bitterest kind, and among these three the competition has been exacerbated by a mistaken monotheism: For my God to be true, yours has to be false. For my claim to win (political, theological, geographical), yours has to lose.
But what if monotheism is not about being number one? In fact (and the great Jewish sage Moses Maimonides emphasized this), the primal Hebrew intuition that God is “one’’ pointed not to a numerical character, but a moral meaning - not to a quantity, but to a quality. God is one not in the exclusiveness of counting, but in the inclusiveness of creating. One as in “E Pluribus Unum’’ - communion, not conquest. This suggests that at the root of existence is a principle not of discord, but of reconciliation.
To say, as the Book of Genesis does, that God is the creator of all that exists - not just of the tribe - means that all creatures are alike in participating in God’s life. That all humans - not just “us’’ - are in the image of God means every person counts as much as every other. Therefore counting misses the point.
This vision of oneness, in my reading as a Christian, is what launched the religion known as Judaism, what motivated Jesus, and what gripped Mohammed. If Judaism has survived through the millennia, and if both Christianity and Islam have seized the imaginations of multitudes, the core reason is not a spirituality of combat, but a belief in the promise of peace.
Given time’s long chronicle of holy war, and today’s contentions, this take on God’s oneness is readily refuted. Religious true believers and anti-religion critics are alike in assessing monotheism as a source of contempt. The former justify it; the latter regret it. But those who would rescue the name of God from the sponsorship of hatred must retrieve from the wreckage of this history a different tradition.
Such is the scope of tolerance embedded in the oneness of God, alive in every person, that not even those who betray it are excluded. Even so, the Texas pastor, the Israeli zealots, and the Cairo mobs are to be denounced, their acts rejected, and, especially, their self-righteous claim to divine sanction debunked.
James Carroll’s column appears regularly in the Globe.