Locally, the cultural transition from polytheism to monotheism always involves an argument about divine merit. The critical consumer of religion would have been expected to ask “Why should I worship your god?” Not surprisingly, then, the major tenets of monotheistic religions are concerned with the nature of God. In the Old Testament, God is the omnipotent creator. In Islam, the fundamental tenet of faith holds that “There is no divinity except in God (and he has no partners).”
This creates the context for today’s tawdry and tendentious theological arguments between Jews, Christians and Muslims. For the Jew, God is the commanding but devoted groom to the Chosen People. To the Christian, God manifested as man in an act of redemptive service. For the Muslim, God is the fundament of reality and thus the only meaningful subject for contemplation. The Jew argues against Christianity and Islam as against adultery. The Christian, presented with contradictory scripture, uses fragments of Jesus’s teachings to argue that he is the only path to redemption. And while the Qur’an holds that none of God’s messengers can be ignored, it also teaches that Mohammed (pboh) was the culminating prophet, and so that the Qur’an is authoritative scripture, even when it grossly elides the writings of the Torah and Bible.
These controversies provide fertile ground for political manipulation. Al Qaeda was led by a man whose principal concern was the corruption of the Holy Places by the Saudi dynasty. The House of Saud in turn uses its oil wealth to propagate the literalist theology of the Wahabbists that supported their claims to monarchy. The Republican presidential front-runners rally their base by proposing crimes against humanity justified by the idea that Muslims don’t value their own lives. And the Zionists rally Christian support for a slow annexation of Palestine by reference to an ancient land grant and obscure end-times prophesy in the Book of Revelation.
The mature religious scholar admits that all arguments concerning the nature of God are futile. God is infinite, and therefore cannot even be described, much less understood. Unfortunately, this leads to religious relativity. The principal deity of any religion (such as the Hindu Brahma) can be identified with God. In the Qur’an, tolerance is suggested by the warning that not all the prophets of Allah are known to us. Worse, in the Old Testament other gods are mentioned by name, and the inducements to worship only Yahweh are backed by dire threats. To the modern reader, the character of Abraham’s God is not always appealing.
The way out of these dilemmas is to recognize that while God may by the object of religious devotion, humanity is the subject of religious action. That perspective leads us to wonder, of each stage in the journey, what it was the humanity received for its devotion. Naturally, the history of the traditions of Abraham is limited to the human perspective, and in focusing on males leaves much wanting for those seeking to bring women back into the process. But the Torah, the Bible and the Qur’an are all the record we have. What can we make of them?
Prior to Abraham, a mature reading of Genesis would hold that man was offered the guidance of divine wisdom and the support of divine mercy. This was constrained in the covenant with Noah, in which a frustrated God makes men responsible for managing their own justice.
The story of Abraham and his progeny charts the development of moral fortitude in humanity’s change agent, the unstable male. The degree of the necessary transformation is foretold when Abraham is asked to sacrifice his son Isaac, with a ram substituted when Isaac shows fear. It is two generations later that significant strength arises in the lineage, when Israel takes under his wing Joseph the orphaned first-born of his true love Rachel. Even so, while Joseph’s virtue impels his rise to the top of Egyptian society, the Hebrews are subordinated to Egyptian culture. His strength seems to fail its purpose. From the history of the Patriarchs, the only obvious lesson is that boys need fathers.
The story resumes with the Exodus from Egypt and wanderings to the Promised Land. Raised as an Egyptian prince, Moses possesses all the intellectual skills necessary for leadership, but his people are psychologically weak. The work done in this part of the Bible is to create a society devoted to rational problem solving. This is accomplished through the propagation of a complex legal code and foundation of a dedicated tribe of philosophers.
With this resource in place, God again enters into direct relationship with the people after their entry into the Promised Land. The nation, established through conflict, is beset by enemies, but God raises up heroes to prevent its destruction. Once again, however, the investment is betrayed, as the people demand the earthly trappings of monarchy as a means of focusing resources to ensure their security. The great prophet of this era is Elijah, but ultimately it is the tangible presence of the monarchs that commands the devotion of the nation. The consequence is its destruction, with the elite carried off to Babylon.
In this setting, deprived of political power, the greatness of the prophetic relationship is proven in the person of Daniel. Like Joseph entering the royal court as a slave, Daniel is not assimilated, but expresses spiritual gifts that force both the Assyrian and Persian kings to recognize the authority of God. But the Israelites as a whole did not heed this lesson, returning to Jerusalem as an administrative power that evolved into monarchy, with the priests relegated to the role of law-keepers, decaying eventually to profiteers from animal sacrifice.
To that point, then, God had succeeded only in the private sphere. In the public space, the institutions of state and religion were used to suppress the psychological and moral freedom that comes with a personal and direct relationship with God. Overcoming this injustice was the great goal of the ministry of Jesus. In a few short years, he demonstrated that God exists to serve humanity, raised up an entire generation of prophets equal to any among their ancestors, supplanted legal codes with the rule of love, and motivated the lower classes to discover the power that arises from banding together in mutual concern. Recognizing the trap posed by written scripture, Jesus offered his wisdom in parables, leaving it to his Apostles to reconstruct for posterity the history of his ministry. Of course, upon hearing the news of the Crucifixion and Resurrection, any person familiar with the story of Isaac would recognize that the covenants of the Old Testament had been fulfilled in Jesus.
At the close of the New Testament, we have a history of cultural evolution starting from superstitious origins that culminated with ethical maturity that allows even common individuals to experience direct relationship with God through the Holy Spirit. But we had seen this on a lesser scale prior to the conquest of the Promised Land, and the outcome was eventually a corruption of the divine relationship by human power. Indeed, while the Church at first organized around ministry to the disadvantaged, with the collapse of the Roman state it was left as the only European institution. It was not long before the temptations of authority began to corrupt its mission.
While this corruption did not manifest itself fully until the Renaissance (when the European kings moved to dismantle Feudalism by meddling in Ecumenical affairs), the counter-reaction was established in the seventh century as Islam. Islam summarizes the Hebrew experience, defining a religious observance based upon holy edicts (though limited in scope as compared to the Torah), but yet encouraging individual moral judgment through a personal relationship with the creator. Where the Church and Empire had acted vigorously to suppress even mild forms of heresy, Islam recognized local differences, holding that each community chose its authorities through popular acclaim. Even more, the original “people of the book,” the Jews and Christians, were welcomed explicitly as coreligionists, not rejected as competitors.
In two short centuries, the tolerance and vigor of this teaching allowed Islam to grow into the largest empire known to that time. In defending their privileges from Muslim expansion, the authorities in Europe were forced to devolve power to lower levels of the society. As the balance between the two cultures was righted, neither the caliphs nor monarchs would be capable of subordinating religion to the service of the state. Rather, the state came to assimilate religious virtues, allocating resources from the wealthy to support the poor. In the twentieth century, the greater danger to religion was irrelevancy, a threat that has allowed the morally corrupt to foment and exploit literalism and aggression among those daunted by the complexity of modern society.
The secular historian might be tempted to dismiss the beneficial evolution here attributed to religion as due to cultural accident. Against this, we must ask what antecedents foretold the Law, the moral parables of Jesus or the social contract of the Qur’an. Even should such antecedents be surmised, we have to ask why in every case the seminal prophets should have dedicated their work to the glory of a compassionate and forgiving God, and whether anything other than divine participation can explain how those individuals, often culturally isolated, should have created philosophies so ideally suited to propagate moral discernment and freedom in societies that suffered from their lack.
For the person of faith, of course, no such doubt need be addressed regarding their personal religious experience. What I hope that I have illustrated, rather, is the degree to which those experiences are harmonized when we discard our arguments regarding the nature of God, and focus instead on the majesty of the transformation that monotheism has wrought in human nature. What faces us now is to discern the next step in the process, the step that Islam, with its teaching that Mohammed (pboh) is the last of God’s messengers, forces us to recognize must bring us to full realization of God’s purpose for humanity.