The man [Adam] lay with his wife Eve, and she conceived and gave birth to Cain. … Then Cain lay with his wife; and she conceived and bore Enoch. Genesis 4 vv 1 and 17
According to Genesis, when the sons of the first people, Adam and Eve, grew up, they found women to have children with. But we aren’t told where these women came from; they just appear. This is troubling only if you believe that the Genesis stories are to be understood as a literal account of the creation of humanity. It does however suggest an important question: given that we are interested in the development of our own religious tradition, what do we have to say about other religious traditions whose origins are parallel to those of our own but were not known to its founders?
Early Old Testament religion accepted that there were many gods but believed that one of them had taken the Hebrew people under his wing. When the Hebrews fought with other peoples, it was seen as a contest between ‘The God of Israel’ and the gods of those other peoples. This God of Israel was not the only god there was, but he was the only god for the Hebrews and their descendants, the one they should exclusively worship and who in return would fight for them. This approach to religion is unashamedly tribal, but it’s a fair tribalism: other peoples have their own, real, gods. Over time, this approach developed into monotheism, culminating with the writer of the second part of Isaiah, where the God of Israel has transmogrified into the God of all there is. The so-called gods of other peoples are now mere idols, the work of men’s hands, not real gods at all. In one sense, this monotheism is a glorious achievement and an important step in the development of human thought, since it unifies all that is under one overarching explanatory system – rather like proposing a single explanatory system for electromagnetic, gravitational and nuclear energy. But it leaves a real problem. The one God apparently has an interest only in one particular people, the Jews, the descendants of the Hebrews, and is manipulating history with them particularly in mind; the Assyrians and other peoples are being used by him merely as pawns in his dealings with his specially Chosen People. He is not interested in these other peoples for their own sake; he does not love them. There is something in this still relatively young religion that is reminiscent of how a growing child thinks of himself as the focus of the universe. As a religious position, it is essentially racist in the strictest and least pejorative sense of the term. Like other racist positions, it occasionally allowed non-Jews to become ‘honorary’ Jews, but it certainly did not seek non-Jewish converts.
The attempts of Christianity and, later, Islam to break out of this racist religious position were only half-successful. Both continued to think that the one God was supportive only of a section of humanity, but added that anyone could join that section of humanity by converting. It turned out that there was a trade-off between arrogant racism and an equally arrogant proselytism. To choose not to convert was to turn your back on the one God, preferring to worship idols, non-gods, thus foolishly rebelling against an all-powerful king and condemning yourself to his punishment. Conversion often felt very like conquest, and militant – note the word’s derivation from the Latin word for ‘a soldier’ – Christianity felt comfortable seeing itself as enforcing the will of the Lord God of Sabaoth, of the Armies. It was a kind of anyone-can-should-and-(perhaps)-must-join-our-race racism, and it is the stage at which mainstream Christian theology has been stuck.
Underlying it is the conviction that Christianity has been given to us by God as a package; our proper response is simply to accept the package, not tinker with its contents, and share it, unaltered, with other people. But what if Christianity is our essentially Judeo-European response to how what we think of as divinity reveals itself, a package put together, not unalterably by God, but in a culturally-determined way by us? Other cultures might then be seen as responding to the divine revelation just as legitimately as we do, but in their own distinctive ways; we could allow ourselves to ask whether some parts of their response might not be more appropriate than bits of ours. We could meet them as equals, not try to beat them, metaphorically or literally, into submission. We could acknowledge that they no less than we are children of God, and as such loved by him just as much as we are – and are loved by him just as they are, for who they are. Yes, we would want to share with them the insights of our tradition, but we could also learn from them, as children of the same father share with and learn from each other.
We don’t really have much choice about this, for several reasons. First, it’s impossibly hard to imagine Jesus the prophet of
beating anyone into assenting to any religious formulation; his way is rather to ask his listeners to observe and respond appropriately to whatever around them brings them closer to blessedness. Second, if our idea of God is anything like right, we must believe that he loves all people quite as much as he loves us, and that he reveals himself quite as much to them as he does to us. Third, more practically, our interconnected world cannot afford for religions to be at each other’s throats; sectarian violence is bad enough writ small, but writ large it would be catastrophic. But as if those three reasons were not enough, the clincher, it seems to me, is that no particular religion will have very much to say that is genuinely helpful to our world so long as it continues to denigrate, in theory if not now always in practice, other approaches to life. The world needs a more-or-less shared view of what flourishing human life might be like in the world as it really is, a system of values that recognises that view, and techniques for helping us all to live that life; it is the role of religions and cognate systems to foster those things, and they cannot do that while they fight between themselves, or at the very least impugn each other’s legitimacy. Adam and Eve’s daughters-in-law did not come from nowhere: they too must have been the creation of God himself. Nazareth