Pluralism, the co-existence of different world-views and value systems in the same society, weakens the certainty with which people had previously held their religious and moral convictions. Minimally, one becomes aware of the fact that other people, who do not seem obviously demented, do not share these convictions—and nevertheless manage to get along in their lives. This awareness makes it difficult to take one’s convictions for granted; now, one must stop and reflect about them. Pluralism has become a global reality. All those “others” keep obtruding.
Inevitably the thought occurs: Could it be that they are right? Perhaps, they are right about some things but not about the ones I care most about. In religious communities this has led to a quest for the core of the tradition, which is non-negotiable, as against more peripheral aspects which, if really pressed, I might modify or give up. I have used the term “cognitive bargaining” to describe this process. As Peter van der Veer has brilliantly shown in his new book The Modern Spirit of Asia, it was Western modernity that has exerted enormous pressure on the cultures of India and China to define a core of their traditions that (however redefined) must be preserved, while different (more supposedly backward or superstitious) ones may be left behind. Thus Chinese intellectuals and political leaders have sought to retain a supposedly central Confucian worldview, while stripping off its links with traditional social and political institutions—no more binding women’s feet, no more imperial ritual. And Hindu reformers have defined a “spiritual” core of Hinduism while renouncing features deemed unacceptable to modern sensibilities, such as untouchability or widow-burning. Even Christianity (actually not that much earlier) engaged with modernity, with similar “bargaining” has been taking place—for example, the resurrection of Jesus (even if redefined) has generally been deemed to be non-negotiable, but not all the other miracles of the New Testament.
Pluralism or not, I think that such a process of reflection is very useful. It has been broadly repudiated as “essentialism” by postmodern theorists. I disagree. Of course some alleged “essences” are poorly chosen, or are devices to avoid the immense complexities of reality. But reflection about core convictions is a healthy, and in some situations an inevitable exercise. Emile Durkheim proposed that the survival of a society depends on the willingness of its members, if necessary, to die for it. This implies that the core of what the society is, that for which one may be prepared to die, can be distinguished from more peripheral or even immoral items (the ideals of liberty and equality, as against the excesses of French colonialism). Every curious child will ask about this or that newly encountered phenomenon: What is this really all about?
Back to religion: The great Rabbi Hillel the Elder, who lived in the first century BCE, was once asked: “Can one teach the whole Torah while standing on one leg?” Hillel said yes, then recited the probably first version of what came to be called The Golden Rule: “Do not do to another what you would hate if it were done to you. That is the whole Torah. The rest is commentary”. [With all due respect for one of the fathers of rabbinical Judaism, Hillel’s choice of core teaching seems a bit off. It may be the core of Torah’s moral message. But Torah is more than moral (or for that matter, legal) teaching. It seems to me that a better choice for a core statement would be the Shema, the basic creed of Jewish faith: “Hear oh Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is One”.] Islam has a core affirmation that surely can be spoken while standing on one leg, the Shehada, to utter which makes one a Muslim: “There is no God but Allah, and Muhammad is his prophet”. Buddhism has the so-called Four Noble Truths, which have different Theravada and Mahayana versions. But all of them contain four assertions, which can be summarized as follows: “All is suffering. All is impermanence. All is non-self. There is a path to the cessation of suffering”. Of course, as in Judaism, there have been centuries of “commentary” about the core convictions in Islam and Buddhism. But a child who asks on first encountering one of these—“What is this really all about”—may be first answered by the relevant core affirmation. Of course that will only be the beginning. Then must come a lot of commentary.
What about Christianity?—Christians have long identified Jesus as the author of the Golden Rule. He is indeed reported to have recited it in a slightly different wording (Matthew 7:12): “Whatever you wish that men would do to you, do so to them. For that is the law and the prophets.” I would not read too much into the different wording—Jesus’ prescriptive, Hillel’s proscriptive. The chronology leaves little doubt that Jesus was quoting Hillel (there are no footnotes in the New Testament). In any case, the Golden Rule in either version hardly states the core of the Christian Gospel any more than that of Judaism. What statement could do that for Christianity? Even the Apostles’ Creed, the shortest of the historic ones, is much too long (actually, already a sort of commentary). I think we are better advised to look at the oldest extant Christian texts, those by the Apostle Paul (who wrote long before the Creed attributed to the Apostles).
I think there is little doubt that Paul considered the resurrection the core of the faith. As he wrote (in First Corinthians 15:14), “If Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain”. The Good News, of course, is that Jesus’ resurrection foreshadows the one that we can all look forward to at the end of time. In both cases it is a physical resurrection—that of a transformed body in this world, not that of a soul in some other world. Please note that calling the resurrection the core of the Gospel is a descriptive statement, not a theological one (an atheist or a Buddhist scholar could come to the same conclusion). I wish I could remember the name of the German historian of Central Asia (I have no idea of his religion or lack of same), whose lecture I heard quite a few years ago. He spoke about religious pluralism along the Silk Road, the great trade route between Europe and Asia, which had its heyday in the first millennium CE. Not only were so many religions present and active in the region, but there was a lot of so-called syncretism—mixing of ideas, practices and symbols from these traditions: Manicheism, Christianity (mostly Nestorian), Buddhism, Confucianism, and yet others. I remember that the lecturer showed a depiction of Jesus dressed as a Confucian scholar, one hand raised in Christian blessing, the other in a sign of Buddhist Enlightenment. Often a text begins full of Confucian ideas, then goes on to end as a Buddhist message. The lecturer made the point that there is one item in a text that occurs only in an originally Christian one—mention of physical resurrection.
One very interesting point about Paul: He showed very little if any interest in the teachings of Jesus, and rather focused on his role at the center of the great cosmic drama of redemption. This should be of concern to the many who look on Jesus as a great moral teacher to be emulated, from Tolstoy and Gandhi to the many people today described by the sociologist Nancy Ammerman as “Golden Rule Christians”.
There is an instructive story from the Soviet period in Russia. The official creed of the regime was of course “scientific atheism” (though its coercive implementation varied from time to time). But there were periodic campaigns of atheist propaganda conducted by party ideologues. One such campaign reached a rather remote village. All the villagers, including the Orthodox priest, were forced to attend an hour-long lecture on atheism. At the end the lecturer (perhaps with a smirk) the propagandist said: “We allow freedom of expression here. The priest has five minutes for a rebuttal.” The priest came forward, said that he didn’t need five minutes, turned to the assemblage and intoned “Christ is risen!” The villagers responded with the appropriate liturgical formula: “He is risen indeed”. [Please note again: I am making a descriptive, not a theological statement here. Elsewhere than on this blog I could make the latter.]
What is Christianity all about? – I take three news items, almost at random, from the April 16, 2014 issue of The Christian Century. They tell us how some American Christians today answer this question. I’m phrasing the answer as it might be given to an inquisitive (say, twelve-year old) child.
Michael Rogness, who has taught about funerals for many years, makes recommendations to pastors. Some are commonsensical—such as choosing a fitting text for the sermon, trying to articulate the feelings of the survivors. But the following he labels his most important recommendation: “Proclaim the gospel to the survivors. The heart of our faith is that because Jesus was raised, death is not the last word.” (The Apostle Paul would approve.)
—- “We are all very sad that grandpa has died. We will miss him. I know that you will miss him. We are comforted by recalling that he was a wonderful person and that he lived a full life. But, far more important, we are comforted by God’s promise that he does not abandon any one of his creatures and that he intends for grandpa a future life full of a glory that now we cannot even imagine.”
Franklin Graham, who heads the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association which seeks to continue the work of his famous father, has in a recent article praised Russian President Vladimir Putin for his repressive measures against homosexuality and contrasted this with Barack Obama’s “shameful” stance on the same issue: “Our president and his attorney general have turned their backs on God and His standards, and many in the Congress are following the administration’ lead”. Graham also writes: “Obviously, he [Putin] may be wrong about many things, but he has taken a stand to protect his nation’s children from the damaging effects of any gay and lesbian agenda”.
—- “People in important public positions face different moral challenges. At your age your great challenges are in your personal life. The Bible has given us a clear code of sexual morality, to which you are bound. Homosexuality is a terrible sin. You must shun it with all your strength. This is not easy today when the media push a gay and lesbian agenda, and the government and the courts increasingly follow in the same direction. For you, at age twelve, this is what Christianity is primarily all about: Living in accordance with Christian sexual morality, and resisting those (probably including some of your teachers) who would persuade you otherwise.”
Amy Frykholm, an associate editor of The Christian Century, whose sympathies are clearly on the other side from Franklin Graham on issues south of the navel, wrote a longish article in the journal where she suggests that the disagreement over same-sex marriage has gone too far to avoid a split in the United Methodist Church. (She does not develop her own view of the matter in the article—she acts as an objective reporter). Passionate convictions are involved on both sides, both buttressed by theological rationales: Same-sex marriage is a violation of God-given human nature and an egregious offense against Christian morality. Against this: Same-sex marriage is a profound expression of Christian morality, and a much-delayed redress for an ancient injustice. The dispute recently heated up when a disciplinary procedure stripped a Methodist pastor of his clergy credentials for conducting a same-sex wedding for his own son. It seems that American society as a whole is moving toward acceptance if not advocacy of same-sex marriage. The same fervent disagreement is of course threatening schism in other denominations, notably the Anglican communion, which pits strongly liberal churches in Europe and America, against churches in Africa and other parts of the Global South. Thus, while the Church of England is likely to accept the legalization of same-sex marriage by the state (though it will not solemnize it by church weddings), Anglicans in Uganda are debating whether the death penalty for repeated homosexual acts is appropriate (it has not been enacted, but long prison sentences remain).
—-“Every generation of Americans faces its own great moral challenge. A few decades ago it was the Civil Rights Movement, then the opposition to the war in Vietnam. Today it is the battle over same-sex marriage, which is about civil rights for gays and lesbians. The central Christian belief is in the equal dignity of all human persons. Today nothing expresses this belief more powerfully than the right of two people who love each other to enter into a sacred commitment to each other, no matter their gender or sexual orientation”.