In a nuclear age, relationship between religion, violence must be changed

Fourth and final excerpt from 'Jerusalem, Jerusalem' leading up to the symposium 'Religion and the Quest to Control Violence'

Photo/Mike Lovett

James Carroll at Fellows Breakfast, Brandeis commencement 2008

This is the last of four excerpts being presented by BrandeisNOW from James Carroll's new book "Jerusalem, Jerusalem: How the Ancient City Ignited Our Modern World." The book is a centerpiece of the symposium "Religion and the Quest to Control Violence" on Monday, March 14, in Sherman Function Hall. Following a talk by Carroll, leading scholars from the Brandeis faculty and around the country will discuss and critique Carroll's argument that religions represent human efforts to understand and restrain the impulse to violence.

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Conclusion: Learning from History

The Bible is so full of violence because it came into being to resist violence. Jerusalem is the cockpit of violence, and within its precincts, for three thousand years, humans have pushed and pulled to the point of blood against their own inbred tendency to push and pull: the solution to violence was more violence. Yet humans are distinguished by the capacity to learn from history. We saw how the invention of writing about five thousand years ago, in farm settlements not far from the hill from which golden Jerusalem would shine, led to the capacity to carry experience through time. Written texts and their interpretations were the precondition of tremendous breakthroughs in individual intellect and communal imagination, learning that led to massive mutations in culture and social organization. Texts and their interpretations gave us religions of the Book - religions of this book. Most importantly, texts and their interpretations transformed past experience into lessons for the future. If now one eye is cast back upon the long pilgrimage through sacred violence, the other is fixed upon the new capacity of the human race to bring about its own extinction. Does the pilgrimage that is history lead to a dead end? If, instead, the pilgrimage through history leads to a new possibility, it is that so-called sacred violence must be tamed, and can be. Holiness must be removed entirely from the realm of war, and can be. In that case, this pilgrimage has been toward human survival. If there is a God, what other meaning can there be to God's will?

Today, political and social conflict is broadly defined as between tradition and modernity, with each of the three monotheistic religions engaging the tension in a unique way. Is religion rational? Does reason fulfill itself by openly acknowledging the leap of faith that it, too, must make in a world still defined more by ignorance than by knowledge? Islam is rushing through its Reformation and its Enlightenment all at once, while all too many Muslims regard accommodation with universal ideals of human rights that originated in the West as anathema (equality for women, say) because they originated in the West. Christians, for their part, divide between those whose reckoning with modernity has undercut certitude, with mainline, moderate belief in drastic decline across denominations, and those whose rejection of modernity has led into the cul de sac of fundamentalism - a dead end crowded, nevertheless, with more and more members. Among Jews, though, the challenges of secularity have been taken on more directly than by any others, with many Jews acknowledging no God, while affirming the peoplehood that springs from God's covenant. Against secular Jews stand the Haredim and others, hurling anathemas like artillery. A partial Jewish retreat into a fundamentalism of land, defended by the artillery of settler violence, is an ongoing source of discord. And spreading a sponsoring canopy over all of this heat is the ever exceptional America, the center of armed Christian nationalism that is the more dangerous for being denied.

Yet the oceanic tradition through which all these currents flow carries a deeper and wider stream, which is the principle of the tradition's own self-criticism. There is the key to biblical hope. That the story begins with mythic Abraham, who was required by God, in Jerusalem, to put down his knife, remains defining. But Abraham is surpassed by the figure of David, the historical founder of Jerusalem, precisely because, for all his victories, his greatness was unattached to special virtue. That was made dramatic when the prophet Nathan - "That man is you!" - rebuked him for murderous lust. Yes, David ordered the building of God's Temple, but because of his too ready recourse to violence, God disqualified him as the Temple's builder.

The king by definition abuses kingship, yet the prophet Samuel had warned of that, even while establishing kingship as necessary to the commonwealth. The religion of the Temple was a religion of bloody sacrifice, yet the prophet Jeremiah declared on God's behalf, "I desire mercy, not sacrifice, acknowledgment of God, not burnt offerings." And Jesus, speaking out of the Jewish tradition, described his Father's love, in the parable of the prodigal son, as dependent on nothing but itself. No sacrifice needed; no religion, even; not good behavior either. God loves because God loves, period. When the followers of Jesus got that wrong, fencing in God's love with conditions of orthodoxy, obedience, and a new cult of sacrifice, they were only showing the strength of their connection to the thickly human biblical tradition. This tradition defined itself in the beginning by its need of self-correction, and, obviously, it still does.

What does that mean today, in light of epiphanies attached to the diagnosis of Jerusalem fever? Now, to speak of the hope of peace for Jerusalem is to acknowledge the enormous varieties of religious experience, to use the great phrase of William James, which in the twenty- first century face each other in the intimacy of the global village. Jerusalem is that village writ small, a living image of how all believers and nonbelievers inevitably encounter - or confront - one another as near neighbors, unable to avoid each other's differences, and therefore unable not to be influenced by them. Jerusalem has long been the most absolute of cities, yet it is the capital today of encounters in which absolutisms are shown to be mutually interdependent, and therefore not absolute. Neither values nor revelations exist outside of history, and if Jerusalem does not show that, nothing does. Yet Jerusalem also shows how each religion that finds a home there, including "the religion of no religion," understands itself as offering a comprehensive vision of the whole of reality, even if it does so from the necessarily partial perspective of its contingent tradition. The religions, while emphasizing the whole to which their revelation points, have tended to forget the inevitable partiality that arises from the basic fact of the human condition, that truth is always perceived from one point of view or another - never in itself.

That is what Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel meant when he declared that "God is greater than religion." Every religion. That might seem a modern insight, yet it encapsulates the breakthrough vision that the captive Jews were given in Babylon nearly three millennia ago, the vision that made Judaism the first of the three monotheisms. Those religions, like every religion, came into being with an inbuilt tendency to confuse themselves with the object of their devotion, as if the worshiped deity were the religion. Religious orthodoxies of every kind tend to forget that at their center is an unknown mystery - unknown because unknowable. "So what are we to say about God?" Augustine asked. "If you have fully grasped what you want to say, it isn't God. If you have been able to comprehend it, you have comprehended something else instead of God." Humans are restless in the face of what they cannot know, which is why the essential unknowability of God has prompted humans to make gods out of what we can and do know. Our selves, tribes, nations - and doctrinal beliefs. When religions substitute themselves for God, as they have done from the time of Jeremiah to the time of Crusading popes to the time of fatwa-issuing ayatollahs, they become igniters of sacred violence, which, with its transcendent claims, can be more enflaming than any other fire, any fever.

The connection between religion and violence has been powerfully laid bare in the twenty-first century. How will its exposure shape the next generation of believers? Do the full accommodations of post-Enlightenment intellect with faith undercut faith, condemning religion to zealotry? Can the religious meaning of particular revelations (for a Christian, for example, the "Christ of faith") be separated from scientific historical criticism (the Jesus of history)? Is there a defensible continuity between the earliest elements of a tradition (to use another Christian example, Jesus of Nazareth) and later complexities emerging from text and interpretation (the "high Christologies" of the Gospel of John, the Church fathers, and medieval theologians)? What if the interpretations (emphasizing, say, the hyperviolence of Christ's Passion as God's mode of redemption) contradict what historical criticism illustrates (the radical nonviolence of Jesus)? And how have such foundational religious assumptions (God's sanctioning of violence) shaped the inner core of culture? Can a strategic vision of secular politics, say, include the normally unseen religious influences that generate political energy - and secular wars? How important is this line of inquiry if most institutionally committed religionists care not a fig for it? If they even knew of the conceit, wouldn't most believers mock the "second naiveté in and through criticism" with which a few postmodern thinkers, attempting to purge belief of violence, carry on the forms of religious tradition while declining to understand them traditionally? Or, to ask, having learned from history, the most basic question of this long inquiry: Given the depth of religion's complicity in violence, what would good religion look like, anyway?

First, good religion would celebrate life, not death. The deepest pitfall of the apocalyptic imagination consists of its affirmation of earthly annihilation as God's purposeful plan. On the contrary, humans weren't put here to die; we were put here to live. Religion is precious for offering consolations to the inbuilt sufferings of the human condition, the two main facts of which are mortality and the knowledge of mortality. Religion invented a language of "afterlife" in which to define its hope that mortality, the end of the story, is not the whole story. Yet that afterlife language - consisting mostly of an apocalyptic expectation of, or even a lust for, the End Time - has brought grave problems. Any glorification of the afterlife that denigrates the value of the present life is itself inhuman. The devaluing of the here and now in the name of the by-and-by is a mortal offense against the temporality that defines consciousness, but it also can lead to terrible impassivity in the face of injustice, an invitation to accept the given unacceptability instead of working to change it. The present is elusive, but humans were created as creatures of time for the sake of the present alone. What religion refers to as "beyond" is oft en conceived as outside of time and space (the supernature beyond nature), but the beyond that matters is in the depth of present life.

Time, therefore, is an invention. The past and the future are present realities because they are imagined constructs, aspects of consciousness but not its brackets. As memory is indulged for the sake of the present, not the past, thereby avoiding the dead end of nostalgia, so hope intends to strengthen the present, not flee to the fantasy of tomorrowland. Belief in God means to deepen present experience, without any particular regard for its consequences hereafter. Good religion, in other words, is not magic. It tells of the end of the story, yet also of the story's unboundedness. Good religion reckons with a natural order that may go on without an End Time, without humanity as its necessary pinnacle, with its only sure purpose as what humans bring to it. There is no other life, and religion is how one penetrates to the deepest level of that mystery, a level to which religion gives a name. The only life that lasts forever, that is, is the life of God. Humans, by virtue of God's creation as creatures with awareness, have been brought into that life, the eternal life that is only the present moment. To be fully alive is to be aware of being held now in what does not die, and in what does not drop what it holds. Religion calls that God.

Second, good religion recognizes in God's Oneness a principle of unity among all God's creatures, a unity that is also known as love. Religion, in its essence, is about love, and every great religion defines compassionate love for the neighbor as the surest sign of God's presence on the earth. This is true of the three monotheistic religions, despite the evidence that their monotheism itself has been what makes them so violent. Monotheism, properly understood, is not a numerical denomination, as if God's Oneness claims a primacy in which God's followers can participate: "We're number one. Watch out!" Alas, that seems to define the ways in which many, if not most, monotheists have understood God's self-explanation to Moses.

Holy wars, waged by psalm-singing Hebrew armies, Christian Crusaders, and Islamic jihadists, have been fought in the name of the One God across the millennia, and their equivalents are still at it. But does the One implied in monotheism have the numerical meaning - "one and not two and not three . . ." - that would explain, if not justify, such zero-sum violence? Or does One have a moral component, pointing to a principle of unity that includes diversity as of its essence instead of taking diversity as a contradiction and a threat? The Oneness of God is not the lonely singleness of a digit but the solidarity of a Creator in communion with all creatures. Religious Oneness, therefore, is inclusive, not exclusive, even as it affirms the many only through its embrace of the One. Paradox, not contradiction, is its method. Religious Oneness assumes differences, and assumes respect for differences, which is also known as pluralism. Crucially, this means that religious claims, however absolute, are made in the full knowledge that there is more than one way to understand their meanings. And the plural there is operative, since the meaning of God-who-is-One adheres in meanings that are multiple. God is greater than religion, and greater than meaning, too.

Third, good religion is concerned with revelation, not salvation. Millions of believers have found consolation and liberation in the idea of salvation, especially those who have been oppressed or impoverished, with little hope of relief in this life. Such belief can provide meaning to an otherwise meaningless existence. The idea of salvation in that sense is humane and to be treasured, yet the question arises: Salvation from what, or whom? To be saved from an enemy is one thing, but when the enemy is identified with God - beware! Then salvation stands as the opposite pole of damnation, and the two depend on each other for the gravity, whether of awe or terror, with which they fall upon the human imagination. The threat of hell, with its assumption of a monstrous God, goes hand in glove with apocalyptic religion - the monstrous God who would destroy the earth to save it is the same God who would condemn an individual to an eternity of suffering for, well, having inflicted a lesser suffering on fellow humans. The violence of hell serves, in effect, as the aftershadow of the violence that this bad religion ultimately justifies, the violence of holy war, hell on earth. In this scheme, God's answer to violence is violence, too. What religions promise salvation from, therefore, are not merely the woes of life in the vale of tears, the heartsickness of the motherless child. No, religions, in return for acts of virtue or repentance or sacrificial offerings of one kind or another, promise salvation from the God who condemns. That heartsickness is deserved, and only a foretaste of what is coming, unless . . . unless . . . Appeasement, atonement, satisfaction, such are the mechanisms with which to ward off the hatred of the divine enemy, changing the doom in the mind of a judging deity, through the paid ransom of sacrifice, into the love of an all-forgiving friend. An Old Testament God becomes a New Testament God (and that transformation, enabled by Christ, shows how this theology is slyly anti-Semitic). But good religion intends not to save but to reveal that God's mind is never in need of changing, since God's attitude is one of constant and overflowing love. Creation is itself that overflowing. There is no question of "needing to be saved" from God, even though the existential insecurity into which all humans are born inclines us to think otherwise. It is the human mind that needs to be changed, not God's. Good religion offers revelation, not salvation, proclaiming that creation is God's self-expression, and that as creatures, humans are, simply by virtue of existing, already part of it: saved by virtue of being. Religion and its accoutrements, like sacrifice, are therefore of interest to God only to the extent that they open the human mind to this revelation. Religion at its best is only a way of knowing that religion is unnecessary.

Fourth, good religion knows nothing of coercion. That is because attention to the presence of God is an internal activity occurring in the realm of conscience. Conscience cannot be forced. Not even God forces the human conscience. Though God is both the depth and the horizon of each person's being, God and humans are forever separate. That means the purpose of religion is not identity, with the creature swallowed up in the extravagant Creator, but relationship, with the creature standing before God as one worthy of the encounter. God invites, welcomes, and bids one to come ever nearer. That humans are free to say no to God means humans are free to say yes, making religion a possible relationship of love. If God does not coerce, how blasphemous that any person or group should be coerced in God's name. Good religion, therefore, is never joined to force.

Christianity has had to recover from the Constantinian mistake when church and empire became the same thing and the cross of Jesus became a sword. One form this recovery takes is the American-style separation of church and state, a theoretical removal of the magistrate from the realm of conscience altogether. Yet explicitly Christian aspects of American nationalism (and the present-day U.S. military's use of religion to build discipline and morale) threaten to breach the wall of separation. Islam, meanwhile, is measured against its own foundational text, the Qur'an, which abjures coercion in religion. Muslim nations work to accommodate the politics of individual rights, including freedom of religion, but outcomes are uneven. Many Islamic regimes routinely coerce the consciences of non-Muslims, if only by restricting the open practice of other religions. Islam's encounter with those who believe differently will be to the benefit of Muslims, too, for neither should Muslim consciences be coerced. Jews, for their part, confront their own version of the Constantinian temptation, having come into state power with Israel. The Jewish state is firmly committed to democratic liberalism, including the theoretical principle of minority rights. Yet only peace will vindicate that principle - for Muslims and Christians, but also for the diversely believing Jews. That Israel is both Jewish and democratic need not be a contradiction, which means the state exists to protect the conscience of every citizen. Not all Jews, meanwhile, define themselves in terms of Israel, and that, too, is a claim to freedom of conscience. Diaspora, at last, can be a choice.

Fifth, in the new age, good religion may, paradoxically, have a secular character. This is so as more and more people find organized religion too tradition-bound and historically enmeshed with the intolerance that is complicit with violence. The rejection of bad religion may require the rejection of religious forms, categories, and symbols that prove incapable of self-criticism or renewal. A conception of the person in relation to a conception of the divine - these are what contemporary experience more and more disqualifies.

But one may ask, Whose conception? Atheism may consist of the rejection not of God but of patently irrational (even violent) conceptions of God (Zeus, Yahweh, the Trinity, Allah) understood to be affirmed by others, whether philosophers, popes, rabbis, or imams. There can be a fundamentalism of atheism that entirely misses the subtleties, say, of an apophatic faith that knows that it does not know God. But that does not remove the question atheists ask. Good religion may indeed presuppose a religion of no religion, which implies a capacity to recognize the impulse toward transcendence outside traditionally conceived realms of the sacred. Other realms opening to the transcendent may include science and art and the psychoanalytic. The muse is holy, and so perhaps is the therapist. Good religion acknowledges that each of these paths of understanding is not necessarily more limited than its own. To understand is to stand under, where deep speaks to deep.

The shift from faith as certitude to faith as including both ignorance and doubt can mean that the worship of God is the worship of God beyond "God." And who is to say that so-called secular approaches lead to that reality less readily than the religious? Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote searchingly of this question from a Nazi prison not long before he was hanged for having opposed Hitler. "How do we speak of God without religion? How do we speak in a secular fashion of God?" Bonhoeffer seems already to have anticipated the revolution in consciousness that cut the late twentieth century adrift , acknowledging what others would come to far more slowly than he, namely that "the linchpin is removed from the whole structure of our Christianity to date." And what was that linchpin if not the scapegoat mechanism that was then being so brutally exposed by the Holocaust?

Bonhoeffer could not have known how deeply into religion his instinctive critique was penetrating - the religion of bloody sacrifice that was complicit in the horrific violence against which he had set himself. He asked, "If we had finally to put down the western pattern of Christianity as a mere preliminary stage to doing without religion altogether, what situation would result for us, for the Church? How can Christ be the Lord even of those with no religion? If religion is no more than the garment of Christianity - and even that garment has had very different aspects at different periods - then what is a religionless Christianity?"

And one might ask, What is a religionless belief? The question goes to every tradition. This is not a matter merely of the well-documented and undenied failings of religion, nor of an intellectual leap into an age of reason in which "primitive" structures of religion are left behind. No, this is a matter of learning, from an honest reckoning with religion's limits, something new about the One to whom religion aims to submit. "The God who is with us," Bonhoeffer wrote, "is the God who forsakes us. The God who makes us live in the world without using him as a working hypothesis is the God before whom we are ever standing. Before God and with God, we live without God." Because this incomprehensibility is built into the faith as its core, believers can be grateful to those nonbelievers who have emphasized it with their critiques, especially their critiques of religious violence. But believers can respond to the skepticism of modernity with a skepticism of their own, certainly including skepticism about the ultimate truth claims (as about the putative nonviolence) of a wholly secular culture.

But skepticism is the revelation, and it is most valuable when applied to one's own cherished faith, measuring it against the standard of love that religion intends to uphold. To take a blatant example of what drives the rejection of religion, consider anti-female violence, on a continuum from intellectual assumptions of male supremacy to pornographic denigration to physical abuse to enslavement and murder. Misogynist sexism is a special symptom of religious disorder, and among the mainstream institutions, including Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, it is, to one or another degree, endemic. The opposite of male supremacy is not female supremacy, but equality. For many, there can be no God for whom such equality is not essential, which can lead many to conclude, from the evidence offered in the religions, that there is no God.

Still, the rejection of religion that cozies up to injustice can amount, in biblical terms, to a repudiation of idolatry, for in regard to women, as to many others, the religions have betrayed themselves by accepting transient cultural forms, like patriarchy, as divinely mandated. In evaluating the "neo-atheisms" of the twenty-first century, it can be useful to recall that both Judaism and Christianity, in rejecting the prevailing religious categories, forms, and symbols of the Roman Empire, were denounced as atheist. Women who leave the church, synagogue, or mosque to protect their lives and self-respect are authentic pilgrims of transcendent value, however they describe themselves, or it. So are all the pilgrims of justice whose quest takes them away from "God." Thus the single most compelling test facing the three monotheistic religions today is how they define the place of women. Given the breakthrough understandings that have illuminated global culture in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries - how women fare is how the culture fares - the religions will disqualify themselves as agents of God's presence or work unless females can claim therein positions of complete equality.

Good religion understands, in sum, that bad religion is inevitable and that pure religion is impossible. Religions, too, are sinful. That is because they began with the tragic intuition that the solution to violence is violence - the sacrificial cult. Religion promulgates that idea (and so does politics), but if religion (and politics) does not change, then human civilization is finished. That is why the touchstone to which every consideration must circle back is the essential role of religious self-criticism, now made urgent by the new human vulnerability. Good religion is not perfect religion, and knows it. Renewal of religious practice, doctrine, cult, creed, tradition, and worship must be ongoing. This radical commitment to purification is built into the tension between the sacred text and its forever unfolding interpretation, a process by which belief is measured against its real-world consequences. In other words, experience takes precedence over doctrine.30 Beliefs that lead to transgressions of the primal law of love must change. Religion that leads to violence must be reformed. Which is to say, every religion is forever in need of reformation.

Jerusalem is where humans first learned this, and where it remains to be learned. Jerusalem, Jerusalem.


Excerpted from JERUSALEM, JERUSALEM by James Carroll. Copyright (c) 2011 by James Carroll. Used by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.

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