Sunday, May 22, 2011

Our three faiths--or more?

Nowadays, the expression “Judeo-Christian” has come under fire as glib and unhistorical. As someone who has dealt extensively with the origins and conflicts among the Abrahamic religions, I tend to agree with this criticism.

Yet a new book shows that the concept arose by way of an important American social experiment in tolerance. The book is Kevin M. Schultz, Tri-Faith America: How Catholics and Jews Held Postwar America to Its Protestant Promise (Oxford University Press; for my knowledge of the book and its findings I rely on a recent review by Adam Kirsch in The Tablet).

As Schultz shows, an important and salutary change came about in the 1930s and 1940s, thanks in large measure to the concerted effort of the National Conference of Christians and Jews, a lobbying and educational group founded in 1927. In fact, the group sought not simply to create better understanding between Christians and Jews, but also to foster good will between Protestant and Catholics—groups whose which had long been at logger heads in the United States. As Kirsch notes, “from any reasonable point of view, Catholics posed a much greater challenge to the hegemony of American Protestants than Jews ever could: At mid-century, the population was estimated to be two-thirds Protestant, one-quarter Catholic, and 3 percent Jewish. To many Protestants, moreover, Catholics were inherently unsuited to democracy, because of their obedience to the Church and their communal clannishness. Not until the election of John F. Kennedy in 1960 would this kind of hostility be wholly put to rest.”

Looking at the matter strictly from the viewpoint of self-interest, Protestants had a good deal to lose. It is therefore greatly to their credit that important Protestant leaders, put the weight of the Establishment behind the “tri-faith” vision and against long-standing prejudice and bigotry. Again as Kirsch observes, “the NCCJ had its origins as a reaction to the rise of the Ku Klux Klan, with its anti-Catholic and anti-Semitic hatreds, and took new urgency from the rise of Nazism in 1930s Europe. Its most popular programs were the so-called Tolerance Trios, in which a priest, minister, and rabbi would tour the country conducting public discussions.“

An early obstacle to the effort was President Franklin Roosevelt who once opined that the United States was “a Protestant country, and the Catholics and Jews are here under sufferance.” With the beginning of World War II he changed his mind--or at least his policies--encouraging Tolerance Trios to minister to the troops. Some of the efforts were a bit kitschy, as in a rally where a Jewish melody was followed by a performance of “Onward Christian Soldiers.” Brotherhood was the keynote, but a subsequent experience has shown that this goal proved harder to achieve than many expected.

The trend received support from a prominent Jewish intellectual, Will Herberg, whose 1955 book "Protestant-Catholic-Jew" “affirmed the arrival of Tri-Faith-America,” according to Schultz. Yet Herberg was no mere cheer leader, for he warned of the shallowness of a “religiousness without religion … a way of sociability or ‘belonging’ rather than a way of reorienting life to God.”

Kirsch, the reviewer makes an important final point. “But the real test for the tri-faith model, which Schultz barely addresses in his book, will be the assimilation of new religious groups into the “Judeo-Christian” model—above all, Muslims. From Ground Zero to Orange County, the last year witnessed a series of revolting demonstrations of anti-Muslim prejudice in the United States, reminiscent of the kind of bigotry that Jews and Catholics once faced. Tri-Faith America shows that our religious diversity has been a process of mutual accommodation: As “foreign” religions become less dogmatic and distinctive, Americans stop seeing them as alien or threatening. With luck, the same benevolent process will allow us, a few generations from now, to talk blithely of America’s Judeo-Christian-Islamic heritage.”

As things are going at present, this forecast strikes me as polyannaish. But maybe not. For the history of the tri-faith concept is essentially that. Long before the emergence of the modern expression "Abrahamic religions," a major model appeared that recognized the affinity of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. This is the trope of the Three Rings. (I quote from a section of my Abrahamicalia site).

The Three Rings concept appears in several medieval texts, notably Giovanni Boccaccio’s Decameron (I, 3), a book written ca. 1350. The gist of Boccaccio's Tale of the Three Rings is as follows. The great Muslim leader Saladin summoned Melchizedek, a wealthy Jew, to his palace. The sultan posed an alarming question: “Which of the three great religions is the truly authentic one--Judaism, Christianity, or Islam?" Melchizedek paused before answering. “That is an excellent question, my lord. I can best explain my views on the subject with the following story. Once there was once a wealthy man whose most cherished possession was a precious ring. He bequeathed this ring to one of his sons, and with this talisman the latter took his place as the head of family. Succeeding generations followed this tradition, with the principal heir always inheriting the prized ring from his father. And yet the ring finally came into the possession of a man who had three sons, each the equal of the others in obedience, virtue, and worthiness. Unwilling to favor one son over the others, the father had a jeweler make two perfect copies of the valued ring, and he bequeathed a ring to each son. Following the father's death, each son laid claim to the deceased man's title and estate, proffering his ring as proof. Alas, a careful inspection of the three rings failed to reveal which was the authentic one, so the three sons' claims remain unresolved.”

The same is true, Melchizedek suggested, with the three great religions, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. The adherents of each firmly believe themselves to be the sole legitimate heirs of God's truth. The question of which one is right must remain in abeyance.

Note that the original ring was not a "magic ring" that could confer invisibility or grant wishes, but a kind of title to the family fortune. It is the symbolism of the ring (and rings) that is important in this context.

A remarkable feature of the parable is that it assumes that the three rival faiths are equal in dignity, in accordance with the identical appearance of the rings. As a rule, adherents of each religion recognize the kinship only grudgingly, serving at best as a prelude to denigrating their rivals’ case. Over the centuries, Jews have tended to regard Christianity (and later Islam) as usurpers. Christians have remained confident that their own faith superseded its Judaic predecessor, while regarding Islam as a heretical aberration. For their part, Muslims believed in a dual supersessionism: since they had become hopelessly corrupted with the passage of time, both Judaism and Christianity could rank only as inadequate approximations of the true faith.

In modern times the ring parable came to enjoy new life during the Enlightenment. Gotthold Ephraim Lessing of Hamburg was responsible for bringing it back. Lessing’s play “Nathan the Wise” (Nathan der Weise; 1779) is a plea for religious tolerance. Set in Jerusalem during the Third Crusade, the play describes how the wise Jewish merchant Nathan, the enlightened sultan Saladin, and a certain Templar Knight seek to bridge the chasms separating Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.

The play’s centerpiece is the ring parable: Nathan volunteers it when Saladin challenges him to say which religion is true.

Initially the German writer's presentation follows Boccaccio's story line. However, according to Lessing the original ring had a secret power to make its wearer beloved of God and men. The father with the three obedient sons duly had two copies made, giving each son a ring. After the brothers quarreled over who owned the true ring, a learned judge admonished them that there was no way to know. In fact, all three rings may be fakes, the real one having vanished long ago. If that was so, none of the existing rings was imbued with the secret power of winning the favor of God and men. But there was no reason for despair. The judge advised that, even granting that one's ring was a fake, each son could live in such an exemplary fashion that it seemed that the ring's power was working. Undoubtedly, Lessing, a religious skeptic, was putting his own spin on the story. He hints that the lost archetypal ring was the emblem of the true religion. But that primordial faith is gone, so we must make do with what we have.

Be that as it may, whether we adopt Boccaccio's version (real rings) or Lessing's version (fake rings), the lesson of the parable is the same: the similarity of the three rings symbolizes the kinship of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Therein lies a significant problem, though, for despite all their commonalities, the three religions show significant, even glaring differences. They are not identical as the similarity of the rings suggests. Another drawback is that, as inert physical objects, the rings must always remain the same; by contrast, all living religions change and evolve.

There is yet another issue, which goes to the scope of the investigation. Assuming that such an inquiry can be meaningfully conducted, the matter of "which religion is true?" calls for a much broader approach. One would have to include the claims of Buddhism, Hinduism, Jainism, Daoism, animism, and others. That means a perspective in terms of the modern discipline of comparative religion.

The matter is indeed complex.



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