April 7, 2012

FROM THE ARCHIVES: WHY DOES ATHENS NEED JERUSALEM?

You don't need to believe in God to learn from religion: The common messages of Christianity, Judaism and Islam are too valuable to be ignored (Jonathan Freedland, The Guardian)
So the same ideas recur: freedom, redemption, justice. Jews dream of reaching the promised land, Christians hanker for the kingdom of heaven, Muslims yearn for paradise. Does this mean these three great faiths should all get along - that they should discover the vast common ground between them, throw down their swords and rush to embrace each other? Of course not. Only the naive believe that shared origins make for peaceful relations. The rest know that there is no war as bitter as a civil war, no argument more enduring than a family row and no dispute more inflammable than one between neighbours. Islam, Christianity and Judaism fight because of, not despite, their shared lineage, forefathers and neighbourhood.

No, the shared ideals of the children of Abraham are not likely to prompt a sudden, hugging reunion between the three traditions. But the fact that they have so much in common should at least arouse the curiosity of those who stand outside these three faiths and, indeed, outside faith itself. For this much collective and enduring wisdom is surely too valuable to be ignored: if so many people over so many centuries are speaking of the same ideas, they can't all be wrong.

Some secular Britons simply can't open their ears to this kind of talk. The very fact that it comes from a religious source, or sources, is enough to render it irrelevant or worse. Since faith is founded on superstitious nonsense - fairies at the bottom of the garden - nothing it says can be of any value. But this is an odd prejudice. We don't believe in magic any more, but that doesn't stop us marvelling at The Tempest. We don't believe in witches or ghosts, either, but we can still see the human wisdom in Macbeth and Hamlet.

Even the most secular should retune to hear what these traditions are saying to us now. Of course there is bellicose bigotry contained in sacred texts; selective quotation could make any holy work look like a racist's, or terrorist's, handbook. And of course there are hypocrisies: countless examples where religions' practitioners do not live up to their own teachings. But there is great sanity there, too. Environmentalist Jews have reinterpreted Passover as a time for stocktaking: besides bread, what else can I do without? What do I really need to eat, buy or own? Green Christians have done the same with Lent, while progressive Muslims can point to the legal requirement known as Zakat, which demands believers give away 2.5% of their wealth in order to purify the rest.

There is a yearning, particularly in the west, for a life beyond the material: people want their lives to be about something more than just jobs, houses and cars. The phenomenon may even have a political dimension. Labour minister Douglas Alexander, who has written on the need for politics to connect more deeply, says voters are not fired up by the mere provision of services aimed at their material needs: "What gets them out of bed in the morning are non-material values: how they raise their kids, whether they live in a genuine community."

People, in other words, are hungry for sustenance of the spirit.

The primary insights of the Abrahamic faiths are even more fundamental than those above. The first is that Man is made in God's image. The second that Man is Fallen. Combined, the two tell us that though we can't attain godhood, we are unique in all Creation and can (must) strive to transcend our flawed nature. Materialism, when it denies these truths, destroys our aspirations and turns our focus in upon ourselves, where we're unlikely to like what we find. Treating ourselves and each other like mere material we end up creating a society that we recognize as despicable, even if we've forgotten why we find it so.

Robert Kraynak put this particularly well:
Modern culture has cut out the highest part of the human soul, the part that longs for eternity and for spiritual transcendence of the here and now, the part that seeks the presence of the Incarnate God in worship and daily life and even hopes for a dim reflection of the city of God in social and political institutions. Instead of focusing on eternal life, we have become absorbed in one-dimensional materialism, trivialized life and death, and learned to avoid thinking or talking about life after death.
[Originally posted: May 11, 2003]
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Posted by at April 7, 2012 6:59 AM
  
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