Religion April 2009

One World, Under God

For all the advances and wonders of our global era, Christians, Jews, and Muslims seem ever more locked in mortal combat. But history suggests a happier outcome for the Peoples of the Book. As technological evolution has brought communities, nations, and faiths into closer contact, it is the prophets of tolerance and love that have prospered, along with the religions they represent. Is globalization, in fact, God’s will?
Those Pragmatic Abrahamics

However far Paul’s Christian love may have been from truly universal, its indifference to ethnic and national bounds is admirable—and, from a modern perspective, encouraging. If an ancient religion adapted to conditions comparable to globalization by expanding people’s moral horizons, maybe modern religions can do the same thing. Certainly it would be nice if all Christians, Jews, and Muslims had moral horizons expansive enough to encompass one another.

Auspiciously, the early histories of both Islam and Judaism show them to possess the kind of pragmatic flexibility that ancient Christianity evinced. An imperial environment—a globalizing world, if on a smaller scale—brought out each religion’s benign side and subdued its belligerent side.

In the case of ancient Israel, the empire in question was the Persian Empire, which Israel became part of in the sixth century B.C. Previously, Israel’s brushes with empires had been largely unpleasant. The Israelites were tormented by the Assyrians and, more famously, by the Babylonians, who forced Israel’s elites into exile in 586 B.C. And the Hebrew Bible has the belligerent, xenophobic scriptures to show for these experiences (and for periodic conflicts with smaller states as well). But after the Persians conquered the Babylonians and allowed the exiles to return home, Israel was on the inside, not the outside, of an empire, and a pretty congenial one—an empire that respected its subjects’ religious autonomy. Israel’s neighbors no longer threatened its security, and it could prosper by staying on good terms with them.

A number of scriptures thought to have been written after the exile seem to reflect the change, depicting a kinder, gentler, more internationalist God. In the book of Jonah, which most scholars consider post-exilic, God showers compassionate forgiveness on sinners in the faraway city of Nineveh. Jonah (after spending some time inside a giant fish) laments God’s compassion—not surprisingly, given that Nineveh is part of Assyria, Israel’s historical persecutor. But after the exile, Nineveh is part of the same empire as Israel, and the author of this narrative has God patiently explain to Jonah that the Ninevens had sinned out of moral confusion. That’s quite a change from God’s pre-imperial attitude. In the book of Ezekiel, apparently written during the exile, God was proud of having made Assyria suffer “as its wickedness deserves.”

Ruth, another book that is commonly, though less confidently, dated post-exilic, also features fresh international bonding. The book offers up a remarkable revelation: King David had not been ethnically pure. His great-grandmother, Ruth, was not only a foreigner, but a foreigner whose native country had given Israel much trouble: Moab. The book seems to carry something like the message of Paul’s Christianity—that God’s love knows no ethnic or national bounds, and is available to all who, like “Ruth the Moabite,” choose to worship him. In any event, the contrast with other biblical depictions of the Moabites is undeniable. In scripture written before the exile, their founder, Moab, was said to be a product of incest, born of a drunken sexual encounter between Lot and one of his daughters. Now, post-exile, the Moabites’ place in the family tree gets an upgrade: however ignoble their origins, they’ve gone on to become ancestors of King David himself. What a difference an empire makes!

Empire made a difference in early Islam, too. Of course, the creation of the Islamic Empire, like the creation of the Roman Empire, had hardly been a study in intercultural tolerance. Indeed, the now-infamous doctrine of jihad seems to have emerged as an Islamic legal concept in the mid-seventh century, after the death of Muhammad, as a way of smoothing the creation of an empire through conquest. In the strong version of the doctrine, which crystallized decades later, the world is divided between the “House of Islam” and the “House of War.” The House of War is the part of the world still laboring under unbelief even though Islamic doctrine has reached it. It is called the House of War because the duty of Islam’s leader is to fight there.

But once the fighting is done, a leader’s perspective can change. Though making all the world the “House of Islam” would seem to imply turning everyone you subjugate into a Muslim, that goal, if it was ever a part of jihad, didn’t stay one for long. The more unbelievers you rule, the clearer it becomes that their ongoing antagonism won’t be an asset, and the bleaker is the prospect of incurring their wrath by coercing them into conversion. Once you’ve got an empire to run, the less friction within it, the better.

The solution was simple. The empire’s rulers decided that it was okay for Christians and Jews to remain Christians and Jews, so long as they paid a special tax. (At one point conversion to Islam was banned, lest tax revenues fall.) There was nothing radical about this. Ancient empires typically demanded tribute from the conquered. Besides, the Koran’s description of Christians and Jews as “People of the Book”—adherents of Abrahamic scripture, like Muslims—seemed to provide a basis for tolerance.

But what about Zoroastrians, who came under Muslim rule with the conquest of Persia? Zoroastrians didn’t have scriptures devoted to the Abrahamic God—and so weren’t in any clear sense “People of the Book.” But, hey, the Zoroastrians did have a book of scripture—the Avesta—so they were in some sense People of the Book, or at least, People of a Book. So they could be tolerated, too! Later, as Muslim conquests spread deeply into Asia, the conquerors found a way to extend this basic idea—taxes in exchange for toleration—to Buddhists and Hindus. Muslim rulers in Africa decided that there, too, polytheists could be tolerated.

And, just as Christians asserted that Jesus had said things conducive to cohesion on an imperial platform, Muslims dug up some helpful utterances from Muhammad. For example: “There is no compulsion in religion.”

This saying may well be accurate. It comes from the Koran, which seems to be a more reliable guide to the real Muhammad than the Gospels are to the real Jesus, and it jibes with the fact that tolerance was often in Muhammad’s strategic interest. Thus do Koranic attitudes toward Christians and Jews swing from belligerent to friendly. Indeed, more than once, Muhammad says that Jews and Christians are eligible for salvation. (At one point—by some interpretations, at least—he even seems to leave open the prospect of salvation for polytheists.)

But the hadith—sayings of the Prophet Muhammad as recalled in the oral tradition—remained fluid long after the Koran had congealed, so some parts of the hadith that are invoked to support tolerance fall in the “suspiciously convenient” category. For example: “If they convert to Islam it is well; if not, they remain [in their previous religion]; indeed Islam is wide.”

The hadith also came to the aid of an Islamic scholar who, more than a millennium ago, de-emphasized holy war by calling it the “lesser jihad” and said, “The greater jihad is the struggle against the self.” These two different meanings of jihad are consistent with the diverse uses of the term in the Koran, but on what basis could anyone say which was greater? Reportedly, Muhammad had himself told Muslims returning from war, “You have returned from the lesser jihad to the greater jihad.” This account was late to surface, but better late than never.

Getting to Non-Zero

For all three Abrahamic faiths, then, tolerance and even amity across ethnic and national bounds have a way of emerging as a product of utility; when you can do well by doing good, doing good can acquire a scriptural foundation. This flexibility is heartening for those who believe that, in a highly globalized and interdependent world, the vast majority of people in all three Abrahamic faiths have more to gain through peaceful coexistence and cooperation than through intolerance and violence. If ancient Abrahamics could pen laudable scriptures that were in their enlightened self-interest, then maybe modern Abrahamics can choose to emphasize those same scriptures when it’s in their interest.

And if some people find it dispiriting that moral good should emerge from self-interest, maybe they should think again. At least, the Abrahamics among them should think again. The Hebrew Bible, considered a holy text by all three Abrahamic faiths, sees the pragmatic value of virtue as itself part of divine design.

This theme emerges in various parts of the “wisdom literature” of the ancient Middle East, notably the biblical book of Proverbs. Proverbs announces at its outset that it aims to impart a sense of “integrity, justice, and honesty.” Yet the very next verse shifts into self-help, promising that the book will “teach shrewdness to the simple” and “prudence to the young.” In the logic of the wisdom literature, there is no great gap here. You learn virtue by learning the wisdom of virtue—learning that virtue is in your self-interest. And it’s part of God’s plan; the world is designed to translate self-interest into moral good via wisdom. In Proverbs the personification of wisdom, Lady Wisdom, says, “The LORD created me at the beginning of his work.” When God “drew a circle on the face of the deep … when he marked out the foundations of the earth, then I was beside him, like a master worker.”

Of course, the fact that ancient scripture sees the link between prudence and virtue as a reflection of divine purpose doesn’t make it so. But if, as a matter of fact, the prudent pursuit of self-interest has over time led humanity closer to a moral truth—namely, that people of all ethnicities and faiths deserve respect—that lends at least some heft to the argument that there is a larger purpose in human affairs.

The scriptures do strengthen this argument—not by asserting it but by corroborating it. In all three Abrahamic religions, amity and tolerance cross national or ethnic bounds when people feel they can gain more through peaceful interaction than through conflict. And the fact is that history has relentlessly expanded the range across which these dynamics hold.

To put the point more technically: history expands the range of non-zero-sum relationships—relationships in which two parties can both win if they collaborate, or lose if they don’t. Technological evolution (wheels, roads, cuneiform, alphabets, trains, microchips) has placed more and more people in non-zero-sum relationship with more and more other people at greater and greater distances—and often across ethnic, national, and religious bounds.

This seems to be the reason we’ve made moral progress since the days when, according to Plutarch, Aristotle advised Alexander the Great to treat non-Greeks “as though they were plants or animals”—a position that itself was an advance over the days when citizens of a Greek city-state didn’t consider even other Greeks fully human. And even that degree of bigotry was an improvement over the days when the scope of non-zero-sumness, and of amity, didn’t go much beyond a hunter-gatherer village.

Globalization is the culmination of this trend, and it features so many non-zero-sum filaments that we lose sight of them. When you buy a car, you’re playing one of the most complex non-zero-sum games in history: you pay a tiny fraction of the wages of thousands of workers on various continents, and they, in turn, make you a car. Or, to take a more pertinent example: “the Muslim world” and “the West” are playing a non-zero-sum game; their fortunes are positively correlated. If Muslims get less happy with their place in the world, more resentful of their treatment by the West, support for radical Islam will grow, so things will get worse for the West. If, on the other hand, more and more Muslims feel respected by the West and feel they benefit from involvement with it, that will cut support for radical Islam, and Westerners will be more secure from terrorism.

None of this guarantees moral progress. People often fail to play non-zero-sum games wisely (and often fail to perceive the non-zero-sumness—their interdependence—in the first place). The world is full of conflicts that illustrate this fact. Indeed, the outcome of the global project is sufficiently in doubt as to suggest that, if there is some overarching purpose to history, it isn’t ultimately to ensure moral progress, but rather to give our species the choice of either making moral progress or paying the price; either people of different faiths, ethnicities, and nationalities get better at seeing the perspective of one another, and acknowledging the moral worth of one another, or chaos ensues.

If you trust the end-time scenarios laid out in any of the three Abrahamic scriptures, you can rest assured that there will eventually be, in one sense or another, a happy ending. But even for nonbelievers, the scriptures carry a modestly reassuring message, at least when read in light of the social and political circumstances that shaped them: people are capable of expanding tolerance and understanding in response to facts on the ground; and even mandates from heaven can change in response.

Presented by

Robert Wright, a senior fellow at the New America Foundation, is the author of The Evolution of God, from which this has been adapted. Copyright © 2009 by Robert Wright. Reprinted by permission of Little, Brown and Company. All rights reserved.

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