Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Religious Harmony, Tolerance, and Scripture

The current issue of Time (Jun 15, 2009) has an article titled "Decoding God's Changing Moods." The main premise is that sacred Scripture for the world's 3 monotheistic faiths vacillate between tolerance and violence in relation to other religions.
The ancient Scriptures of Judaism, Christianity and Islam reveal a pattern--and if we read it correctly, there may be hope for reconciliation and religious harmony. (p. 42 - print version)
The "code" to understand this vacillation is very simple. Peaceful environment + economic prosperity = tolerance.  Insecure environment + socio-economic struggle = violence. The primary biblical example propping up this proposition is the pre-exilic tension with surrounding nations (especially during Josiah's reign) combined with the exclusivistic monotheism of Second Isaiah during the exile versus the post-exilic inclusivism of Ruth, Jonah, & P.  The point is that world peace and religious harmony are in everyone's best interest - a win-win scenario instead of the inevitable lose-lose that we get from constant strife.

While I agree on principle that peace is desirable, I found it interesting that the writer uses Isaiah 2:4 as an example of how this world peace and harmony was "foretold."
         Isaiah 2:4 (ESV) 
        He shall judge between the nations, and shall decide disputes for many peoples;
        and they shall beat their swords into plowshares,and their spears into pruning hooks;
        nation shall not lift up sword against nation,neither shall they learn war anymore.
If a pre-exilic book (First Isaiah) has this sentiment, then does it really fall into line according to his "code"? I'd hardly call the time of First Isaiah one of peace and prosperity as Judah watched Assyria destroy Israel and devastate the Judean countryside. Also, what to do with the fact that many such statements about world peace reflect an eschatological extension of unrealized hopes for the present?

However, the main weakness of his conclusion is that he overlooks the fact that the Hebrew Bible's statements about tolerance or acceptance of other nations don't imply acceptance of other religions. Isaiah 2, for example, seems to indicate that all nations will come to recognize YHWH as the only true God and come to worship and learn from him in Jerusalem. Isaiah 19 is even more explicit in its depiction of Egypt and Assyria converting to worship YHWH.
Isaiah 19:21-25 (ESV) 
    And the LORD will make himself known to the Egyptians, and the Egyptians will now the LORD in that day and worship with sacrifice and offering, and they will make vows to the LORD and perform them. [22] And the LORD will strike Egypt, striking and healing, and they will return to the LORD, and he will listen to their pleas for mercy and heal them.
    [23] In that day there will be a highway from Egypt to Assyria, and Assyria will come into Egypt, and Egypt into Assyria, and the Egyptians will worship with the Assyrians.
    [24] In that day Israel will be the third with Egypt and Assyria, a blessing in the midst of the earth, [25] whom the LORD of hosts has blessed, saying, "Blessed be Egypt my people, and Assyria the work of my hands, and Israel my inheritance."
I'm not sure the Hebrew Bible ever reflects positive tolerance of other religions. The other examples - Ruth, Jonah, and P - also reflect the need for conversion to worship YHWH. Jonah is sent to Nineveh to preach repentance. Ruth accepts Naomi's religion when she vows to stay with her (Ruth 1:15-16). P's "everlasting covenant" is still between YHWH and all creatures of the earth (Gen 9:16). Now we can argue that the monotheistic faiths are all worshiping the same God, so these examples apply, but I really doubt that's what the biblical writers had in mind. I don't think the Bible says much at all about international relations and religious tolerance.

Mr. Wright (the author of the article) wants to emphasize that religious tolerance is a biblical option, too. Don't just focus on the "kill the infidels" passages like Deut. 20:17. But if the peace-loving passages imply "converting the infidels", then we really don't have biblical support for the idea of tolerance and harmony among many religions. The parts of the Bible that do reflect religious pluralism condemn it as idolatrous and wrong, the story having been recorded from the YHWH-only perspective.

While I'm all for peace, non-violence, and living together in mutual respect, love, and harmony, it's hard to make an ancient text support modern sensibilities of diversity, pluralism, and tolerance that were completely foreign to the writers.

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