A Global God

One World, Under God
Robert Wright, The Atlantic, April 2009, p38

This fascinating essay discusses the history of tolerance within, mostly, historical Christianity. The Apostle Paul, Wright argues, is a shrewd and pragmatic businessman, of sorts. Religious teachings and mandates are changed in response to the political, social and economic realities of the time. So, what will be the effects on religion of globalization? Humans, it turns out, will be human.

For many Christians, the life of Jesus signifies the birth of a new kind of God, a God of universal love. The Hebrew Bible—the “Old Testament”—chronicled a God who was sometimes belligerent (espousing the slaughter of infidels), unabashedly nationalist (pro-Israel, you might say), and often harsh toward even his most favored nation. Then Jesus came along and set a different tone. As depicted in the Gospels, Jesus exhorted followers to extend charity across ethnic bounds, as in the parable of the good Samaritan, and even to love their enemies. He told them to turn the other cheek, said the meek would inherit the Earth, and warned against self-righteousness (“let he who is without sin cast the first stone”). Even while on the cross, he found compassion for his persecutors: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”

But there’s a funny thing about these admirable utterances: none of them appears in the book of Mark, which was written before the other Gospels and which most New Testament scholars now consider the most reliable (or, as some would put it, the least unreliable) Gospel guide to Jesus’ life. The Jesus in Mark, far from calmly forgiving his killers, seems surprised by the Crucifixion and hardly sanguine about it (“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”). In Mark, there is no Sermon on the Mount, and so no Beatitudes, and there is no good Samaritan; Jesus’ most salient comment on ethnic relations is to compare a woman to a dog because she isn’t from Israel.

To conventional Christians, this may sound doubly dispiriting. First, Jesus wasn’t really Jesus; he didn’t really preach the deep moral truths that have given weight to the claim that he was the son of an infinitely good God. And, as if to rub salt in the wound: those truths, when they finally did enter the Christian tradition, emerged not so much from philosophical reflection as from pragmatic calculation and other disappointingly mundane forces.

So why did Paul become the point man for a God whose love knows no bounds of race or geography? Is it because he was naturally loving and tolerant, a man who effortlessly imbued all he met with a sense of belonging? Unlikely. Even in his correspondence, which presumably reflects a filtered version of the inner Paul, we see him declaring that followers of Jesus who disagree with him about the gospel message should be “accursed”—that is, condemned by God to eternal suffering. The scholar John Gager, in his book Reinventing Paul, described Paul as a “feisty preacher-organizer, bitterly attacked and hated by other apostles within the Jesus movement.”

Christians like to look back and see Jesus’ arrival foreshadowed in the less nationalistic passages of Isaiah—such as Yahweh’s promise to bring salvation “to the end of the earth,” with Israel ultimately serving a selfless role of illumination, as a “light unto the nations.” But this passage is ambiguous in context and, anyway, isn’t the passage Paul himself emphasized. In explaining his mission to the Gentiles in a letter to the Romans, he quotes the verse about every knee bowing and every tongue swearing, without mentioning anything about a light unto the nations. He declares that his job is to help “win obedience from the Gentiles.” In line with past apocalyptic prophets, he seems to think that the point of the exercise is for the world to submit to Israel’s Messiah; Jesus, Paul says in quoting 1 Isaiah, is “the one who rises to rule the Gentiles.”

On the one hand, Christianity made a name for itself by extending generosity to non-Christians. Some of those it befriended joined the church, and others no doubt spoke highly of it thereafter. Yet Christianity couldn’t extend generosity to non-Christians infinitely. After all, it was an organization that wanted to grow, and central among its enticements was that membership brought the benefits of an extended family, including material assistance in times of need. If anyone could get these things forever without joining, how many people would join?

This is so true. My brother-in-law, a die-hard Republican, argues that government should be small and that faith-based organizations should shoulder the burden of the downtrodden. What he doesn’t understand–because he’s securely in the bubble–is that assistance comes at a price and that price is usually a declaration of faith.

The local Mormon bishop visited me recently. He said if I need anything I should give him a call. He has access to resources that could help our family. The string attached to that offer, implied until requested, of course, is activity in the church. The Mormon church professions of conversion all the time.

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.

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