No one has a hotline to God
It is arrogant and absurd for any religion or sect to claim a monopoly on God’s truth
- Tony Bayfield
- The Guardian, Saturday 11 September 2010
- Article history
Within Judaism, Christianity and Islam, there are minorities who have big problems with the modern world. In Islam, some would clearly like to return to the society in which Qur’anic law was born. In Christianity, the Amish are a quaint example of a wider hankering to go “back to the basics” of the New Testament. Photographically if not numerically, the Jewish world is often seen in the guise of 18th-century rural Poland.
It’s not very surprising, given the shaking of the very foundations of faith by the modern world. But it’s actually a huge cop-out. The enormous challenges are there to be met, and the many voices of God are to be heard in responding to the questions, not in ducking them.
Sometimes, as with the Amish in Ohio and Meah Sha’arim in Jerusalem, the phenomenon is simply picturesque and only mildly crazy. More often, it expresses an underlying desire for the imagined certainties of the past, a monopoly on truth, an exclusive hotline to God, which is accompanied by a preparedness to impose those certainties, that exclusive hotline, on others, by force if necessary. That’s not mildly anything. It’s mad and bad.
Looking round the world today, it’s all too easy to identify the danger – not just to the good name of religion but to civilisation itself – posed by those whose certainty is in inverse proportion to their morality.
First, the claim is the height of hubris, the sin which most besets religion today. Nothing is more arrogant – or absurd – than to believe that God would entrust the whole of His truth (I say His because it seems to be a largely male presumption) to any one group of people. It is equally arrogant and absurd to suppose that any one group of people could grasp more than fragments of that truth or comprehend the One who is beyond comprehension.
It’s not only arrogance to the point of madness but potentially bad to the point of evil. For to believe that you have exclusive knowledge of God leads so easily to group self-perception as the not-so-lonely knights of faith who can break the moral law with impunity. With my secular humanist friends, I believe in the supremacy of the moral law. But the issue is far larger than the Taliban and their counterparts in other faiths.
For more than a decade I have been a member of a Jewish, Christian and Muslim dialogue group. We have come to see that the greatest challenge to theology today is absolutism – the belief that your particular faith is final rather than provisional, that your truth is exclusive rather than fragmentary, that your way is the best or only way.
The delusion presents itself more subtly than the hotline openly claimed by some. It can be present in the way Jews understand the origins and authority of the Torah; in Christian doctrines relating to Christ and salvation; in Muslim interpretation of the finality of Muhammad and the doctrine of the Caliphate. It is expressed in “You Christians are simply wonderful at self-sacrificing love and cathedrals, pity it’s all based on a mistake”; in “You Jews are brilliant at being victims, family life and chicken soup, pity you’re missing out on the greatest truth of all”; in “The Muslim God stands for war while Christ stands for peace”.
A new Jewish year began last Thursday. Jews should use it for making common cause with those of other faiths in recognising that we don’t have a hotline to God and that the theological imperative of this or any other year is to renounce absolutism.