From the Preface to Judeochristianity
by C. Gourgey, Ph.D.
When the planes struck the Twin Towers on September 11, 2001 we entered a new period of history. Many Americans were forced to face the ramifications of conflicts originating thousands of miles from home. We could not afford to remain ignorant of history, of geography, of problems in places some of us could hardly even pronounce. And most especially, many of us became aware of the role religion plays in these conflicts, often fueling and intensifying them.
And so more of us started reading books and taking courses in Islam. I took those courses and I read the Qur’an. And I was struck by something that startled me.
In the Qur’an I found a heavy emphasis on belief - an emphasis so strong that God even condemns nonbelievers to hell. What most impressed me was how similar this seems to what many religious fundamentalists believe in my own country. So many people think that God judges us - absolutely and everlastingly - based on what we believe. But the question is, which God? Do I follow the God who condemns me if I’m not a Muslim, or do I follow the God who condemns me if I’m not a Christian? And are these two gods really very different?
If religion, which is supposed to express and guide our deepest spiritual aspirations, leads to such intolerance, then it’s gone off the track. The loving God we profess is not consistent with a God who would permanently cut off so many people with no hope of forgiveness or redemption, including sincere and kindhearted people who have simply failed to discover the right thing to believe. We need to reexamine our religious traditions to see whether we can find the truly compassionate God underneath all the obscuring doctrines and theologies. For us in the West this means reexamining the roots of both Jewish and Christian tradition and how they are connected.
On 9/11/01 America was attacked by an uncompromisingly intolerant religious ideology. How we should respond to it is beyond our present scope. Our concern here is what we need to do to make sure our own house is clean. Now that we ourselves have experienced the destruction to which religious intolerance can lead, we need to make sure that our own religion is free of such prejudice. When joined together, Judaism and Christianity give us the message of a God who is truly universal, good, and loving, who holds us to ethical standards and also gives us faith to meet life’s challenges.
Religious hatred has become an increasingly divisive force in the world. We can make our own society stronger by building up our resistance to it. We need to look at our values, uprooting any vestiges of intolerance that would make us in any way similar to the religious ideologues who are trying to destroy our culture. We can do this, because the roots of Western religion grow from the soil of tolerance, justice, and love. These core values were not present from the beginning but evolved over centuries. The Hebrew Bible (commonly known as the “Old Testament”) teaches love of the stranger, and its prophetic tradition culminates in a vision of universalism. And in the New Testament Jesus teaches that God’s love extends to everyone, regardless of religion or ethnic group, and that it is important to reach beyond our own borders to embrace those who are different.
We have drifted far from these roots. Our spiritual traditions have become fragmented. Our religions have many denominations and speak with many voices. This diversity is a strength. Nevertheless I also believe, as I hope to show as the discussion continues, that the truths of our great religious traditions need to be connected in order to present the full power of the vision that inspired them.
America has been called a “Judeo-Christian” society. What exactly does this mean? That we have both Jews and Christians here (not to mention members of other religious groups)? Then why the hyphenation? There is some common bond between Judaism and Christianity, between Jews and Christians, that we can sense today more than in any previous historical period. There is something common to both Jewish and Christian tradition that has the potential to create an affinity in spite of our differences, and that underlies the values upon which this country was established.
To be sure we also have separation between church and state, which has helped prevent religious excesses, preserve religious tolerance, and keep our society strong. That must never change. But I still wonder: what if we took the “Judeo-Christian” aspect of our cultural history more seriously? What hidden connections might we discover? What kind of spirituality might evolve?
Let me try to make this question more specific. First of all, Jesus was a Jew. There is no indication anywhere that he intended to found a new religion. In fact, much of what he taught falls squarely in the tradition of the Hebrew prophets, and especially the prophet Isaiah, his spiritual mentor. The following themes are of central importance in both:
- The reaffirmation of the divine Covenant, the relationship between God and the people of God.
- The call for the restoration of justice and for attention to the needs of the weakest in society.
- The demand that religious leaders lead with integrity.
- The condemnation of empty rituals, religious ceremonies performed just for show with no effect on the conduct of ordinary life.
- Confidence in the redeeming power of God.
Without an Isaiah, there would not have been a Jesus.
Of course this is not all that Jesus taught, and we’ll consider the implications of his other teachings in other chapters. If he had only repeated what came before him, there would have been no need for his prophetic vocation. However, so much of what he taught is in direct line with the teachings of the prophets who preceded him that it has prompted me to wonder:
What might have happened had Jesus been accepted as a Jewish prophet?
The question suggests an idea that may very well seem strange: the possibility of seeing the entire Bible (that is, what is commonly referred to as the “Old Testament” or “Hebrew Bible” together with the “New Testament”) as a continuous whole. This would be different from the traditional Jewish view, which accepts only the Hebrew Bible, and also the Christian view, which sees the “Old Testament” as basically an introduction to the “New,” which supersedes it. But biblical continuity is really an extension of the idea that Jesus’ prophecy can be seen as continuous with Isaiah’s. There may be deeper reasons why the two “Testaments” are commonly juxtaposed than are apparent at first glance. “Prophetic continuity” - the link between Isaiah and Jesus - exemplifies “biblical continuity” - the spiritual link between the two “Testaments” themselves.
We have spoken of “continuity,” but continuity does not imply repetition. Jesus’ teachings are continuous with Hebrew prophecy, but also carry it further. Here are some of Jesus’ key teachings that carry this tradition forward:
- The Covenant is reaffirmed and extended to all people, Jew and non-Jew.
- The law is reaffirmed and is most deeply fulfilled through an inner transformation giving us the capacity for love.
- The love that fulfills the requirements of the law is not the love most familiar to us but “non-self-interested” love, which calls upon us to transcend ourselves.
- This particular love (which does not negate other forms of love) therefore applies equally to friend and to stranger, to those inside and outside one’s family, one’s religion, or one’s ethnic group.
- “Non-self-interested” love actually has its roots in the Hebrew scriptures, but Jesus emphasized it and made it explicit. It is the path toward covenantal partnership with God. Those who seek to realize it, from whatever group they may come, will know they are included in the Covenant and will “inherit the Kingdom of God.”
Clearly much explanation is required, especially since I am using language that is not particularly biblical, and the explanation will come in succeeding chapters. It is hard to get a full grasp of Jesus’ message without understanding the structure of the Bible itself.
And this is where we might run into some difficulty. Bible scholarship has radically changed the way we view sacred texts. While fundamentalists stick to a strictly literal interpretation of the Bible, many others just as deeply religious do not. We are more conscious now that words, concepts, customs, and events had different meanings at different times, and that the historical setting plays a large role in understanding the intention of a particular text.
The problem is that Bible scholars often disagree. So even the most modern scholarship cannot tell us with certainty what “actually” happened, or who said what. To agonize over questions like “Which events narrated in the Bible actually took place?” or “Which sayings attributed to Jesus actually go back to him?” would seem to be necessary in order to discern what the Bible “really” means. But it is fraught with controversy, for virtually every significant position taken by one scholar on such issues, one can find another scholar who disputes it. Bible scholarship is therefore not a path to certain knowlege, nor is it a path to faith.
Nevertheless, we cannot afford to ignore what Bible scholars have to say. Bible scholars provide indispensable information about the historical and cultural context of these sacred writings. They give us guidelines for judging the plausibility of our interpretations, and their work helps protect us from substituting our own inventions for the actual intent of scripture.
We therefore need to live with the tension between accepting the Bible as it is given to us and tempering our understanding with the insights of biblical scholars, some of which are more firmly established than others. I have found it helpful to accept the Bible just as we have it, as an organic whole. However, this does not make me a literalist. For while the Bible may not be one hundred percent historically true, it is mythologically true. I am using the word “myth” in a very specialized way, not in its popular sense of “something that didn’t happen.” A genuine “myth” is not something to be taken lightly. A “myth” in this restricted sense is an expression of a profound truth in symbolic form.
And that is precisely what the Bible is. Even the history it records is important not just because of what actually took place but for symbolic reasons; that is, for the truths toward which it points. The Bible is a spiritually inspired work that took shape in the receptivity of collective human consciousness. A wisdom greater than any one individual human being guided its formation. It is therefore not by chance that certain books are included in the Bible and others are not. Every part of the Bible contributes, in some small or large way, to its meaning as a whole. This is true even though the Bible itself comprises works by different authors separated by large spans of time and space.
What I will try to show in succeeding chapters is that the teachings of Jesus do not represent a break with the Hebrew prophetic tradition, but rather carry it forward to its logical conclusion. One key implication of this way of looking at the unfoldment of tradition is a transformation of our understanding of faith. So often faith is identified with belief: belief in the occurrence of “miracles,” belief in the “historicity” of certain events, belief in doctrines such as the divinity of Jesus or the virgin birth. For many these beliefs are a source of deep meaning and they must be treated with respect.
But as the Bible itself amply demonstrates, faith must be much more than belief. There is a vast difference between the mind’s assent to a given proposition, which we usually associate with the word “belief,” and the deep inner transformation that is the essence of biblical faith. If faith is based on belief, then in defending our faith we will be defending beliefs. And that always means defending our own beliefs against someone else’s beliefs. This is what has made religion such a divisive and destructive force throughout history.
Instead of basing faith on belief, faith can be based on a principle. We have already spoken of the “covenantal” relationship between God and the people of God. The basic principle of faith implicit in the Bible is this:
The one sure way to enter the Covenant with God is to commit to the pursuit of the ideal of non-self-interested love. Those who make this commitment will know they have been included in this relationship and that God’s presence plays a special role in their lives.
This is the Bible’s core message reduced to a single paragraph. Once we understand it, there will be no need to defend any one particular belief over against any other. God does not care if you are a Jew or a Christian or a Muslim or a Buddhist or a Hindu or none of the above. Membership in the Covenant is open to all. God looks to the heart, and what is in one’s heart is not defined by one’s religious affiliation.
Therefore I do not ask Christians to give up their Christianity, Jews to give up their Judaism, or anyone else to adopt either. This approach to the Bible and to the prophetic teachings can be appreciated by anyone regardless of religious background. No one is asked to take anything “on faith”; that is, to accept anything without question. If this approach to faith has any validity it will demonstrate itself in the life of each individual who makes the commitment that is the basis of faith.
I call this approach to faith “Judeochristianity.” This is not a new religion or system of any kind, but simply a way of viewing Jewish and Christian scriptures and traditions that is unifying and that tries to get at the essence of what the Bible was given to us to teach. It is a point of view, a way of looking at the Bible that Jews and Christians can share without changing or compromising their Judaism or their Christianity. It provides the framework for a spiritual alliance that is needed today more than ever. Judeo-Christian values are under unprecedented attack. Never was there a greater need for us to stand together.
The times we are living in can easily challenge anyone’s faith. Faith based upon belief may stand one in good stead if one has learned those beliefs from early childhood. If one has not, it may be too late for any set of beliefs to offer protection from fear and despair. The approach to faith presented here is existential; that is, it can be tested in the experience of our actual existence. It does not require any specific belief. But it does ask for commitment.
In the course of our journey we will have many difficult questions to consider: What is faith? What is God? What is prayer? Why is faith necessary? Is it ever too late to acquire faith? Why do we suffer, and what meaning can God have in a world of suffering? What place does God have in a world that often seems dominated by evil?
The most difficult questions are precisely the ones that must be asked. Our urge to ask them indicates that the need for faith is greater than ever.