by Matthew Raley
The generalization that all religions teach the same basic truths retains a powerful hold on the liberal imagination. It feeds the hope that the world can find peace through understanding, that if religions could realize how much ground they share, then people from different cultures could come together.
But this hope for a corporate final salvation leaves the individual human heart in despair.
Last Friday, On Faith in the Washington Post published comments by Feisal Abdul Rauf about President Barack Obama’s upcoming trip to Turkey. He provides a specimen of how a hope for common ground devolves into an impersonal set of ethics.
Imam Rauf’s examples of common ground between Islam and America are pretty abstract. Both cultures, it seems believe in law.
Thomas Jefferson wrote that the Creator endowed man with these unalienable rights. The framers of the Constitution wrote that they were establishing justice, ensuring domestic tranquility, promoting the general welfare and securing the blessings of liberty.
In the same way, Islamic law believes that God has ordained political justice, economic justice, help for the weak and impoverished. These are very Islamic concepts. Many Muslims believe that what Americans receive from their government is in fact the very substance of what an Islamic state should provide. American beliefs in individual liberty and the dignity of the individual are Islamic principles as well.
These comparisons are shockingly facile. Concepts of justice do not become anything more than slogans until they are instantiated by real cultural transactions. It is precisely the cultural specifics that drive the Muslim and American worlds apart.
The Imam becomes more specific when citing President Obama.
Obama sent a shockwave through the Muslim World when at the National Prayer Breakfast on Feb. 5 he quoted a hadith — “None of you truly believes until he wishes for his brother what he wishes for himself.” The president equated that tenet of Islam with Jesus’ “Love thy neighbor as thyself,” and the Jewish Torah commandment, “That which is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow.”
There is indeed a broad and sometimes precise agreement about ethics among the world’s religions and cultures. There is also agreement that the dynamics of right and wrong are built into the universe just as securely as its physical dynamics. C. S. Lewis, to name only the most prominent thinker, documented this agreement in his series of lectures, The Abolition of Man, in which he argued for the existence of a Tao, a moral law that is universal.
Imam Rauf and President Obama are correct when they find the golden rule articulated across cultural boundaries.
But their purpose goes beyond the diplomatic to embrace the liberal’s final hope.
Christian liberals have long sought to reenergize ethics in the here-and-now, and deemphasize the “last things” of human history and eternal salvation. Or more precisely, they have adopted a new doctrine of the last things.
Here is the ultimate End, articulated by the Imam. President Obama
can emphasize the commonality of Western and Islamic values. He can say that if the United States lives up to the values in the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and the Bill of Rights and if Muslims can live up to the principles of Islamic law, then we will find we have fewer points of conflict and more common ground.
Once this commonality can be established, Muslims no longer will fear Western domination and the West no longer will fear Islamic expansion. Then, the phony “Clash of Civilizations” can be put to rest.
The liberal imagination, whether Christian or Muslim, sees world peace as the End of History, the ultimate goal of religion. Their path is to spotlight common ground and ease sharp differences into the shadows.
Where does this leave biblical Christianity?
The Jesus of the Gospel of John speaks to individual despair, the death and darkness of sin in each human soul. His cure for this despair is not an abstract system of ethics, which serves only to mark sin and not to redeem the sinner. His cure for darkness and death is his own historical death and resurrection.
The world will be reunified in Christ’s household of the redeemed.
This is the preeminent difference Christianity has with other religions. To follow the vision of liberalism, we must silence Jesus’ claims about individual redemption while keeping his ethics. The Imam can easily live with that. President Obama can easily live with it.
But the human soul, taunted by an abstract law it has never kept nor can keep, will remain dead.