- The Abrahamic Faiths as Forces for Good or Evil
Religious faith focuses on whatever it is that persons sense themselves to be ultimately dependent on and which they acknowledge themselves to owe unqualified and overarching commitment. It is what is entitled to matter most among all the things that concern persons in life, and to matter more than all other concerns taken together. It is that envisioned font of meaning from which all other meanings ultimately flow. As such, it is mysterious, elusive, awe-inspiring, and finally unspeakable and indescribable. It is believed to lie at the heart of the universe and to be entitled to guide and rule each human heart.
This distinctively religious focus can be a personal divine being, as in monotheism; a class of such beings, as in polytheism; an all-infusing, all-sustaining presence, principle, or power such as nature or the Dao; or the ardently sought realization of an ultimate goal of life such as fellowship with God, Nirvana, or mystical experience of unity with God or Brahman—each of these goals regarded as the supreme reality of the universe and as the supreme and saving aim of life.
My focus in this essay is on the three Abrahamic faiths of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. I will be reflecting primarily, therefore, on the kind of religion that centers on the God of monotheism, whether termed Yahweh, Theos, or Allah, and on what is believed to be the will and purpose of God for the universe as a whole and for human lives in particular. My intent throughout is to show ways in which professed commitment to the ultimacy of God as the supreme focus of life can paradoxically lead in the direction of either ennobling goodness or deplorable evil—in individual lives; institutions; and social, economic, and political relations.
I do so, not by way of advocating or endorsing the religious ultimates of these three traditions, because my own religious outlook is that of a religious naturalist for whom the religious ultimate is nature, not God. But I still want to take some account here of how these long-standing and highly influential religious faiths can be susceptible to terrible evil as well as being sources of profound goodness in the world. They can be such because of the radical ambiguity of beliefs propounded and actions enacted "in the name of the Lord"—especially when God is believed to have issued unquestionable doctrines and demands through allegedly absolute revelations. [End Page 29]
If God commands it, who can dare to dispute it or to act against it? I do not claim that theistic religions are necessarily evil, only that they are in grave danger of becoming so when the radical mysteriousness and putative universality of all religious ultimates, including the theistic one, are forgotten. If these two essential roles are downplayed, then haughty arrogance can replace appropriate humility, and convictional openness can be set aside in favor of tribalistic convictions untempered by recognition of what might be respectfully learned—and what might need urgently to be taken critically into account—from other religious perspectives.
The Abrahamic Faiths
The Jewish prophet Isaiah raises the question, "To whom then will you liken God or what likeness compare with him?" He speaks with scorn of idols made by craftsmen that do not move, act, or live, and contrasts them with the true God "who sits above the circle of the earth," the inhabitants of which, from his exalted vantage point, "are like grasshoppers." This God "stretches out the heavens like a curtain," "spreads them like a tent to dwell in," and makes "the rulers of the earth as nothing." But this God also "gives power to the faint, and to him who has no might he increases strength" (Isaiah 40:18–20, 22–23, 29 [RSV]).
These words from the oldest of the Abrahamic faiths of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam encapsulate the formidable power and mighty appeal of each of them. In this power and appeal there are praiseworthy tendencies toward goodness and sometimes shameful tendencies toward evil. The God of these traditions is believed to be the one and only God. Conceived as...