Conversation Guide #10: ‘Idolatry’ in Rabbinic Discussion – by the late Leo Mock

This article focuses on the concept of idolatry in online discourses of contemporary rabbis belonging to Israel’s Religious Zionist movement. What part do these tendencies, literary, rhetoric or theological, play in contemporary texts? Idolatry seems an archaic concept for (some) other religions and possible deviant behaviour from ‘insiders’. Considering the modern society and the recent rapid realisation of technological innovations and digital means of communication, one wonders if idolatry is still a relevant theological concept to relate to the religious other? In orthodox Judaism, contemporary texts are shaped by different historical-theological perspectives: the Shoah (retrieving lost traditions as mandatory), modernity and secularism may enforce conservative tendencies. Another important context is the foundation of the State of Israel in 1948 – Jews became a majority in a state with citizens of other religions.

Actualities

The concept of idolatry in contemporary discourse seems relevant considering some recent incidents against churches and clergy in Israel. A deeper analysis of these incidents is needed to determine the exact role of religious motives and political-ideological-social aspects. Moreover, in religious media on the internet, a negative attitude can be observed by rabbis on practical issues: for example, on using Christian calendar dating, prohibiting a visit to the Vatican Museum or the Jerusalem Festival of Light where churches and Muslim places are lit up. In fact, these opinions are almost all based on the views of one religious-zionist rabbi, Shlomoh Aviner, but similar statements by other rabbis may be found on orthodox sites as well. That orthodoxy is not always averse to a more lenient perception of the religious other is found in the Talmud bHullin 13b: “Gentiles outside of Land of Israel are not idol worshippers, but they are holding on to a traditional custom of their ancestors…”. In the Middle Ages and Modernity period different pragmatic views and theological concepts were developed for a more lenient attitude.

Contemporary Responsa texts

The rabbinic discourse is highly diverse, comprising amongst others codices, commentaries, sermons, novellae on the Talmud and pietistic-ethical literature. A useful source is the genre of responsa: a question that usually arises from real life addressed to a rabbi, which the rabbi is expected to answer. A helpful tool for analysing discourses is the Responsa Project of the Bar-Ilan University (version 26), digitising amongst others responsa of famous rabbis (not complete). A search for the term ‘idol worship’ in the last five to six centuries yields 1273 texts (the majority seems to be related to authors of the post-Shoah period). One should be cautious – the high frequency does not show the way it is used, whether it is a reference to the tractate on idolatry in Mishnah or Talmud, a side track in a different subject, or a theoretical question. These 1273 texts are too comprehensive for the scope of this article.

Other contemporary media: Internet questions

Kipa.co.il is an important online-portal for Religious-Zionism in Israel with articles on a wide range of topics, from news, romantic relationships, the parent-child relationship, food and culture to strictly religious issues on the ‘Ask-the-Rabbi’ page, where some twenty-five rabbis can be addressed.

The 103 questions on idolatry are mostly answered by rabbis, some by a peer-group ‘Listening Friends’ – some questioners appear to be young adults. The length of the responsa varies from a few lines to a sheet of A4. Fourteen of these responsa deal with Christianity, four with Islam/Druze religion, and seventeen with religions of the Far East. In general, the religions of the Far East are seen as most idolatrous, followed by Christianity which, with some nuances, is seen as idolatrous (‘some branches’ though are not), while Islam is seen as fully monotheistic. Ten questions deal with inner-Jewish issues like superstition, exaggerated veneration of rabbis in some groups, the Shoah and nationalism in relation to idolatry. The majority are of a halachic nature (25) or deal with general halachical concepts (24). Other questions show a strong personal perspective and reflection (9).

Some questions are related to ‘traditional’ aspects of idolatry (e.g., objects of Buddhism, Christian statues, Islamic symbols). Other questions relate to the here-and-now and show an interesting scope of possible applications of idolatry by some religious Jews in Israel. Central is the question of how to relate to the other-one, and to the other-culture, without compromising one’s own religious identity.

Discussion

Questions often refer to situations of being among other religious cultures while being abroad as a tourist or in the State of Israel in relation to minorities – the relation to Islam/Druze religion, Christianity. Some reflect the influence of the Eastern religions, culture and western lifestyles on present day Israeli society and touch on different perspectives on symbols of modern Western culture: jeans, piercings, movies, television, sport, and secular literature. The questions reflect a certain level of doubt, fear, and guilt towards secular symbols of modernity, that are, to a certain degree incorporated into the lifestyle of (many) believers. The answers offer a kind of coping mechanism for the psychological tensions in engaging with these phenomena. The answering rabbi is sometimes more lenient than the religious vision or mindset of the young adult.

Religious-Zionism

The last category of questions deals with the juxtaposition of the believer and adherent of Religious Zionism vis-à-vis other Jewish groups and certain aspects of Religious Zionism (national pride).

A question on nationalism (answered by ‘Listening Friends’) refers to doubts over whether being proud of being religious and part of the chosen people could possibly be idolatrous, given the importance accorded by Religious Zionism to nationhood. The answer differentiates between pride in someone’s own achievements and pride in being chosen by God, which is after all God’s choice, and the importance of remembering the destination and task of the chosen people in the world, as well as a call for developing national pride as reaction to the idea of ‘being as all the nations’. This last question and answer especially, positions the questioner vis-à-vis with secular Zionism (‘being as all the nations’), secular modernity – the non-Jewish world – and ultra-orthodoxy that rejects (religious) Zionism.

Preliminary conclusions

The internet responsa are a valuable addition to the written sources as they present matters from the mundane reality of everyday life, reflecting the easily accessible form of the Internet responsa. The discourse functions as a marker of orthodox religious-zionist Jewish identity of certain groups and presents two perspectives, an internal and external one. The external deals with contemporary western influences, the popularity of religions of the Far East, touristic encounters with the ‘religious other’ and the ‘religious other’ in the Israeli context (Christianity, Islam, Druze, Messianic Jews, Baháʼí). The internal deals with delicate religious queries about the Shoah, or how to deal with other (ultra-) orthodox movements and issues of religious Zionism.

These internet responsa texts make virtually no reference to the Bible – even references to earlier rabbinical sources are relatively rare; the discourse seems to have its own characteristic features. Further analysis of both written responsa and internet responsa is required to sharpen our perspective on these texts and in this respect, the observations offered here  are no more than preliminary reflections.

 

 Questions

  1. Does the concept of idolatry play a role in your own religion?
  2. Does idolatry play a role in your own personal religious views?
  3. Could idolatry be used in a positive way in a religious discourse?
  4. Do you think that Internet is the right medium to discuss these kinds of sensitive religious subjects?
  5. Could the concept of idolatry be relevant for secular people too?

About

This summary belongs to a more extensive article of the late Leo Mock, which can be found here: ‘Idolatry’ in Rabbinic Discussion: To Destroy, to Bury or Something Else? Some Observations of the Subject of ‘Idolatry’ in Rabbinic Questions and Answers on the Internet.
Last year, we published the book Religious Exclusivism and Social Inclusion? A Religious Response, which is available Open Access (for free). People asked for an additional discussion guide to bring the outcomes of this research to a wider audience. We agreed to that, and are happy to present a discussion guide which offers you summaries of all contributions, accompanied by questions for discussion. We hope this stimulates people, in all different contexts, to discuss these matters thoroughly and make them actual and relevant for their own situations. Every week we publish another summary of a chapter of the book, and questions for discussion.  If you want to use the whole conversation guide at once, it can be downloaded here: Conversation guide.

 

Conversation Guide #9: Hebrews, Deuteronomy, and Exclusion in the Early Church – by Bert Jan Lietaert Peerbolte

In the Epistle to the Hebrews, the author of which is unknown, several warnings are found that aim at keeping the believers attentive inside their group. One passage is rather explicit in passing judgement on believers who leave the community of the faithful: Hebr. 10:26-31. The NRSV translates this passage as follows:

For if we willfully persist in sin after having received the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins, but a fearful prospect of judgement, and a fury of fire that will consume the adversaries. Anyone who has violated the law of Moses dies without mercy “on the testimony of two or three witnesses.” How much worse punishment do you think will be deserved by those who have spurned the Son of God, profaned the blood of the covenant by which they were sanctified, and outraged the Spirit of grace? For we know the one who said, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay.” And again, “The Lord will judge his people.” It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.

Hebrews’ warning against apostasy

The author of Hebrews combines several references to Old Testament passages to point out that God is a judging God, who does not know mercy when it comes to fallen believers. In the course of history, the quoted passage has given rise to many discussions. How can any biblical author speak so harshly and pass a judgement this stern about people who fall away from their faith? Can such a judgemental, hard picture of God be combined with the idea that God is love? How is the exclusion of apostates to be matched with other pictures of God in the Bible?

Some receptions of Hebrews

The Epistle to the Hebrews contains quite a few calls and exhortations. On estimate, one third of the epistle consists of this type of admonition. Later ecclesiastical authors have picked up the warnings of Hebrews and interpreted them from within their own contexts. Clement of Alexandria and Origen, for instance, two important authors who wrote at the end of the second and beginning of the third centuries, took this passage literally and suggested a church in which there would be no place anymore for people who had “betrayed” Christ. Later, after Christianity in the fourth century first became a permitted religion and several decades later was even appointed state religion of Rome, authors have gone to great lengths to explain that apostasy is caused by the Devil: it is he who tries to lead people astray and keep them from living with God and Christ.

The exclusion of fallen believers in the Epistle to the Hebrews

From a modern perspective, Heb. 10:26-31 is a harsh text that raises numerous questions. Can believers in the twenty-first century still deal with this image of a judgemental God? Is possible at all to still use a term like “apostasy”? Can the borderlines of a faith community be drawn in the harsh style of Hebrews?

It may be a consolation to realize that this passage has been seen by many authors as problematic throughout the history of the church. Only a few authors have supported a literal interpretation. It is probably best to see these admonitions as a form of concern: concern that nobody may fall away from the community of believers. Yet this concern is phrased in a way that may be called sectarian: emphasizing the hard boundaries between the in-group and out-groups, between believers who stay in and those who leave is a characteristic that divides sects from other groups. This specific exhortation in Hebrews may, for that reason, be seen as sectarian in nature. Even this type of material is found in the Bible.

 

Questions

  1. Is the image of a judging God still to be upheld in the twenty-first century?
  2. Can we still use a term like “apostasy”?
  3. Hebrews warns the believers not to leave the community of faithful and threatens them with permanent exclusion from their salvation. Does it come as a surprise that a threat like this is found in the Bible?
  4. Should the Bible be interpreted literally or are their other ways of reading it?

 

About

This summary belongs to a more extensive article of Bert Jan Lietaert Peerbolte, which can be found here: Hebrews, Deuteronomy, and Exclusion in the Early Church.

Last year, we published the book Religious Exclusivism and Social Inclusion? A Religious Response, which is available Open Access (for free). People asked for an additional discussion guide to bring the outcomes of this research to a wider audience. We agreed to that, and are happy to present a discussion guide which offers you summaries of all contributions, accompanied by questions for discussion. We hope this stimulates people, in all different contexts, to discuss these matters thoroughly and make them actual and relevant for their own situations. Every week we publish another summary of a chapter of the book, and questions for discussion.  If you want to use the whole conversation guide at once, it can be downloaded here: Conversation guide.

 

Conversation Guide #7: Discerning the Body in 1 Corinthians 10 – by Peter Ben Smit

1 Corinthians 10 is a text clearly concerned with inclusion and exclusion. The key site of inclusion and exclusion in this text is the meal, especially the question as to whether those partaking of the meal of the Christian community, which Paul will call the Lord’s Supper in 1 Corinthians 11, can also justifiably eat foodstuffs, especially meat, that has been offered to  deities other than the God of Israel and his Christ (i.e., ‘idols’ in Paul’s idiom).

In his discussion of this topic, Paul seeks to outline a course of action that is characterized by significant nuance. First, it is noticeable that Paul does not problematize ‘interreligious’ eating together as such, nor does he threaten  any sanctions. This creates space for those in the city of Corinth who are compelled to eat with non-Christians for reasons of general sociability, family ties, and interests in the sphere of business and politics. Second, Paul is also clear that as long as foodstuffs do not clearly signify allegiance with deities other than the Lord (and are therefore a form of apostasy), they can be freely consumed. Third, as soon as foodstuffs imply the association with another deity other than the Lord (to be sure, not so much from the perspective of the Christ devotee involved, but rather from the perspective of others), their consumption becomes deeply problematic.

Bodies and the physical in 1 Corinthians 10

The text can be regarded as a theological discussion, ordering and regulating ideas that one should (and shouldn’t) have about the divine; it can also be read as a text dealing with the regulation of social behavior – eating meals together is a key form of human sociability. However, when reading the text with these emphases, it can easily be overlooked that it is a text dealing primarily with bodies and their behaviour. The negotiation of the relationships between both the divine and the human and among humans  themselves is mediated through physical behaviour in the form of eating. Exclusion and inclusion, therefore, is also a physical, rather than a intellectual or a disembodied social practice (obviously, disembodied social practices are impossible: the social is always also physical, even if this can be easily overlooked). This can be spelled out in a little more detail.

First, this leads to the observation that, although the issues at stake can be seen to be primarily social (who can associate and eat with whom?) and metaphysical (what is the effect of certain foodstuffs?; do pagan gods really exist? etc.), physical behaviour is really what matters. Allegiance to Christ is performed physically by means of partaking of and abstaining from certain foodstuffs. In particular, it is the body of the Christ devotee as seen by others that is the focus of all negotiations of inclusion and exclusion in 1 Corinthians 10. Physical behaviour and all that is in Paul’s view attached to it is the starting point of Paul’s argument and of his attempt to find a middle way between apostasy (caused by idolatry) and anti-social behaviour in this text, which shows to what a large extent he is a theologian of the body.

Second, the negotiation of social relationships (and of inclusion and exclusion) that takes place throughout 1 Corinthians 10 – as meals are performances of social relationships, expressing and (re)constituting them – takes place through physical behaviour, and thus the body and its (disciplined) behaviour becomes the site where such relationships are negotiated. Certainly, the body is not the body in and of itself but the body as committed to Christ, and especially as it is seen and evaluated by outsiders (cf. v. 29!), who, it seems, must not get the impression that Christ devotees can enjoy multiple forms of κοινωνία (koinonia, communion) (just like ‘weak’ insiders must not get this idea, cf. 1 Corinthians 8:1-13), even if Paul’s own metaphysical position seems to be that, in the end,  all of this does not really matter, given the lack of reality and power that he ascribes to pagan deities. Yet, as Paul cannot control how others see the bodies of Christ devotees and interpret them, he is forced to suggest disciplining these bodies with regard to consumption as soon as such consumption is turned into an explicit performance of κοινωνία with another deity than Christ and may be perceived, both by those outside of the community and the ‘weak’ members of the community itself, as a form of apostasy.

Third, when further considering the physical negotiation of allegiance to and communion with Christ (a negotiation of inclusion and exclusion into this communion), it is of importance to note that Paul engages in a search and exploration rather than in the development of fixed rules and regulations. His argument is deeply contextual and depends on the ‘reading’ of physical behaviour by others, in particular by those outside of the ἐκκλησία, in contrast to the situation in 1 Corinthians 8:1-13, where the perspective of those inside of the assembly matters. Presumably, in a context where eating meat associated with other deities would not have had the implication of being seen as compromising one’s fidelity to and communion with Christ (i.e., engaging in apostasy), such consumption would not have been as problematic as it appears to be in Corinth. A contemporary reception of Pauline ethical considerations in 1 Corinthians 10 would, therefore, be well-advised to take into account the contextuality of his approach and to continue his search for appropriate behaviour in new contexts, rather than to replicate Paul’s findings for the Corinthian Christ devotees in contexts that are rather different from Corinth.

 

Questions

  1. When thinking of inclusion and exclusion, have you ever felt excluded physically from any group or gathering? If so, how?
  2. When reflecting on the Eucharist or the Mass (or any other kind of holy meal) in your community, can you think of forms of physical inclusion and exclusion?
  3. Concerning foodstuffs, are there any foodstuffs that you wouldn’t want to eat because they would compromise your relationship with the church of Christ?
  4. Concerning people, can you imagine any kind of people that you wouldn’t want to eat with because this would compromise your relationship with the church of Christ?
  5. Can you imagine any kind of people who wouldn’t want to eat the food you serve or who wouldn’t want to eat with you because that would compromise their beliefs or values?

 

About

This summary belongs to a more extensive article of Henk Bakker, which can be found here: Discerning the Body in 1 Corinthians 10: The Physical Negotiation of Exclusion and Inclusion by Paul as a Theologian of the Body.

Last year, we published the book Religious Exclusivism and Social Inclusion? A Religious Response, which is available Open Access (for free). People asked for an additional discussion guide to bring the outcomes of this research to a wider audience. We agreed to that, and are happy to present a discussion guide which offers you summaries of all contributions, accompanied by questions for discussion. We hope this stimulates people, in all different contexts, to discuss these matters thoroughly and make them actual and relevant for their own situations. Every week we publish another summary of a chapter of the book, and questions for discussion.  If you want to use the whole conversation guide at once, it can be downloaded here: Conversation guide.

 

Conversation Guide #6: Otherness and Exile – by Henk Bakker

According to leading Jewish scholars, Jesus should basically be understood within the conservative Palestinian settings in which he was raised. Jesus was more of a marginal Jew, without any particular status, wealth or higher education, than an opinion leader. For other scholars, however, it cannot be denied that this Galilean prophet and holy man was also identified as the embodiment of the Name of God, as the Son of God, albeit in an indirect and interpretive way.

His Own Path

Despite the common ground as to Jesus’s social-cultural background and the process of sense-making involved, there is no real consensus as to how disapproving or disqualifying Jesus was, and to whom his criticisms were exactly addressed. In any case, part and parcel of any halachic attitude and discourse in Jesus’s day was the practice of social distancing, which was fairly normal. Social distancing was an approved means by which to discipline offenders of religious law, and, if necessary, to ban them from exerting their faith. The stance Jesus took in most cases of law-related social nuisance was noticeably controversial, as I will show by looking mainly at his parables.

Playful Confrontations

Parables have the advantage of providing playful confrontations. The listeners are taken by the hand by story, and in a way experience the message by imagination. The confrontation is acted out safely as an inner moral dialogue that makes the listener decide on the spot: either they surrender to the moral imperative demonstrated in the parable, or evade it.

Identity in Hybridity

It is evident from the parables that Jesus proclaimed a very critical message. Without any doubt, the parable of the evil tenants (Matt 21:33–46; Mark 12:1–12; Luke 20:9–19) represents an exemplary specimen of Jesus’s criticism of the temple aristocracy in his day, particularly the Markan version. Here Jesus defines himself as the final prophet in a long line of messengers from God, whose fate it is to die for the cause of God’s property.

Unfortunately, the extended version of Matthew has often been taken as a punishment of the Jewish people as a nation, but this is not the case. So who are these ‘others’? Exegetically it seems tenable to argue for an inclusive and exclusive interpretation simultaneously.

Judean hierarchy tended to think in temple-centered terms. In order to maintain a monopoly, its monotheism was rather restrictive, not conversant with foreign people, nations and religious systems. Galileans however, which is Jesus’s background, were regularly exposed to the widening outlook of (later) Isaiah, (later) Zachariah, and late Malachi. Their belief system can be typified as inclusive monotheism: throughout the world and the nations, yes, even in the darkest places and provinces, the light of God will start to shine.

Even though Jesus’s intentions were inclusive, they were not all-inclusive. The parable of the wicked tenants demonstrates that, for Jesus, new identity is found in hybridity because the ‘others’ are being included, whosoever they may be.

In other words: for Jesus the realm of ‘otherness’ (alterity) is constitutive of hybridized identity, and envisages another type of leadership and new communal identity. Nonetheless, Jesus’s notion of ‘hybridity’ was not just a matter of mixed identity but of convictions crossing social borders, and in particular of conversion. Otherness means either completion or exile, and in Jesus’s parables the hearers are invited to enter a narrative in which their imagination, by heart and intuition, will eventually predispose them to one or to the other.

Culture of Excuses

The parable of the great supper heads in the same direction with quite another narrative (Matt 22:2–10 NIV; Luke 14:16–24 NIV). The ramifications mentioned in this parable come close to the measures to be taken with regard to apostasy (Deuteronomy 17:1–7).

Jesus’s message in sharing this parable is, again, to emphasize how often God has reached out to his people, in particular people in charge (tenants or listed guests), and how often his message (and messengers) has been rejected. The ‘otherness’ here is manifested in the surprising new list of guests, namely ‘anyone’: that is the bad and the good, the poor and the disabled, and all others who were compelled to come in. Those who suffer most from the diaspora and current Roman oppression will be restored and healed in God’s Kingdom, but those who look for excuses to remain where they are, seeking compromises in their luxurious and privileged positions, will finally be judged and  brought into deeper exile, which is the fate of the apostate. So, Israelites who hide behind sheer excuses may end up becoming total strangers to God. Quite astoundingly, they become the ‘others’, whereas outsiders are invited to enter the banquet hall. Replacement is the fate of the apostate.

Into Exile

Jesus is lenient and patient in facilitating conversion, repentance, and forgiveness, but he sends people back to exile if they are hypocrites whose ambition it is to thrive in God’s mercy and do not treat others in the same merciful way. Both forces are at work in the parable of the prodigal son (Luke), and in the parable of the unmerciful servant (Matthew).

So, exclusion, which is roughly equivalent to banishment (literally and/or spiritually), does not equal capital punishment on account of mortal sin. The sanction of banishment/exile was widely administered, while it was almost impossible to sentence someone to death in rabbinic courts. The gravity of the banishment was that the person not only was exiled, but that he was also banished from the presence of God.

Conclusion

Taking all this into account, Jesus’s attitude towards apostates, or outsiders, can be epitomized with the binary of otherness and exile. In his teaching and attitude, in particular in the parables, Jesus exhibits a typical Galilean orientation, which he deepens through unfolding his own halachic path. His criticism is mainly directed towards hypocrisy, in particular towards those whom he accuses of taking advantage of the system, of God’s patience and grace, and at the expense of poor and vulnerable people. In the coming age, which is imminent, and as a matter of fact present in Jesus’s words and deeds (e.g., healings and exorcisms), positions and dispositions will be turned upside down. The ‘others’ outside the system, such as strangers and outcasts and misfits, will be invited to come in, and ‘wicked’ insiders will be banished to exile. Consequently, otherness and hybridity are constitutive to Christian identity, according to Jesus, whereas exile denominates a type of otherness that seems to be beyond redemption, and irreversibly demarcates sound from toxic (infectious) alterity.

 

Questions

  1. Social distancing was an approved means to discipline offenders of religious law, and, if necessary, to ban them from exerting their faith. The stance Jesus took in most cases of law-related social nuisance was rather controversial – as is shown (among other situations) in the parables he told. Can you imagine the disruptive nature of exclusion in Jesus’s day and Jesus’s way of reacting against unloving practices? Explain what you are picturing or thinking.
  2. Parables have the advantage of providing playful confrontations. These confrontations are acted out safely as an inner moral dialogue that makes the listener decide to surrender to the moral imperative demonstrated in the parable or evade it. With regard to church services, can you think of creative ways to implement the power of playful confrontations?
  3. For Jesus, new identity is found in hybridity, because the ‘others’ are being included, whosoever they may be. It is not just a matter of mixed identity, but of convictions crossing social orders, and in particular of conversion. What is your idea (ideologically) about this hybridity within faith communities nowadays, and what do you see as the main hindrances to realizing that?
  4. What culture of excuses do you see within faith communities nowadays (starting with your own); can you think of ways to overcome this?
  5. Within the time of Jesus, the gravity of banishment implies banishment from the presence of God. So the social consequences include religious consequences. How do the social and the religious interact nowadays in your opinion?

 

About

This summary belongs to a more extensive article of Henk Bakker, which can be found here: Otherness and Exile: Jesus’s Attitude towards Apostates and Outsiders.

Last year, we published the book Religious Exclusivism and Social Inclusion? A Religious Response, which is available Open Access (for free). People asked for an additional discussion guide to bring the outcomes of this research to a wider audience. We agreed to that, and are happy to present a discussion guide which offers you summaries of all contributions, accompanied by questions for discussion. We hope this stimulates people, in all different contexts, to discuss these matters thoroughly and make them actual and relevant for their own situations. Every week we publish another summary of a chapter of the book, and questions for discussion.  If you want to use the whole conversation guide at once, it can be downloaded here: Conversation guide.

 

Conversation Guide #5: Deuteronomy 17 – by Joep Dubbink & Klaas Spronk

In Deuteronomy 17 it seems that apostasy or ‘leaving your religion’ is punished by death, a shocking outcome for the modern reader. However, this paper claims that this cannot be regarded as characteristic of the biblical view on exclusion and inclusion.

Deuteronomy 17:2-7

According to this text, idolatry and worshipping other gods are absolutely not acceptable. The prohibition on idolatry is deeply rooted in the religion of Israel; it is found in the Decalogue, in the commandment that forbids the making and worshipping of idols (Ex. 20:4; Deut. 5:8). Idolatry is a matter of transgressing God’s covenant and an ‘abomination’ (17:2, 4), an expression indicating a variety of cultic and ethic practices that can have no place in Israel.

Due process is important: thorough inquiry and a minimum of two witnesses (cf. Deut. 19:15) is necessary to avoid false accusations. The witnesses are required to start the execution themselves, obviously to make them think twice and make them even more responsible for the verdict based on their testimony (cf. also the way Jesus uses this: John 7:53-8:11, especially 8:7). All this is meant to ‘purge the evil from your midst’ (v. 7). Removing evil, unacceptable sins, from society is the first intention of this rule. A pedagogic intent is sometimes added (Deut. 19:20; 21:21), but is secondary.

Historical and biblical theological setting

For a long time,  biblical Israel was not as ‘monotheistic’, as the ‘historical overview’ of Genesis – 2 Kings seems to suggest. It was only after a long battle that the ‘YHWH-alone-movement’, which shaped the characteristic biblical faith, finally won, and their views were accepted as normative. The Book of Deuteronomy testifies to this battle: Deuteronomy 17:2-7 is meant to draw a line as a safeguard against apostasy, as that would be disastrous for the whole community.

For  twenty-first century readers, Deuteronomy 17:2-7 could easily be mistaken as a text about conversion, ‘changing your religion’, but the concept of religion as a set of truths, values and guidelines for worship and behaviour that one freely chooses is a modern one. In antiquity much more than in our times, religion was a collective choice or not even a choice. Whoever was born in Israel was a member of the covenant and responsible for upholding the rules of the covenant. Anyone transgressing fundamental rules of the covenant could not remain a member of the group.

Reception history

In the history of interpretation, we do not find indications that the execution of this law was much propagated. We do not know of any examples of executions of perpetrators under this law in the Second Temple period. Jewish tradition, on purpose, added so many criteria that it became almost impossible to carry out the death penalty.

In the history of the Christian church, especially in the time of the Reformation and Contra-Reformation, many people were executed because of assumed apostasy. However, those in power did not base the right to carry out the death penalty on Deuteronomy 17, but rather, for instance, on Romans 13. Calvin uses Deuteronomy 17 to ask for rigidity but also for ‘diligent inquiry’ and reads verse 7 about the witnesses being the first to throw a stone as a warning against light accusations.

Luther, in a lecture on Deuteronomy 17:1-7, states that with regard to sinning against faith and the word, there is no room for lapse (as is the case with regard to sinning against love), because when faith is lost, everything is lost, while love endures everything. Some commentators follow the line of Luther, indicating that at some point there is no more room for mercy or compromise. They stress, for example, the fact that the faith of Israel is diametrically opposed to the Canaanite religion, as life against death, or apply it to the Christian responsibility to keep the church pure, rather ignoring the violent content of the pericope.

At the other end of the spectrum, commentators focus on capital punishment as cruel and as a form of violence. The first type of reader changes the harsh content of the text by taking it metaphorically: no stoning but excommunication. Readers of the second kind explicitly refuse to spiritualize the biblical text and take the text seriously, including all its negative aspects, but they also, in the end, have to find a way of dealing with the text in the present day.

Exclusion and inclusion within Tanakh

The broader context of the Hebrew Bible shows that there are different voices on the theme of inclusion/exclusion. Safeguarding one’s identity can be important in a specific situation. There are many different situations, from family/clan, settlements, tribes, to monarchies and parochial organizations. In each of them outsiders play specific and also often changing roles.

The books of Ezra and Nehemiah are witnesses to a theology that is determined by fear. With the events of the exile in mind, the implication is that Israel narrowly escaped annihilation, that new transgressions are a direct threat to its society and foreign influence has to be removed (e.g., Ezra 9:1-15, Neh 9).

In the book of Jonah, a much more lenient view on the heathen (and hostile) city of Nineveh is found than in Nahum: in Jonah, the non-Israelite sailors are doing the right thing; they pray to YHWH (Jonah 1:14). In the story of Ruth, a Moabite woman is presented as faithful to her mother-in-law and to YHWH, while Numbers 25 warns against the danger of Moabite women leading the Israelites astray. The book of Genesis displays open and often even friendly relations between Abraham and his descendants on the one hand and the Canaanites on the other hand (e.g., Jethro, the Midianite father-in-law of Moses).

The book of Joshua offers a very clear distinction between the chosen people of Israel and the Canaanites who are only there to be replaced. However, it is introduced by two stories that put this distinction into a new light: Rahab, a Canaanite prostitute in Jericho, plays a positive role as a true believer in YHWH; she and her family survive the destruction of Jericho. Achan, a member of the important tribe of Judah, is stoned to death for his transgressions, together with his wife and children.

These stories cannot be regarded as an exception to the rule of Deuteronomy 17 that apostasy deserves the death penalty, because outsiders like Ruth and Rahab are only included after they proved to be true followers of the god of Israel. The older situation of henotheism, in which it was accepted as normal that other peoples served other gods, is replaced in most texts in Tanakh by strict monotheism. Traces of the older situation can be found in a text like Deuteronomy 4:19, which shows that YHWH had no problem with other people worshipping the sun and moon, as long as Israel  refrained from it. Alas, this aspect has been ignored in the reception history, and the most radical versions of ‘otherness’ have frequently been adopted as the only possible meaning. Fundamentalist readers of the Bible to this day have thus justified the unmerciful exclusion of ‘outsiders’ from the community of believers.

In line with these remarks, we conclude that, in our opinion, Deuteronomy 17:2-7 does not have the last word when it comes to exclusion or inclusion in Tanakh. It should be handled with care when we want to base our discussion of this topic on biblical grounds, as it is not just a text about conversion and it should be read together with other texts with a different approach to this theme.

 

Questions

  1. What are your first impressions after reading Deuteronomy 17:2-7: consent, approval, fear, disgust, protest, or something else?
  2. Do you regard faith as a matter of personal choice, or do you feel yourself a member of a community of people whose faith you share?
  3. Would it be easy for you to change or abandon your religion, or would you experience opposition? If so, would this opposition come from within (your own conscience) of from others, like family, friends, religious or worldly authorities?
  4. To what extent is the variety of opinions within the Bible on ‘outsiders’ problematic for you, and to what extent do you regard this as an enrichment?

 

About

This summary belongs to a more extensive article of Joep Dubbink and Klaas Spronk, which can be found here: Deuteronomy 17:2-7 within the Context of Tanakh.

Last year, we published the book Religious Exclusivism and Social Inclusion? A Religious Response, which is available Open Access (for free). People asked for an additional discussion guide to bring the outcomes of this research to a wider audience. We agreed to that, and are happy to present a discussion guide which offers you summaries of all contributions, accompanied by questions for discussion. We hope this stimulates people, in all different contexts, to discuss these matters thoroughly and make them actual and relevant for their own situations. Every week we publish another summary of a chapter of the book, and questions for discussion.  If you want to use the whole conversation guide at once, it can be downloaded here: Conversation guide.

 

Conversation Guide #4: Apostasy, A Social Identity Perspective – by Jack Barentsen

Apostasy is a counter-cultural concept for many western Christians. Freedom of speech and thorough-going individualism underpin a climate of pluralism and multiculturalism. Tolerance of nearly any moral or religious position has become politically correct, rendering the very concept of apostasy suspect. On the other hand, apostasy is an important concept in Islam, along with the death penalty, religious liberty, and political power.

Apostasy may be described theologically as a state of having lost one’s faith or one’s identification with a particular religious tradition. Though meaningful within some religious communities, this description presents difficulties for a public, multi-religious debate. Apostasy may also be described through social scientific analysis which facilitates interreligious conversation about identity, boundaries, deviance and transgression. This chapter offers a perspective from social identity theory, which describes the complexity of social identity, intergroup relationships, boundary negotiation, and the dynamics of inclusion and exclusion. Social scientific language complements theological language in the study of apostasy.

What is a Social Identity?

A social identity is a ‘sense of us,’ which is informed by the perception of similarities and differences with other group members as compared with outsiders. This is not an objective assessment, but a matter of perception, perspective and, thus, rhetoric. Social identities have three main dimensions: cognitive (knowledge and content that defines group identity), affective (emotions attached to group identity), and evaluative (the social value of group membership for the individual). Social identities are motivated by a sense of self-esteem, security, efficacy, or distinctiveness.

Group identity develops around a sense of how some members represent and embody the group more than others (‘prototypicality’). Stereotypes portray outgroups as significantly different, marginalization refers to the perception that some ingroup members do not fit very well, while deviance is the perception that some differ so much from the group prototype that they are experienced as endangering group identity. Hence, social identities are always comparative.

Individuals maintain a number of different social identities simultaneously, for instance, cultural, ethnic and religious identities, but also work, family or neighborhood identities. Social identification involves ongoing group and personal identity negotiations to prioritize some social identities depending on the time and context. How individuals handle their multiple social identities is strongly influenced by people’s experiences in a pluralistic, highly diverse social society, and by the level of identity or distinctiveness threat they experience.

Apostasy as transgression of identity boundaries

Although religious identity is often secondary, influencing various religious groups and organizations, faith communities are primarily religious in function and identity, while their social, psychological and economic dimensions are secondary. Hence, religious identity is often the primary religious identity in churches or mosques.

Apostasy involves losing or being denied one’s religious identity, usually losing a particular Muslim or Christian community, or the associated network (e.g., Roman Catholicism or Shiite Islam). Even though contemporary trends of cultural tolerance and interreligious dialogue suggest that concerns about apostasy are less prevalent today, many Christian and Muslim communities continue to hold exclusive beliefs, assuming or requiring identification with specific beliefs and practices at the risk of being considered apostate. Apostasy then implies disidentification with a particular faith community and its faith tradition.

Apostasy is thus not only a theological qualification of an individual leaving the faith, but also a social qualification of an individual crossing or transgressing the identity boundary of a religious community. Social identity theory explains the complexity: it is not just disagreeing with some religious beliefs (the cognitive dimension of socio-religious identity). Some individuals manage to stay within their faith community even when they differ in some core beliefs, because they still identify with the emotional and value dimensions of the community. These dimensions together inform the process of apostasy as transgression of the socio-religious identity of the community.

Dynamics of in/exclusion

How is it that individuals come to be and/or feel included in a community of faith, or alternatively, be/feel excluded? Theologically, apostasy as a transgression of religious identity is marked by certain sacred texts of exclusion (e.g., Deuteronomy 17:2-7), while other texts include ethnic and socioeconomic differences within the community (Deut. 16:13-15, 18-20). In a Jewish context, only transgression of specific covenant obligations may lead to exclusion, because the covenant shapes Israelite identity, while ethnic or economic differences are explicitly included in Israelite identity. This fits a largely agrarian, collective context (as in ancient Israel) where religious, ethnic and social identities overlapped significantly, so that only the gravest of differences, those relating to the covenant, should be marked as apostasy and reason for exclusion.

Modern life is highly differentiated. People move in many different social networks that hardly overlap, with religious identity not integrated but compartmentalized. Thus, most people have meaningful relationships with others, apart from their religious identity. To be excluded or exclude oneself from a religious group does not necessarily breach relationships in other spheres of life, which may well continue without interruption even in the case of religious identity switch/apostasy.

The concept of apostasy functions quite differently in these contexts: although the theological definition might continue unchanged, its social relevance and impact varies greatly. In individualized societies, apostasy becomes a matter of religious preference, with few sanctions in the case of identity switch; in a more collective society, a religious identity switch can be very costly, even resulting in violence and death.

Sacred texts concerning apostasy play a different role in these contexts. In more collective societies, with religious and political powers in close cooperation, these texts become instruments to guard these boundaries and to heighten the cost of religious identity transfers. In societies marked by social mobility and personal preference, these texts have little impact on one’s religious affiliations, and even less on other social relationships and identities.

 

Questions

  1. Have you ever experienced such a major change in your religious beliefs and/or practices that you left (or were ‘asked’ to leave) a religious community?
    • Did you think this was a form of apostasy?
    • Did the community you left see your leaving as a form of apostasy?
  2. How does your faith or religion influence the groups with which you identify or from which you distance yourself? Is your faith the primary dimension for the group, or does it play a less important role?
  3. To what extent does a change in your religious beliefs or practices involve a change in social or even economic relationships?
  4. Do you feel that your religious identity is the most important identity that influences all other social identities in your life? Why or why not?
  5. Are there people that you feel should be excluded from your religious community, while more formally or officially they are included? Or do you think some should be included, that are formally excluded? How does this chapter help you understand your own feelings about this?
  6. Have you ever been part of a (sub)group that excluded someone else? On what basis? Was this something that was marked as ‘apostasy’?
  7. Have you ever felt that someone in your community was an apostate – or perhaps even yourself? Why did you think so? Did your community agree with that?

 

About

This summary belongs to a more extensive article of Jack Barentsen, which can be found here: Apostasy: A Social Identity Perspective.

Last year, we published the book Religious Exclusivism and Social Inclusion? A Religious Response, which is available Open Access (for free). People asked for an additional discussion guide to bring the outcomes of this research to a wider audience. We agreed to that, and are happy to present a discussion guide which offers you summaries of all contributions, accompanied by questions for discussion. We hope this stimulates people, in all different contexts, to discuss these matters thoroughly and make them actual and relevant for their own situations. Every week we publish another summary of a chapter of the book, and questions for discussion.  If you want to use the whole conversation guide at once, it can be downloaded here: Conversation guide.

 

Conversation Guide #3: Apostasy in Terms of Moral Deviance – by Robert Ermers

In this article I argue that apostates – people who renounce their family’s and their community’s religious beliefs – often regarded as heroes by outsiders, are in fact considered by their own in-groups and communities as having also given up fundamental moral principles: they have declared themselves immoral. This explains the conflicts between apostates and their families as well as the families’ fears about their position in the community.

The importance of groups

Humans are in essence social beings who have a basic need to feel included by other humans. Evolutionary psychologists have argued that this basic need is related to an evolutionary need for protection. Social psychological research has shown over and again that being included and accepted by others makes an individual feel better and happier, safer and stronger. The family, the most coherent human group, scores highest on entitativity, the degree to which groups regard themselves as coherent. Different groups form a community.

Group membership is always conditional

Group members have to adhere to written and unwritten rules of their group. If there is too much  disagreement and too often, the group may fall apart, with significant consequences for all of its members. Therefore, a member’s inclusion in a group (and the larger community) can never be unconditional: when a member  endangers the unity of the group because of their behaviour, by scorning, insulting or harassing other members, they will be reprimanded. These processes also occur within a family.

With the help of moral principles groups and communities distinguish between good and bad. In this way, members of a given group will know what sort of attitude is expected of them and what sort of activities they cannot engage in.

Individuals who due to their behaviour are considered immoral by other members of their group also constitute a danger for the group’s unity and cohesion. Young group members may copy the undesired behaviour, while others feel embarrassment and distress over the immoral conduct. Dissenting and deviant members, therefore, can be reprimanded, punished, stigmatized and, eventually, excluded from their group. In this context, family members often ask themselves what they did wrong, while trying to keep the behaviour secret.

A stigma-by-association

Yet an immoral individual can damage their in-group in another way: when members of other groups in the community learn about the immoral behaviour, they may believe all members of deviant’s group are immoral. In other words, the stigma of one member sticks to their fellow group members: a well-known social mechanism called ‘stigma by association’ or ‘courtesy stigma’. The result of a stigma-by-association process is that all associates, the members of the deviant’s closest in-group including children, risk social exclusion by other community members, and marriages and engagements with members of other families may fail.

In this way, deviants not only cause trouble and arguments within their families, they often also cause a stigma for the family in the community. In this latter situation, families are torn between their love for the deviant member on the one hand and  community pressure on the other. Thus, family members may see no other option than to break with the deviant, while other groups, such as friends and employers, in general  cut off the relationship more easily.

For example, recently Jeroen Rietbergen, a musician who worked for the Dutch TV programme The Voice, and also the brother-in-law of the owner of the broadcasting company, John de Mol, was publicly accused of transgressing important moral norms in his contacts with women. There were discussions on social media, the press and in talk shows. Because of the moral stigma-by-association, De Mol saw no other option than to stop the programme, fire Rietbergen and distance himself from his behaviour (which he did rather clumsily). Linda de Mol, in her tun, immediately ended her relationship with Rietbergen.

People may be morally stigmatized when they express non-conformist convictions. Although in western societies tolerance is an important social and moral ideal, societies have difficulty in coping with citizens who publicly renounce important but arguably multi-interpretable notions like ‘democracy’, ‘freedom’ or ‘equality’ and who, for example, disturb national commemoration rituals. Those who question these important notions, or the pre-determined interpretation, may be considered immoral (and labelled Nazi, extremist, communist, etc.), and face indignant and angry responses.

How is this related to apostasy?

In many publications the positions of Christian, Jewish and Muslim apostates both in the Middle East and Africa have been studied. There, the point of departure appears to be that the apostates and the families have a (minor) ideological dispute, which escalates because the families – the parents in particular – are needlessly ‘rigid’, ‘traditional’, ‘patriarchal’, or overly religious, and against the freedom of religion.

Yet on a closer look, in my view, it appears that apostates have similar conflicts with their families as do those considered as moral deviants, and the apostates’ associates appear to have a similar delicate position in their communities (although more research is needed on this). Other research has shown that in many communities, especially in the Middle East, being moral implies being ‘religious’, in the sense that individuals without religious beliefs are inherently immoral. In this context, believing family members still fear that the dissident member may not enter heaven, that they will lose ground.

In some families the conflicts and arguments with the apostates, after attempts to talk ‘sense’ into the ‘deviant’, lead to a break of the relationship with the apostate. When families give in, this is often on condition that if it should leak out in the community, they have all to face the consequences.

The case of Lâle Gül

A case in point is that of Lâle Gül (23), a university student, who in 2021 published her novel Ik ga leven (‘I will live’), about her youth in a conservative Turkish Muslim immigrant family in Amsterdam. In her novel she ridicules what she sees as the superficial Islamic religious notions and empty rituals. In numerous interviews, Gül repeatedly stated that she now considered herself not merely an apostate, but rather an atheist and an Islamophobe.

Apart from her apostate ideas, she also lashes out at her mother, whom  she subsequently calls ‘Carbuncle’ in her book, and she describes in quite explicit terms  the secret and forbidden sexual relationship she had with Freek, a Dutchman.

Many members of the majority Dutch society, politicians and journalists, hailed her as having ‘liberated’ herself from her ‘backward’ and ‘rigid’ Islamic background, comparing her to authors from protestant and catholic backgrounds before. Gül was considered a courageous heroine – even more so when she received threats from people within the Turkish Muslim minority community.

In the meantime, there was much less interest for the fate of Gül’s family members, her associates. In interviews Gül herself mentioned how her parents, brother (20), younger sister (10), uncles and minor cousins were harassed by phone calls and degrading comments from the Turkish Muslim community both in the Netherlands and abroad. Gül’s little sister and brother had begged Lale not to appear in public anymore and draw negative attention to herself and their family – which she refused.

In our multicultural society there are many groups with differing moral norms. When an apostate leaves one group, people from other groups, especially the majority, tend to applaud the apostate’s ‘courage’. Yet these outsiders often tend to forget about the fate of the apostate’s former group members who almost inevitably will suffer from the stigma.

 

Questions

  1. Do apostates and their families merely have a difference in opinion or is there more to it – as argued in this article?
  2. Is it possible to be an apostate of ‘communism’, ‘liberalism’ or ‘democracy’? Do you agree that this sort of apostasy includes giving up important moral beliefs?
  3. How can members of other communities make apostates feel welcome in their new (moral) community?
  4. Do you think there is enough attention for the fate of the apostate’s associates?
  5. What sort of impact could the lack of interest for the fate of the deviant’s associates potentially have?
  6. What could we in our community do?

 

About

This summary belongs to a more extensive article of Robert Ermers, which can be found here: Apostasy in Terms of Moral Deviance.

Last year, we published the book Religious Exclusivism and Social Inclusion? A Religious Response, which is available Open Access (for free). People asked for an additional discussion guide to bring the outcomes of this research to a wider audience. We agreed to that, and are happy to present a discussion guide which offers you summaries of all contributions, accompanied by questions for discussion. We hope this stimulates people, in all different contexts, to discuss these matters thoroughly and make them actual and relevant for their own situations. Every week we publish another summary of a chapter of the book, and questions for discussion.  If you want to use the whole conversation guide at once, it can be downloaded here: Conversation guide.

 

Conversation Guide #2: A Humble Exclusivism? – by Dirk-Martin Grube

In this article, I develop a humble exclusivism. The guiding motif is to conceptualize an exclusivism that avoids (what I have dubbed) Dawkinsianism (after Richard Dawkins’s unwarranted claims that he and his fellows possesses absolute truth). A ‘humble’ exclusivism pursues its truth claims in an epistemically modest, that is a reflective and self-critical, fashion while still remaining recognizably exclusivist.

The definition of (religious) exclusivism

I distinguish between exclusivism regarding salvation and an exclusivism regarding truth: holding the belief that Jesus is the Christ is the only true description of reality is a form of truth-geared exclusivism, holding the belief that Jesus is the Christ and is the only way to salvation is a form of salvation-geared exclusivism. Both forms are related but need to be distinguished from each other. I focus here solely on the former, on the claim that the home religion is true and other religions are false.

Exclusivism and situations of cognitive ambiguity

Next, I ask what makes religious exclusivism wrong. Is it that it implies truth claims of that sort? Yet, this can hardly be the case since we always make truth claims. For example, we make such a claim when we reject the opinion that the earth is flat. If the criticisms that religious exclusivism is elitist, imperialist, and so on implies this, then they are mistaken. Furthermore, we have to emphasize the right and the importance of making truth claims against postmodernist denigrations of truth and in light of the emergence of conspiracy theorizing.

Exclusivism is thus not wrong because it implies truth claims. Yet, it can become wrong. This is the case when it is applied in the wrong kind of situations. For example, in situations of (cognitive) ambiguity it is wrong to be exclusivist. It is, for example, wrong to be exclusivist about the traffic light being green while not being in a good position to judge it.

What holds for exclusivism in general holds for religious exclusivism as well: It can become wrong when applied in the wrong situations, for instance in situations of cognitive ambiguity. And religious beliefs are formed under a significant amount of cognitive ambiguity. In religion, we do not have the kind of cognitive certainty we have in other domains of inquiry. The reason that religious exclusivism is wrong is thus that it pursued in the wrong kind of situation, in a situation of cognitive ambiguity.

This is a strictly epistemic claim that does not touch, say, the ‘certainty of faith’. The latter implies, for example, a certainty of the heart, of tradition, of (mystic) intuition, or whatever. But those kinds of certainties are different from a strictly cognitive certainty. Given this distinction, it makes sense to suggest that we are certain about our faith although we are cognitively ambiguous about it.

In this strictly epistemic sense we are uncertain about our religious beliefs. This is the same kind of uncertainty that characterizes many important questions in human life, such as the question whether there is meaning to human life and, if so, what it is. Suggesting that religious beliefs are formed under conditions of cognitive ambiguity does not diminish the value of the religious realm.

Dialogical communication and religious exclusivism

In situations of cognitive ambiguity, we should dialogue with the other party. In contrast to situations in which we are certain, for example about the proposition that the earth is round, we should treat the other as a (cognitive) peer, and try to learn from them in situations of uncertainty. Dialoguing provides our best chances to arrive at the truth.

Yet, dialoguing is ruled out by religious exclusivism as defined above: If I consider another religion to be false then I will not learn from it. After all, we do not wish to learn from falsity. If we wish to maintain an exclusivism in religious affairs, we should thus (re-)conceptualize it so as be capable of dialoguing. In order to do that, we need to avoid  considering religions that differ from our own religion to be false.

The way to do that is to abandon the logical principle of bivalence. This principle implies that there are only two truth values, true and false. A declarative sentence is either true or else it is false. This is an exclusive alternative. Thus, religious beliefs that differ from the ones I regard to be true (usually my own) must be false by necessity. Yet, if they are false, I should not dialogue with them. Bivalence thus rules out dialoguing – which, as we have seen, is mandatory in situations of cognitive ambiguity, such as is the case in religion.

A justificationist frame of reference: broken superiority, humble exclusivism

As a solution, I propose to substitute the search for bivalent truth values with that of justification (in a philosophical, not a theological sense). Unlike bivalent truth, justification can be pluralized. It allows me to maintain the conviction that I am justified to hold my Christian beliefs whereas you may be justified to hold your different, say, Buddhist beliefs. Although I disagree with your beliefs, I do not think that they are false in the above sketched sense. Viewing things in such a way opens the way to dialoguing. Since we agreed that exclusivism should be (re-)conceptualized so as to allow for dialoguing, we should re-conceptualize it along justificatory lines.

The difference between a religious exclusivism (re-)conceptualized along justificatory rather than bivalent lines is one of attitude. Whereas the latter attitude believes that it possesses the truth, the former is more modest, thinking that its right to be exclusivist is a relative one (e.g., relative to its context of justification). As a consequence, it will propose its exclusivism in more humble ways than the former: it proposes a humble exclusivism.

The humble exclusivist believes that their religious beliefs are superior to competing ones (otherwise they would not believe in them). Yet, the superiority they claim for them is a broken one. A broken superiority is opposed to a Dawkinsianist, triumphalistic one: the holder does not pretend to possess The Truth and refrains from calling their own tradition ‘the illuminated way’.

A (conservative) religious critic may now retort that we should insist on possessing The Truth. If we fail to do so, we are disloyal to our prime task as believers, namely to witness God as God, absolute as He is in His glory.

This critic confuses theology with epistemology. Although, theologically, we are obliged to witness to God, we should be very careful how we cash in that claim epistemologically. Immediately identifying one’s own truth claims, or that of one’s tradition,  with The Truth can be ‘demonic’ (Paul Tillich). It claims absolute validity for that which by its very nature is not absolute and, by Christian understanding, fallen:

Following Paul, we see through a glass, darkly, and know only in part (after 1 Cor 13:12).

 

Questions

  1. What is a humble exclusivism?
  2. Why is it necessary?
  3. What speaks for it from a Christian point of view?
  4. What makes identifying one’s own religious truth claims with The Truth ‘demonic’?

 

About

This summary belongs to a more extensive article of Dirk-Martin Grube, which can be found here: A Humble Exclusivism? Reconstructing Exclusivism under Justificationist Rather than Bivalent Parameters.

Last year, we published the book Religious Exclusivism and Social Inclusion? A Religious Response, which is available Open Access (for free). People asked for an additional discussion guide to bring the outcomes of this research to a wider audience. We agreed to that, and are happy to present a discussion guide which offers you summaries of all contributions, accompanied by questions for discussion. We hope this stimulates people, in all different contexts, to discuss these matters thoroughly and make them actual and relevant for their own situations. Every week we publish another summary of a chapter of the book, and questions for discussion.  If you want to use the whole conversation guide at once, it can be downloaded here: Conversation guide.

 

Conversation Guide #1: Exclusion versus Inclusion – by Bernhard Reitsma

‘I killed God and buried Him.’ That is what Jason Walters said after he was deradicalized. Walters is an ex-Jihadist who was part of the so called ‘Hofstadgroep’, a radical Muslim terrorist group in the Netherlands. Raised in a Christian family he converted to Islam when he was twelve years old and quite rapidly radicalized at the age of 19 through contact with the Hofstadgroep. He was – in his own words – a Jihadi seeking to become a martyr. In the course of his arrest in 2004 he wounded five police-offers with a hand grenade. He spent nine years in prison and during that time, through a process of study and reflection, he became deradicalized. When asked how that was possible, he answered: because ‘I killed God and buried Him.’ According to Walters, the only way to part with extremism was to abandon his faith in one God. For him, believing in one God and being a faithful inclusive citizen of a democratic society simply do not go together; monotheism always leads to exclusion and violence. (Interview with Jason Walters on the ‘De ongelofelijke podcast’, August 9, 2019; and in ‘Argos’, September 29, 2018).

The question is, is that true? Does believing in one God always lead to the religious and social rejection of the religious other, to the extreme extent of religiously inspired violence? That is not a question only to be addressed by Muslims like (previously) Jason Walters, but by all worldviews. If one considers one’s own worldview as true and as the only good for society, it automatically seems to imply that there is no room for other views and opinions in the public space. So, do we have to sacrifice peace for the sake of religious purity or do we have to compromise our faith or worldview for the sake of an inclusive and peaceful society? That is the dilemma that seeks our attention. Is it impossible to be religiously exclusive and at the same socially inclusive and does it matter?

Exclusivism and inclusivism

Exclusivism and inclusivism can refer to three different areas and it is important to understand what these are.

  • They can relate to (eternal) salvation: is there only and exclusively salvation through Jesus Christ, or are Judaism and Islam equal ways of salvation. This points to the classical way of describing the Christian view of other religions as exclusivism, inclusivism and pluralism.
  • They concern the question of truth and falsehood. If a certain belief is true, it therefore logically excludes the opposite view. The view of a round earth excludes the belief that it is flat. The prophet Muhammad is either God’s messenger or he is not and Christ is either the divine Son of God or he is not.
  • They describe ways of living together in society and whether all people are and can be equally included, or whether some should be excluded because of certain beliefs or behaviours and if so, how.

All three areas somehow interlock.

When we explore the relationship between religious exclusiveness and social inclusion, it is not simply choosing between the two, but looking at what kind of exclusivity and inclusivity we wish for. Total inclusivity is not possible or desired, at none of the three interpretative levels of exclusivism/inclusivism mentioned above (salvation, truth and social relations), and the same is true for total exclusion.

Monotheistic Dilemma?

All world views or social imaginaries are to a certain extent exclusive in the first and second sense of the meaning. As a perceived expression of truth based on a certain world view or interpretation of good and bad – either in terms of the present time or eternity – they exclude other options. Still, it is sometimes argued that monotheistic religions are particularly problematic You simply don’t compromise with God. This leads to the dilemma of whether believers should follow the divine laws of the religious community or the laws of their country of residence. It is obvious that monotheism in itself cannot be blamed for this problem. Different forms of polytheism can be as intolerant as monotheism, while even radical monotheism knows many peaceful expressions, such as life in monasteries, the Amish communities, and pacifistic Salafi Muslims, among others. Therefore, the core tension is the tension between exclusive truth claims on the one hand and the desire for a peaceful pluralistic society on the other.

That, however, is a challenge of being human, not simply of being religious. According to Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, people try to overcome the complexity of life by dividing the world into good (us) and evil (the other). He argues precisely that the only way to overcome this dualism is monotheism, for God transcends our particularity. As creator he is universal and not just our God, but the God of all. (Sacks, Not in God’s Name, pp. 194, 195, 205)

Apostasy

One of the most exclusive forms of religious and social exclusion is the required death penalty for apostasy or idolatry. In all three monotheistic religions, Judaism, Christianity and Islam, it is considered an (almost) unforgivable act should believers decide to leave their faith and their faith community, and is liable to capital punishment. Exploring texts on apostasy, such as Deut 13 and 17 in the Jewish and Christian traditions, and certain ahadith or juridicial texts (fiqh) in Islam, can help to address the difficult issue of exclusion and inclusion. If the death penalty is the response God requires, then inclusion is undesirable in cases like these. But is that really the case? Do these and other exclusive texts show that inclusion is not the ultimate goal, or should we explore other ways of interpreting them? Are we able to engage in dialogue with people of other monotheistic traditions on these difficult situations? And what is the impact of the kind of society we live in? The history of Judaism, Christianity and Islam reveals that at different stages punishment of apostasy has been present in all three religions. How do we approach these challenges?

It might appear that inclusive holy texts are more helpful in this, and to a certain extent that is true. Inclusive texts underline what we have in common and might provide ways of living together. However, if we do not address the difficult questions in exclusive texts, they will always haunt us, since they also somehow represent the inspired voice of God.

 

Questions

  1. Can you give examples of exclusion and inclusion? To what of the three different areas as mentioned above (salvation, truth and social relations) do these relate?
  2. S. O’Grady, a scholar of religion, said in an interview: ‘Monotheistic religions have intolerance built into the system. By definition this one God is a jealous God, whether He is called Jahweh, Allah or Father. There is no room for competitors, tolerance is impossible.’ (Dutch Newspaper Nederlands Dagblad, February 6, 2021, p17.) What would be your response to this and why
  3. What would be necessary if you want to live together with people of other religions in your society? Is that possible and why or why not?
  4. Jonathan Sacks speaks as a Rabbi when he says that believing in God the creator can overcome dualism. How could that help you and your community in relating to people who do not share your faith or worldview?
  5. Christianity emphasizes that God became human in Jesus Christ for the sake of every sinner. What kind of effect does that have on your relationship with people who are not Christian believers?

 

About

This summary belongs to a more extensive article of Bernhard Reitsma, which can be found here: Exclusion versus Inclusion; Searching for Religious Inspiration.

Last year, we published the book Religious Exclusivism and Social Inclusion? A Religious Response, which is available Open Access (for free). People asked for an additional discussion guide to bring the outcomes of this research to a wider audience. We agreed to that, and are happy to present a discussion guide which offers you summaries of all contributions, accompanied by questions for discussion. We hope this stimulates people, in all different contexts, to discuss these matters thoroughly and make them actual and relevant for their own situations. Every week we publish another summary of a chapter of the book, and questions for discussion.  If you want to use the whole conversation guide at once, it can be downloaded here: Conversation guide.

 

Bookpublication!

The current research of the Chair The Church in the Context of Islam Foundation led to the publication of a book. With gratitude we present ‘Religiously Exclusive, Socially Inclusive? – A Religious Response’.

In main question of this book is the question what the tension between inclusion and exclusion means for the presence of the Church in the context of Islam. The book focuses on biblical texts concerning exclusivity and apostasy, studying different interpretations of such texts. Part of the exploration is the input of Jewish and Islamic voices, as well as a reflection on cases where exclusivity and apostasy become visible. The collection ends with a systematic and missiological reflection on the issues Christian churches and other religious communites must address today.

Do you want to read this book?

On the 5th of October the book will be presented during a symposium at the Christelijke Hogeschool Ede (further information will follow). It is the hope of the Chair that this book will contribute to reflection on the question how the Christian community can relate to a multireligious society, and to Islam in particular.