Religion, Allegiances, and the Common Good

There are many conflicts scattered across the globe.  Most of these conflicts are tribal or national, and often religion plays a role, in that it becomes a marker of identity.  To take one example -- Northern Ireland.  Is the conflict really one of theology or is it one of tribal identity, with a religious face placed on it.  In Bahrain, there is conflict between a Sunni majority that rules the country and a Shia majority.  The conflict has a religious face, but it's also quite political and involves the struggle for dominance between the Saudis and the Iranians (also an issue in Iraq).  When religion is a factor in such situations, it's really not about God, but about a desire for dominance and power, and God gets dragged into the conversation.  That is, we want God to bless our side of the debate.  Thus, God blesses America -- right!?

Although a full review of Miroslav Volf's book Allah:  A Christian Response is to be written in the coming days, I wanted to share a paragraph from the book in which he shares a conversation with a Franciscan priest and theology professor, a conversation that I think speaks volumes to the issues of our day.  In a book that argues that Christians and Muslims (as well as Jews) worship a common God, even if at points we have differing understandings of that God, he brings to bear the issue of Ultimate Allegiance.   This is, of course a concept I explore in my reflection on the Lord's Prayer, and here he argues that the "the fear of God" or "ultimate allegiance" is an important key to overcoming these conflicts.  

Religion, seen as a marker of identity, has swallowed up allegiance to the common God.  Even though God is on everybody's lips, religion has become godless (or maybe religion is godless partly just because God is on everybody's lips).  The consequence?  Each community thinks only of its own injuries and hopes, pursuing only its own interests and its own good.  Neither cares for the other or for the common good.  It would take allegiance to God in love and fear to cure them from self-preoccupation and excessive fear of others, my friend suggested.  To care for the common good, and not just for our own good, in face of powerful impulses to protect the group and enhance its power, the God of truth, Justice, and love must claim us.  (Volf, p. 241). 

 Is not our problem today that religion as a marker of identity has swallowed up our allegiance to the common God?  That is, because we have so committed ourselves to our own concerns we fail to understand that God is much larger than these pre-occupations that lead to conflict.  So, what would it take to shift our allegiance from our own national/tribal identities to that of God?

Note -- bolded words for emphasis (mine).


Steve Kindle said…
Bob, to begin answering your question, "So, what would it take to shift our allegiance from our own national/tribal identities to that of God?" I offer this possibility: Given the reality that Tillich pointed out in the phrase, "God above God," all our conceptions of God fall short of the totality. When we insist, as Fundamentalists of all faiths do, that ONLY their conception of God is true, we make all others, if not enemies, at least not our own God. Perhaps the answer lies in the humility of a willingness to be open to recognizing aspects of our God in theirs. Failing that, we can always fall back on the notion that even if we worship different gods, we all believe we are all God's children. However, I recognize that this doesn't work all that well in Christianity, so I don't hold out much hope for it, either. In the long run, if we don’t destroy ourselves first, we will learn to live together in peace out of necessity if not purposefully. After all, we’ve only been forced to work on this for maybe 100 years; not much time in the scheme of things.
Brian said…
Amen to Steven's post.
Robert Cornwall said…
Brian and Steve,

In Volf's presentation the point is that if (and he believes this is so) Christians and Muslims share a common God, then allegiance to that common God should lead us to taking steps toward peaceful co-existence, at the very least.

He makes very clear in the beginning that his proposal doesn't include the question of salvation -- that's a different issue. But are their common values, and he believes (as I do) that this is true, then we have a foundation to work with.
Steve Kindle said…
Bob, There are miles of difference in "should lead us to" and "can lead us to." Of course understanding a common God "should" but doesn't. Not even in Christianity where we have often killed each other in the name of Christ. Humanity is still in its infancy in terms of emotional evolution. I hope we find a way to stay around until "should" becomes "has led us to" peaceful coexistence.
Robert Cornwall said…
Miroslav makes an important point by saying that all Christians don't worship a common God, neither do all Muslims, but when understood in their normative traditions (of course this is another issue) then we see sufficient commonality, especially in the common commitment to love of God and love of neighbor!

Whether or not we're able to do this well isn't the real point, but rather can we find a path to overcoming our differences to the extent that this is possible.
Steve Kindle said…
Bob, I guess my point is that EVEN WITH commonality, we Christians (never mind anyone else) are (at least up to now) unable to live in peace. It's not a matter of finding commonality; it's a matter of being unable to subordinate our own interests to that of the greater good. The arrival of that willingness is well beyond human possibility for perhaps another millennium. We can only hope and pray that the God in process with the world can ultimately bring us all together.
John said…
With Steve, I think that on the evolutionary scale humanity is a long way from Kingdom living. So the questions we have to focus on must involve discerning what intermediate steps can we take to introduce Kingdom aspects into this fractured and unreconciled world.
John said…
I think the writers of Scripture grasped the enormity of this problem. This is the story of Jonah, a story which does not end with a "happily ever after," but with God shaking the divine head at Jonah's inability to escape his tribalism, not even when Jonah is sitting at the very feet of God, not even at God's explicit prompting. Tribalism may be so hard-wired into humanity, into our genetic structure as a social species, that it is virtually inescapable.

And still the writers of Scripture tried to communicate to future generations the divine will in this regard, that believers must ever strive to overcome this barrier.
John said…
I think humans yearn for chosenness. I think we often cling to it almost more tightly than we cling to God. We see God from a perspective scarcity rather than abundance - there is only one God and God has chosen only us, and there is surely not enough of God or of "chosenness" to share with others. God becomes a possession, a mere symbol of our chosenness.

We are all children of the same Creator, and we are each beloved, and each has been called out to in a language and cultural idiom each can comprehend - if we will listen and if we will respond.

By nature we are insecure, and covetous - I think these qualities may be, evolutionarily speaking, survival characteristics. So, we hear in God's call to us an acknowledgement of our chosen-ness. And we feel a compulsion to guard and protect not only the uniqueness of our call and our chosenness, but to guard and protect the God who calls out to us. We protect what is ours, and surely this God is ours. In this way God has become a symbol of our uniqueness, of or chosenness - and it seems that to some our actual relationship with God is no longer as important as our mission to protect and defend the symbol.

The possibility that the One who chose us may have chosen others is an unthinkable denial of our own chosenness. Even discussion of the possibility undermines the sacred symbol, thus spurring the faithful in their insecurity to fight ever harder to guard and protect their chosenness and their image (idol) of God.

Humility and sharing are the province of the secure.
Steve Kindle said…
Bob, in keeping with John's observation that intermediate steps are in order, I do want to acknowledge that Volf's books is a very helpful contribution to moving us down the road to world peace. Thank you for bringing it to our attention. Certainly, if we can discover the essential humanity that inhabits us all in one another, including that the three Abrahamic religions worship the same God, we are that much closer to our goal.

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