Theology of the Other
As regular readers of this inspirational journey know, I follow the writings of David Brooks. I find the topics he addresses to be very interesting and relevant. And I like the way he thinks about things. Thirdly, he usually offers some supportive material from people I may not know or have not read. He expands my knowledge and my capacity to think. In that sense I still am in school!
Anyone aware of our world in recent years knows about the terrorists who make life unpleasant and unpredictable for so many around the globe. That awareness goes back at least to 2001 for Americans, although there were certainly terrorists before then. And every few months it seems there is another terrorist event. Some folks are usually left dead, others wounded and a whole host of other folks are either mad or fearful. And that is the point of terrorism---it is disruptive of life as normal.
In the current version of terrorism, ISIS gets front page. They are quick to claim responsibility for the calamity that has just happened. The thing that is so tricky about ISIS or any other variation of terrorism is the elusive quality characteristic of them. Unlike Hitler and Nazi Germany, we don’t know the enemy. They are not yet, at least, a nation. They don’t wear uniforms. They are unpredictable and their terrorism is unpredictable.
It is against this backdrop that I read a recent Brooks’ essay. Invitingly, he entitled it, “Finding Peace Within the Holy Texts.” In the process of his analysis he referenced a rather new book by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, Not in God’s Name. That is a book I will read. Sacks offers Brooks good analytical perspectives to think about how we confront the threat of ISIS and other kinds of terrorism. The first thing Sacks put forth is that ISIS is the kind of threat we will face in the coming decades of our new century.
Brooks summarizes words from Rabbi Sacks. “The 21st century will not be a century of secularism…It will be an age of desecularization and religious conflicts.” That is an interesting thought. So many folks in the church today are worried about the secular world. By secular world they mean a world devoid of religion and spiritual concern. Secular usually means non-religion or even anti-religion. Sacks is not worried about that.
I combine words of Brooks and Sacks to put forward their thesis. Brooks begins by noting, “Humans are meaning-seeking animals.” I could not agree more. And Brooks and Sacks do not think that secularism ultimately offers adequate meaning. Sacks describes our current time as a century that “has left us with a maximum of choice and a minimum of meaning.” Characteristic of the secular perspective is everything is relative and nothing has ultimate meaning. The substitutes for religion are finally inadequate substitutes.
Sacks does not think religion leads to violence and war. But he does contend that “religion fosters groupishness and the downside of groupishness is conflict with the people outside the group.” I think he is certainly correct about this. Even within the various Christian communities we can see groupishness. Why would it be any different in other religious tradition? Sacks continues in the words of Brooks. “Religion can lead to thick moral communities, but in extreme form it can also lead to what Sacks calls pathological dualism, a mentality that divides the world between those who are impeachably good and those who are irredeemably bad.” It seems to me that goes a long way in describing our current situation.
Then comes one of the most interesting sentences in the whole essay. “Sacks correctly argues we need military weapons to win the war against fanatics like ISIS, but we need ideas to establish a lasting peace.” It is here that I see a role to play and all those I am trying to teach. While I am not going to be part of the military solution, I can be part of the long-term solution---ideas for a lasting peace.
Brooks says that these ideas will come from “reinterpreting the holy texts themselves. Then he writes the second profound sentence of the essay. “There has to be a Theology of the Other: a complex biblical understanding of how to see God’s face in strangers.” I really like this idea of a Theology of the Other. I am glad to have a name for what I think I have been doing over some decades of teaching and ministry. In effect this calls for a view of a God bigger and better than the God many of us worship. This calls for a God bigger and better than the one for whom the terrorists apparently are willing to die.
To do this kind of theology will lead inevitably into discussions of justice and love. Not surprisingly, this is exactly where Brooks goes. We will save those reflections for another day. For today I am going to get used to being a Theologian of the Other.