“So in the twenty-first century religions don’t bring rain, they don’t cure illnesses, they don’t build bombs- but they do get to decide who are “us” and who are “them,” whom we should cure and whom we should bomb…When it comes to solving rather than stoking the global problems of the twenty-first century, religions don’t seem to offer much. Though many traditional religions espouse universal values and claim cosmic validity, at present they are used mainly as the handmaid of modern nationalism, whether in North Korea, Russia, Iran, or Israel. They therefore make it even harder to transcend national differences and find a global solution to the threats of nuclear war, ecological collapse, and technological disruption.”
Noah Yuval Harari in 21 Lessons for the 21st Century
“Religions are carriers of visions of the good life, which billions have found compelling throughout history and still find compelling today. Central to these visions is the paramount importance of transcendence, of the invisible realm, of God- but not as a mysterious power outside the world. Relation to that transcendent realm fundamentally shapes how we understand and relate to our world and ourselves…religions stand or fall on their ability to connect people to the transcendent realm and thereby make it possible for them to truly flourish, to find genuine fulfillment in both their successes and failures, and to lead lives worthy of human beings, lives marked by joyous contentment and solidarity.”
Miroslav Volf in Flourishing: Why We Need Religion in a Globalized World
What is the role of religion in our age? As we try to find answers to the complex questions of our time, is it a good thing to look at the ancient teachings of Jesus as a source of guidance? Above, I have given you two quotes from authors I read with a fair amount of regularity. You will immediately notice that they represent two incredibly contrasting views about religion. Noah Yuval Harari is a lecturer at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and he has written two thought provoking books, Sapiens and Homo Deus, which I highly recommend. The quote from above is from his most recent work, 21 Lessons for the 21st Century. As you can see, Harari is not convinced that the teachings of Jesus (or Confucius, Muhammad, or Buddha) have any relevance for life in the 21st century. In his eyes, religion has become a puppet in the hands of the powerful, which means that we would all be better off if we could leave the vestiges of primitive histories behind us.
His understanding of religious faith is ultimately one that leads human beings to separate between “us” and “them”, with the latter almost always being the enemy of the former. It doesn’t take much effort to find his ideas validated in popular culture. Whether it is the Taliban in Afghanistan or Religious Fundamentalists in America, there is no shortage of examples regarding how religion can create divisions and hostilities between “us” and “them”. With that being said, I can’t stress enough just how much I disagree with Harari. Unfortunately, he is looking at religion (in my case Christianity) with a short-sighted lens. Yes, there are distorted visions of religious faith that create division and hatred, but the way of Jesus is really the polar opposite.
In the Sermon on the Mount, which is some of the most compelling teaching that the world has ever heard, Jesus says,
“love our enemies and pray for those that persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in Heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and he send rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same?” (Matthew 5:43-47)
Far from being a way that separates and creates division, those of us who follow Jesus are called to love….everyone. In a technical sense, yes, Harari is correct that there is still an “us” and “them”. But it isn’t assigned in a way that divides us. There is an “us” who follow Jesus and a “them” that we are called to love because they too are created in the image of God. I don’t know about you, but I am confident that this way of seeing the world could enable us to solve a great number of our problems. There are hundreds of other examples I could give from the life of Jesus where he teaches and lives out the reality that his way is a universal one that unites all people through the love of God. Think about the parable of the Good Samaritan or the story of Jesus’ interaction with Zaccheus the Tax Collector. Each of these prolific examples shows us how faith at its best is a compelling source of good in the world. It is true that Christians don’t always get it right, God knows we mess it up regularly enough that people like Harari think the world is better off without us. But I really can’t believe that anyone who reads the teachings of Jesus would argue that he doesn’t show us a better and more authentic way of being human. Every time I read the stories of Jesus, I continue to be amazed at the possibilities inherent in the life that is all around us. His way leads us to be better to ourselves and to each other.
That leads me to the second quote from Miroslav Volf. He is professor of theology at Yale University and one of the foremost public intellectuals of our time. If you have not read any of his stuff, do yourself a favor and start reading now. The quote above is from his recent work, Flourishing: Why We Need Religion in a Globalized World. His book deserves far more space than I am giving it for this post, but I wanted to include his quote about the purpose of religious faith for our time. Far from being a source of division, faith has the ability to make us better. If we pay attention, Christianity doesn’t just give us something to look forward to when we die, but it gives us glimpses of the Kingdom of God as we go throughout our days here and now. The way of faith isn’t an antiquated system of division, but according to Volf it is the only way to see how we are truly connected to God and each other.
I would love to be a fly on the wall if Harari and Volf could sit down for a chat. Two men with incredible intellects and visions for the future, yet their conceptions of religion are on opposite ends of the spectrum.
I would love to hear your thoughts,