The ideological clash between monotheism and polytheism furnishes the world with one of its first examples of asymmetrical warfare. As St. Augustine pointed out, the logic of monotheism requires that it be at war with its pagan rivals, and vice versa, but with a twist that gives monotheism the upper hand: “The opinion of Socrates is that every deity whatsoever should be worshiped in just the manner ordained by that god. For that very reason, it became a matter of the supremest necessity with them [the Roman pagans] to refuse to worship the God of the Hebrews. For if they were minded to worship Him in a method different from the way in which He had declared that He ought to be worshiped, then assuredly they would have been worshiping not this God as He is, but some figment of their own imagination. On the other hand, if they were willing to worship Him in the manner which He had indicated, then they could not but perceive that they were not at liberty to worship those other deities whom He had forbidden them to worship.”
That same aggressive logic applies not just to polytheists but—as we all know only too well—within the capacious monotheistic family too. Again, the problem lies not so much (or not just) in the iniquity of believers, but more pervasively in the logical structure of the religions themselves. All three monotheistic religions trace their origins back to a definitive revelation in history: Orthodox Jews claim that revelation culminated in Moses; Christians hold that Jesus Christ is the ultimate and definitive revelation of God; and Muslims confess Muhammad as the last and final prophet of salvation history. And this is precisely the rub: as Thomas Hobbes pointed out, no revelation can trump another, for to do so would be to step outside the circle of the elect recipients of that revelation, exactly what revelation forbids. Nor for Hobbes can revelation prove very effective even when it comes to refuting atheism: for if someone says that God spoke to him in a dream, this “is no more than to say he dreamed that God spoke to him.”
F. E. Peters’ new encyclopedic, indeed magisterial, survey The Monotheists: Jews, Christians, and Muslims in Conflict and Competition positions itself, as it were, between Socrates and Hobbes. That is, it grants, as St. Augustine’s Socrates would wish to, the belief system of each religion on its own terms; but as the book’s subtitle indicates, it also shares Hobbes’ pessimism that these conflicting accounts of revelation can be reconciled, either irenically or polemically. Unless, that is, believers and nonbelievers throughout the world can at least try to imagine what it must be like to live in a quite altered religious system with its different view of God—just what this book seeks to achieve. Fortunately, despite the implied pessimism of the book’s subtitle, Peters’ style is remarkably chipper, even witty, without ever becoming on that account offensive or condescending. Like Jane Austen looking at Regency society, Peters cannot help but be amused at human affairs while still being able to appreciate the underlying seriousness of the moral/religious quest.
Perhaps what most emerges from this guide is not just the immense complexity of each religion but more importantly how layered these religions have become, with their assorted historical accumulations and culture-specific bric-a-brac. Philosophical speculations on God tend to return time and again to certain well-worn themes, like theodicy and divine simplicity (the return of St. Anselm’s ontological argument to the forefront of twentieth-century debate would be another example). But because each monotheistic religion began with a revelation that constituted—and continues to shape—a historical community traversing the vicissitudes of history, the complexities pile up and give to each religion a unique contour that no philosophy can blur, let alone obliterate. And that is just the point: no one can hope to understand these religions without taking into account these complex layers. For that reason Peters has written a two-volume work that serves multiple purposes: one can consult it as a useful desk reference, assign it as a textbook in college, or best of all, curl up with it as a riveting account aimed at the general reader.
The phenomena under display here are connected with each other in extremely volatile ways. Like it or not, each revelation, as St. Augustine noticed, comes with what Peters calls an “exclusionary clause” (meaning, no god but God can be worshiped). That clause further means that each succeeding revelation must also claim to have superseded and rendered otiose the previous one(s), lest its own exclusionary clause be abrogated or weakened:
Christianity confidently announced that it was the successor to Judaism; and the Quran, far from concealing its connection to the other, earlier forms of monotheism, proudly proclaims that it is a successor to both. . . . But the claim is, like Christianity’s, super-sessionist. . . . Islam was, and is, not simply a warmed-over version of Judaism, or of Christianity for that matter, although some earlier Christians thought so. It was a unique vision—whether from God or Muhammad’s own head is precisely what separates the Muslim from the non-Muslim—preached with great conviction, and in the end with great success.
Needless to say, such conflicting views about how God deals with the human race will lead to conflicts inside history, and some of the more sobering passages in this book survey the dilemmas and suffering of minority monotheists trapped inside the polity of the majority religion, an issue not resolved up to this day, as everyone knows. The German Enlightenment playwright Gotthold Ephraim Lessing tried to resolve this problem—not just the problem of tolerance but more crucially the dilemma of revelation’s unverifiability and its attendant exclusionary clause—in his play Nathan the Wise, whose eponymous hero recounts a parable about a king who loved his three sons equally but only one of whom could inherit his entailed kingdom. Before his death the king ordered two rings to be made, identical in appearance to the genuine State Ring used for sealing all official documents. When the king died, each of the sons received one of these signet rings, but none could tell which was the real one. Only then was their father’s will read out, which stipulated that each son leave the kingdom for a year—and upon their return the one who had done the most good for mankind would prove to have received the real ring.
As we already learned on September 11, 2001, such hopes of resolving this dilemma by ethical exhortation in the Lessing manner have proved illusory, and it will be the tragedy of our new century that we will have to keep relearning that lesson. This is because even the ethical systems of the three monotheisms are understood for the most part strictly in their revelational context, that is, in terms internal to that religion’s worldview (as the doctrine of holy war in Islam proves). True, the concept of natural law can mitigate the fanaticizing effects of an internally generated ethic, but natural law often has only an attenuated hold on the imagination of many believers, Muslims most especially.
Another option would be to commit oneself to ecumenical dialogue before ethical consensus can be reached. But a full-throated ecumenism can arouse the suspicions of the devout, for the ecumenical ethos often comports itself as a religion of its own, or at least that is the suspicion. The only solution seems to be not the ethics of the Enlightenment, at least at first, but rather understanding—or more precisely, the kind of civilized, sympathetic, and self-confident appreciation that is willing to look inside the belief system of another without abandoning its own.
let no one think such a task will prove easy. For example, in Lessing’s parable, the analogue to the king is obviously God, but that leaves out Abraham, who could equally serve as Lessing’s, or at least Peters’, king; for to see how Abraham’s legacy is contested by Jews, Christians, and Muslims gives some indication of how complex are their interrelations:
For Jews, it is self-evident that they are Abraham’s heirs because they are Abraham’s descendants. . . . No one, neither Jews nor their non-Jewish contestants for the inheritance, has denied [that] claim: the Jews are indeed descended from Abraham through Isaac and Jacob, later renamed Israel. Christians and Muslims have something else in mind, however. . . . Jesus’ followers eventually took the radical position that blood descent was not the issue at all, nor was obedience to the terms of the Covenant as a number of Jews were beginning to understand that term, as a scrupulous observance of the Law. It was his faith that made Abraham righteous in God’s eyes, and now once again it would be faith—this time in Jesus as Messiah and Lord—that would constitute the new Covenant that God had planned and the prophets foretold.
Not for nothing, in other words, did St. Paul hammer home the lesson that Abraham believed in the promises of God before he was circumcised. But, as the saying goes, be careful what you wish for. Faith is the most invisible of all realities, and like revelation anyone can claim it, which also means no one can refute it. No wonder Islam could spread so rapidly: the Muslim claim to descent from Abraham carries its own plausibility:
In the Quran’s view, the Jews and Christians, both recipients of a genuine revelation, proved unfaithful to the Abrahamic legacy. Their infidelity elicited another revelation, the Quran, delivered through the agency of a man signaled as “the seal of the prophets” (Quran 33:40), the final agent in God’s providential revelations to humankind. Not only did the Quran both transcend and replace the Torah and Gospel; it commanded nothing less than a return to the “religion of Abraham” (3:68).
Professional ecumenists like to hope that stressing shared motifs and themes among these three religions will assuage, if not heal, the wounds of history, but a careful reading of Peters’ survey (and not just of the Abrahamic motifs mentioned here) makes that seem unlikely. For no sooner does one touch on a common theme than the glaring differences pop up, even at first glance. Like a family in an Agatha Christie novel fighting and murdering over a large inheritance, the very things that unite the siblings make the dispute so, well, internecine, since each party disputes the legitimacy of the others. “Pogrom and blood libel, crusade and jihad ring all too familiarly through the mutual communications of the Children of Abraham.” History exempts the Jews from that charge for the most part, but even there Peters is not sanguine: “The Jews stand somewhat aside in the equation, not because the fanaticism of their monotheism or the exclusivity of their claims is any less determined than that of the Christians and Muslims, but because of the somewhat less extenuating reality that Jews have never, at least until 1948, exercised sovereignty over their theological rivals.”
In other words, this is a grim book—albeit one leavened by the author’s remarkable lucidity and bemused sympathy for all three systems of belief. And he does manage to conclude on one modest note of hope: “The transparent hostility among Abraham’s heirs seems often to have masked a common fear of each other’s allure. Polemic among the three communities has in fact been produced mostly for home consumption, written to reassure its own believers that they, not their obviously (if we look closely) attractive rivals, were the Chosen People.” Not much to build on, admittedly, but closet fascination may be the only alternative to endless war. Not the least part of Peters’ achievement is that he has made that alternative seem a little more likely. He is a Lessing for our time—but, thank God, a far more realistic one.
Edward T. Oakes, S.J., is Chester & Margaret Paluch Professor of Theology at the University of St. Mary of the Lake in Mundelein, Illinois.