Moses made a mistake. He could have been a broadminded model for our liberal culture, but he ended up hopelessly partisan. He started out with an impartial outlook, but he fell under the power of a tribal deity who used him to create an exclusivist sect intoxicated with the fantasy of redemptive importance. What a shame. He had what it took to take a universal perspective. He coulda been a contenda.
Moses came to maturity as the ultimate multicultural man, the Barak Obama of the ancient world. Born to Hebrew parents, Moses ended up in Pharaoh’s household. He had a solid, genetic link with the oppressed, but he also got a good, elite education. Moses might have looked a little out of place in Pharaoh’s court, but that was a good thing, because it gave him a critical perspective. Child of enslaved nomads, he developed the sort of marginal, outsider sensibility currently prized by literary theorists as "alterity" or "otherness."
In these ways, Moses might have satisfied Martha Nussbaum’s ideal of the educated person. In Cultivating Humanity: A Classical Defense of Reform in Liberal Education , her late 1990s tract in defense of the multicultural movement in higher education, Nussbaum envisions the university as a community of inclusion. Professors will not so much teach and pass on a body of truth as facilitate a classroom filled with "many types of citizens," promoting independent thought and nurturing the capacity for "love and imagination." Nussbaum sounds like Rodney King with subordinate clauses. She hopes for a university dedicated to "cross-cultural understanding" and "respectful dialogue" that will produce an environment "in which we can all learn to function as citizens of the entire world."
According to Nussbaum, these world citizens do not defer to any particular cultural authority. Instead, world citizens have "an ability to see themselves not simply as citizens of some local region or group, but also, and above all, as human beings tied to human beings by ties of recognition and concern." This universality of perspective is not coldly rational. Quite the contrary, it encourages empathetic identification with others. Freed from cultural authorities, we see human suffering and injustice.
Moses fits the bill. Because he was not raised in the oppressive atmosphere of Hebrew tribalism, and because he never really looked like an Egyptian, Moses identifies with neither. Therefore, as Nussbaum predicts, he sees injustice. He comes upon an Egyptian beating a Hebrew slave. He empathizes with the Hebrew. And, again following Nussbaum, Moses thinks for himself and kills the man¯an ideal case of ignoring cultural authority.
I don’t know why Nussbaum fails to mention the young Moses. He fits so perfectly into her image of the world citizen: unattached to particular authorities, empathetic, an independent agent, unwilling to allow cultural norms to stand in the way of bold action to correct injustices. But then maybe Nussbaum didn’t focus on Moses because she didn’t want to draw attention to the rest of the story.
The funny thing about world citizens who protest that they are servants of humanity is that the old-fashioned citizens of particular cities, tribes, and nations do not trust them. This is one reason why so many middle-class Pakistanis, who rightly worry about Islamic fundamentalism, cannot bring themselves to trust the deracinated global elites, who they fear (rightly to my mind) really offer them nothing more than bread and circuses. But I digress. Allow poor, well-meaning Moses, the prototypical world citizen, to tell the tale.
After striking a bold, revolutionary blow on behalf of the oppressed, Moses comes upon two Hebrews fighting each other. Again, like a good world citizen who empathizes, Moses wants to intervene. This time he takes up the persona of someone who has taken a degree in conflict mediation. "Why do you strike your fellow?" he asks. But the Hebrews will not accept his beneficent efforts. One questions Moses: "Who made you prince and a judge over us? Do you mean to kill me as you killed the Egyptian?" The enslaved Hebrew is no fool. World citizens are bound by no law and accept no authority other than the nebulous demands of our common humanity¯a thin thread easily broken. They know neither honor nor shame, neither totem nor taboo, neither holiness nor defilement, and, without the intense psychological power of these forms, right and wrong become feeble ideals. Absent cultural authority deeply installed, we are easily tempted to clothe our will-to-power in vague ideals and protests of good intentions.
Our multicultural Moses proves the Hebrew right. Moses does not respond to the challenge by the Hebrew with a pledge of loyalty to any ideal, principle, or cultural norm. Instead, he fears for his life, for if these quarreling slaves know about the earlier, murderous arrogation to himself of the roles of judge, jury, and executioner, then surely Pharaoh knows as well. And Pharaoh, who sincerely believes himself the sole, divinely appointed authority of life and death in his kingdom, is not a multicultural man.
So Moses does what many would-be world citizens who have committed real-world acts of terrorism and conspiracy have done throughout the modern era. Moses flees from Pharaoh into Midian as Lenin fled to Switzerland in order to escape from the tsar’s secret police. And is this surprising? What could be more natural and normal? What, to recall Nussbaum, could be more simply and post-culturally human than to revert back to our basic animal desire for security and survival? Or, as the shopkeeper in Islamabad worries, what is more nakedly human than to seek transformation of the world into an amoral playground for the powerful who seek dominion and pleasure?
God does not leave Moses alone in his incipient multicultural personality, his Bolshevik combination of universalism, idealism, amorality, and selfishness. On Mount Horeb, the LORD God appears to Moses and commands him to return to Egypt to act on behalf of the enslaved Israelites. Moses resists, anticipating our present ambivalences. Who am I to go? How can I impose my worldview upon others? If I do go, then in whose name should I say I was sent? After all, some say we should live according to the god of duty, others the god of utility, and still others the will of the majority. God does not give Moses an epistemological principle to adjudicate. He does not provide a governing principle or a master ideal. Instead, the LORD gives Moses his everlasting name.
One can no more possess and use the name of God than one can own and rent out the heavenly kingdom. Quite the contrary, the name of God takes possession. This is why Christians are baptized in the triune name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Moses can no longer act on behalf of humanity, the dream of world citizens. He must serve the divine plan, which is to bring the name of God to his people so they might be possessed as well.
So back to Pharaoh’s court Moses goes, confronting the hardened heart of sin as a man of a particular loyalty to a God who has a name. From there Moses takes the Israelites through the Red Sea and into the wilderness. Then, on Mount Sinai, he receives the commandments of God that give form and purpose to the divine possession of his people. In the end, this child of the multicultural promise dies a servant of the power of the divine name, inheritor of the promise to Abraham, the quintessential mono-cultural man.
To my mind, the trajectory of the biblical account of Moses, a trajectory reenacted every time a child is circumcised or baptized or in any way dedicated to a determinate cultural authority rather than left free to float along in life as an unattached, uncommitted, unclaimed world citizen, helps us understand an important point of conflict in the current culture wars. On one side, we have an educational ideal widely held. This vision wishes to deracinate. If we can live as cultural polytheists, exposed to many different perspectives and allowing no divine name to take possession of our souls, then our moral imaginations will be freed from the limiting confines of no one culture’s view of good and evil. On the other side, we have an old-fashioned ideal, one as old as culture itself. In this view, the human person must be subjected to and formed by that authority of the divine, without which he or she will live only as an animal, seeking only the base goods of pleasure, power, and survival. The conflict is fundamental and irreconcilable.
Each of us must struggle to understand how to live our lives in a pluralistic, democratic society. But to my mind, however fuzzy and uncertain we might be about any particular public policy or social project, we must at least be clear about Moses. We should want to follow his trajectory, and there can be no compromise with those who prize his multicultural youth. For he who is not a servant of a cultural authority deeply installed is merely human¯which is to say, a slave to his passions and servant of his self-interest, who, when he comes to realize his base existence, is all too easily victim of thin, ideological deities who promise the immediate psychological satisfactions of a veneer of moral idealism.
R.R. Reno is an associate professor of theology at Creighton University.