Well, Aren’t We Special?
Among the things Muslims, Christians, and Jews have had in common over the years is a tendency to exaggerate their past specialness.
Hebrew scripture depicts the Israelites as theological revolutionaries: they marched into Canaan backed by the one true god and vanquished the ignorant polytheists. In truth, as we’ve seen, Israelite religion emerged from the Canaanite milieu and was itself polytheistic; monotheism didn’t prevail in Israel until after the Babylonian exile of the sixth century BCE.
Christians think of Jesus as a man who brought the Jews a radically new message of personal salvation and was determined to carry it to the peoples of the world. But Jesus was himself a Jew, preaching to other Jews, and his essential message was probably a familiar one—a message of national salvation, a message about the coming restoration of Israel to greatness. His agenda probably didn’t include transethnic outreach or its moral corollary, a brotherly love that knows no national bounds. That doctrine entered Christianity in the decades after his death—a reflection not of his true teachings, but of the cosmopolitan, multiethnic milieu of the Roman Empire. His teachings were then reshaped accordingly, and the resulting distortion became the gospel.
Muslims think of Muhammad as a man who carried two revolutionary messages: he told Arab polytheists that there was only one god, Allah, and he explained to Christians and Jews that their God and Allah were the same god. But the chances are that when Muhammad arrived on the scene Allah was already known to be the God of Christians and Jews, a fact that helps explain why so much Christian and Jewish belief and ritual survive in Islam. And as for the question of whether Allah was the only god—here Muhammad was equivocal. In deference to the political power of Arab polytheists, he seems to have at one point granted the existence of other gods, only later settling back into permanent monotheism; and even then he was careful to preserve such originally polytheistic customs as the annual pilgrimage to Mecca. Islam was born not with a starkly new and firm character, but as a fluid compromise among Judaism, Christianity, and Arab paganism.
So if neither Moses nor Jesus nor Muhammad arrived on the scene with breathtaking news, and if indeed the origin of all three Abrahamic faiths can be viewed as a kind of cultural synthesis, an organic recombination of preexisting elements, what becomes of the claim that they are religions of revelation?
Scripture as Revelation
Certainly things are looking bad for the traditional claim that they’re religions of special revelation. But there is still a sense, if a less dramatic one, in which the Abrahamic scriptures can be validly viewed as revelation.
For starters, these scriptures reveal the arrow of moral development built into human history. This revelation is cryptic, because moral progress has been fitful, with lots of backsliding—and, to compound matters, the scriptures aren’t arranged in chronological order. So messages of tolerance and belligerence, of love and hate, are mixed in seemingly random fashion. But seen in context they fall into a pattern: when people face win-win situations and think they can work together, they are open to one another’s worldviews, not to mention one another’s continued existence. So as technological evolution expands the realm of non-zero-sumness—one thing it has stubbornly done throughout history and shows every sign of continuing to do—there is incentive to acknowledge and respect the humanity of an ever widening circle of humans.
Of course, this kind of scriptural “revelation”—the revealing of a pattern in history—wouldn’t by itself make most Jews, Christians, and Muslims beam with pride. After all, the most secular historical documents could be revelations in this sense. Scriptures are supposed to emanate from a divine source, from the revealer. And they’re supposed to confirm not just some vague claim about a moral pattern in history, but specific theological claims—in this case claims about whether it’s Christians or Muslims or Jews who have the details right about God and his will.
Still, there’s one way this less dramatic kind of revelation could be welcome ammunition for Abrahamics who find themselves in a theological debate—namely, if the debate finds them all on the same side. If you step back from the differences they have with one another and with other religions, you’ll see a bigger divide in modern thought. It’s between people who think there is in some sense a divine source of meaning, a higher purpose in this universe, and people who think there isn’t.
On one side are people like Steven Weinberg, the Nobel Prize-winning physicist who famously wrote, “The more the universe seems comprehensible, the more it also seems pointless.” In his view, there is no transcendent source of meaning or moral orientation. “It’s not a moral order out there,” he once said. “It’s something we impose.”
But what the Abrahamic scriptures illustrate, however obscurely, is that there is a moral order out there—and it’s imposed on us. Built-in features of history, emanating from the basic logic of cultural evolution, give humankind a choice between progressing morally and paying a price for failing to. Hence the pattern, over the millennia, of people placing larger and larger numbers of other people within their circle of moral consideration. And hence the bursts of suffering for failing to. And hence the current, culminating moment in that pattern, a moment when the only way to avoid great and possibly catastrophic harm is to expand that moral circle across the whole planet. The march of history challenges people to expand their range of sympathy and understanding, to enlarge their moral imaginations, to share the perspective of people ever farther away. Time has drawn us toward the commonsensical-sounding yet elusive moral truth that people everywhere are people, just like us.
To say that this signifies a moral order doesn’t mean order will prevail; it doesn’t mean that we’ll embrace this truth, pass the test, and usher in an age of tranquillity. Enough people may resist the truth so that, instead, chaos ensues. The moral order lies in the fact that this price will indeed be paid if moral truth doesn’t dawn widely. The moral order is the coherence of the relationship between social order and moral truth.
The fact that there’s a moral order out there doesn’t mean there’s a God. On the other hand, it’s evidence in favor of the God hypothesis and evidence against Weinberg’s worldview. In the great divide of current thought—between those, including the Abrahamics, who see a higher purpose, a transcendent source of meaning, and those, like Weinberg, who don’t—the manifest existence of a moral order comes down clearly on one side.…