Mutuality: Recovering a Jewel for U.S. – Middle East Relations

PeacemakingIn January on this blog, beginning here, were four articles that detailed the seemingly intractable problem of overcoming the secular / religious chasm of U.S. – Middle East relations. In a follow-up article, we looked at many behind-the-scenes initiatives by the U.S. State Department and many NGOs that focus on overcoming this problem. Today, I want to close off this informal series by calling attention to vital role that the wisdom tradition is playing in these initiatives.

It’s quite a dilemma, the political tug of war between secularism and religion in U.S. – Mideast relations. After all, what fellowship does religious disbelief in God (in political decisions) have to do with religious belief in God (in political decisions)? I hold the view that trying to wrest one side into the other’s camp as the means of resolution is a futile exercise at best and at worst moves the two worlds closer to a clash of civilizations, for their core beliefs conflict.

So what is the alternative? As we saw in this article, both the U.S. State Department and many NGOs and foreign policy think tanks have found a worthy and respected alternative, by bringing the secularly oriented and the religiously oriented around the table to work together on their common ground interests toward common good.

It is just here the historic wisdom tradition, especially its norm of mutuality, comes front and center into the picture. Lady Wisdom, as she is known in the book of Proverbs, cries to be heard at the rough intersection of both worlds, the religious and the secular. And she cries there not of conflict and war but of the possibilities for cooperation. She stands alongside that intersection as a focal point that offers for both worlds a way to follow her lead into a new narrative together.

What is that new narrative? The wisdom norm of mutuality offers considerable potential for building and sustaining cooperative arrangements among peoples who are different, even as different as fundamentally different as religious and secular political outlooks. How is this possible?

The wisdom norm of mutuality stresses a fact of life that we often taken far too much for granted: the interests and concerns of daily life that are held in common by all peoples everywhere, regardless of race, religion, or ethnicity, or whether we consider ourselves secular or religious. To use a Christian expression, the wisdom norm of mutuality concentrates more on who people are, not on what by the grace of God they may become.

If this seems an alien notion to us today, it is partly attributable to an age, our age, in which rigid ideological divisiveness has divided us and conditioned us to accept sectarian solutions to relational problems as normative. This sectarian dynamic has especially pitted secularly oriented worlds and religiously oriented worlds against each other.

Since time immemorial, every person on the planet has participated in the same creation, held the same basic interests, shared the common bond of what it means to be human. We all want to be able to provide for our families, to see our children raised properly and safely, to see our social environments improve, to find ways to ease the suffering of others, to increase possibilities for well-being in the world, to live peaceably with neighbors.

People everywhere have fundamental desires for such outcomes regardless of their core beliefs (provided those beliefs are not organized around violence). Believers and atheists alike are, for example, moved at the sight of starving children or families left homeless by a tragedy, and both will want to do what they can to alleviate the suffering. In fact, this is precisely where many religious groups, in particular, throughout history have excelled, in caring for people as they are, wherever they are, regardless of their beliefs.

wisdom traditionAs I understand it, the wisdom norm of mutuality does not require people to give up their core beliefs before they can start to build more cooperative and sustainable arrangements with each other (again, provided those beliefs are not organized around violence). The wisdom norm of mutuality does not require a religious or a secular party to ditch its core beliefs before cooperation between them becomes doable. What Lady wisdom does require of them is to turn their eyes to their shared human interests and concerns as human beings made in the image of God.

Our post-9/11 changed world has presented Washington and the capitals of the Middle East with landscapes of international sharp curves, turning points, and cul de sacs that diplomats, foreign ministers, policy analysts, and NGOs are trying to negotiate without misfortune. Here, wisdom is being brought in from the margins and applied with slow but increasing success. When this approach gets circulating more normatively in the DNA of U.S. – Mideast relations, a secularly organized system of international politics and a religiously oriented one will have a responsibly moral way for searching out peaceable ways ahead with each other.

However imperfectly this would be realized where these two worlds meet, it would nevertheless place vital international relationships on more cooperative footing – for the good of our publics and for a more hopeful future down the generations than current seems likely.

©2016 by Charles Strohmer

Images by permission of Creative Commons.

A note from Charles: If you want more of the perspective that Waging Wisdom seeks to present, I want to invite you to follow this blog. Just click here and find the “Follow” button in the right margin, enter your email address, and then click “Follow.” You will then receive a very short email notice when I publish a new post. And, hey, tell some friends! Thank you.

RELIGION: A NECESSARY WORD

steel structure“You would love our church. It’s not religious.” In the previous post I said that we ought to ditch that widespread Christian slogan. Here I want to say explain why, by thinking about another common Christian slogan: “If Jesus is not Lord of all, he is not Lord at all.” This, of course, a way of stating from the negative that Jesus is Lord – has the final say – over all of life – not only over what we do on Sunday but throughout Monday to Saturday as well. Either he is Lord of those days too, or he is not Lord at all.

But what does it mean that Jesus is Lord of our lives outside the church walls? Simply said, it means that you are not just a student, or just a journalist, or just a math teacher, or just a single mom, or just a singer in a rock ‘n’ roll band. You are much more than “just” anything everyday.

To help Christ’s daily lordship seem more understandable and manageable, some Christian philosophers and theologians see life in terms of specific aspects, such as the physical, the biological, the aesthetic, the linguistic, the social, the economic, the ethical, the political, and so forth. This makes sense when you think about it, because we all function in these basic areas of life. I mean we have bodies (the physical), we eat to stay alive (the biological), we pay our bills (the economic), we vote (the political – to note vote is a political statement), and so on. So to claim that “Jesus is Lord” is to claim that he has the ultimate say over these and every other aspect.

Now here’s the thing. There is also the “religious” aspect of life. It is about one’s ultimate faith or confession. As we saw in the previous post, it denotes, for instance, how people express the commitment they have to God symbolically, such as during a church service or in the mosque or in the temple. Further, the religious aspect tops the list of all the aspects. This is because one’s ultimate faith commitment gives direction and shape to how the person will think and act in all the other aspects. So there is no “just anything” about our lives.

If we claim to be Christian, then our ethics, and our economics, and our communications, and our art, and how we treat your bodies, and how we treat others, and the way we are singers in rock ‘n’ roll bands are  directed and shaped (at least they should be!) by what we confess as our ultimate religious commitment – Jesus as Lord. No one does this perfectly, of course, but we ought to be doing it prayerfully, deliberately, and more consistently as disciples, that is to say, as a learners.

As well, if our religious commitment is to what the Old Testament person would call an idol, or a god, then our ethics, and our economics, and our communications, and our art, and the way we treat others and even our bodies, and all the rest of life too, will be directed and shaped by whatever that ultimate faith commitment is.

In the West today, of course, most people do not have shrines in their homes to Baal, or Dagon, or Mars, or Venus, or Whatever. Well, maybe to Steve Jobs. But the Western gods are mostly invisible. Nevertheless ultimate faith commitments exist to them under names such as Reason, Materialism, Scientism, Empiricism, Individualism, Collectivism, Secularism, Self, The Almighty Dollar. The list goes on.

If this stuff is making your head hurt, sorry about that. But try to stick this out. Just as our ultimate beliefs give direction and shape to our lives as individuals, nations are also shaped by their ultimate beliefs. We need to wise up about this. I’ll suggest why by wrapping up this theme of “religion” in the next two posts.

©2014 by Charles Strohmer

Image by Harry Cjr (Permission via Creative Commons)

RELIGION: A TROUBLING WORD

belief“You would love our church. It’s not religious.” Like the Energizer Bunny, that slogan just can’t be stopped among huge swaths of American Christianity. I used to tout it myself about a church I attended years ago. I eventually stopped saying it, but not because that church became religious. I became disabused of the notion that some churches were not religious. The truth is that all churches are religious, because they function in what is legitimately called the religious aspect of life.

Yet Christians may bristle at the mere thought of their churches being religious. For them “religion” is an offensive term because it smacks of dead ritualism on Sunday mornings, and they want no part of it. Look, I get it. That view took root in me during my childhood from an enforced church attendance and regimented liturgy every Sunday and during the week, not to mention the religious instruction in the Christian school until I was in my early teens. None of it spoke to me. Well, that’s not quite true. What spoke was: I can’t wait until I’m old enough to have a car and I’m outta here! Millions of Christians in America have their own versions of this story.

Nevertheless, there is a problem with treating the word “religion” as if it were always referring to a bad disease. Maybe in some ways and places it is. And that certainly would need to be addressed. But “religion” it is not fundamentally a bad thing.

Let me put it like this. The word “religion” simply refers to the way in which people express the commitment they have to God symbolically. It is about that aspect of life in which people explicitly express what God, or gods, they believe in, and how they approach that God, or gods, and the moral claims that God, or gods, makes on them.

So it is about rituals, sacred books, theology, explicit witness, devotional activities, such as prayer and worship, and the community that revolves around such things. Theologians, philosophers, sociologists, anthropologists, and in fact most people, use the word “religion” to describe such activities. And this is both an appropriate and legitimate use of the word. So it is about what Muslims do in their mosques or what Buddhists do in their temples or what Christians do in their churches. And so on.

The words “religion” and “church,” then, are in fact so hinged on mutual interests that to detest the former brings disservice to the latter. We really must get over our objections to the words religion and religious. This is hugely important. I’ll say why in the next post. And if you wonder what this has to do with blogging about wisdom, stick around. Sometimes you have to say a lot to say a little.

©2014 by Charles Strohmer

Image by Neil Girling (Permission via Creative Commons)