Barack Obama’s speech in Cairo yesterday made me nostalgic. The feeling came on as he foresaw a time “when the Holy Land of three great faiths is the place of peace that God intended it to be.” In my undergrad years, I studied at Brandeis University, near Boston, a secular school but built by American Jews as their contribution to U.S. higher education. Its architectural centrepiece was a set of three chapels around a pool where, as the school catalogue said, “three faiths go their separate ways … together.”
The three were Catholic, Protestant and Jewish. Muslim wasn’t yet on the chart, but that’s not the point. The notion of religion was inclusive and humanitarian — that’s the point — rather than exclusive and theological. At the synagogue school I’d attended in Toronto, by far the most popular course among us kids had been “comparative religion.” It made us feel worldly and cosmopolitan. At services, the prayer we spoke most solemnly began, Grant us peace (based on a loose translation from the Hebrew). Later, when I took grad courses at a Protestant seminary, earnest students would say things such as, “The church has gotta get where the action is, man.” It was a bit sappy, like the chapels, but the impulses were ethical and universal.
As I slogged deeper into adolescence and beyond, I yearned for harder edges. I was attracted by the paradoxical faith of Kierkegaard (“because it is absurd”) and the Barthian nein of neo-fundamentalist Christianity. Over the years, the liberal version of religiosity receded further, and hard-liners in all religions — not just the biblical ones — advanced. They tended to focus on dogma and sectarian purity, rather than embracing human diversity.
This narrow, anathematizing religiosity, in turn, has provoked recent attacks by nouveau atheists such as Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens. To the extent they condemn all “religion,” I think they miss the mark, since religion is such a broad category. In ways, it is equivalent to the human enterprise itself. One classical sociologist, Émile Durkheim, felt God was virtually the same as society. Canadian historian Harold Innis thought that, in the era of the oral tradition, where the major religions are rooted, culture and religion amounted to pretty much the same thing.
So Barack Obama is on solid ground when he invokes religion as a worldly, unifying force rather than one that’s divisive and exclusive, setting the elect against the damned, the right against the wrong. Both impulses exist in religion, sometimes in the same person. But if religion is going to always be with us, contrary to earlier expectations, then it matters which tendency prevails among most people, especially in perilous, nuclear times.
He ended impressively and, I’d say, religiously: “All of us share this world for but a brief moment in time” — reflecting on the tentativeness of our existence and the mystery that it happens at all. He went on: “The question is whether we spend that time focused on what pushes us apart or … find common ground.” He quoted from the Koran, the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament, implicitly challenging those who think they have sole possession of revealed truth, or of its interpretation. What once seemed to me bland and obvious (at the three chapels), looked, in Cairo, rather bold.
Skeptics in the Muslim world, of course, will withhold approval: in Gaza, where an Israeli blockade prevents even bags of cement from entering to rebuild the ruins left by the recent invasion; or in Pakistan/Afghanistan, where U.S. drones tend to bomb wedding parties rather than al-Qaeda. If they were (non-Muslim) guys in a strip bar, they’d say: Never mind that stuff, Obama, just show us your [boobs]. And they’d be right. It was only a speech. But for a speech, it went about as far as it could go.