Why The Golden Rule Matters: Belief ≠ Grace, Faith Or Religion
by Dr. David Liepert
If God is real, and as transcendently good and supremely intelligent as most religions claim, then why is it that religions—all of which claim the ability to promote good and positive relationships with both our Creator and the rest of Creation—don’t seem able to cooperate in that purpose with each-other?
This blog is a short summary of the Khutbah/Sermon I gave last week at one of our city’s mosques, and a speech I gave the next night to a mixed group of atheists and Muslim, Christian and Jewish believers, the most interesting thing about which I found was how well it was received by both audiences.
Because the truth is everybody believes in our common humanity, and virtually every believer—no matter which religion they follow—believes in many of the same things within our religions, even though we often believe different things about them. For instance, everybody believes in Faith, which motivates believers to seek a relationship with God, and Grace—God’s loving response—and that both are gifts from God Most High. But the things we believe about them and God are different, and often merely the products of what adults have told their children through generation after generation, until those beliefs eventually became what we use to organize ourselves into different religions today.
Which means that we are all made by God, and made to seek God together, while the differences between us are made by us.
There’s a good reason why a Muslim’s core beliefs are called Aqueedah/Binding, rather than Haqq/Absolutely Right, which would mean we believe the important thing about them is that they are true. Instead, we believe they bind us together as Muslims, but also that they bind us to the God-driven journey of our lives, by binding us to both Faith and Grace.
Because the important thing to realize about that is this: that different beliefs—even different core beliefs—can serve the same purpose for someone else, even if you don’t think their particular beliefs are true. And that might explain why the Qur’an explains God made us different from each-other because He wanted us Li ta’arafu/to know each-other in a reciprocal and ongoing relationship with each-other despite our differences, perhaps to teach us not to take them so seriously: we’re all on our God-ordained journeys, from the same ignorant beginnings, and with God’s help we are headed towards the same destination too. On the way, we are supposed to live in dialogue with each-other, regardless of what we believe.
I think that’s why the Qur’an and the Sunnah/Acts of Muhammad, peace be upon him, are so often sympathetic towards different sorts of non-Muslim believers, despite disagreeing with certain non-Muslim core beliefs and condemning some of the things some of those non-Muslims did all the same. If you’re one of God’s prophets, I expect you don’t sweat the occasional religious argument: even if someone disagrees with you, you know they’ll eventually figure it out properly if they give it an honest try.
Much is often made—by Islamists and Islamophobes together—of how sometimes the Qur’an commands Muslims to fight with different sorts of believers, and how sometimes Muhammad and Muslims did so, but if you look at the context and history of both those commands and those battles you’ll realize they were never about the beliefs by which each group was self-identified as Polytheist, or Christian and Jewish—those two groups of believers sometimes also grouped together as “People of the Book”—but instead were often despite them, a response to those self-identified group’s inappropriate behaviors: treacherous and treasonous acts including some particularly egregious attempts to exterminate Arabia’s Muslims en-masse for self-serving political and economic reasons.
Regardless, under Muhammad’s leadership in Medina and Mecca and throughout the early Islamic Empire—absent treason, treachery, criminal acts and attempts at anti-Muslim genocide—religious freedom reigned supreme. One young Jewish woman—who accidentally killed one of Muhammad’s good friends while she was trying to assassinate Muhammad—even gained his forgiveness and pardon when she explained successfully that she had only been trying to see if she could assassinate him, on religious grounds: a “test” of his prophethood.
In fact, the only group the Qur’an and Muhammad condemned specifically, unequivocally and repeatedly just for being who they were the Muslim hypocrites, who pretended to believe one thing—Muhammad’s inclusive, egalitarian, “servant-leader” example—while doing another thing entirely for self-serving political and economic reasons themselves.
Because our response to God’s gifts of Faith and Grace isn’t supposed to be belief or a meaningless and empty allegiance to one group over another—the Christian Bible quite correctly points out that even demons believe, and shudder!!
Instead our response is supposed to be gratitude and righteousness, and righteousness looks pretty much the same regardless of who, what or where you are.
Judaism, one of our world’s oldest religions was summarized by Rabbi Hillel whilst standing on one foot upon the challenge of a Roman Centurion as “That which is despicable to you, do not do to your fellow, this is the whole Torah, and the rest is commentary”, which Jesus himself, peace be upon him quoted in his own, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”
Meanwhile, the Qur’an tells Muslims in Al-Baqarah 2:177,
Righteousness is not that you turn your faces toward the east or the west, but that one believes in Allah, the Last Day, the angels, the Book, and the prophets and gives their wealth, in spite of love for it, to relatives, orphans, the needy, the traveler, those who ask, and for the freeing of slaves; that one establishes prayer and gives charity; that one fulfills their promises, and is patient in poverty and hardship and during battle.
And James the Just, first Bishop of Jerusalem proclaimed in James 2:14,
What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if someone claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save them? Suppose a brother or a sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,” but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it?
Righteousness isn’t only found in the Abrahamic traditions either. I strongly recommend that anyone struggling with how to differentiate between what you can do and what you should do—American soldiers, al-Qaeda franchisees, Israeli soldiers and settlers and Palestinian freedom-fighters alike—should read Prince Arjuna’s conversations on that subject with the Lord Creator of his universe, found in the Bhagavad Gita.
Because believers can’t deny our religions have often been used to bad purpose, nor can non-believers deny the same thing about the institutionalized absence of religion either—most recently in the Soviet Union, Cambodia, and China’s Great Leap Forward. In all those conflicts, the issue has always been our tragic tendency to devalue the “other”, based not just upon what they believe—or don’t—but upon what we believe as well.
I call it the American Express Assumption, that “Membership Has Its Privileges”, and we too often use belief to define what groups we belong to, rather than our behavior.
But we can find a path forwards for ourselves if we realize believers don’t have to agree with each-other to serve God alongside each-other, and none of us have to believe in God to look after our neighbors. All it takes is a little regard for our common humanity, and a little respect for the implications of being Among the Created, if God Created Everything.
Because the one great truth of our common humanity is that we’re all in this together, no matter what we believe.
And my fellow believers, who believe God Loves you?
Remember, God Loves everyone else—even if God doesn’t agree with everything they might or might not believe—with Grace, just the same as God Loves you too.