I have just finished reading two books – Christopher Hitchens’ God Is Not Great and David Liepert’s Me and You. It was serendipitous that one followed the other in my “to read” stack of books, but also very fortuitous. Hitchens’ book has received a lot of media attention and Liepert’s has not, but I hope that that will change. Reading Hitchens’ book left me a little depressed and dis-spirited, but then reading Liepert’s book left me feeling rejuvenated, hopeful and ready to jump back in to the fray.
In an article ”Imagine a world where Muslims, Christians and Jews live in peace” Prof. Liepert said: “If there are moments in history where it’s possible for humanity to make a paradigm shift, I hope this is one of them. I’m writing this to Muslims, Christians and Jews, but the rest of you might be interested as well.”
I believe that this is an important book and that all of us might be interested in Prof. Liepert’s insights.
Both Hitchens and Liepert point out a number of very real problems with the actual practice of people following various religions – including corruption, intolerance, repression, wars and even murder carried out by individuals and communities in the name of religion.
Hitchens’ conclusion is that religion itself is the problem and is a “poison” and “a distortion of our origins, our nature, and the cosmos”. His solution is a call for a “new enlightenment” the foundation of which will be the total rejection of all religion in favor of science and reason. The problem with this is that Hitchens appears scornful of any religious beliefs and scorn is not a good basis for tolerance, respect or love for our fellow beings. When science becomes dogma, then reason will go out the window just as quickly as when religious and spiritual paths become dogmatic. One line in Hitchens book – —”we have to first transcend our prehistory, and escape the gnarled hands which reach out to drag us back to the catacombs and the reeking altars” concerns me because in this attitude I see the possibility that the “new enlightenment” he is calling for might easily become just another perversion of a belief system into something that attempts to force that belief system on others. Hitchens seems to fall into the same trap as religious extremists in assuming that those who hold different beliefs are not worthy of respect. Based on this foundation, science itself could become a fanatical system or be used in terrible ways.
Hitchens sees religion itself as the problem, Liepert sees religious extremism and a lack of understanding of the core beliefs of our religions as the problem. Liepert is asking us to respect and love each other in spite of our differences and to be both moral and religious.
Liepert looks just as critically at the same painful issues (although strictly focused on the Abrahamic religions – Judaism, Christianity, and Islam) but comes to very different conclusions and proposes different solutions. He notes that according to the Old Testament, New Testament, and Qur’an, the children of Abraham are called upon to be a blessing to mankind, but that in actual practice we have more often than not been more of a curse.
“If any of us were actually as good as we think we are, the world would be very different from how it now appears. Muslims would be recognized around the world as peacemakers and sought out as neighbors. property values would soar when a Muslim moved into the neighborhood! The Christian nations of the world would be renowned for their generosity, patience, and restraint, and Israel would be a land of peace and security for everyone. Instead, Islam has become the religion of war, terrorism, hatred, and revenge; Christianity has turned into both the source of and justification for most of the economic inequity in the world; and Zionism has created a state in Israel whose security comes only at the cost of the suffering and deaths of thousands of innocent Jewish and non-Jewish souls alike.” p.7
He is very clear that there is something wrong either with our religions or with us.
He calls on us to study our various religions for ourselves, and to ask questions about both our beliefs and practices.
“In the end, the justifications for our conflicts with each other come down to some simple assumptions: We assume our religions are right and that our Omniscient, Omnipresent, and Omnipotent Creator has made a mistake in allowing the others to exist. We conclude that as a result the world has gone horribly wrong and it’s our job to fix it. I’ll admit that those assumptions sound rational and make each of us more internally cohesive, they the really, really (really) beg a few questions: What if we’re the ones who’ve made the mistake, and not God? What if we’re all supposed to be different, supposed to do our different jobs, and supposed to independently contribute to the plan that God has made? What if our different beliefs don’t really justify our malleable sense of morality? What if “we” are all “us”? It seems to me that assuming “God has made a botch of things in inherently disrespectful. That sort of thing’s just not compatible with the sort of God that Muslims, Christians, and Jews are supposed to know that God is.” p.14
“Is it possible to reconcile the hope (and the hype) of religion with the hypocrisy? Is it possible to bridge the gap between promise and practice? Is it even worth the bother? Your responses to those questions depend on what you believe, but then your response and your reasons for giving it proves that deciding whether to believe in the hope, potential, and power of religion is a function of belief, too. Whatever the correct answer is, we all believe we’re right and refuse to believe we’re wrong. We all also tend to blame all the problems on the people who disagree with us. Since that means we have a lot more in common than we think, that’s probably as good a place as any to start looking for answers.” p.26
“Christian, Jew, Muslim, shaman, Zoroastrian, stone, ground, mountain, river, each has a secret way of being with the mystery, unique and not to be judged.” Rumi
“If you think of all humanity being in a big circle and God above the circle, then the middle is where we’re all closest to God.” David Liepert
Liepert is asking us to remember:
“Thou shalt not avenge, nor bear any grudge against the children of thy people, but thou shalt love they neighbour as thyself: I am the Lord.” (Leviticus 19:18)
“Therefore all things whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do ye even so to them: for this is the law and the prophets.” (Matthew 7:12) “And as ye would that men should do to you, do ye also to them likewise.” (Luke 6:31)
“None of you [truly] believes until he wishes for his brother what he wishes for himself.” (Number 13 of Imam Al-Nawawi’s Forty Hadiths) and to not only remove animosity towards others from our hearts, but find the common ground, build bridges, and go beyond tolerance to respect and love.
Both Hitchens and Liepert see religious coercion as a root problem that has led to so much misery. However, their conclusions are very different. Liepert is asking us to abandon extremism and coercion and all perversions of faith and focus on making ourselves better people who are a blessing for the world and who respect and honor differences. He encourages introspection, humility, dialogue and tolerance for others.
Following Liepert’s advice would lead to showing respect to those with whom we disagree, including Hitchens, although I’m not certain that Hitchens’ advice would lead us anywhere positive. Liepert remains hopeful that we can change, that we can live together in peace, that instead of being the problem, our religions might become the solution—if we’re willing to listen to what they actually say. This book is calling us all to get to the core of our beliefs and to truly become a blessing for the world.
“If God exists, He gave us religion to help us learn to control ourselves. Instead of doing that, we’ve all learned how to use religion to control everyone else. No matter what, that’s going to be something we regret.” p.209
“We all want to make so much of the fact that we belong to the religions we do, as if simple membership itself confers some congratulatory award. Instead, it’s entirely possible that they were chosen for us because of characteristics we lack or to teach us lessons that we haven’t learned, rather than because of any particular virtues we already possess. The paths we take to the places from which we choose to make our personal expressions of Faith are the product of many forces, events, and influences outside of our control. We have each been led to where we are by the events of our lives, and if we’ve been guided by God the way so many of us think, our road here may well have been defined by our deficiencies. That would certainly explain why so many Christians seem so devoid of forgiveness or compassion, despite the way that Jesus stressed them to his followers. It could also be the reason why Muslims often struggle so hard with things as simple as brotherhood and sisterhood, cooperation, diversity, and respect. Finally, I think it’s obvious that the characteristic Judaism is supposed to help its people deelop is the combined virtue of justice and generosity. Bad as we may begin, it’s striking how the best of us always serve as insirational exemplars of those very traits, both for our own members and for everyone else. The one characteristic all the rest of us seem to lack in comon is a little humility.” p.210-211
“Silence is the language of God, all else is poor translation.” Rumi
“Believers have our work cut out for us if we want to be of any use to God. We’re going to have to find a way to take back the control of our religions from those who have chosen to use the power of belief against us, and we need to be sure that they never get it back!” p.214
I highly recommend this book which is not only hopeful and insightful, but also very clearly written.
Prof. David Liepert is the founding director of Faith of Life Network, author of Choosing Faith: Rediscovering the Commonalities between Islam and Christianity, a spokesperson for the Muslim Council of Calgary, and a member of the Calgary Interfaith Initiative.