Tribalism, God, and Love


I was recently involved in a discussion within the comments of another blog in which I argued that Christians should focus less on which theology is "true" and more on how loving people are to one another.

In that discussion, I did not use the word "tribalism", but in a sense, I believe that the "my religion is true and others is false" position that many (but not all) Christians frequently express is a kind of religious tribalism. I believe, first of all, that no one can really capture the essence of the divine mystery that we call God, so to claim ownership to the truth about God is, in my view, highly presumptuous. Secondly, I believe that the implications of this are that there are many paths to God, all of which come out of finite and inaccurate representations of the Divine nature.

One of my favorite chants that is sung at the Taize services I regularly attend is the following: Ubi caritas et amor, Deus ibi est (where love and charity are, God is there.) God is found wherever there is inclusive love. Exclusionary, tribalistic religious impulses are not, in my view, loving. Alan Jones says the following in his book Reimagining Christianity:

The deeper we go in any particular religion, the more likely we are to bump into practices of prayer and compassion and come out into a shared place of respect. Father Bede Griffiths (1906-1993), a Benedictine monk deeply influenced by Hinduism, often used the image of the human hand to illustrate what the great religious traditions had in common. The tips of the fingers represented the religions of Islam, Hinduism, Christianity, Judaism, and Buddhism. As you do deeper (by moving down from the tips of the fingers to the palm), you move closer together and enjoy an underlying unity of love and compassion. (p. 126)
When I was asked in the comments section of the above-mentioned blog how I could view the elusive concept of love as any better than theology as a standard for judging other religions, my response was the following:

I am not necessarily saying that it is always wrong to judge a theology as good or bad; what I am saying is that I don't think God cares what a person's theology is per se, but rather how loving that person is. I place primacy on how people treat one another, not what their limited and inevitably incomplete God-concept is. I also don't think that the standards of human behavior are necessarily influenced by theology, although they can be. Atheists can lead perfectly moral and loving lives, for example. I think that it is God, not any particular theology, that is the ultimate source of love.

I don't happen to think that just because the concept of love is culturally conditioned, that means that it is completely invented out of whole cloth by each culture. I don't buy into this kind of cultural relativism. Love is part of the human condition, and always has been. It has understood at some level by people throughout history. There is a thread that runs through the concept of love even if it has differed in the details. That is how people are able to use the same word to describe the concept, even if the concept isn't exactly the same. The biggest reason for changes in the concept of love, I believe, have to do with expanding its definition to make it more inclusive. That is to say that I think that love has traditionally not been consistently applied.

Why is that? I'm not entirely sure, but one reason I consider likely is that it has a lot to do with human institutions, political structures, and economic systems, that serve as impediments to applying love universally. Marcus Borg uses the term "domination system" to describe the social structures of authoritarianism that have developed in human history. These structures tend to invent doctrines and ideologies that justify themselves, to justify in effect the unloving nature of these institutions. Occasionally in history, people have been able to break through those prevailing ideologies of the domination systems--like Jesus did, in his proclamation of universal, inclusive love. The way the concept of love evolves is by making it more consistently applied, and more inclusive, and there have been people, like Jesus, who saw through the cultural lies of their society. The possibility of inclusive love was always there, lying in wait.

Because love is part of the human condition, it is real in our lives. We encounter it constantly. God is infinite and intangible, and our attempts at defining him/her are inevitably going to be inadequate; but love is how God acts in the world, and I believe that is something that we can experience and describe.

When all is said and done, I could probably compress what I wrote above by expressing those seven simple Latin words: ubi caritas et amor, Deus ibi est.


Annie said...

You've hit the nail on the head with the concept of tribalism--human nature at its most basic level.

In the end, like you, I find it does boil down to one simple idea--one that takes few words--and beyond that we are merely reiterating the same truth.

Eileen said...

You know that I totally agree with you on this. Religion is a direct, intellectual descendent of tribalism.

It's truly sad that unless we, as humans, can fit everything into a tight little box, we just aren't satisfied. Problem is, life seems to refuse to fit neatly into said boxes.

What's wrong with saying this is God as I understand God, and being open to accepting that others may or may not agree, but that we can hear one another's stories? And try to find commonality?!

But, I know I'm preaching to the choir here. ;-)