Saturday, September 18, 2004

What You Believe, Or What You Do?

The Guardian brings us some thoughts on religion from Rabbi Dr Jonathan Romain, minister of Maidenhead synagogue:
When Richard Harries reviewed a previous book of mine, he said it was typically Jewish - 280 pages on what to do and 20 pages on what to believe, whereas if it had been a Christian publication, it would have been the other way round.

* * *

For Judaism, it is the practical consequences of belief in God that are important, not the belief itself. If God exists, then the world has a purpose, life has meaning, all people are equal and every individual matters. The prayers, too, are not so much for God's benefit but for ours. By praising God for caring for the living, supporting the fallen and healing the sick, we are effectively saying these are godly/goodly attributes and mapping out our own tasks.

Over the centuries, this has led to an emphasis on action rather than faith, to the extent that the latter has become assumed to the point of neglect. It gives rise to the saying - somewhat tongue-in-cheek but containing a sizable grain of truth - that "to be a good Jew, you don't have to believe in God, just do what He says".

For some Jews, this is a parody of a faith that is brim full of God's glory; for others, it is a welcome description of a religion whose strength is that the heretic is not the person who believes the wrong thing, but who does the wrong thing.
I think that the same can be said of a split within Christianity, between those who believe that Christianity should emphasize the manner in which Christ lived his life, with the goal being to apply those lessons to live a good and ethical life, and those sects which focus instead on the manner of Christ's death, as exemplified by Mel Gibson and his "The Passion of the Christ". To those who believe that your life's work is meaningless unless you are "born again", the notion of more secular Christians that the best of Christianity comes from living an ethical and moral life derived from Christ's teachings may also seem like a parody of faith. To the more secular, though, the "born again" Christian who expounds a devout piety while leading what amounts to an immoral life - whether limited to preaching hate and intolerance, or whether delving further into a personal exploration of the "seven deadly sins" - seems more the parody.

There are people in both secularized and evangelical branches of Christianity who embrace the moral and ethical lessons of Christ's life, but sometimes they have a hard time seeing each other.


  1. Aaron,

    Interesting post. The example of Lutheranism vs. Catholicism provides a relevant counterpoint, though clearly you mean something different by "Good Works" than an orthodox Catholic would.

    Someone once described Tolstoy as "God's older brother" - that always seemed to me to have a bit of the Judaic ethos about it, which I like.

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