Marvin Olasky spoke at the Discovery Institute yesterday and I had the opportunity to bounce off him a small heresy I’ve been cultivating. Olasky is the editor of World Magazine, a conservative Christian biweekly that I admire, and provost of King’s College, a Christian college headquartered in New York City’s Empire State Building. In his speech he made the case strongly that conservatives and especially conservatively inclined religious folks make a strategic error when they retreat from combat and engagement with the world and seek instead to wall themselves off in monasteries, figuratively speaking — communities isolated from the sin-tainted world.
But the key point about Olasky that prompted me to share my thought with him is that he’s a Jew by birth, a Jewish Christian, from a classic sort of Jewish background. His parents were secular, as was he in his youth, and he grew up to be an atheist and a Communist, becoming a Christian only later on in life. My thesis in a nutshell is that far from there being a “God gene,” as some exponents of Darwinian evolution would have it; and in contrast to a strictly traditional view, Jewish or Christian or Muslim, that God is waiting for us all to make the choice of a particular religion that’s right for absolutely everyone — rather than either of these, I wonder if God imprints a certain kind of religious preference, one of numerous possible imprints, on each person.
I’m not giving this as my firm belief. Just something that from experience sure does appear to be true. Each religion, and the variations thereon, seems like it has something almost like a “taste” — or in Hebrew, a taam, which conveys the point better. Adherents of that religion similarly have a taam in common. Just as there are different religions and different variations within each, there are such “tastes” identifiable among believers. A person has a taste for his religion, but not for others. Is this your experience? Please comment below and let me know.
If true, this would be very hard to reconcile with the God-gene thesis, which simple-mindedly treats religiosity as an on- or off-switch kind of deal. You have the gene or you don’t, in the same way you may get the “gene” for homosexuality or not. But apart from the fact that DNA (which codes for protein production) doesn’t appear to work at all the way it’s popularly conceived, people’s religious inclinations are way, way too complex and multifarious to be explained this way. There’s no such singular thing as “being religious.” It’s not generic like that. It’s not one size fits all. No “up” or “down” genetic predestination here. Imagine a “gene” for Orthodox Judaism, Nusach Ari, with Hirschean leanings — my own profile — which I then presumably received from my Swedish and Welsh forebears. Absurdity upon absurdity!
I’ll give you an illustration. We have a dear friend from our shul, our synagogue, who’s Chinese-American by birth, from Hawaii — a less stereotypically Jewish background you couldn’t imagine. Yet, a convert to Orthodox Judaism, she’s someone whose taam couldn’t be more that of a Jewish mother, not even if she came from the longest of long lines of Jewish mothers. There’s no mistaking this about her. Something similar is true of many of the converts to Judaism that I know. It’s not about physiognomy in a way that would be evident from a passport photo. Mien might be a better word, but even that doesn’t nearly do it justice. Let’s just call it taam.
Many Jewish converts I know or whose stories I’ve heard, knew from early on in their lives that they were powerfully drawn to things Jewish. By the same token, among born-Jews, many who migrated from secularism to Orthodox as adults, ba’aalei teshuvah, knew as little kids that they wanted to be Orthodox Jews when they grew up. Isn’t this peculiar?
Then again, I’ve know Jews who left Judaism and earnestly, permanently embraced other faiths. In general, I find these people to have a less pronounced Jewish “taste,” or none at all, or quite the opposite, no matter how much affection they express for their ethnic roots. They have the taam of their chosen, or appointed, faith.
Judaism is a useful context for making the point I’m trying to make because so much of its appeal baffles many people. They read a translation of a page of Talmud and say “Whoa! That is boring! It’s so dry and legal!” But let someone else listen to a gifted rabbi’s Torah lecture on the same page of Talmud — that is, someone with a Jewish soul — and he’s as likely to say, “Wow! I want to spend the rest of my life delving into this stuff! This is how I’m going to experience God. Give me more!” The latter represents my own experience. Rare, I think, is the non-Jew who would respond similarly. If he did, he would be a likely candidate for conversion.
The same holds true, I’m sure, in relationship to other faiths. I may respect another religion, find it substantive, even if wrong on certain key points — and remain utterly perplexed by what others find appealing about it.
Heliotropism is the tendency of plants to grown toward the sun. It almost seems like each of us is a plant growing toward its sun, where there are many suns in the sky.
I enjoyed meeting Marvin Olasky and he was kind enough not to render judgment on my suggestion. I know it would not qualify as either Jewish or Christian small-o orthodoxy. It sounds like relativism. Yet anyone who knows my writing knows I’m not a relativist. So can spiritual multi-sun heliotropism be reconciled with any traditional faith?
Possibly so. Over Shabbat I was reading Rav Hirsch on the Noah narrative in Genesis where, as the rabbis understand, God after the Flood seeded the peoples of the earth each with its distinctive affinity for a homeland. Hirsch writes about how the Midrash (on Genesis 9:7) notes the way certain landscapes, unique to different countries, appear hateful to foreigners, yet natives love them intensely and feel displaced in any other geographical context. That sounds like Judaism to me. And like Catholicism, and Evangelical Protestantism, and so on.
Maybe God makes us this way to keep humanity safely divided into discrete peoples and nations. The Tower of Babel story, which comes shortly after, shows the danger of a world state with a world-spanning ideology. We would abuse its power, tyrannizing each other. In politics, federalism is much safer. Though I believe there is indeed a single religious community whose understanding comes closest to the truth about God’s wisdom, it’s likely that humanity still isn’t ready for a truly universal religion, either.