We'll start off with the big question. Where was God born?
God was born in Babylon. By that I mean that the idea of religion emerged in the thousand years between Moses and Jesus, in the ancient Near East. There was just this moment in time when societies were becoming mature enough and wealthy enough, and people were looking for more meaning. The idea of God as a universal, portable, invisible, everywhere being really entered the broadest portions of society at that time.
Babylon is a place that kind of crystallizes that moment. [Babylon, located in what is now Iraq, was the capital of the Babylonian Empire and reached its height under King Nebuchadnezzer II.] Up to the time of Babylon, there was a God who was attached to a certain place. But when the Israelites were kicked out of Jerusalem in 586 BCE and sent into exile, God became universal and portable. It's a very simple idea in our lives--when we go to church or synagogue, we pray to a universal God--that began in Babylon.
But there was a Temple before Babylon.
Exactly. God lived in that place. Priests would go in and worship to God. What happened in Babylon was that the Temple was gone, so the Israelites had to ask, if the House of God is gone, where is God living? They came to understand that God is everywhere, and you don't only have to go into the Temple to see God, you can find him everywhere. So you can't understand religion today without understanding what happened in Babylon in the 600s BCE.
This change is really not talked about that much. We learn that the time of the kings, Solomon and David, was great, and Babylon was bad. "By the rivers of Babylon, they sat and wept." In fact, the kings were bad and Babylon was wonderful, because it invented religion as we know it today.
What happened in Babylon is the development of the idea that individuals can have a relationship with God, wherever they are, and that God can hold those individuals [accountable] to make their own lives better and to make society better.
In this new book, you write that your first book about these topics, "Walking the Bible," was a paean to the land. How is this different? In this book you still trace the land of the Bible and going from place to place.
This book is a paean to humans' capacity to use their relationship with God to improve the world around them. I think of my journey of "Walking the Bible," and of the first five books of the Bible, as very linear. There was this small family, they started with Abraham, and he went down to the Promised Land, and it grew and grew into this nation by the end of the five books.
What happens in the second half of the Hebrew Bible is that nation begins to interact with the world. It loses some of its identity for a while, and then goes off into exile and rediscovers its identity. Once it rediscovers its identity in the exile, it disperses to teach that message to the rest of the world. God more or less turns his attention away from the powerful and toward the people. He says, "I'm not going to put all my attention on the kings," and he turns to the prophets. The prophets are lay people who are leaders or priests or poets. They are individuals who say to the people, "God is not going to help you all the time. You have to redeem yourself, you have to make the world better."
There's this great idea--you can see it in Jeremiah, you can see it in some of the earlier prophets. They say, "Look around you. People are cheating on their spouses, they're drinking too much, the town has gone to trouble." Rather than saying, "Don't worry, God is going to fix it," the prophets say, "You fix it. You are responsible for making the world a better place." That is a very powerful message.
I've spent almost ten years of my life now reading and thinking and traveling and living with the Bible. I think the best line in the Bible is the line in Genesis 1: "God said, Let us make humans in our image, after our likeness." What that says is that there is a little bit of divinity in every person. It is our responsibility to find God in someone who is different from us. I think that God basically says, "I created diversity on purpose, and it is your responsibility to figure out how to make it work."
On my trip to Iraq, I went to this army base where the chaplain had requested copies of my interfaith discussion packets produced when the book "Abraham" came out in 2002. Here's a guy who's a Baptist chaplain in the U.S. Army on his own volition going door to door to the leaders of various religious traditions, in the months after the fall of Saddam, asking them if they'd like to have a dialogue.
There's a great question in the world today: Are these different religious denominations in Iraq going to be able to figure out a way to relate to one another, or are they going to kill one another? What I saw in my time in Iraq is that going back to the origin moment [of the beginning of religion] can be very helpful. Sometimes the best way to have a contemporary conversation is to look away from the present and go back to the past to understand how we got here.
A lot of Americans who go to Israel--or a lot of Americans who go to England, too--feel like the past is living there. That's the same in Iraq, and certainly the same in Iran. It's a place where people talk about the past as if it were a week ago. Muslims came to Iran in about the 9th century, but ask any Iranian and they'll still speak bitterly against the Arabs, they'll still be proud of being Persian and having ruled the world under Cyrus the Great 500 years ago. I was in Iran for two weeks, and every day people talked about Cyrus the Great. These ideas are much more on the tips of people's tongues than they are here.
You mention in the book that Americans seem drawn to the past, as evidenced by the popularity of books like yours. Is that because we don't live there, in a place where the past is so present?
I think that the great unspoken shadow over American religion is our geographic distance from the Middle East. It is one factor that makes fundamentalist Christianity more popular in the United States than it is in Europe or the Middle East. And it's another factor why this rediscovery of religious history is so popular now. Those places seem far away, and we don't grow up near them, and some believers feel they don't want to concern themselves with history, they just focus on the text and believe every word is the word of God. And it's a reason that people are so hungry for every morsel of history, every morsel of recreated fantasy, "The Da Vinci Code" or "The Red Tent," or "Walking the Bible." When they discover that there is a real place and real history, they suddenly are insatiable.
What happens is that people move through the discovery of the history looking for the meaning. That's what happened to me in my ten years of doing this. I was fascinated by the history, and I gobbled up the history, but ultimately I moved through the history to discover the meaning that's found in the text. That's why I feel like there is room for dialogue between religious fundamentalists and secular people more concerned with history--because ultimately everyone is concerned with the meaning.
Getting back to the story you told about the chaplain in Iraq, what's the state of interfaith relations today, as compared to when "Abraham" came out?
I definitely subscribe to the idea that 9/11, to use an overused phrase, was a wake-up call. There was a year-long national teach-in on Islam--everyone read books and suddenly talked about Islam, and that was very productive.
But there's no doubt that moment has passed. As often happens with fads, people who were briefly interested in Islam have gone back to caring about Britney Spears or the Supreme Court. And the election sucked up a lot of the energy. But the biggest question in the world today is still: Can the religions figure out a way to live with one another that's not by trying to kill one another?
Most of your interfaith work has been done among Americans. In your travels for this book, did you find that people think about interfaith relations there the way we do in the U.S.?
In Israel, the number one phrase that jumps out in the daily newspapers is "civil war," and that war is between Jewish fundamentalists and secular Jews. So it's a huge question, over who gets to define Judaism and who gets to define relations with the Muslims. In Israel, everything gets put through the political prism of Arab-Israeli, but interfaith relations are a huge question in Israel.
In Iraq, there are no Jews anymore, but Sunnis and Shi'as and their relationship with each other and also to Chaldean Catholics and Syrian Christians is the dominant issue. So, interfaith relations is topic number one in Iraq, just like in Israel.
In Iran, again, the dominant question is the relationship between fundamentalist Muslims and secular Muslims. In that polarity, there's also the role of Jews and Armenian Christians and Zoroastrians. So again, it's topic number one. It's not defined the way it's defined here, but "Can the religions get along?" is the most important question for all people.
In addition to those places in your book, it seems like it's the defining question for people everywhere.
I think it is. There are 200 million Muslims in Indonesia. They don't care where the borders are drawn between Bethlehem and Jerusalem. Half the world's population are one of these three Abrahamic faiths. We tend to define interfaith relations through the political prism of the Middle East. But certainly when you go to Pakistan, India, Sudan, Nigeria, they're all dealing with the same question.
You've been to that area of the world so many times. Was there anything in your travels this time that really surprised you? The first time I went to Turkey for "Walking the Bible" and encountered the Epic of Gilgamesh, and the fact that Gilgamesh is very similar to the story of Noah, I was destabilized by it. This time, when I went back, whenever I encountered things like rivers in the Garden of Eden, or stories of boys fighting giants in other cultures, I was cheered by it. It took me a while to figure out why it was now so rewarding.
I think the most surprising thing I found was that it meant that at the birth moment of western faith, all of these cultures were in dialogue with one another. Suddenly I understood the idea of darkness and light, that comes from Zoroastrianism. The idea of human rights and respecting other people, that comes from Cyrus in Ancient Persia. The idea of building a tower to God, like the tower of Babel, comes from the ziggurats of Ancient Mesopotamia. I concluded that the Bible is trying to send us a message. The biblical story is in dialogue with the other stories of its time. And if the Bible can be in dialogue with other cultures, why can't the people who are descendants of the Bible be in dialogue with other cultures?