“Aren’t all religions alike?” people want to know. “Isn’t the point really just to be a good person?”
Well, yes and no. What makes any religion great is indeed its commitment to human goodness. But religions approach that goodness in their own distinctive ways. They all serve up the idea of how properly to respond to the human condition, but they slice it differently.
The issue arose most recently for me when I visited the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s definitive exhibit entitled, “The Plains Indians” – the culture of a large grouping of tribes ranging from the Cree and Ojibwa in western Canada to the Cheyenne, Comanche, and Sioux nations scattered southward all the way to Texas.
One of the items on display references four basic values of these Plains Indians: generosity, courage, wisdom and fortitude.
As it happens, I had just discovered elsewhere that over in England, Jane Austen’s 1817 tombstone praises her for charity, devotion, faith, and purity (see Roy and Leslie Adkins, Jane Austen’s England).
Hmmmm. Generosity, courage, wisdom and fortitude, on one hand; charity, devotion, faith, and purity, on the other.
Every culture, said pioneer sociologist Max Weber (1864-1920), establishes its own “ideal type,” the recipe for perfection that its adherents strive ideally to emulate. What we have here, then, are two examples of ideal types: generosity, courage, wisdom and fortitude (for the Indian Peoples of the plains) and charity, devotion, faith, and purity (for Christians like Jane Austin).
The attributes are gendered. The tribal culture’s selection is largely male, the model for tribal braves; Austin’s set was prescribed for pre-Victorian women. But even so, they tell us a lot about Native American religion on one hand and Christianity on the other.
The tribal traits are weighted toward the competitive (even warlike) life on the plains, where tribes contended with the need to hunt and fight for control of their environment. High on their list are courage and fortitude, what every young man was asked to demonstrate in the grueling vision quest that marked his transition to manhood.
With Austen, by contrast, we get a feminized version of recognized Christian virtues: faith and devotion, certainly, but also charity and purity – traits found in monastic culture for men as well.
Native American religion inculcated attributes of bravery, its ideal type being the Indian Brave. Christian religion accented faith, but also selflessness (even self-abnegation) and the challenge to remain pure in a world filled with temptations of the flesh; its ideal type was the solitary monk, devoting days and nights to the veneration of God while avoiding worldly pleasures.
What about Jews? What would the four Jewish attributes be? As with Native Americans and Christians, the Jewish ideals too were intended originally for men, but have nowadays been generalized to women also. What are they?
To some extent, any four terms are an arbitrary selection – just as the Indian and Christian examples here must be. But their general orientation is not. What is the Jewish ideal type? If not the Native Brave or the Christian monk, what does classical Judaism prescribe as ideal?
I suspect the Rabbis would have advocated learning, justice, righteousness and making peace. Their ideal was the learned judge who dispenses justice, acts with righteousness, and makes peace between warring parties. These four traits figure prominently in such manuals of behavior as Pirkei Avot (second century) and they recur throughout rabbinic literature. They epitomize the Jewish exemplar of talmid chakham.
So back to the original question: aren’t all religions just cases of being a good person? Not really.
To be sure, they all admire the good; and there is much that they share. Whether expressly mentioned here or not, for example, peace is valued by all three cultures; so too is generosity, which appears expressly in the Native list and is reflected in monastic vows of poverty. Similarly, all three religions esteem living in accord with the divine; offering part of our bounty back to God (or the gods); and learning the wisdom of the past. I make no inveterate distinctions here: as I said, all great religions are great for a reason – they all raise us up to be our highest selves.
But they approach the good differently; they slice the ideal in different ways. In identifying with a given religion, adherents learn to value that religion’s particular slicing. Judaism’s signature path to the good is through learning and study, by which one becomes a scholar; scholarship must lead to action, however: lo hamidrash ha’ikar ela hama’aseh (“not learning but doing is the main thing”). And the highest form of action is to act justly and rightly so as to bring peace where there is strife.