In his book The Jewish Gospels, Daniel Boyarin poses a profound challenge to the religious enterprise.
From his historical studies of the early relationship between Judaism and the earliest followers of Jesus, Boyarin concludes that
in antiquity there were Jews who were believers in Christ and Jews who weren’t, but all were Jews. (p. 17)
The definitive separation between Jews who believed in Christ and those who did not came, Boyarin argues, only when emerging powers that claimed allegiance to Christ determined that Judaism and Christianity were incompatible. The break was ultimately achieved by the Roman Emperor Constantine at the Council of Nicaea (325 CE) and the First Ecumenical Council of Constantinople (381 CE) called by Emperor Theodosius I.
In the end what was accomplished in Nicaea and Constantinople was the establishment of a Christianity that was completely separated from Judaism. … No one before Constantine had had the power to declare some folks not Christians or not Jews. (p. 18)
It appears from Boyarin’s description that the purpose of religion is to draw a line in the sand creating distinctions between belief systems. Indeed Boyarin argues,
For moderns, religions are fixed sets of convictions with well-defined boundaries. We usually ask ourselves: What convictions does Christianity forbid or what practices does it require? We ask similar questions in regard to Judaism, Hinduism, Islam, and Buddhism, the so-called great religions of the world. Such an understand, of course, makes nonsense of the idea that one could be both a Jew and a Christian, rendering it just a contradiction in terms. Jews don’t fit the definition of Christians, and Christians don’t fit the definition of Jews. There are simple incompatibilities between these two religions that make it impossible to be both. (p.8)
The purpose of religion seems to be to divide. Religions major in distinctions. Theology seems to be the process of pointing out differences and preserving the distinctive nature of bodies of belief. So, Boyarin says,
We usually define members of religions by using a kind of checklist. (8)
If you go down the list of world religions, pick the one whose distinctive characteristics you have given the most check marks, that is your religion.
There are according to Boyarin two problems with this procedure.
1. someone has to be making the checklists. Who decides what specific beliefs disqualify a person from being a Jew? Throughout history these decisions have been made by certain groups of people or individuals and are then imposed on other people.
2. Another big problem these checklists cannot address has to do with people whose beliefs and behaviors are a blend of characteristics from the two lists. (pp. 9,10)
In our current cultural context in which all authority is open to question and diversity is highly prized, these are two substantial challenges for the religious enterprise.
In the end Boyarin concludes that
these seemingly innocuous checklists are really tools of power, not simply description. (p. 20)
Whatever one thinks about Boyarin’s argument, he has identified a significant challenge that must be addressed.
We live in a world in which it is increasingly hazardous to emphasizes qualities that point to separation between people. If religion cannot be a force for unity with0ut requiring absolute uniformity, its value as a force for good in the world community is open to legitimate question.
It is fair to ask if Jesus was imagining total agreement on all theological issues when he prayed,
I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd. (John 10:16)
How wide are the parameters of Jesus’ fold? Do we need to agree to a minimum number of points on the check list to know that we have finally made it into the “one flock”?
The fear of course is that, if we allow for the possibility that people whose understanding of faith is not identical to ours may also be listening to the voice of the “one shepherd”, we may lose our distinctive identity. Our faith may be at risk, if we accept that the shepherd may be speaking beyond the narrow confines of the flock as we believe it to be defined.
But, perhaps we do not need to fear. Perhaps our trust in God’s presence and action in our lives can be deep enough to allow for God to speak to people of other backgrounds in ways that work for them, without that needing to diminish our faith. Perhaps we can hold firmly to our beliefs without needing to disqualify those whose convictions differ from ours or without feeling insecure that we do not have complete uniformity.