Ethical monotheism means two things:
1. There is one God from whom emanates one morality for all humanity.
2. God’s primary demand of people is that they act decently toward one another.
If all people subscribed to this simple belief – which does not entail leaving or joining any specific religion, or giving up any national identity – the world would experience far less evil. Let me explain the components of ethical monotheism…
Christians and Ethical Monotheism
While the challenge to making ethics primary in Judaism is largely one of Jews rather than of Judaism, the challenge to Christianity is more rooted in the religion itself. Within Christianity, the doctrine developed that correct faith, not correct works, is God’s primary concern.
Paul articulated this view in the New Testament: If good deeds could lead to salvation, he reasoned, “Christ would have died in vain” (Galatians 2:21). For that reason, he continued, “We conclude that a man is put right with God only through faith, and not by doing what the law commands” (Romans 3:28).
True, Catholicism holds that faith alone is not sufficient, that some works, too, are necessary for salvation. But between faith in Christ and goodness in behavior, the Church has, until recently, nearly always taught that faith is more important. Thus the Church held for nearly two millennia that even the kindest non Christians were all doomed: “Outside of the Church there is no salvation.” In a major move toward ethical monotheism, the twentieth century Catholic Church has reinterpreted this statement, and now teaches that while salvation will come through Jesus, it is not necessary for an individual to assert belief in Jesus by name in order to be saved; only God judges who is saved, and Catholics cannot declare who they are.
Historically, the thrust of Church teachings has not been that cruelty or unethical behavior is the greatest sin. As historian Norman Cohn wrote:
The sins to which the Devil of Christian tradition has tempted human beings are varied indeed: apostasy, idolatry, heresy, fornication, gluttony, vanity, using cosmetics, dressing luxuriously, going to the theater, gambling, avarice, quarreling, spiritual sloth have all, at times, figured in the list…. I have looked in vain for a single instance . . . of the Devil tempting a human being to cruelty.1
Some statements attributed to Jesus can lead a Christian to abandon the fight against evil: “Resist not evil” is the prime example. Others include: “Pray for those who persecute you,” “Love your enemies” (Matthew 5:44), and Jesus’ prayer on the cross beseeching God to forgive his murderers. Christians can interpret each of these verses in a way that does not detract from a Christian’s duty to fight evil. For example, the verses can be explained as applying only to an individual—i.e., the ideal individual Christian will not resist evil done to him, will love those who hurt her, etc., but this shouldn’t be taken to mean that believers won’t resist evil done to others. Such interpretations are certainly welcome. But it is difficult to imagine that the ideal Christian will lead a life of nonresistance to evil directed to self, and then strongly resist evil when it is done to others.
These verses of Jesus may explain why as prominent and personally fine a Christian as the Reverend Billy Graham, the most widely listened to Protestant in the world, failed to call evil by its name when he visited the Soviet Union in 1982. Indeed, true to Martin Luther’s teachings, Graham called on Soviet Christians to obey the Soviet authorities, and did not publicly side with perse cuted Christians. Rather than refer to the Soviet Union as an enemy of Christianity, the Reverend Graham only referred to “the common enemy” of nuclear war. At the time of the visit, George Will wrote:
Graham’s delicacy [about the Soviet Union] is less interesting than his “common enemy” formulation…. His language suggests a moral symmetry between his country and the soviet Union.
The Washington Post reports that when Graham spoke in two churches, both “were heavily guarded, with police sealing off all roads leading to them. Hundreds of KGB security agents . . . were in the congregation.” Graham told one congregation that God “gives you the power to be a better worker, a more loyal citizen because in Romans 13 we are told to obey the authorities.” How is that for a message from America;
Graham is America’s most famous Christian. Solzhenitsyn is Russia’s The contrast is instructive.2
Another area of Christian theology that undermines ethical monotheism is the belief that God saves human beings irrespective of how they act toward one another, just as long as they have the right faith. Millions of Protestants hold that believers in Jesus, no matter how many cruel acts they may perform, attain salvation, while nonbelievers in Jesus, no matter how much good they do and how much they may love God, are doomed to eternal damnation.
In spite of these teachings, two points need to be emphasized.
First, it is Christianity, more than any other religion, including Judaism, that has carried the message of the Jewish prophets, the clearest voices of ethical monotheism, to the world.
Second, Christianity, though not theologically pure in its ethical monotheism, can and does lead millions of people to more ethical lives. People do not live by theology alone. Theological teachings aside, the kindness and selflessness often associated with religious Christians and with charitable Christian institutions are rarely paralleled anywhere in the secular world—and infrequently in the religious world, either.
I yearn for the day when Christians will emphasize ethical monotheism as the most important part of their commitment to Christianity. I know from years of work and friendship with Christians of all persuasions that ethical monotheism is a value that many of them can easily and passionately affirm.
Muslims and Ethical Monotheism
During some of the Western world’s darkest periods, Islam was a religious light in the monotheistic world. The seeds of ethical monotheism are deeply rooted in Islam. For whatever reason, however, the soil for their nourishment has, over the last several hundred years, been depleted of necessary nutrients. Islam could be a world force for ethical monotheism, but in its present state, the outlook is problematic.
The Quran has numerous verses that emphasize belief in the one universal God who judges people according to their behavior. Like all religions, however, Islam contains xenophobic elements and doctrines that are incompatible with ethical monotheism. Unlike some other religions today, however, within Islam, xenophobia and hostility to ethical monotheism too often seem to prevail. For example, though the Quran states explicitly that in matters of faith there shall be no coercion, almost everywhere Islam dominates there is considerable religious coercion, whether by the state or by the community.
An example of such state sponsored coercion is Saudi Arabia, where religious police monitor what Muslims drink and reduce women to childlike status by forbidding them, for example, to drive cars. Saudi Arabia also severely restricts the religious freedom of other faiths.
The Sudan, too, is ruled by devout Muslims, and it is one of the most cruel states in the world, especially to its large black non Muslim minority.
Muslims need what most Christians and Jews have experienced – separation of church and state; interaction with other faiths and with modernity; and reform. Islam needs to compete with secularism, not outlaw it, and to allow competing ideologies within Islam. In religion, as in politics, when there is no competition, there is corruption and intolerance.
There are some Muslim voices crying for reform and for ethical monotheism, such as that of Dr. Fathi Osman, the former Princeton historian of Islam and editor of Arabia. When their influence increases, Islam will be a world force for ethical monotheism.
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