Countering covenantal singularization projects—some thoughts following the recent bomb, van and knife attacks in London and Manchester

It is vitally important to remember that the story like the one you are about to hear from Exodus are not historical accounts, rather they are etiological tales, i.e. tales designed to “explain” the origins of various religious practices, norms, natural phenomena, names of places and peoples etc. and that, therefore, as Peter Sloterdijk observes, “The true location of these events is purely in the stories themselves” (“In the Shadow of Mount Sinai”, Polity Press, p. 27).

Exodus 32 — The destruction of the Golden Calf and the massacre that follows

In the service I read the following precis of this chapter and only read the final five verses verbatim. However, I'd encourage people to read the whole story properly at the above link. 

When Moses went up Mount Sinai to receive the Ten Commandments (Exodus 24:12-18), he left the Israelites for forty days and forty nights. The Israelites feared that he would not return and demanded that Aaron make them “gods” to go before them (Exodus 32:1). Aaron gathered up the Israelites’ golden earrings and ornaments, constructed a “molten calf” and he declared: “These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!” (Exodus 32:4)

Aaron built an altar before the calf and the following day was proclaimed to be a feast to the LORD. Rising-up early the next day they “offered burnt-offerings and brought sacrifices of well-being; and the people sat down to eat and drink, and rose up to revel.” (Exodus 32:6)

Meanwhile, up the mountain, God told Moses what the Israelites were doing back in their camp, that they had turned aside quickly out of the way which God commanded them and that he was going to destroy them and start a new people from Moses. Moses successfully pleaded with God that they should be spared (Exodus 32:11-14), and God “changed his mind about the disaster that he planned to bring on his people.”

Moses now went down from the mountain, but upon seeing the calf, he became angry and threw down the two Tablets of Stone, breaking them into pieces. Moses then burnt the golden calf in a fire, ground it to powder, scattered it on water, and forced the Israelites to drink it. When Moses asked him, Aaron admitted collecting the gold, and throwing it into the fire, and said it came out as a calf (Exodus 32:21-24).

And now we come to dreadful final chapter of this story (Exodus 32:25-29) which you will now hear in the Biblical author’s own words:

When Moses saw that the people were running wild (for Aaron had let them run wild, to the derision of their enemies), then Moses stood in the gate of the camp, and said, ‘Who is on the Lord’s side? Come to me!’ And all the sons of Levi gathered around him. He said to them, ‘Thus says the Lord, the God of Israel, “Put your sword on your side, each of you! Go back and forth from gate to gate throughout the camp, and each of you kill your brother, your friend, and your neighbour.” ’The sons of Levi did as Moses commanded, and about three thousand of the people fell on that day. Moses said, ‘Today you have ordained yourselves for the service of the Lord, each one at the cost of a son or a brother, and so have brought a blessing on yourselves this day.’


Countering covenantal singularization projects

This morning I want to take seriously some words by Justin Welby, the Archbishop of Canterbury, said last week on BBC Radio 4’s Today Programme (5 May) following the recent murderous attack on London Bridge and in Borough Market.

He noted that in all the major faiths throughout history, religious tradition and scripture has been twisted and misused by people and he went on to observe that religious leaders have permitted, or on some occasions, encouraged this. He said:

“We have to say that if something is happening within our own faith tradition we must take responsibility for being very, very clear in countering it.”

In connection with the current spate of attacks he was clear that failing to acknowledge the role played by Islam in them  was akin to failing to accept Christianity’s role in the Srebrenica massacre in 1995 in Bosnia and he explicitly noted that there is a religious “theology” behind these terror attacks that must be countered. He said:

“We need to counter that [theology] within our own faith tradition and say why it is not acceptable and to teach people and to educate people.”

Associated with this he pointed positively to “the extraordinary level of condemnation” expressed by Muslim leaders and groups in the UK following these attacks, something which, I’m sure, we are all also very pleased to see occurring.

Welby also criticized the “very high level of lack of religious illiteracy” from those responsible for countering these attacks and described them as people “who don’t understand the basic doctrines of the faith they are dealing with”. I have to say that my own interfaith work over the years bears this out in spades.  

Finally, Welby also warned that a line must be drawn between cultural conservatism and extremism saying:

“We have to draw tolerably wide values. . . . Our history and culture allow people to hold very different views but the line has to be about violence and incitement to the disparagement of other people.”

So, having heard his words — with which I find myself in general agreement — let me return in particular to Welby’s call to the duty of religious leaders’ “to say that if something [which leads to violence] is happening within our own faith tradition we must take responsibility for being very, very clear in countering it.”

Well, in a very small and, let’s be honest about it, pretty insignificant way (just twenty-two of us were gathered together this morning in church and this blog only receives about 15,000 "hits" per month), I suppose I am some kind of religious leader myself and so I want to return to something deeply problematic  in our own faith tradition that I have unsuccessfully attempted to counter before. But when I say “our own faith tradition” I do not mean Christianity alone rather I mean monotheism of which Christianity, Judaism and Islam are but subsets. I also want to extend our own faith tradition further to include our current secular democracies which, in Europe and North America at least, are (as I hope I made clear last week) descendants of one of the monotheisms, namely Christianity.

The contemporary German philosopher Peter Sloterdijk calls the deeply problematic religious “theology” that I think must be countered the “covenantal singularization project.” So let’s briefly tease out what this is.

Central to monotheism is a belief in a single, only God. As the Hebrew Scriptures put it in the first of the ten commandments found in Exodus 20:1–17, and then at Deuteronomy 5:4–21: “Thou shalt have no other gods before me”; as Jesus puts it in John 17:3: “And this is life eternal, that they might know thee the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom thou hast sent”; as the 112th sura of the Qur’an, “Sūrat al-Tawhīd”, puts it: “Say: He is Allah, the One and Only; Allah, the Eternal, Absolute; He begetteth not, nor is He begotten; And there is none like unto Him.”

It is believed by the most theologically committed members of each of these groups that with this single God some kind of covenant has been made and that this same God has divinely revealed to them certain authoritative eternal laws, texts, practices and people. The primary model for this monotheistic covenantal relationship (because it is historically the earliest and both Christianity and Islam have consciously internalised this model themselves) is, of course, the one found in the Hebrew texts central to the Jewish tradition, and a primary story about covenant within those texts is the story of the Golden Calf that we heard earlier in our readings.

Let’s begin by noting an important dynamic at play in this story. Even though the Hebrew writers have Moses first change God’s mind about wanting to destroy all his people and start over, on going down the mountain and seeing the calf and all his people dancing before it, Moses himself has a change of mind — he finds himself agreeing with God’s original decision. He suddenly decides that continued loyalty to his people’s single God in fact trumps and breaks all the laws of that same God just given to him — including, as we shall soon horrifically see, the law not to kill. He throws down the tablets of stone upon which God has written them, takes the Golden Calf, to him a strange and foreign god, burns it with fire, grinds it to powder, scatters it on the water, and makes all his people drink the awful cocktail. Then, when this does not stop the people he calls out, “Who is on the Lord’s side? Come to me!” Only the sons of Levi choose to gather around him and it is to them he says those utterly shocking, genocidal words:

Thus says the Lord, the God of Israel, “Put your sword on your side, each of you! Go back and forth from gate to gate throughout the camp, and each of you kill your brother, your friend, and your neighbour.”

The story then tells us that about three thousand of the people were massacred on and that these actions “served” the Lord and brought a “blessing” upon themselves.

The German philosopher and cultural theorist Peter Sloterdijk (b. 1947) has recently written about this story in an essay called “In The Shadow of Mount Sinai” saying:

“The covenant has the form of a non-mixing contract and a non-translation oath [i.e. a promise is made never to try and see your God in another form, say a golden calf or, another people], [and these are] combined with the highest salvific guarantees. Whoever mixes themselves is eliminated, and whoever translates  falls from grace” (“In the Shadow of Mount Sinai”, Polity Press, p. 23).

And here’s the publisher's summary of Sloterdijk’s overall view found in his essay:

“At the core of monotheism is the logic of belonging to a community of confession, of being a true believer — this is what Sloterdijk calls the Sinai Schema. To be a member of a people means that you submit to the beliefs of the community just as you submit to its language. Monotheism is predicated on the logic of one God who demands your utmost loyalty. Hence at the core of monotheism is also the fear of apotheosis [i.e. making something other than God divine], of heresy, of heterodoxy. So monotheism is associated first and foremost with a certain kind of internal violence, namely, a violence against those who violate their membership through a break in loyalty and trust.”

At this point it’s also worth reminding you of something said by the occasionally insightful, if deeply problematic, German jurist and political theorist Carl Schmitt (1888–1985) in his 1922 essay “Political Theology”, namely, that:

“All significant concepts of the modern theory of the state are secularized theological concepts . . . in which they were transferred from theology to the theory of the state, whereby, for example, the omnipotent Cod became the omnipotent lawgiver” ("Political Theology," MIT Press, 1985, p. 36)

Schmitt's words encourage us to explore the thought that the religious violence of the Sinai Schema has been passed on in often hidden ways in our secularized national political lives. Although it is true that over the centuries this schema/project has often been sublimated within European and North American liberal democracies — by which I mean that the socially unacceptable impulse to do violence to those outside your own, immediate, particular national or religious group has (thankfully) been slowly transformed into more open-hearted, understanding and tolerant ways of dealing with difference — the underlying truth is that the continued existence of this shadow, this malevolent ghost of the Sinai Schema, means that under certain circumstances our poorly educated and increasingly thin and emptied-out public culture is highly susceptible to becoming re-theologised, and groups and individuals inspired by Islamist theology seem to have realised this. I’m fairly certain that they are aware of the violence implicit within the monotheistic, Sinai schema and that they are now intuitively using it in increasingly successfully ways to lure more and more people Europe and the USA (especially our nationalist-leaning politicians and media) into fighting them by resurrecting amongst us the ghost of Christian monotheism as an antidote to, in this case, “Islam”, and the resurrection is everywhere taking the form of the pernicious and thoroughly disgusting idea that “because our god (or our illuminating political or nationalist vocabulary) is like no other, our people will be like no other.” As Simon Critchley puts it (in his book "Infinitely Demanding: Ethics of Commitment, Politics of Resistance", p. 5) we "are living through a chronic re-theologization of politics."

What follows swiftly on from this dynamic is that we are then slowly being forced by our own poorly-educated powers-that-be firstly to drink a contemporary version of the strange brew Moses made up of ground-up Golden Calf. This for us comes in the form of lighter (initially softer) versions of certain actions our so-called “enemies” already employ with gusto, i.e. increased surveillance carried out both by the state and by increasing number of private informers, the normalization of armed soldiers and police on our streets, and an increasing restriction upon our hard won rights of free movement, association and speech which includes, as we heard just last week, a brazen willingness to abandon swaths of human-rights laws.

When swallowing this disgusting cocktail fails to stop the new breed of terrorist — as it most assuredly will fail — it is but a short step to an upping of the ante that begins to lead us disturbingly closer towards a world in which, like Moses’ genocidal followers, it becomes acceptable to move back and forth from gate to gate throughout our own country ready to kill our brother and sisters, our friends, and our neighbours.

Please do not dismiss my words as mere hyperbole because this has happened many, many times before in human history. Don’t let the sheer luck of being born in one of the most secure and peaceful periods in European history lull you into thinking we can’t be so utterly stupid as to start yet another “covenantal singularization project” which ends up by killing thousands of innocent people once again.

The best and only truly effective defence that I see available to us is not, as our current crop of politicians seem obsessed with doing, by fighting fire with fire by developing our own new “strong and stable” (Christian inspired) “covenantal singularisation project” to face down the (Islam inspired) “covenantal singularization project” we are currently encountering but, instead, by promoting in every possible way flexible, open, critical conversations and public debates centred on revealing how and why all such “covenantal singularization projects” (and of whatever religious or political flavour) are utterly fatal both to human well-being and the well-being of our planet.

From where I stand in the free-thinking, liberal religious tradition I think that one of our most sacred duties is to offer people a radically different political and secular religious project that emphasizes plurality and which is able to speak of the divine and sacred in new, creative, naturalistic and peaceful ways that monotheism seems utterly incapable of imagining.