Gordis explores the duality of radicalism within religion

Rabbi David Gordis, president emeritus of Hebrew College and currently a professor at the University of Albany, speaks on radicalism within religion at Monday afternoon’s Interfaith Lecture in the Hall of Philosophy. Photo by Eric Shea.

Mary Desmond | Staff Writer

Radicalism is a loaded term. It can be explored in many contexts: social, political, religious. From the religious lens, there are two main forms of radicalism: radicalism and religion, and religious radicalism, Rabbi David M. Gordis said Monday in the Hall of Philosophy.

Gordis opened Week Eight’s Interfaith Lecture theme of “Radicalism: Burden or Blessing?” with a lecture discussing the duality of religious social functions, the two religiously focused forms of radicalism, and two radicals of the Jewish faith, in a lecture titled “Conserve or Transform: Religion’s Dilemma.”

Gordis is the president emeritus of Hebrew College and serves as a professor at the University of Albany. He began with discussing the two main functions of religion. Religion provides a sanctuary where people can find peace, prayer, worship and meditation. It is a stable institution that people can turn to when the world seems chaotic or insecure.

“Religion looks to allay that anxiety by providing continuity, tradition, institutions that are recognizable that go on,” Gordis said.

At the same time, religion, especially Abrahamic traditions, follows a narrative that is driven toward radical change on Earth. The Abrahamic faiths yearn for a better, transformed world — for example in Judaism, Jews await the Messiah, and in Christianity, the second coming.

“This looking ahead to a transformed world is in quite radical tension with this first function, which is continuity, security, peace,” Gordis said.

Two weeks ago, Michelle Obama was quoted in The New York Times saying, “Our faith journey isn’t just about showing up on Sunday. It’s about what we do Monday through Saturday as well,“ Gordis said.

The quote rightly places Jesus in the succession of prophetic religious prophets like Isaiah, Amos and Jeremiah, Gordis said. Those prophets preached radical change, while also staying true to conservative aspects of their traditions, he said.

“I would argue that eliminating the radical voice of religion that is retaining only the conservative dimensions of theological doctrine and scrupulous attention to detail of observance, it would be difficult, if not impossible, to defend the role of religion in human affairs,” Gordis said.

The first form of radicalism — radicalism and religion — refers to when people within religious traditions are compelled to work and transform the outside world as a result of their religious convictions. That form is composed of people of faith who feel it is their responsibility to enact change on a larger scale as a result of the teachings and understandings of their lives through a religious context.

Religious radicalism — the second form of radicalism — refers to people who reach inward to religion, and people who explore their faiths internally and enact change therein, Gordis said. They examine the theological and liturgical precepts of faith.

“Looking at our religious beliefs to bring them into a position where they are in fact believable — that is something which is reasonable for someone to affirm,” Gordis said.

Tertullian, a Christian author born in 160, said that “he believed, because it is absurd,” Gordis said. Many still follow that school of thought; they say that because more often than not our world is mixed-up and contradictory, it makes sense to believe in tradition instead of something people think they know.

“I reject this neotertullian argument completely, because if accepted, it leads to a growing gap between religious belief and an enlightened and informed understanding of the human condition,” Gordis said.

I believe that religious truth and claims to religious truth need to be radically transformed.

—David M. Gordis

Neotertullian thought will ultimately make religion irrelevant, Gordis said.

To illustrate the two forms of radicalism, Gordis discussed two 20th-century Jewish thinkers and two of his former colleagues, Abraham Joshua Heschel and Mordecai M. Kaplan.

Both men shared similar backgrounds. They were both trained in Europe and steeped in rabbinic literature and the European philosophical tradition, Gordis said. They were both traditional and wrote some theology, but Heschel embodied radicalism and religion, while Kaplan practiced religious radicalism.

“There is no path-breaking side to Heschel as a theologian. His path breaking was in his reaching out to the world, hearing the religious voice and the Jewish religious voice saying to him you can not remain within the synagogue,” Gordis said.

Heschel worked alongside Martin Luther King, fighting for social, economic and civil rights. He translated his faith into activism for social justice and economic equality, Gordis said. Heschel believed that in order to transform the world, one had to reach out, beginning the process with their hands.

Kaplan embraced religious radicalism. He looked at religious beliefs and rejected the supernatural aspects of them.

“Kaplan said, that for the modern person who understands how cultures develop, who understands what science has told us about the world, who understands the commonality of a human search for understanding and making sense out of this strange mystery of being human, it was not acceptable to continue articulating a theology of supernaturalism,” Gordis said.

Kaplan emphasized the maintenance of religious traditions and values, but re-evaluated the meaning behind Jewish words and traditions so they complemented human understandings of reality. Kaplan was the founder of Reconstructionist Judaism, Gordis said.

When people would ask Kaplan if he believed in God, he would respond by asking what God the person was talking about, Gordis said.

“God is a language which describes a quality of the world. It’s a quality of the world which allows people to strive for both self-improvement and enhancement of the experience of the world for everybody else — that process of improvement or enhancement he calls salvation,” Gordis said.

Photo by Eric Shea.

Today, more people recognize Heschel outside of the Jewish faith. He is becoming better known within Judaism because of the positive work he did. Kaplan was not well accepted. He once published a prayer book that was burned by traditionalists. However, there is no one in the Jewish tradition —whether Orthodox, Reform, liberal or secular — who has not been influenced by Kaplan, Gordis said.

Judaism stresses behavior and action over belief and faith, Gordis said, but one of the things he has learned from Christianity is that it does matter what you believe.

“There has to be some foundation in belief to make those belief patterns durable, and sustainable, and meaningful, and useful and constructive,” Gordis said.

Both forms of radicalism inform Gordis’ position on religion. First of all, he believes that religion is not important if it is merely exercised within the confines of a religious building or institution. Religion is meaningless unless positive religious action occurs outside the four walls of worship, he said.

Gordis is also a religious radical in the second sense, he said.

“I believe that religious truth and claims to religious truth need to be radically transformed.”

Claims to exclusive access to religious truth and virtue have been the core problems for humanity and the human experience during the past thousand years, Gordis said. Every religion is guilty. Jews claim that they were at Mt. Sinai so their belief is the purist; Christians say only salvation can be found in the church, Gordis said.

“As soon as one claims exclusive access to truth and exclusive access to virtue, one relegates the other to some sort of sub-alternate tradition,” Gordis said.

That thought process create the pathology of “the other,” he said.

“As soon as someone deals with the other as problematic and challenging to oneself, then one is on the slippery slope toward violence, to bloodshed, to the rejection of the humanity of the other,” he said.

All religions communicate with an arrogance and certainty. Gordis said he believes arrogance should be replaced with “epistemological modesty.” People must understand that as human beings, we all struggle with understanding the nature of our existence, the essence of what it is to be human, and each religious tradition is doing its best to help explain that. No one has the absolute, certain answer, Gordis said.

It is pathology of humanity to be arrogant and claim superiority based on something one cannot know. People should accept that no one has the answers and begin communicating with people of different faiths, enhancing religion and growing in religion with them, Gordis said. If people use religion as a starting point for growing with people of many faiths, religion will bless and enhance the human experience. If people do not, it will continue to debase that experience, Gordis said.

“We need to nurture our ability to hear as well as to speak, to learn as well as to teach, and to do our best to enhance the quality of life for all people. This requires a radical transformation in our understanding of the meaning of religious truth,” Gordis said. “It makes the starting point for religion all that we don’t and can’t know, as opposed to proclaiming with certainty the truth of what we do not and can not know.”