Soltes: Religion has the power to lift up or destroy

Amanda Mainguy | Staff Photographer
During his Interfaith Lecture in the Hall of Philosophy Monday, Ori Soltes discussed the heritage of the modern states of Georgia and Ukraine to pose questions about religion’s role in uniting or dividing societies, and how or if it affects social change.

Ori Soltes identified three problems in faith traditions that can make religion either a positive or negative force in the world — the first being that “it is, by definition, a construct that addresses a reality other than our own.”

Soltes, professor of theology, philosophy and art history at Georgetown University, spoke about religious dilemmas and then related them to historical and present-day Georgia and Ukraine is his 2 p.m. Interfaith Lecture Monday in the Hall of Philosophy. His lecture, “Religion and the Shaping of National Identity in Georgia and Ukraine,” kicked off Week Eight’s theme, “The Global Religious Public Square.”

Soltes said that if the popular belief is that divinity created humanity, then it could destroy humanity as well.

The No. 1 question concerning religion revolves around proper behavior.

“How do I know how I’m supposed to be so that I don’t — to use a formal, theological turn of phrase — don’t piss off divinity so that I am helped and not harmed?” Soltes said. “So that I am blessed and not cursed?”

The people who are given special privilege to connect with divinity on a deeper level — prophets, priests, poets, emperors and kings — pose another problem.

“At a certain point, the period of revelation is succeeded by a period of interpretation because the prophet, or the series of prophets, is or are gone,” he said. “And then we’re left trying to make sure we understood what the words that they spoke or wrote meant.”

He used Genesis and the stories of Noah and Adam and Eve to show how traditions can be interpreted in different ways. The sins that Adam, Eve and then all of humanity — minus Noah and his family — supposedly committed are not obviously apparent. According to Soltes, it takes interpretation of the stories to determine what the faults of humanity were. That interpretation, he added, can be different for different people.

This problem of interpretation is preceded by a greater problem, Soltes said — “Do we know for a fact that the prophet got it right in the first place?”

Adding to these complications, each religious tradition believes in a different text, Soltes said. He listed different versions of the Bible, the Torah, the Quran and even Egyptian scripture not recognized in the canon by any other tradition.

“In each of those traditions, the delivering of such a text is followed by centuries and centuries of convergent and divergent interpretations,” he said.

In addition, Soltes said religion has helped shape global politics. From pharaohs depicting themselves as god-like beings in the 24th pre-Christian century to the European monarchs of the 18th century and their belief in the “divine right of kings,” religious wars have been acted out in the name of divinity, he said, but the leaders — appointed in the name of God — were thinking with their own egos and were preoccupied with their own desires.

“Human ego can be so filled with itself that it altogether forgets about people or about the planet. It all becomes all about me,” Soltes said. “Whatever gets done in my name so that I can achieve assert or maintain power, I forget may not be OK in God’s eyes. So blinded have I become by my own ego.”

If society rejects the ruling ego and embraces other traditions instead of emphasizing the different details in each faith, then religion can be a unifying force, Soltes said.

He used the country of Georgia, located on the eastern coast of the Black Sea between Russia and Turkey, as an example of this unifying power.

Georgia was one of the first Eurasian states to officially embrace Christianity, Soltes said, which it did in 337 — 45 years before the Roman Empire declared Christianity its official religion. During the next 10 or 11 centuries, however, Georgia was caught between the Byzantine Empire, which is Eastern Christian, and a variety of Muslim groups. Muslim and Christian control took hold of the country at various times, but despite the political ruling class, Soltes said there was an acceptance of both religions in the country at all times.

“There is no sense that, while we as a Christian state want independence religiously as well as politically, that therefore we should oppress those who sometimes are in charge of us politically, who presumably didn’t oppress us religiously when they were in charge of us,” he said. “So there is this very rich history of Christian-Muslim interfaith, which on the street level is not affected by what’s happening politically at the higher levels.”

The same type of religious acceptance is evident when comparing the Georgian treatment of the Jews to the treatment of Jews in other European countries. Soltes said that while many Jewish people converted to Christianity, no distinction was made in dress or custom to distinguish Jews from other citizens. They blended in with the rest of Georgian society and were not persecuted for their beliefs.

Ukraine followed a different path through history, Soltes said. Starting with the Trypillians, pre-dating even the Mesopotamian and Egyptian civilizations — the country was peppered with groups from the Roman Empire, the Huns, Jewish Khazars and Vikings.

The state, which wasn’t yet Ukraine, officially declared Christianity as its religion in 988, Soltes said. The Ukrainians at this time were interconnected with the Russians, who helped found its capital and establish the state.

Soltes said a group of Islamic, Turkish Mongols later overthrew Christian rule, which made the region that would be Ukraine a checkerboard of all three Abrahamic religions in its early history.

In the 16th century, because of its close relation to Poland, the area adopted Catholicism as its religion.

“So we have Orthodox Christianity of a particular variety, we have Catholicism, we have Islam, we have Judaism — each of them playing a different kind of role within this amalgam that is not yet quite Ukraine,” he said.

During the 17th, 18th and 19th century, Ukraine wrestles for its independence from Russia, Austria and Poland, Soltes said. Crimea was given to Ukraine — which had won independence for a short time and was then absorbed into the Soviet Union — by the new USSR premier in 1954. Following the collapse of the Eastern Bloc in 1991, the nation again declared its independence.

This series of events leads to 2014, Soltes said. Crimea was taken back by Russia in March, and today a group of neo-Nazis are starting to rise in Ukraine.

“That relationship had come quite full-circle from the time when the Khazars were the starting point of the beginning of the beginning of the beginning of what would one day become Ukraine,” Soltes said.

The vast differences in these two counties histories — both populated by different religions and caught between larger powers — demonstrate the unifying and destructive potential of religious traditions.

“Religion, interwoven with politics, interwoven with ethnicity with romantic nationalism,” he said, “can be an enormous connector and an enormous disconnector.”