Monday, June 14, 2010

The Judeo-Christian Tradition and the Individual

The Judeo-Christian tradition offers a unique and emphatic message: every last individual, no matter the gender, income, or status, is precious to a loving God who created the world for that person, and is deeply invested in that person's fate.

One paraphrase of a famous Talmud passage:

Why did God create only one Adam and not many at a time?

He did this to demonstrate that one man in himself is an entire universe. Also He wished to teach mankind that he who kills one human being is as guilty as if he had destroyed the entire world. Similarly, he who saves the life of one single human being is as worthy as if he had saved all of humanity.

God created only one man so that people should not try to feel superior to one another and boast of their lineage in this wise: "I am descended from a more distinguished Adam than you."

He also did this so that the heathen should not be able to say that since many men had been created at the same time, it was conclusive proof that there was more than one God.

Lastly, He did this in order to establish His own power and glory. When a maker of coins does his work he uses only one mould and all the coins emerge alike. But the Kings of Kings, blessed be His name, has created all mankind in the mould of Adam, and even so no man is identical to another. For this reason each person must respect himself and say with dignity, "God created the world on my account. Therefore let me not lose eternal life because of some vain passion!"

The New Testament, as well as the Old, repeatedly emphasizes God's investment in each human life, for example in the parable of the one lost sheep:

"What man among you having a hundred sheep and losing one of them would not leave the ninety-nine in the desert and go after the lost one until he finds it? And when he does find it, he sets it on his shoulders with great joy and, upon his arrival home, he calls together his friends and neighbors and says to them, 'Rejoice with me because I have found my lost sheep.' I tell you, in just the same way there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous people who have no need of repentance."

There is nothing like this emphasis on a loving God's investment in each individual in any other faith tradition. We disrespect this tradition to our own peril, as stated by Barbara Sproul in an introduction to world myth:

"Think of the power of the first myth of Genesis in the Old Testament. While the scientific claims it incorporates, so obviously at odds with modern ones, may be rejected, what about the myth itself? Most Westerners, whether or not they are practicing Jews or Christians, still show themselves to be heirs of this tradition by holding to the view that people are sacred, the creatures of God. Declared unbelievers often dispense with the frankly religious language of his assertion by renouncing god, yet even they still cherish the *consequence* of the myth's claim and affirm that people have inalienable rights (*as if* they were created by God). And, further, consider the beliefs that human beings are superior to all other creatures and are properly set above the rest of the physical world by intelligence and spirit with the obligation to govern it – these beliefs are still current and very powerful … These attitudes toward reality are all part of the first myth of Genesis. And whether people go to temple or church, whether they consider themselves religious, to the extent they reflect these attitudes in their daily behavior, they are still deeply Judeo-Christian."

Quotes from:

"A Treasury of Jewish Folklore: Stories, Traditions, Legends, Humor, Wisdom, and Folk Songs of the Jewish People."
Nathan Ausubel
Crown Publishers, New York 1948 page 6

"Primal Myths: Creation Myths Around the World"
Barbara C. Sproul
Harper 1991

Luke chapter 15

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