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Tribal Religion, Transcendent Religion

There is a story about a Christian minister living abroad during World War II. His congregation sends him money so that he can return home for Christmas. When he doesn’t come back, they ask him why. He says that he used the money to help a group of Jews escape Hitler’s death camps and flee to safety.

“But they’re not even Christian,” writes one member of his congregation.
“Yes, I know,” the minister responds. “But I am.”

All religions have both types of people – the tribal and the transcendent. The tribal type see in the particular narratives of their tradition a narrowing of concern, and therefore care only about the people who look like them, talk like them and pray like them. The transcendent see in the same particularity a universalizing of care, and therefore focus their energies on all people, especially groups most in need, regardless of creed. If tribal religion wins, it necessarily pits groups against one another based on identity, and it means that people like Christopher Hitchens and Sam Harris are right – religion will destroy everything. If transcendent faith wins, it opens the possibility for different identity groups to use their particular narratives to articulate a collective vision that includes everybody. If that isn’t the future, there will be no future.
This is why Dietrich Bonhoeffer is one of my faith heroes. A German Lutheran religious scholar and pastor, he was one of the most important leaders in the resistance to Hitler in Germany, ultimately dying for his cause.
After Kristallnacht, he said to his fellow Christians on German radio, “Those who did not stand up for the Jews do not deserve to sing Gregorian Chants.”
Bonhoeffer died for the Jews of Europe because he was a Christian, one who found the transcendent instead of the tribal in the particular. Drawing on the depths of his faith, Bonhoeffer spoke of “the cost of discipleship” — which meant a commitment to the transcendent ethic of Jesus and the universalizing word of God, not a narrow concern for a tribe that shared his particular religious rituals.
All of our faiths have a definition of discipleship that transcends the tribe. Acting on it determines the quality of our faith, and the possibility of our future.

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