“I cannot sit here and tell you that I think moderates will necessarily win the argument or carry the day. All I can tell you is that this is the defining question of the hour and maybe the defining question of the new century. Therefore we have to speak out.”
The “defining question” involves “figuring out a new way to relate to one another,” and the man earnestly seeking an answer is Bruce Feiler, author of last year’s best-selling Walking the Bible.
With his latest book, Abraham: A Journey to the Heart of Three Faiths, Feiler hopes to unearth at least part of that answer, taking a journey through time to meet the man—Abraham—at the heart of the world’s three monotheistic religions: Judaism, Christianity and Islam.
Feiler, 37, recently spoke with EthicsDaily<.com while in Nashville to discuss Abraham at the annual Southern Festival of Books.
Feiler, a Reform Jew, grew up in Savannah and attended Yale. After that, he began a life of entering various cultures and writing about his experiences. A year teaching in Japan prompted Learning to Bow. Graduate studies at Cambridge yielded Looking for Class. A year performing as a circus clown gave birth to Under the Big Top. Three years on Nashville’s Music Row evolved into Dreaming Out Loud.
Feiler, who had been “fairly active” in Jewish life but “not particularly spiritual” as a young person, found himself wanting to reconnect with the Bible. He pulled it from the shelf, read it again with fresh eyes, and traveled to Jerusalem, where he became fascinated with scriptural places.
That experience—during which he traveled 10,000 miles across three continents, five countries and four war zones—became Walking the Bible, a New York Times best-seller.
“It opened me up to a spiritual reconnection with myself, with the stories, with the region,” he said. “And I was busy working on the follow-up to that book when I got this call from my brother on Sept. 11 saying, ‘Look outside your window.'”
Conversations erupted about Arabs, Americans, terrorism, religion.
“One name echoed behind those conversations,” Feiler said. “One man stood at the heart of the religions that suddenly seemed to be at war—Abraham. I wanted to understand him and particularly wanted to know whether he just was a source of war, or could he be a vessel for reconciliation?”
Feiler went to work.
“What I do best—some people are rescue workers, some people chase down terrorists—I read and travel and explore these questions,” he said. “So I went back to the Middle East.”
And he went back into a vortex of current events animated by a “holy triangle” of relationship among God, people and land.
“Judaism, I think, is in part about the tension between having the land and not having the land,” he said. “I don’t think it’s accidental, in a lot of ways, that if you look at the world today, there are 12 million Jews. Basically 5 million Jews in Israel, 5 million in America and 2 million in between. It’s almost this perfect balance between those on the land and those not on the land. And the two somehow need each other.”
Feiler then brought Christianity into the mix.
Apostle Paul contributed to the conversation about monotheism, Feiler said, by introducing the idea that “if you are a follower of Jesus, if you enter that body, if you will, that in a way becomes a surrogate for the land. That, I think, is one of the keys to Christianity’s popularity—it becomes much more mobile. It’s not dependent on actual land because you can be a participant in Jesus wherever you are, and you don’t need to be on the land.”
Nevertheless, “It’s clear that God wanted to pass the land on to somebody,” Feiler said. “And it’s clear that Isaac wins that struggle, if you will. But the Bible bends over backwards to say that God will continue to bless Ishmael. God’s blessing here definitely appears to be universal and not just limited to the people who are on the land.”
Regardless of what the text says or doesn’t say about the land, Feiler argued that it should have limited bearing on the conflict in Israel.
“I think that the ancient texts are clearly a factor there, but I don’t think they should be the determining factor,” he said. “I don’t think the Bible can be expected to be the blueprint for solving the current political problem.”
The Bible, in many ways, fails as history and as reportage, Feiler said, because too many details are left out.
“But the reason it succeeds as Scripture is because of its elliptical nature and because it is open to interpretation,” he said. “It can contain history and it can contain truth and it can still be elliptical. That, I believe, is the key to its longevity.”
The task of interpretation, Feiler said, demands modesty—a quality extremists lack.
“I think that Sept. 11 will be seen as a defining hour in the interfaith conversation around the world because I think if nothing else it showed us that we cannot cede the microphone to the extremists,” he said. “What are those planes going into those buildings other than microphones saying my version of God is better than your version of God?”
“A certain spiritual leader in America was on ’60 Minutes’ the other night saying Muhammad was a terrorist. That is tantamount to saying we must declare war on terrorists, we must declare war on Islam,” Feiler continued. “Those of us who believe in pluralism and coexistence and mutual respect have to speak up because silence equals violence. A pre-condition of doing that is modesty.
Modesty, however, must not be mistaken for inaction.
“We can’t sit back and say, ‘I hope they solve that problem over there in Kabul. I hope they get them borders together over there in Jerusalem.’ We have to realize that the Middle East has now come to America,” Feiler said.
“We live in those problems and they happen in our neighborhoods and communities and workplaces every day, and each of us has to reach out.”
Cliff Vaughn is BCE’s associate director.