Review of Robert Erlewine's Monotheism and Tolerance: Recovering a Religion of Reason

Toward a Non-Violent Intolerance: A Review of Monotheism and Tolerance: Recovering a Religion of Reason, by Robert Erlewine
Indiana University Press, 2010 246 pages
A review by Ingrid Anderson (Boston University)
Monotheism and Tolerance: Recovering a Religion of Reason addresses what its author, Robert Erlewine, calls the "repeated demand" for the adoption of “contemporary values of tolerance and pluralism...[which continue to] pose significant challenges” for the “Abrahamic-monotheistic religions” of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Erlewine notes that “as the calls for tolerance and pluralism, usually made by secularists and religious liberals, grow stronger in the public arena, one cannot help but notice the growing backlash against them.”1It is refreshing that, rather than disregard claims that values such as “tolerance” and “pluralism” are at odds with monotheism's “structural antagonism and hostility toward the Other,” Erlewine takes these claims seriously, and agrees that demands for tolerance and pluralism will understandably go unheeded by traditional religious practitioners if those who make such demands fail to respect, and take into account, the “symbolic or discursive structure shared by Abrahamic religions”2 which, at its core, requires intolerance, or even the obliteration of, the Other.

Erlewine's understanding that modern secularism's demands are incommensurate with elective monotheism's most important values is precisely what makes his study valuable, since many progressive politicians and scholars who work to end—or at least ameliorate--violent intolerance cannot or will not take the values and mores of religious people seriously, even as they make endless suggestions for how religions should change in response to modernity. Erlewine does not, like so many others, demand an “unqualified celebration of the principles of tolerance or pluralism,” but instead insists that if “monotheistic traditions are going to constructively deal with their predisposition to agonistic relationships with the Other, and thus to intolerance, then such measures must originate and find their basis within these traditions themselves.”3 Erlewine turns to the work of Moses Mendelssohn, Immanuel Kant and Hermann Cohen for answers, whose attempts to reconcile the basic structure of the monotheistic worldview with modern existence he considers far more promising than the plethora of secular philosophical and liberal theological alternatives he has encountered thus far.
For Erlewine, Mendelssohn, Kant and Cohen are part of what he calls the “religion of reason trajectory,” but while Kant is the most well-known and influential of the three, Erlewine ultimately considers his status “marginal” within this trajectory. In Erlewine's project, Kant serves mostly as a transitional figure between the work of Mendelssohn and Cohen, whose separate but not dissimilar life experiences as disenfranchised minorities enabled them to create what Erlewine terms “more nuanced, socially acceptable, and even productive forms of religious intolerance” than those practiced by the European Christian majority.4 Erlewine rightly insists that the tendency to dismiss the work of Mendelssohn and Cohen as “mere apologetics” is unfair, and indicates their projects have been largely misunderstood. As Jews, Erlewine argues, Mendelssohn and Cohen were public intellectuals who refused to forfeit their particularity for the sake of the “Emancipation” promised by Enlightenment ideology, and this enriched their work in ways that their Christian contemporaries were largely unable to fully understood or appreciate. Moreover, he suggests that they could clearly see how the Enlightenment's understanding of itself as a-religious or 'secular' was at best problematic, since most secular thinkers “tacitly assumed the universalism of Christianity.”5 And yet even scholars of Jewish thought have largely relegated the work of Mendelssohn and Cohen to the annals of 'intellectual history,' and therefore continue to miss its enduring, immediate value.
It becomes clear that Erlewine has another goal in sight: to show how modern Jewish thought, at least as it culminated in the work of Mendelssohn and Cohen, is relevant beyond Judaism in that it “translates [the] dialectic between particularity and universality into an ethical monotheism grounded in responsibility for the Other.” Erlewine poses a convincing argument, especially when he juxtaposes the work of more recent, 'secular' thinkers like John Hick and Jürgen Habermas with the work of Mendelssohn, Kant and Cohen and, with good reason, finds it wanting. Erlewine passionately states that “we have much to learn from [thinkers like Mendelssohn and Cohen who come] out of the German-Jewish Enlightenment...[because] they offer alternative ways of thinking about monotheism that remain distinctively modern. Such pioneering efforts,” he insists, “cannot be ignored in this time of crisis, when monotheistic intolerance and violence are rampant.”6
Erlewine's analysis of the issues at hand in what has been most famously termed the opposition between 'Athens and Jerusalem' is both subtle and concise. For example, he is able to point to the value of Hick's hypothesis that “Yahweh and Shiva are not rival gods, but rather two different historical personae in terms of which ultimate divine Reality is present”7 while ultimately insisting that “such a position does great violence to the discursive structure shared by the elective monotheisms [since] the pluralist hypothesis eradicates the tense dynamic between universalism and particularity which is at the heart of [monotheism's] scriptural universalism” and its central themes of “revelation, election, history/historical mission, and eschaton...”8 In other words, most traditional or fundamentalist practitioners are likely to find Hick's theology unappealing and inauthentic, since it does away with the very things that make elective monotheism what it is.
On the other hand, argues Erlewine, philosophical approaches to the problem of intolerance, even when well-intended, also fall short because they indicate an insensitivity to and unawareness of religious concerns. Habermas' insistence, for example, that monotheisms “severely curtail their prior exclusivist claims and dramatically revise their attitudes toward the Other” fails to appreciate that “any sort of symmetrical relationship with the Other” would result in treating these religions as “monotheistic in name only, but whose content is something else.”9 And yet Erlewine does not dispute that monotheism must adapt to modernity's call for greater tolerance.
Erlewine carefully delineates competing definitions of what tolerance looks like for Hick and Habermas, as well. Their shared notion that true tolerance must involve inclusion of the Other as symmetrical in every way is, for Erlewine, in fact the most significant failure of their projects. And Erlewine's own decision that Cohen, rather than Mendelssohn or Kant developed the most authentic re-imagining of the monotheistic imperative of the ultimate universal homogeneity of religious and ethical practice also hinges on how we might develop a definition of tolerance that can be realistically shared by secularists and traditional monotheists alike. Kant falls short for Erlewine because, in the end, he privileges 'rational universalism' over 'scriptural universalism,' a move he insists is unfeasible for any traditional faithful monotheist. Too, Kant “treat[s] all religions (with the exception of Judaism, which is not recognized as a religion) as rooted in anthropomorphism and as a result prone to the errors of scriptural universalism.” 'Rationalizing' would mean “reconfiguring their structural moments upon a conception of universal reason...” and Kant “never really acknowledges non-theistic religions, much less what rationalizing them would entail.”10 Mendelssohn fairs better in Erlewine's analysis, precisely because Mendelssohn recognizes that scriptural universalism, election and revelation can be placed in the service of, but cannot ultimately be subjugated to, universal rationalism. This is the most salient of Mendelssohn's gifts to Erlewine's 'religion of reason trajectory,' even though “all of Mendelssohn's eternal truths...have been rendered questionable if not indefensible in light of subsequent philosophical developments.” In the final analysis, Erlewine declares Mendelssohn's “notion of the 'religion of reason'...too anachronistic to maintain useful function today.”11
One could argue—and many have--that Cohen's project, like Mendelssohn's, is also anachronistic. Erlewine addresses these concerns carefully, as well. He acknowledges that critics contend Cohen works too hard to harmonize German thought and Jewish thought, and in fact fails at this endeavor; that Cohen's neo-Kantian project has been successfully overthrown by phenomenology; that neo-Kantianism is a form of German Idealism whose “totalizing tendencies” have been debunked by modern philosophy; and finally that even Jewish thought has moved away from rationalism and toward existentialist theology, rendering Cohen's religion of reason a dinosaur. Erlewine insists that Cohen's thought remains distinct from, and indeed critical of, the forms of idealism and rationalism he is typically associated with, and that his “conception of monotheism provides for a more responsible foundation for contemporary Jewish thought, especially in regard to the concerns of our time...” As such, Erlewine claims, “it bears significance not only for Judaism but for Christianity, and perhaps for Islam as well, in that it offers powerful resources for mitigating the potential violence of monotheistic intolerance while nevertheless preserving the integrity of their discursive structures.”12
What makes Cohen so successful, according to Erlewine, is his embrace of the 'Socratic story,' which “holds that morality is a matter of discovery, of breaking with the past.”13 Morality, history, revelation and reason are for Cohen, indeed connected to the messianic, in that they are always in process, always 'becoming.' And most importantly for Erlewine, Cohen argues that monotheisms “can produce, or develop from within, a form of intolerance that is nevertheless ethical.” Thus, monotheistic intolerance is “permeated with ethical and rational significance,”14and opposites remain distinct from one another while entering into inescapable obligation for one another. Harmonization of the self and the Other takes place without Hegelian sublation or dissolution. Harmony is not even a destination for Cohen, but a process, a goal to be striven for. Erlewine is careful to point out that, for Cohen, religion serves, or should serve, to “open new insights that are closed to ethics, such as the correlation between God and the human being, and the correlation between human beings themselves, the I and Thou encounter, and the recognition of the suffering of the Other.”15Ethical teachings cannot, for Cohen, even be reached through reason alone, but must be taught by literary sources which document the history of community experience. More specifically, ethical behavior is best taught by the literary traditions of Judaism, the harbinger of universal humanity from within particular experience. But because the Jews are a “not yet” people, they, like the Others, are imperfect.16 Through such formulations, Erlewine insists that Cohen preserves the monotheistic notion of election without placing the Other in complete asymmetrical relation with the monotheistic self.
As for violence against the Other, supported openly in some Biblical texts, Cohen claims that the Jewish literary sources—including the Bible—soon “recognized this radical opposition...is inconsistent with the idea which secures ethics and generates the ideal of humanity...[if it is construed as] a call to violence against idolators, especially foreigners.”17 Jews must therefore oppose idolatry without violating ethics. In short, “the Jew can oppose the idolatry of the Other without effacing the Other's humanity, i.e., without herself falling victim to humanity.”18
Erlewine's faith in Cohen's system is evident, and his knowledge of Cohen's corpus and of the scholarship of Cohen scholars is clear . Yet while he is perhaps correct in his assertion that Cohen's system is not anachronistic, Erlewine fails to acknowledge that the intricacy of Cohen's system, coupled with its willingness to bring Enlightenment values into correlation with the sources of Judaism make it impossible for most religious practitioners—or secularists—to fully embrace. After all, it is at least in part, Cohen's encyclopedic knowledge of Jewish, Greek and German literary sources that makes his work so brilliant and so compelling in its scope and magnitude. And what does such knowledge, in the most practical sense, have to do with monotheistic practice and politics? Perhaps it is best to see Erlewine's project as a decisive move toward newer, more realistic expectations of what tolerance and pluralism, developed from within monotheistic traditions, might look like, or at least a move toward improved understanding of monotheistic values from within the academy and the secular world. Erlewine acknowledges that his work may or may not ring true for practitioners of Islam, and so this, too, needs addressing if we are to have any real sense of Cohen's embrace of 'non-violent intolerance' remaining as timely as Erlewine hopes it is.
1Erlewnine, p 3.
3Ibid., p 4.
4Ibid., p 5.
5Ibid., pp 4-5.
6Ibid., p 7.
7Ibid., p 20.
8Ibid., p 21.
9Ibid., p 25.
10Ibid., p 124.
11Ibid., p 79.
12Ibid., pp 133-134.
13Ibid., p 131.
14Ibid., pp 132-133.
15Ibid., p 138.
16Ibid., p 152.
17Ibid., p 154.
18Ibid., p 167.