Skip to Content

The Light of the World

from the “Sermons and Services” collection

Baptism of the Lord

Isaiah 43:1-7
Acts 8:14-17
Luke 3:15-17, 21-22

January 7, 2006
Marsh Chapel
Boston University

Against the backdrop of violence in our world caused by religion, the hope that Christians see in the coming of Jesus Christ is ever more desperate. Only ten years ago religious violence was limited to Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland, Hindus and Muslims in India, Buddhists and Hindus in Sri Lanka, Confucians, Christians and Muslims in Indonesia, and Jews and Muslims in the Middle East. Although all these conflicts still smolder, a far more devastating level of violence has arisen between Christians and Muslims in Dafur and even worse in Iraq. Muslim factionalism is already at the point of civil war in Iraq and threatens to initiate a generation of religious war for the entire Middle East, Muslim against Muslim, and both against Jew. Isn’t this religious violence ironic in light of the deep commitment of these religions to peace and universal justice, each of them—Buddhism, Christianity, Confucianism, Hinduism, Islam, and Judaism, to list them alphabetically?

But wait. Are not these rather ethnic conflicts than religious ones? Religious differences exist among the ethnic groups, yet cultural and economic factors and claims to historical privilege are also important. Is not ethnicity as a blend of race and historical traditions the concrete reality in these conflicts? Here is another irony: both points are true—the warfare is ethnic and religious--when we see that exclusivistic ethnicity itself is a more primitive gripping form of religion than the named religions practiced by the conflicting groups. In response to this dreadful fact of exclusivist ethnic religion we Christians proclaim Jesus Christ as the Light of the World. Let me explain.

Evolutionary psychologists such as Jonathan Haidt have begun to map how our basic religious and moral sensibilities were part of the early biological evolution of humanity. Those clans and tribes who had these sensibilities survived and passed on their genes better than those that lacked them. I’ve mentioned these adaptive sensibilities before from this pulpit. They are: First, the cultivation of nurture and care within the group; Second, the practice of reciprocity, justice and fairness within the group; Third, the elaboration of clear distinctions between the in-group and all the out-groups, marked by special social habits, dress, food preferences, sexual practices, and religion; Fourth, the elaboration of hierarchical authority within the in-group, with clear marks of honor and respect; And fifth, the internalizing of all these moral or religious traits so that those who lack them are seen as impure and disgusting. You can understand why these traits would be adaptive in primitive conditions where every clan or tribe was in competition if not at war with its neighbors across the valley and over the hill: they strengthened each group internally and clearly distinguished in-group friends from all the others who are potential if not actual foes.

The long evolved forms of this biologically rewarded primitive religion are the current ethnic groups that define themselves over against the others. Their official religions are part of their self-defining characteristics, like tattoos, perhaps, or dietary restrictions. These groups understand their own structure to be based on honor-driven hierarchies of authority, so that the honor of all members depends of the defense of the group’s own culture, distinguished from that of other groups. The distinguishing marks of one’s in-group, and of the out-groups, are not mere observations but internalized matters of good and evil, purity and impurity. These religious or moral impulses are part of our breeding, in our human sensibilities if not literally in our genes.

About five hundred years before the Common Era, however, a great revolution swept over the Eurasian continent, which Karl Jaspers named the Axial Age. During this period and its aftermath, all the great religions I alphabetized earlier arose on top of the local religions. All emphasized love as care and nurture, but said the ideal is to love everyone, not only those in one’s in-group. All emphasized justice, as in the Golden Rule, but said it is for everyone, not only those in one’s in-group. All said that in-group exclusiveness is dangerous, even when there is practical use for it sometimes. All said that the real authority relation is between each individual and God, or the Dao, or Brahman, the universal ultimate principles. All recognized that internalized visceral disgust reactions are conventional: what is disgusting for one group is delightful for its neighbor—in fact that was the way they used to tell each other apart. With the Axial Age, cultural evolution based on learning, rather than biological evolution based on competitive success for one’s genes, began to shape the history of religions. This was on top of what had already been laid down by biology. What we learned, through cultures of relatively impartial truth-seeking, is that all people are equal before God, that all deserve love and justice, and that in-group exclusivism is contrary to the moral conditions of the Creator of the whole cosmos, including all people.

The problem is that the cultural evolution of the Axial Age religions is often in conflict with the biologically conditioned religion of ethnic exclusivism. Our text from Second Isaiah came from the cusp of the Axial Age. Just before this passage Isaiah had proclaimed God to be creator of the whole world and God of all peoples. This Axial Age position was radically different from the suppositions of earlier Israelite religion that each nation has its god and that the distinction of Israel from the Gentiles is of utmost importance. Remember the concerns of earlier book of Leviticus, for instance, to distinguish Israel from its neighbors by food, dress, and sex. Our text from Isaiah says that God will rescue Israel—a pre-Axial Age theme--but not for its own sake, rather for the purpose of bringing righteousness to all nations so that all might glory in the One God. A half-millennium later Christianity built upon Isaiah’s Axial Age theme to proclaim that through Jesus Christ, God’s promises to Israel have been extended to all nations. Ironically, we see in our own time how Christianity, a religion of universal peace and justice, can be turned into an exclusivistic ethnic marker for American patriotism.

Instead of the competitive in-group religion of biological evolution, the Light of the World calls us to shape our religion by what we can learn of the truth. The truth is that there are no competing gods for competing clans, but one Creator for the entire cosmos and for all people equally. The truth is that we should not restrict our love to our own exclusive people for the sake of competitive advantage, but that we should extend our love to all people, no matter how different they are from us, even in enmity, for the sake of honoring all the creatures of the common Creator. The truth is that we should pursue justice not within our own community alone to give it strength against its enemies, but that we should seek the justice of all people so that none need to be enemies. The truth is that we should enjoy cultural differences without ever treating anyone as outside our true group identity which embraces all the children of God. The truth is that no culture’s hierarchy of authority and honor should stand in the way of recognizing that God has authority over every relative culture. The truth is that nothing in God’s creation or in human cultures is impure, save for what restricts privilege, wealth, justice, or affection to oneself and one’s in-group, a restriction that is the source of most if not all evil.

As the Light of the World, Jesus Christ calls us to worship in a spirit and truth that transcends the conflicts between the tribes in Jerusalem and on Samaria’s mountain. As Light of the World, Jesus Christ calls us away from the religion of competitive natural selection, even when that claims to be Christian, to the religion that learns from the truth. As Light of the World, Jesus Christ gives us grace, faith, courage, humility, and spiritual power, to overcome the primitive, selfish, exclusive religion of our mere genes with a religious life loving both the One God of All and the plenitude of our neighbors, all creatures of our Beloved.

The religious wars of our time are indeed ethnic wars, in diverse complicated senses of tribal competitive ethnicity. For that very reason they are also religious wars, wars of very bad religion, which we know after we have learned the truth of the Axial Age. The Light of the World calls us to give up that bad religion. Every one of the Axial Age religions contains a similar call. Nevertheless, the Axial Age revolution is not complete. Again and again it loses out to the tribalism that turns each of the religions of peace, love, and justice into tribal badges or tattoos that mark off in hostility one in-group from another. We have so much work to do, don’t we.

So I invite you to this table of Jesus Christ through whom we host all the world to come into the presence of God in order to be loved. Come to this table of the Light of the World through whom we host God as divine love to heal the world’s sins of exclusion and hate. If you bear the cross of some pain, come, for you will be fed with love. If you suffer from some injustice, come, for you will be fed with strength. If you suffer from committing some injustice, come, for you will be fed with forgiveness. If you are burdened with hate or fear of people different from yourself, come, for you will be fed with friendship. If you are conflicted with loyalties to parochial authorities, come, for you will be fed with common humility. If you are tortured by some irrational disgust at the ways of others, come, for you will see Peter’s vision that all things are clean. On this table are the symbols through which we rise to new life, illumined by the Light of the World. Come.


end of content