New times often require new language, and while I am not going to coin a term in this essay, I am going to suggest we retire one and replace it with another.
The term I wish to retire is “Judeo–Christian.” The term with which I want to replace it is “Abrahamic.”
I recently participated in an interfaith panel on community building. As I listened to several wise and well–meaning Christian speakers share their thoughts on the matter I cringed every time they used the word “Judeo–Christian” to refer to the values Jews and Christians share. First of all, the values they cited were no less Buddhist and humanist than Jewish or Christian, and, second, the term Judeo-Christian is insulting to Jews and Muslims alike.
It is insulting to Jews because it makes Judaism an appendage of Christianity, something many Christians believe it to be, and something no Jew would accept. Judaism is a religion in its own right. It doesn’t need to be completed by Christianity any more than Christianity needs to be completed by Islam. So, if for no other reason, let’s retire the term because it is insulting to Judaism. But there is another reason.
The other reason is that it is time (actually it is long passed time) that Jews and Christians recognize that there are three civilizations with roots in the Hebrew Bible: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. While there are clear differences among them, there are equally clear commonalities, and each traces its roots back to Abraham. By speaking of Judeo–Christian civilization we exclude Islam. By shifting to the term Abrahamic we widen the circle of inclusivity and speak more accurately. And, as we get more used to the term Abrahamic, I hope we will find ourselves encouraged to seek out basic knowledge about the three Abrahamic faiths and thereby find common ground on which to build true community.
But I want to urge caution when using the term as well, especially when it is used to define a set of values. Using the term “Abrahamic values” is not more helpful than Judeo–Christian values. For all his concern for hospitality and justice, Abraham also treated his consort and his sons in ways that would land him in prison today. And Judaism, Christianity, and Islam have and in some cases continue to countenance behavior that most thinking people would find reprehensible and immoral. So when it comes to “Abrahamic values” we must spell out what we mean, and when we do so we shall discover we are talking about a far more universal value set than the term Abrahamic allows.
Language matters. Let us take care to use words that are as accurate and as clear as possible. It is time to retire “Judeo–Christian,” adopt “Abrahamic,” and find a new term for values all humans share.