How Shall We Then Live? by Esther Nelson

esther-nelsonPresident Obama, responding to the beheading of American journalist, James Foley, by ISIL (Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant), said, “ISIL speaks for no religion…and no faith teaches people to massacre innocents….ISIL is not Islamic” (August 20, 2014). I don’t believe President Obama realizes the tangled thicket he’s entered with those words.

We don’t like to think of our faith traditions as places that harbor theologies or ideologies that promote death and destruction. We’d rather think along the lines of what Huston Smith (b. 1919), a philosopher and religious scholar, asserts: “If we take the world’s enduring religions at their best, we discover the distilled wisdom of the human race.” So words that reflect “religions at their best”–love, justice, mercy, compassion, peace, fairness, kindness, truthfulness, and charity are what come to the minds of most people when thinking about how faith traditions should manifest themselves in the world.

This proclivity to think of religion as weighted on the side of “best” is most noticeable when faith traditions express themselves dualistically–good/bad, right/wrong, sacred/profane, pure/impure, etc. Those things labeled “bad” most often get ascribed to an anti-god or Satan. Monotheistic religions (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam) have a more dualistic bent than do Goddess traditions, Hinduism, and Buddhism.

In addition, when we understand our sacred writings to be “revealed,” meaning information has been given to humanity by a divine source–information that could not be known other than through revelation–we become more prone to dualistic thinking. The “Revealer of Truth” (God) brings light to a wayward humanity. God (a symbol that often gets reified) easily fills the role of being and defining all that is “good” although “good” is a relative term. Kill a journalist? Bomb an abortion clinic? Start a war? Feed the hungry? Educate children? Eradicate Ebola? Humans have engaged in all these activities in the name of God. Each activity has been defined as “good.”

When prophets in the Torah, Old Testament, and Qur’an annihilate “unbelievers” (those in the out group) in God’s name, what does that tell us about their understanding of God? Mayhem and murder abound in sacred texts. Are we to pattern our lives on Scripture? Some of it? All of it? Should we kill those in the out group? Some would say so. Scripture shows us a wide range of human experience in relationship to the sacred. It isn’t always life-affirming. Yet, most people (including President Obama) believe that “no faith teaches people to massacre innocents.”

We so easily toss around beautiful words such as mercy, love, justice, and compassion–words we ascribe to a reified God (often to “our” God alone)–but we are never in agreement as to how to “live out” what those words mean when applied in concrete situations. Let’s look at “justice.” It was considered “just” for Americans (pre-Civil War) to own slaves. Preachers gave Scriptural “proof,” insisting that slavery, as an institution, was ordained by God and since God also gave instruction (or revelation) on how slaves should behave and be treated, slavery was thought of as a “just” institution. Human thinking about slavery gradually changed. Today, most people are appalled at the idea of owning other humans. Why? It’s not “just.” But didn’t God reveal “truth”–slavery as a “just” institution? Did God change? Certainly our thinking about how to “live out” the concept of justice changed as culture moved forward. When we move away from former understandings that have been embedded in religious tradition, we often make new assertions as to what God meant in the first place. Are we God?

What is ISIL thinking–creating mayhem and murdering in the name of God? I cannot speak for the organization, but I can speculate. I think destructive behavior happens most often when people think dualistically. God, to many, embodies all that is “right” and “good.” When things are not “right” (and to dualistic thinkers, categories of “right” and “wrong” are quite clear), it’s up to those who are on “God’s side” (their particular understanding of their religion/politics) to make things “right.” Violence easily becomes a necessary act in order to correct what is “wrong” and establish justice. Kill a doctor who performs abortions? Yes, look at all those embryonic “lives” that will be saved. Behead a journalist? Yes, look at all the “lies” that will not be published.

Killing in the name of God is not a new phenomenon. We easily accept actions “in the name of God” that propel people to care for the sick (Mother Teresa) and educate people (Malala Yousafzai, who recently was awarded the 2014 Nobel Peace Prize), yet we recoil, often refusing to believe that people/groups kill in the name of God; people like Andrea Yates and ISIL. (Andrea Yates drowned her five children in a bathtub in 2001, thinking that if they died before “the age of accountability,” heaven was assured.)

 Nancy Vedder-Shults’ FAR blog reminded us of the Hindu goddess Kali who “exemplifies the fact that life often creates through destroying…Kali gives birth to us; we are sustained by eating her other children; and finally we are eaten in turn. Life feeds on life. Life is a sacrifice to life….Kali personifies the unity of life and death.” Does it make a difference to us when death occurs as a result of the “natural cycle of life” (including natural disasters) as opposed to “cold-blooded” murder? Yes, it seems so. We hold human beings responsible for murder–at least, what we define to be murder–sometimes, depending….

These days, I often think about what we do here and now in the name of God that our progeny may respond to with disbelief. Killing sentient beings for food? Breeding dogs/cats for certain characteristics while other dogs/cats get “put down” in animal shelters? Keeping people artificially alive at the end of their “natural” lives at great cost to society as well as personal dignity? Leeching the earth?

I have a negative visceral response to violence–war, eating animals, capital punishment, deforestation, spanking children, and “fallout” from structured inequality. Yet, I live and even thrive because of violence. Hosts of grubs and insects, for example, were destroyed (as well as vegetation) when my house was built–a project undertaken intentionally–allowing me to live in that space formerly occupied by living things.

How shall we then live?


Esther Nelson is an adjunct professor at Virginia Commonwealth University, Richmond, Va.  She has taught courses on Human Spirituality, Global Ethics, Christian-Muslim Relations, and Religions of the World, but focuses on her favorite course, Women in Islam.  She is the co-author (with Nasr Abu Zaid) of VOICE OF AN EXILE  REFLECTIONS ON ISLAM and the co-author (with Kristen Swenson) of WHAT IS RELIGIOUS STUDIES? A JOURNEY OF INQUIRY.

Author: Esther Nelson

Esther Nelson teaches courses in Religious Studies (Human Spirituality, Global Ethics, Religions of the World, and Women in Islam) at Virginia Commonwealth University, Richmond, Virginia. She has published two books. VOICE OF AN EXILE REFLECTIONS ON ISLAM was written in close collaboration with Nasr Abu Zaid, an Egyptian, Islamic Studies scholar who fled Egypt (1995) when he was labeled an apostate by the Cairo court of appeals. She co-authored WHAT IS RELIGIOUS STUDIES? A JOURNEY OF INQUIRY with Kristin Swenson, a former colleague. When not teaching, Esther travels to various places throughout the world.

32 thoughts on “How Shall We Then Live? by Esther Nelson”

  1. There is a flow to history and culture. This flow is rooted and has its wellspring in the thoughts of people. People are unique in the inner life of the mind-what they are in their thought world determines how they act. This is true of their value systems and it is true of their creativity. It is true of their corporate actions, such as political decisions, and it is true of their personal lives. The results of their thought world flow through their fingers or from their tongues into the external world. This is true of Michelangelo’s chisel, and it is true of a dictator’s sword.

    Success in life depends upon choosing good (=God) over evil. To make this choice we must read God’s signs correctly. But only God can show his plan, and so we need to rely on God—authority—to properly direct our choices


    1. Thank you for your comment, mihrank. I’m not sure (especially in the light of history) that we (humans) can be certain that we ever read God’s signs (however we think of God’s signs) “correctly” or in a way that that brings lasting light, love, and peace to the world.


  2. mihrank, you write “…but only God can show his plan…” who decides what is God’s plan, who claims to know what God has shown?
    Esther, thanks for this thought-provoking post.


    1. Thank you, Majak. Interestingly enough, Nasr Abu Zaid (just before his death) and I were working together on a project about the Qur’an–who wrote the Qur’an? Nasr believed the Qur’an has a human dimension (how could we ever understand it at all if it did not?) and it was this exploration of the human dimension of the Qur’an that was leading him in the direction of thinking as human beings as “co-creators” of the Qur’an. Of course, there are lots of nuances. So, your question is a great question: “who decides what is God’s plan, who claims to know what God has shown?”


      1. For some reason I cannot start an independent reply, but wanted to say how much I appreciate the human element, what the human being brings, the vast and deep human responsibility to interpret well.


  3. Esther thank you so much for reminding us that many bad things have been done in the name of religions.

    The New Testament may be somewhat less prone to suggesting violence in the name of religion than the Torah, the Old Testament, or the Koran, but let us not let Christianity off the hook so easily. Apocalyptic visions of God destroying his enemies are found in the New Testament, and let us not forget that burnings, pogroms, the Crusades, the taking of land from the Indians, the war against IS, and many other violent acts have been justified in the name of the Christian God–in Catholicism, Protestantism, and in Orthodoxy.

    Obama is right to say that IS does not represent all of Islam, but he is frankly wrong to say that Islam has never justified violence. He would be just as wrong if he made that claim for Christianity or Judaism and any other religion that has gotten involved with “the state.” As a husband to a wife whose relatives were enslaved and with two daughters he should know better! Has he not even had time to glance at Jimmy Carter’s recent book??? If not, why not???

    I hope what we are beginning to see on this blog group is that there is no “core tradition” or “essence” of any religion that is all-good. Appeals to traditions for moral guidance may be made, but only when we recognize that we in the present moment are “choosing” which strands of traditions we wish to affirm and which we wish to relegate to a past in which great harm has been done in the name of those very traditions.

    PS This applies to Goddess traditions as well. A quick look at PaganSquare will reveal that many Neopagans are worshipping Zeus, Odin, and other warrior “pagan” Gods.


    1. Carol, interesting your image here regarding the many strands of traditions we carefully sort through, including Paganism — it reminds me of a Greek fragment by Sappho (possibly in reference to Aphrodite?) where she says:

      “Even her feet were covered by intricately-colored straps — beautiful Lydian work.”


    2. Yes, thanks Carol. Thinking that there is an “essence” of religion that is “all-good” is to misunderstand what religion is and how it functions in the world, I believe. Am reminded of your recent post about certain feminists asserting that other feminists are “essentialist” and your belief that there are no “essential differences” between women and men or between males and females.” Since according to the definition of essentialism, “essence precedes existence,” having a concretized understanding of religion and human beings (male and female) does not allow for transformation as people struggle and wrestle with just what does it mean to be human. (BTW, I used your “Essentialism Reconsidered” blog in my class the other day–am appreciative of the many contributors here on FAR that enrich our understanding of feminism and religion.)


  4. It would be helpful on innumerable levels if humanity could let go of organized religion and deepen spirituality. Why are we the only creatures who require a religion? Because we are the only creatures who think ourselves superior to nature and have thereby completely lost our way.


      1. Esther, there is a difference between what I mentioned as “organized religion” vs. spirituality, in terms of the heirarchical power-over of religious authorities, vs. the freedom to intuitively follow one’s own spiritual path without external rules, or preset venues for worship.


  5. Not sure that I can agree with your statement about the essence of religion.

    There are two fundamental Revelations which are “all-good”: 1) the Vision of the “Son of man”/the “Night Journey” and the “sidrah tree” in the Quran/the “Tree of Life” in Genesis 3); and, 2) the Revelation of “the resurrection”; while, on the other hand, religion functions as the denial, distortion and contradiction of these two fundamental Revelations and the Knowledge they convey. In other words, religion and Revelation are not only not the same; they are OPPOSITES of each other. Thus, the resolution of the problem of violence can be accomplished only by returning to the fundamental Revelations being ignored, denied and contradicted by the monotheistic religious ‘authorities’.



    1. Thanks for writing, Michael. For me, there are real problems in your statement, “…the resolution of the problem of violence can be accomplished only by returning to the fundamental Revelations….” Absolute words such as “only” are problematic for me in this context. No doubt there were people pre-Civil war (as I noted in my essay) that believed the “only” way to live decently on this earth is to enslave fellow human beings because God revealed the “truth” of slavery as an institution. There’s also the problem of “Revelation” itself. Can we (humans) ever know the Divine mind (if there is such a thing)? Some would say so, however, how those Revelations get played out in the “rough and tumble” of living life are many and varied.


      1. OK. Forget the word “Revelation”, if that is offensive to you; and replace it with the word “reality”. And what is the reality? That people live more than one life; that some people have memories of their previous lives; and that people are not always born with the same sex, race, nationality, religion, or economic class. It is irrelevant if that is called “reincarnation” (Hinduism), ‘Rebirth’ (Buddhism) or “resurrection” (as in the Revelations but not the theologies of monotheism). Understanding this fundamental reality is crucial to resolving the problem of violence toward other religions, nationalities, races, or the other sex. I am merely noting the correspondence between this fundamental reality and a specific Revelation.



  6. Dear Esther, I really enjoyed this particular post and I wish YOU would get on some of these talk shows so people would be more thoughtful and learn something instead of shouting at each other and getting more entrenched in their own opinions. But I guess that wouldn’t get the ratings. Sigh.

    I have also started to hear the term “digital” thinking in lieu of “dualistic”- but I think it is the same concept: actions are black or white/ on or off. There is no room for the ‘gray zones’. Perhaps digital/dualistic thinking is the brain’s way of taking a ‘shortcut’ and not having to ponder all those subtle variations of grayness.

    As for your question: How shall we then live? There doesn’t seem to be a shortage of revealed or cognitively deduced instruction manuals, but I’m not sure which ones apply to me. I’m currently undertaking a comparative studies program to assess commonalities which are compatible with my conscience.


    1. Thanks, nmr. I think it’s refreshing when we realize there are no “final” answers. One of my favorite lines in THINGS FALL APART, Chinua Achebe’s famous novel, comes from the character, Obierika–one of the elders of the same tribe Okonkwo (main character) belonged to. Obierika was disturbed with the “tradition” in the tribe that threw away twin children when they were born into the Evil Forest. The text notes that Obierika thought and thought about things, but he was led to no answers–only greater complexities. I think it’s great that you’re searching and studying about these “complexities.”


  7. I do believe we blame “god” or “the devil” for our own stupidity, greed and selfishness. And if we take religion out of the equation, we still have the root problem, ourselves. I don’t believe that religion is the only incentive to live more compassionately, etc, but it is one place that can support living with peace and cooperation.

    When I think of ISIS and the turmoil in the Middle East, I don’t see religion at fault. I think how I would respond if some foreign Country invaded my homeland, destroyed my cultural institutions, occupied and controlled the region, and sent drones overhead dropping bombs that killed my family, innocent children, food supplies, infrastructure, etc. Then offered me money to compensate for the death of loved ones who are considered “collateral damage”. I think I would take up arms too, tho I’m not completely sure that would be my response at this time of my life. And I could justify it as an “act of justice blessed by god”. Maybe. Jesus threw a spanner into the gears of retaliation with his teaching about loving enemies and those who hurt us, and stopping violence by our own non- retaliation.

    Too often we treat Sacred Writings as written in stone and use it as an “instruction manual” – parking our brains and engaging our prejudices. If Sacred Scriptures are to have any meaning, they must be living documents, with an evolution of understanding of what it means to be human, and in relationship with the Great Mystery that births and sustains creation.

    Thank you for the, as always, thought provoking post and comments.


    1. Yes, thanks, Barbara. Loved this sentence: “If Sacred Scriptures are to have any meaning, they must be living documents, with an evolution of understanding of what it means to be human, and in relationship with the Great Mystery that births and sustains creation.”


  8. Excellent, thoughtful blog. If we want to follow one of the standard-brand religions, we might consider the traditional Jewish emphasis upon learning. It seems to me that if Christians lived by the Sermon on the Mount, the world might be a kinder place. But yes, dualism means perhaps half of what happens is caused by a devil or someone we hate. It’s hard to say how we shall live, but we might consider neighbor and nurture over fight and flight.


  9. Terrific conversation. Thank you, Esther, for these reflections. I’m intrigued by Meg’s comment above – why religion and not spirituality. It makes me think of a research project on science and religion at BU. It studies why people are differently inclined regarding religion – be it environmental, social, or biological factors. One can take a survey to see where one falls on the spectrum (, measuring around beliefs, practices, and morality questions. I’m fascinated by this study because I have always wondered whether we, humans, are somehow wired differently and therefore hold or are drawn to religion and spirituality differently too. For example, Michael’s comment above about there being two fundamental revelations is not something I align with – it raises red flags in my mind. Though for him this is a positive and necessary thing. Why is it that some of us are not as inclined toward such clear dualistic thinking and others die by it? For me, any answer to this must necessarily be complex…which is why this study fascinates me.


    1. Thanks for this, Xochitl. We (humans) come in such varieties. There is no “one size fits all.” But I certainly share your enthusiasm for going beyond simplistic frameworks to understand ourselves in relation to all that is in the world–and beyond.


    2. I think there are surely environmental factors that contribute to dualistic vs. holistic (is that the opposite?) thinking- just like you might want a dimmer switch for your dining room but not for your outside security lights.
      With humans we must also factor in class and privilege. Would we eat so much meat if it weren’t associated with wealth and/or male hunting prowess? Kwame Appiah (in his book “The Honor Code; how moral revolutions happen”) asserts that with the rise of an industrial labor, working people felt slavery competed with and devalued their bluecollar skills. As the working class gained more political clout, there was more pressure to outlaw slavery.


  10. “We so easily toss around beautiful words such as mercy, love, justice and compassion”. Those who lead religions are the ones who get to speak those words most frequently and with authority, and are generally judged ‘good’ because they are in that position and get to speak those words whenever they like. But is the route to religious power and leadership qualitatively different to any other route to power? The words ‘whited sepulchre’ spring to mind!
    One of the big problems with religion.


  11. Yes, briemma, right…religion can be (often is) used to wield power and dominate those with less access to the resources (all kinds of resources) of any culture. Thanks for writing.


  12. Thanks, Esther, for this provocative, i.e. thought-provoking, post. I’ve been out of town, so missed it when it went up on the Web. You ask extremely important questions for us and our religions. And I believe you hit the nail on the head when it comes to the central problem: dualism and its extension, ingroup vs. outgroup thinking.

    When you speak of revelation, it seems to be from within some tradition (academic or religious, I can’t tell), because you define it in dualistic terms: God (=good) tells wayward humanity (=bad) how to live. I see revelation differently. I believe I receive revelations — usually from the natural world, but sometimes in dreams or visions — but I don’t assume that they refer to people other than myself. They’re useful for me and sometimes for other people, but I certainly wouldn’t consider imposing them on others. It seems to me that revelation is not the problem, but how it is understood and used.

    It’s also interesting to me how you quoted my blog on Kali. For me, Kali fascinates exactly because She embodies the entirety of birth, life, death, and rebirth, thereby going beyond the dualisms so endemic in our culture. As you’ll read in a little over a week in the third installment of my post on Kali, “sex perpetuates life, which must subsequently decay and die in order to feed the life that is yet to come. This is the way of organic life. We must feed on the corpses of other animals and plants if we are to live. Sex leads to life, which leads to death, which leads once more to life again.” I find Kali liberating, because She’s in-my-face about the organic intertwining of life and death in all living creatures, including us humans. Glimpsing what She has to teach me, I’m spurred on to enjoy life moment by moment.


    1. Nancy, Thanks for your reply. I do speak about “revelation” in terms of the Abrahamic traditions because those seem to be the revelations that seem to be most problematic. If God (somehow this symbol is imbued with omnipotence and omniscience in many of our understandings) reveals something (usually through a prophet), it’s taken as absolute truth. Of course, that “absolute truth” can only be understood through interpretation, but somebody’s (or a group’s) interpretation often becomes fixed, not provisional.

      Yes, it also seems inevitable that one needs to feed on life in order to live, yet, somehow, I believe a new consciousness is emerging within humanity–one that understands animals other than humans as possessing autonomy and agency. Especially when one considers agri-business and the horrendous way animals are led to slaughter, tortured, and butchered. Where’s our compassion? Even decency? Perhaps this is fodder for another blog.

      I look forward to Part 3 of Kali. I’m having my class read Part 1 and Part 2 this week as we consider the goddess Kali. What meanings does she convey? I like the way she unifies our understanding of life, death, and rebirth.

      Thanks again. Esther


      1. Sorry; but the Abrahamic Revelations are “problematic”?

        I seriously doubt that anyone has even told you what those Revelations are.

        Did anyone ever tell you that the Revelation of “the resurrection” is comprised of the Revelation of the Memory of Creation, the Revelation of the Memory of ‘the Fall’ into the dualistic consciousness of the “self” and the ‘thinker’, and the revelation of the memories of previous lives?

        (And the same goes for the “Tree of Life” being the same as the Vision of the “Son of man” and the “Night Journey” of Mohammed.)

        Unlikely, given the Prophecy in Chapter 12, verse 9 of the Book of Daniel.

        The real ‘problem’ with the Abrahamic Revelations is that the Jewish, Christian and Muslim religious ‘authorities’ have NO Knowledge of them; and have substituted for those Revelations the doctrines of men.



  13. Hi Esther
    Thank you so much for your wonderful article I found it fascinating and deeply insightful. I agree that people seem to have forgotten how to take responsibility for their own lives. God is banded around far too easily for anyone to feel comfortable these days. As a Buddhist I do not personally believe in God as a creator however I do believe in compassion love ethics and right action, all of these things I can and do live out in the absence of God’s presence.
    Please don’t misunderstand me, I have the utmost respect for people who believe in God however there are too many wars being fought in the name of God which ever God that may be.
    As a president I have to say I do not have very much respect for Mr Obama however I do find myself agreeing with him in relation to ISL not representing Islam which is in effect a peaceful religion. After saying this, there are a group of monks in Burma who are going around killing people and as a Buddhist I will quite openly say that they do not represent Buddhism.
    To be happy and contented human beings, we must learn to think for ourselves and to realise that we are in charge of our own lives. Do we really need God to tell us that it’s wrong to kill? Maybe we do! Maybe this is what the world has become I certainly hope not.
    Thank you so much for your wonderful article I really enjoyed reading it and I certainly look forward to more of your work Best wishes Julie


    1. Thanks so much! Yes, your sentence, “there are too many wars being fought in the name of God which ever God that may be,” says much. God (as a symbol) can be whatever we (humans) say God is! Often we go against decency and common sense as we do things in the name of God. Appreciate your reply.


  14. Thoughtful as always! You have a way of complicating the world–or rather, revealing complexities that are otherwise easy to ignore.


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