Judaic scholar delivers the Gustafson Lecture


Religious philosopher and Judaic scholar Dr. Richard Cohen offered an “overarching conceptual frame” of monotheism as practiced by the world’s three major religions.

 Gustafson Lecture

Dr. Richard Cohen and Helen Gustafson (middle) are flanked by Dr. Thomas Leach, dean of the College of Arts and Science (right), and religion major Jimi Wilson.

Despite differences, Judaism, Christianity and Islam, all coexist with the same fundamental paradox or contradiction, Dr. Cohen said.

“A perfect god created an imperfect creation,” Dr. Cohen said. “The universe is at once perfect and imperfect – an irrational paradox.”

Dr. Cohen, author of six books and numerous scholarly publications, spoke at The University of North Carolina at Pembroke’s Robert K. Gustafson Memorial Lecture series on April 20. He is the Isaac Swift Distinguished Professor of Judaic Studies at UNC Charlotte.

“If the founding idea of monotheism is irrational, then religious people must be stupid, infantile, slavish, weak, fearful, or we don’t understand lightning,” Dr. Cohen said. “But god cannot make a rock so heavy he can’t lift it.”

“At the core of Judaism, Christianity and Islam is the expression of this paradox,” he said. “For Judaism, the Sabbath is the most bizarre of the commandments. We work all week to make a perfect world, and on one day we sit back and say it’s perfect.”

For Christians, Christ is the “walking paradox,” a being who is both god and man, Dr. Cohen said. For Islam the paradox is found in its declaration of faith that “god is god” and “Mohamed is the prophet.”

The shared fundamental paradox ties religions of the Western world together along with their moral underpinnings.

“At the core, I believe that all religions are the same,” Dr. Cohen said. “The purpose of religion is to strive for perfection, to love the loving god.”

Dr. Cohen said the fundamental danger is overstepping the charge by becoming god.

“All the world’s religions know everything about everything that is spiritually significant,” he said. “Theology is the real danger to religion.”

Although Dr. Cohen does not profess to be a scholar of Islam, he offered some observations about the state of the Muslim world today.

“Islam is going through a difficult time right now, the same as Jews suffered through in exile and Christians in Medieval times,” he said. “The lack of spiritual maturity results in tyranny.”

“During the election, (Democratic candidate) John Kerry said he was a man of faith, but that he did not wear it on his sleeve,” Dr. Cohen said. “This nation is a secular state founded on religious principles – it’s just that they are non-denominational.”

“What unites us is a government founded on spiritual principles, but when people wear religion on their sleeves, it divides us,” he said. “Religion is not a word in the Bible.”

The Gustafson Memorial Lecture Series was founded by Helen S. Gustafson to honor her late husband. Dr. Gustafson was a Presbyterian minister and professor of religion at UNCP. He was elected chair of the Faculty Senate, and in 1988, he was the recipient of UNCP’s Distinguished Professor Award.

For more information on the Robert K. Gustafson Memorial Lecture Series, please contact the University Honors College at 910.521.6841 or email honors@uncp.edu.