Yesterday I spent the evening with Muslims as they had their daily break in the Ramadan Fast. It did much to reinforce my belief that Islam is perhaps the best of all civilizations. I do not have any pretensions that Islam is a community of perfect people. But it is an unusual thing in this world of faction and division to see a brotherhood and sisterhood that in a concrete manner forges bonds of unity between such disparate people, bonds which have their power in that very humane and reasonable confession that there is only one God.
But during my visit to the Mosque, I could not help but fear that I was causing these people to stumble in the truth. When I visit the Mosque I am not merely seeking to inform myself about the beliefs of Muslims (a noble goal). It is more than that for me. I am attracted to the Muslim religion as a community of truth, peace, and goodness, to a place where enemies are reconciled and where the highest forms of virtue and thought can be cultivated. For such reasons I am open to the possibility of believing their message. Yet this openness leads me to the injury of my own conscience, in the sense that I very much still fell a deep loyalty for Jesus as he is understood in historic Christian creeds. And because I still have such a loyalty, I am a conflicted person, one who wants on the one hand to explore Islam with sincerity, but who on the other hand fears that he is betraying his Lord.
If Jesus is the Lord, if he shares in the identity of the one true God, then all human beings need to be healed from sin and corruption by the medicine of his life, death, and resurrection. One very pious Muslim man was speaking with me about Jesus, and he asked me if Jesus ever said: “I am God’ or “worship me.” This is a common objection among Muslims to the Christian confession that Jesus is God. I said, “well, perhaps not explicitly, but he said some things that implied he was god.” Then the gentlemen responded in a way that was actually quite reasonable: “God is clear about who he is. Think of what he said to Moses.” To me this was a very sensible reply, and I told him as much.
According to my own thought patterns, it would be more sensible for Jesus to be explicit about his identity, especially given that the question of God is so perplexing and puzzling. But perhaps Jesus had reasons to reveal his identity in the way he did, perhaps because the Jewish world into which he preached needed to slowly be led into such a deep truth – the truth of the Logos made flesh.
But despite all of these things I cannot help but think that Jesus is not who the Muslims believe he is, sensible as their descriptions of him are. When I turn back to the question of the historical Jesus, I am filled with so many confusing questions about his life and message, but there is an aspect to the identity of Jesus that seems to cut through all of this puzzlement: the Lordship of Jesus. Scholars debate what the word Lord means in the gospels and upon the lips of the early disciples of Jesus. But the behavior of the disciples reveals that they too felt overwhelmed and accountable before authority of Jesus. Even when we look at the great respect and obedience that the early Muslims had with reference to Muhammad, something different seems to characterize the relationship of the disciples to Jesus.
For me, there are so many puzzles about theology. How is the Trinity compatible with Monotheism? Why is it that Christian political theology seems to open the door for ethnic factionalism among different Christian groups? Why is there little expectation of a divine messiah in ancient Judaism? I do not know the answers to these questions. But hidden beneath all my confusion and doubt, beyond my rebellion and pride, is the kernel of knowledge that I am accountable to this man Jesus, accountable in a way that surpasses and transcends the type of accountability that is due to a mere human being.
The primordial experience of his Lordship convinces both my reasons and my emotions that I am in the presence of ultimate authority. And this primordial experience gives rise to the necessary task of theology and contemplation – a process of confusion and doubt, of wonder and mystery, of philosophy and syllogisms, and of course a process of prayer and repentance.
I have heard reports (which need to be verified) that ISIS is persecuting the Christian minority of Mosul, and that a local church was acquisitioned by force, after which the crosses were smashed. To me this sends a sense of horror into my soul. What is it that causes me to be so horrified by this?
When I search my soul I find that no matter how much I love Islam, and no matter how much I am assured that ISIS does not in any sense represent the beautiful Islam that draws me to consider conversion, I still think that I have a reverence for the cross of Christ, a deep fear that the Muslim denial of the cross is probably mistaken, and a sense that the Christians who face persecution do truly belong to the Lord Jesus.
But is there something about witnessing persecution that can change our disposition toward a religion? A few years ago a U.S. solder killed some Muslims for fun in Iraq, and when I witnessed the pain of the Muslim community (on the television) it caused me to contemplate anew the truth of Islam. Perhaps the same thing could be the case when one sees the pictures of the persecuted Jews during the Holocaust.
I think that there is something deeper in my horror of the smashed crosses in Mosul. This event (whether true or not) represents the convergence of both an unfortunate desecration of the most holy event in human history, as well as the pain of the people of Christ who are suffering under that persecution. The smashed cross stands before me as a witness of some sort, a witness not just to all of those things I just mentioned, but also to my own sin and guilt.
Heidegger asks a very good question in his essay “What is Metaphysics?” He poses the question about the nature of nothing. The atheistic scientist believes that all that exists is the universe or the multiverse. Beside that nothing exists. But what is the relationship between the universe and nothing? (Note: this question is not about “nothing” defined as empty space with electromagnetic radiation, or even empty space, but no-thing.) I take it that atheism is a very powerful intellectual option. And if atheism is true, then imagine how strange it is that the universe exists out of nothing, that it is suspended over nothingness, that it comes into presence from nothing. Positing the multiverse only pushes this phenomenon one more step from the same conclusion. For then the multiverse would be birthed from the womb of nothing, or (if it is eternal) at least sustained in the cradle of nothing, what Heidegger calls “the groundless ground.”(109)
Heidegger thinks that human beings (i.e. Dasein) have our being in relationship to this nothing, and only when we realize that we are held up by nothing can “the total strangeness of beings overwhelm us.”(109) I am not sure whether Heidegger thinks that human beings are in some way the ground of nothing, or whether we are grounded by nothing (or perhaps a bit of both). But it seems that the strangeness of beings is intimately related to the question of why is there something rather than nothing: why is it that beings are coming into presence before me instead of nothing at all: why is the universe not simply collapsing back into nothingness – by which I do not mean to ask why the so-called laws of physics keep the universe expanding and why we do not crunch back immediately into the singularity. I am speaking about the nothingness that grounds the laws of physics. The fact that there are beings rather than just nothing is indeed strange, especially considering that the beings are and even being itself is suspended in nothing.
But notice that the strangeness does not disappear if we are theists. The fact that there are beings does not lose its strangeness when we posit a God. That is just as strange. Why is there a god rather than no-god? That is a very strange question. Does he stand in awe of himself? The Christian portrait of God is one of self-love, whereby the Son and Father share the love-gift of the Spirit. This is not conceived of by Christians as a polytheistic type of love between separate beings, but rather a self-love between the one God and itself. Does this love include awe? Does God stand in awe of itself (I don’t say himself because the Trinity is not a person, but rather three persons)?
It is very strange indeed that I am here typing on this keyboard, looking at a table, breathing the air in this room, remembering things that I did and friends that I have. Why does all this stuff exist rather than nothing at all? Whether one posits a god or no-god, the strangeness is not at all diluted. Though it might be said that one of the options is more rational than the other, and hence the less rational option would be more strange.
Martin Heidegger, “What is Metaphysics.” In Basic Writings. Ed. By David Farrell Krell. London: Harper Perennial 208.
Photo Credit: Wikipedia
I want to consider the origins of polytheism in a phenomenological sense, not asking where this or that version of polytheism first arose (though I will raise some historical examples), but asking a more fundamental question: why is it that human beings become polytheists? This is not an apologia for St. Paul’s etiology of polytheism (though I think he has some good insights), nor is it an exposition of one religious view of polytheism. I want to ponder this question from a philosophical point of view, in such a way that all thinking people can follow my logic without the presuppositions of this or that religious text. That said, it should most loudly be noted I am not a person in a vacuum. I have concerns and cares that even cause me to ask this question, namely my own quest to find the true God (if indeed such a God exists).
An investigation into the phenomenological origins of polytheism cannot be done in isolation from the phenomenological origins of monotheism. Indeed, when we survey the history of the world’s religions, what we seem to perceive, over and over again (though perhaps not in every case), is that the polytheistic religions have a strange monotheistic aspect. Often times this is overtly articulated at some point into a monotheistic doctrine, as for instance the doctrine of Brahman as it was articulated by certain schools of Indian religion and philosophy. In fact, these schools interpreted the Vedas in such a way as to show that their conception of the Brahman was already there. More accurately, however, is that the Vedas are infused with various currents and ideas which are not easily untangled, one of which being the trajectory of monotheism, and another being the trajectory of polytheism.
When we survey the Hebrew scriptures we see the same thing. We see a mixture of monotheism and polytheism, a smattering of idolatry and monolatry. Scholars have their theories about when and how monotheism first became explicit in Jewish self-identity. But the lines are blurry and difficult to trace out. From the very earliest texts of Jewish scripture we can see a monotheistic trajectory (even if not an explicit articulation of monotheism). But here is the fascinating thing: the trajectory of polytheism is always present as well. The prophets are a witness to the fact that the Israelites and Judeans had an impulse toward idolatry. Now of course this impulse was incompatible with one view of the Jewish doctrines (i.e. the view of the prophets), but we do not know how the other Jews might have justified their dabblings in idolatry and polytheism.
Even in the time of Jesus things were not as clear cut as they might seem. The evidence is scanty. But how was it that a group of devout Jews began to call him God? Other devout Jews seemed to have thought this was a violation of the Shema. Some scholars have claimed that the early Christians were syncretists. But other scholars have shown how the charge of syncretism does not easily stick. The earliest testimonies to Jesus’s deity were from St. Paul, who unlikely would have become a self-conscious syncretist, and who was smart enough to avoid an accidental descent into Greek religious syncretism. (Note: I am not currently puzzled by the Christological monotheism of the New Testament. On the one hand I can see it being a type of universal monotheism, but on the other hand, I can see the arguments that it is a version of polytheism).
We must raise the question of whether people have an impulse to polytheism, an impulse that is sometimes manifested in one way or another, and is even an ever present current in the lives of monotheists. In other words, does polytheism have more than simply an historical explanation, more than simply a domino effect of polytheism spreading from one culture to another. Instead we must ask whether there is also an existential cause of polytheism. In other words, the phenomenological exploration of polytheism leads us to ask the existential question of polytheism. How would we know whether there was an existential cause that was in some measure responsible for polytheism?
Let us remind ourselves again of the need to explore polytheism in tandem with monotheism, especially when we are trying to find the root cause of polytheism in human life. The phenomenological consideration of monotheism, as well, brings us to that haunting question of whether there is an existential cause that gives rise to the monotheistic impulse. If there is indeed an existential dimension to monotheism, that it cannot be reduced to a bizarre accident of history, then we must ask how the existential impulse to monotheism relates to the existential impulse to polytheism.
One of the theories that I have, which I will be ruminating over as time goes by, is that the impulse to polytheism is a distortion of the impulse to monotheism, a distortion that is bound up with the impulse to tribalism. I say this and already I hear the objection that must be answered if this thesis is to be considered right. And that is this: is not monotheism also an expression of the impulse to tribalism? After all, when a group of people says “my god exists and yours does not,” isn’t that a classic example of tribalism. The problem is that such a statement reduces god to “my god.” Monotheism cannot say “my god” without at the same time acknowledging that this god is the god of all people, even if they do not recognize him, and even if they are in a state of disobedience to him.
What this means is that monotheism is ordered to the bursting of the dams of tribalism. Polytheism on the other hand is the handmaiden of tribalism. Of course there is also an objection to be answered here: “doesn’t polytheism logically lead to pluralism – to the unity of tribes rather than to tribalism?” The answer is: I don’t think so. Let me give two reasons.
First, pluralism seems to be just a particular version of tribalism. No pluralistic society can be held together unless the various myths of its peoples can be unified in some broader myth, otherwise the pluralistic society would splinter apart. But this broader myth will be will simply be one myth in competition with other myths, be they monotheistic or polytheistic.
Second, pluralism seems to be a way of coping with tribalism, a way of handling the difficult reality that people are tribalistic. It does not dissolve factionalism into unity, but rather allows factionalism to exist without escalating into violence.
The impulse to monotheism seems to be bound up with the impulse with universal benevolence, with the motion of the soul to do all people and other animals well. It is the impulse to tribalism that distorts monotheism into something it is not, a parochial religion for this or that ethnic group, or a religion that is only concerned with this or that culture or race. The logical conclusion of this tribal impulse is to reduce your god to a local tribal deity, creating a world where various people in faction with each other call upon their own local patron gods for assistance. The principles of polytheism and monotheism, therefore, seem to be dual and incompatible impulses in men and women, principles that are bound up with the impulse to tribalism and the impulse to universal benevolence.
For some people, converting to the Catholic Church is like joining the Elk’s lodge. Such an act does not require a radical break with one’s home-tradition. But for others converting requires one to forfeit one’s citizenship in the tradition of one’s youth, and then to accept the appellation of traitor from one’s former comrades.
I know that I can never regain that sense of belonging that I once had, that sense which was in many ways was a power-source for my life of virtue. Is it a mark of pride to say that I once lived a life of virtue, that I had the respect of my peers since I was a teenager? Perhaps I can say such things due to my lack of virtue at present, or rather, my lack of the sense of virtue (I still try to live with virtue). One cannot easily maintain a sense of dignity when one is considered a morally compromised man by so many in one’s home-tradition, something I experienced from the time that I resigned my ordination as a Southern Baptist minister. The life of self-examination led me to question my Protestantism, then to question my Catholicism, until finally at length I was led to question the life of self-examination.
I have to wonder whether the life of self-examination, if lived consistently, is an unfitting context to practice virtue. Virtue seems to require a sense of belonging to a community. But can a philosopher ever truly belong to a community when he is living the life of self-examination? To examine oneself with consistency requires that one is never truly loyal to anyone or any group. Whatever loyalty he has is always being examined, and is always in danger of dissolving under his questioning. When we survey the great philosophers, we discover that they either (1) committed themselves to a tradition or ideal in such a way as to compromise their self-examination, or (2) they had no craving for the life of virtue. Often times it was a bit of both. The consistent philosopher who strives after virtue must be a clown or a madman to everyone else, something Plato admitted in the Republic.
But can one live a life of virtue while everyone considers you a clown or a madman? When we examine the history of great men and women, we do not see any of them who lived truly Contra Mundum, against the world. They all were planted within some tradition, a tradition to which they had a sense of belonging. The only people who truly live Contra Mundum are sociopaths. And that raises the question of how one can both live a life of truth-seeking and a life of virtue?
One of the things that such a life would require is a community. This community would have to simultaneously be one of truth and virtue. Those who follow the truth to the end will end up in the same place as those who pursue virtue to its limits. They will become universal human beings who worship a universal God and who live in a universal community. No lover of truth or virtue can ever be fulfilled in worshiping a tribal deity or belonging to a tribal clique. But what community can embrace such a way of life? As much as I long for my days of virtue, I could have never remained a virtuous person in the Southern Baptist Church, or even in Anglo-Evangelicalism. All of it was too parochial. The life of virtue if taken to its logical conclusion should grow and grow, until it burst the cords of all particularisms, and finally comes to rest in a universal community ordered to a universal God. If there was a community of this kind, then it would truly be a light in the midst of darkness.
When I survey the world, the only community that seems to fit this criteria is Islam. Now what I am going to say will be controversial, for I will contrast Islam with Christianity vis a vis universality. When we survey all of the Christianities, we see that the tie that binds them all together is a common set of dogmas, but not a common community. Churches are divided along ethnic lines. The illusion of church unity dissolves when we consider that individual churches are segregated. This is the rule and not the exception. People are bound to Christian Churches through the mythology of their own cultures. Belonging to a particular protestant tradition, by and large, means sharing in the mythology of a particular culture’s experience of Christianity. People naturally segregate themselves in order to worship the Jesus that is aligned to their own cultural myths. We need not even mention Eastern Orthodoxy, which for all its greatness, is well known to be primarily divided into ethnic enclaves.
But even in the Catholic Church this seems to apply. Rather than all Roman Catholics rooting their identity in a common myth, each individual Catholic culture is primarily bound to apparitions, saints, and sites that are unique to their culture. The Irish Catholics draw their identity from Patrick, while the Mexican Catholics look to the Virgin of Guadalupe. Their own cultural myths provide the window and entry point into the universal Catholic mythology. The result is that the vibrations of the heart come to rest ultimately in ethnic loyalty, and from there echo out into a universal mythology.
Moreover, the universal Catholic mythology does not primarily begin with scripture, something that has ramifications for converts. Scripture looks very different than the Catholic Church. The cornerstone of Catholic unity – the Papacy – is nowhere to be found in scripture, at least not explicitly, not to mention monasticism or Marian devotion. Why is it that Catholics tend to be ignorant of scripture but abound in knowledge of various saints and Marian miracles? One answer is that they are not driven back to scripture to understand who they are and where they are going. Scripture is not adequate to confirm their identity because so many of the hallmarks of Catholic praxis are absent in scripture. The biblical myth is not strong enough to bind Catholics into a unified body.
The origins of the Catholic Church are Medieval in character, since that is when the Papacy begins to take a recognizable shape, as well as when Marian devotion and the proto-typical Catholic saints begin to *explicitly and commonly* emerge. Why do I bring this up? Because Christendom rather than Pentecost is the unifying myth for Catholics. By this I do not mean to say that Catholics undervalue Pentecost, only that their foundational story is not one that bursts forth with conversions, but one wherein families and cultures are already seasoned Catholics. Why is it that converts often feel alienated and looked down upon by cradle-catholics? Perhaps because they do not fit as well as cradle-catholics into the unifying myth of Catholicism. Compare this to evangelicalism, which has historically emphasized Pentecost. Conversion to the faith fits in with the norms of the governing mythology of evangelicalism. But as we said, each evangelical tradition tends to be ethnically segregated despite holding forth conversion as normative.
When I began studying Islam, there was something that seemed strange to me, something that now seems to be making sense. The prophet Muhammad said that the best generation was the first generation of Muslims, and then the second best was the generation after them, and then the next generation, and so on. What this seems to mean for Muslims, is that they do not draw their identity by looking to the Golden Age of Islamic philosophy, or to the particular cultural origins of this or that particular group of Muslims. Rather, they are always going back to the prophet and his companions, i.e. the best generation. In that generation, many people were converting from paganism, and many others were being born into Muslim families. The attention of Muslims is constantly being drawn back to this story, a story in which conversion and cradle-Islam are both normative. Furthermore, this is a myth in which strangers and enemies are being reconciled together in one universal community. It is difficult to be culturally particular when one is planted in the story of Muhammad and the foundations of the Ummah.
In many ways I hope Islam is true, and that I would have the wisdom to believe that it was true. I desire to practice virtue in a way that is not parochial, not bound to the myth of one ethnic group. I desire a community that bursts all the cords of racism and ethno-centricism. I desire a community that reaches out for the truth above all other truths, the reality in which all other realities are comprehended. I desire the forgiveness of my misdeeds and the mercy of the one true God. May Allah guide me.
My love for Plato is indeed in something of an existential crisis as I consider the question of whether his views on women are sexist. At first it is quite alarming to hear someone call him a sexist, since he elevated women to the highest office in his ideal city, something that broke every taboo in ancient Greek culture. But at the same time I must be willing to admit that Plato was indeed a flawed individual, just like I am, and that he still might have had many blind spots, ones that left him vulnerable not just to error, but also to oppressive doctrines.
When we survey the Republic (the book I will limit my comments to), we see that, one by one, Plato demolishes the “present” paradigm for how women are to be treated. He considered his own views about gender equality to be “contrary to custom.”(452.a) Moreover, his views were not counter-cultural because he just wanted to be a rebel – to be new for the sake of newness. He actually thought that the gender structures of his day were “against nature.”(Bk.V; 456.c) He claims that there are no functional differences between males and females other than that “females bear children and males beget them.”(Bk.V; 454.d) That means they should share in exactly the same functions vis a vis the city.
There are two basic criticisms that are commonly leveled against Plato’s view of women. The first is that he believed men were generally superior to women in most things, including philosophy. And the second is that he only liberates women to serve the common good, not because he truly was concerned for the well-being of women. Let’s take those one by one.
Did Plato think that men were on average better suited to most roles? A usual proof-text used to support this view is the following: (Glaucon speaking) “It’s true that one sex is much superior to the other in pretty well everything, although many women are better than many men in many things. But on the whole it is as you say.”(Bk.V; 455.c) There are some nagging questions about whether this text is a proof of Plato’s sexism. For one, it is not Socrates speaking (Plato usually seems sympathetic to Socrates, not commonly to Glaucon).
The second is Socrates’ response: “Then there is no way of life concerned with the management of the city that belongs to a woman because she’s a woman or a man because he’s a man, but the various natures are distributed in the same way in both creatures. Women share by nature in every way of life just as men do, but in all of them women are weaker.”(BkV; 455.c-d) That response seems to be saying that the various natures of human beings (i.e. natures suited to medicine, or philosophy, or military, etc.) are distributed “in the same way” for men and women. How can men be much superior to women if their gifts are distributed “in the same way.” Perhaps it can be argued that Socrates (and Plato) indicts himself as a sexist when he claims that women are weaker than men. But it is not clear whether weaker means inferior, or whether it is a description of physical strength.
Regardless, let us assume that Plato thinks that men are generally superior to women. In other words, although he wanted men and women (in the ideal city) to have equal opportunities, he did think that men on average would be better at most tasks, even being philosopher-rulers. Does this make Plato a sexist? Does it mean that his philosophy is contaminated by sexism? The answer to this depends on how we define sexism.
Perhaps sexism occurs when one denies any gender-distinctions. Perhaps it occurs when one says that the genetic probabilities are not equal for men and women vis a vis all tasks. Or perhaps it occurs when one says that genetics favors men to produce more math and science geniuses. If any of these are the proper definition of sexism, then Plato did hold sexist views. He did indeed think that men, on average, were better at most tasks than women, even when it came to philosophy. He didn’t know about genetics, but he did seem to believe that men were natural endowed (on the whole) with greater capacities than women. And if that is one’s definition of sexism, then Plato was a sexist.
But if sexism is the denial of equal opportunities based on gender, then Plato was not a sexist. I personally think that Plato offers the best feminist response to gender-realism vis a vis neuroscience. It does not matter whether science shows that men are genetically more likely to be in the top-tier in math and science, because these differences do not amount to the claim that all women are unsuited to being top-tier mathematicians or scientists. This means that women should have equal opportunities as men, even if it turns out that genetics favors men to be in that top-tier in these fields.
If one defines sexism as disdain for women, regardless of whether you think they should have equal opportunities, then I do not think that Plato was a sexist. It took a great amount of counter-cultural courage to grow up in Greek society (where women were basically shut-ins who were sequestered from political life) and claim that women should have an equal role with women when it came to philosophy, ruling, military, and everything else. What religious leader from the past appointed females to the highest offices of his movement, or at least claimed that females should be equal with males in terms of authority and scholarship? The exceptions to this rule are rare. Plato most likely had to give the plight of women serious thought to elevate them past anything even imaginable in his own society.
Note: my personal view is one of suspicion to the claim that genetics favors men to be in the top-tier of math and science. I think there are too many epigenetical questions at the moment to feel confident in the findings of people like Steven Pinker, a Harvard psychologist who argues that genetics favors men to be in the top-tier of math and science. But notice as well that my view of gender roles (which follows Plato’s) does not rely on any particular finding in neuroscience, even if Pinker turns out to be right. It is is irrelevant whether the most recent journal article favors men genetically to be in the top-tier of math and science. The commitment to equality still remains. Each person is basically the same, regardless of the averages. And that fact is best expressed in a society where women have equal opportunities as men, even when it comes to tenure-track positions in math and science.
Notice lastly that I do not consider Plato or Pinker to be sexists (even though I am suspicious of their views) for arguing for gender-distinctions, particularly for saying that men and women, though basically the same, are not genetically ordered to equal representation in some fields. (Plato’s views are a bit more comprehensive than Pinker’s, though not much). Plato like Pinker does not claim knowledge about such things. These are opinion about things that are difficult to investigate. And both Plato and Pinker (rightly in my view) believe that the differences between genders, whatever they are and if they exist, are so minimal that every person should be judged on his or her own merits, and not with reference to the genetic or natural probabilities.
The second criticism of Plato, voiced especially by Julia Annas, is that Plato only liberates women for the common good, not because he is concerned with the welfare of women. In my view, this is an accurate interpretation of Plato in one sense, but a misunderstanding in another sense. The common good for Plato does is not the type of common good of modern political philosophy. He was not advocating a mercantile common good, or even a common good like the pragmatists (i.e. whatever works). Plato’s common good has a metaphysical dimension, such that the common good is inseparable from “the good.” As Plato writes: “it’s foolish to take seriously any standard of what is fine and beautiful other than the good.”(Bk.V; 452.e) It is hard to see how Annas’ definition of Plato’s common good can account for this metaphysical dimension. This means that Plato’s concern for the common good of the society includes the abolition of the harmful treatment of women. Plato again writes: “the beneficial is the beautiful, while the harmful is ugly.”(Bk.V; 457.b)
Whenever I think about converting to Islam, I am forced to admit that truth is not the only important factor. Truth is the highest priority for me, but also important is the desire to find a community in which to practice justice, goodness, and piety. And I wonder whether the true religion, if it exists, would also be a truly universal religion, one that is not only comprised of all races and cultures, but one where a convert could be viewed as an equal with everyone else. I am inclined to believe that the true religion (the one with the true beliefs) would also have the best ethical prescription for the divisions that vex human kind, and would hence be a place where conversion is truly possible.
When I look back on my own life, the quest for truth has seemed (for some unconscious reason) to be bound up with the quest for human unity. This of course makes sense to me, since the assent to the truth is an ethical act. This means (if it is true) that the quest for truth is inseparable from a yearning for justice. When I became a Roman Catholic, it was out of that double desire to find the truth and also to find the church that was universal. And there was a great fulfillment in belonging to a church that was comprised of all races and cultures, which is not as common among the Protestant and Eastern Orthodox traditions.
With that said, I would like to ponder the common feeling among converts to the Catholic Church, a feeling that I too experienced, the feeling that we would never be considered true Catholics. Is there something in Catholicism that is ill ordered to conversion? Or is the alienation of so many converts just part and parcel of being a human being in any community? It is difficult to see the experiences of converts as just being one manifestation of universal human restlessness. Why does it seem that the heart of the Catholic convert is more restless than the cradle-Catholic, that it feels itself to be a stranger within the Catholic Church in a way that is not felt by those who were raised as Catholics? The restlessness and alienation of the convert cannot, I think, be reduced to simply the universal restlessness that comes with the territory of being human. So why is it that the convert is generally more of a stranger within the church than the cradle-Catholic?
One of my theories is that the convert does not have the cultural identity of the cradle-Catholic. The cradle-Catholic is raised in a world where their family identity and their church identity are unified, unified specifically in the same traditions. The cradle-Catholic quite often knows that the convert does not share this with him. There is a cultural distinction between the two persons (and groups) that leaves the convert feeling (quite often) as if he is not truly Catholic. But the convert, as well, is alienated from the other side. He is often considered a traitor by the religious community in which he was raised. To become a Catholic is in some deep sense (though not in all senses) a rupture with the traditions of one’s youth, particularly when the convert comes from a protestant background. The convert becomes not only an alien and stranger within his new church community, but he becomes alienated from his old tradition as well, often considered a traitor or a morally compromised man by the community in which he was formed.
It is very difficult to live with a sense of dignity when one is both considered a traitor by one’s home-tradition and also considered a partial-member by one’s new-tradition. Living with dignity seems to be something done in the context of a community. Our sense of being good people is bound up with what others think of us. The sentiment that we must live good lives when all others think we are bad people is something that seems like a poetic sentiment with very little empirical validation. When we survey those people who suffered injustice for a good cause we find that they were not on an island of moral isolation. Their dignity was always inseparable from a certain type of community validation. It seems that only a sociopath can affirm himself apart from a community, and even then we must wonder whether his self-affirmation can truly bring him ethical fulfillment and completion.
My interest in Islam carries me back to that double interest in truth and justice – to attain the truth and to live with a sense of dignity. But I do not know whether Islam has the internal power to make conversion truly possible. Can a convert to Islam truly be a Muslim in the fullest sense? I don’t really know the answer to that question. But I wonder before the possibility that Islam has something that no other community has, the potential as Malcolm X wrote, to make a convert feel like a complete human being. Initially, it seems difficult to see how Islam has a solution to the same problems that vex converts to the Catholic Church.
Can one truly convert to Islam, becoming a Muslim in an equal sense to those raised in Islam? I do not know the answer. And that is why I need to raise the question of what might separate Islam – make it stand out as unique – when compared with other religious systems. Does Islam have a way to avoid the Catholic hierarchy between cradle-members and convert-members? If so, what is the distinction which would allow Islam to transcend that hierarchy? I will raise those questions in future articles.
The Muslims have a different conception of Jesus than the Christians do, at least in some major respects. All of the differences seem to reduce to (and spring from) one main difference: Muslims do not think that Jesus is God. If Jesus is not God, then it is hard to see how his death could atone for sin, how his flesh could be eaten for spiritual nourishment, and how he could be the object of worship. It is more likely that if Jesus was not God, and if he really was the messiah and prophet, then he would have called Israel (and indeed the whole world) to renew their loyalty to the one true God. There are some reasons to think that the message of Jesus would bear a greater resemblance to Islam than it would Christianity (or even to Rabbinic Judaism). I realize this claim is controversial. So I will explain myself, all the while acknowledging that these ponderings are only provisional for me.
When Muhammad arrived on the scene with the message of Islam, he was speaking into a world that had at least three different religious frameworks. The first of those frameworks was Christianity. The Christians followed in the ancient Jewish tradition in their loyalty to one God, but they also did something that was foreign to ancient Jewis praxis: they worshipped a human being who they claimed to be God. Note: the Christians did not view Jesus-worship to be a violation of their belief in one God. But of course the Jews did see such worship as a violation. And that brings us to our second framework, the Jewish framework.
The Jews worshipped one God, just like the Christians. Unlike the Christians, as I just said, the Jews believed that it was blasphemous to worship a human being and to call him God. The Jewish worldview during the time of Muhammad had developed in some important ways since the time of Jesus (i.e. since the 2nd temple period). One important distinction *seems to be* (I could be wrong) that there was a growing introversion among the Jews, a lack of emphasis on explicit missionary activity during the Rabbinic period and beyond. (I would ask the reader to be patient, because I will argue below that this growing introversion among the Jews was very understandable due to their trials and persecutions at the hands of both pagans and Christians.)
This lack of missionary emphasis seems to conflict in some important ways with the message of ancient Israelite prophets, including Jesus. We have evidence from the New Testament that one of the major themes of Jesus’s preaching was the salvation of the gentiles, that they too were called to worship the one true God. Of course Jesus was sent explicitly to Israel, but his message seems to have a universal scope, a scope wherein the gentiles and pagans too were called to the worship of the one true God.
If this is the case, then it is worth asking whether the message of Muhammad was in some important sense a return to the message of Jesus, a message which called all the world to an explicit worship of the one true God. This mission to reach the world for the one true God explains why Muhammad might have felt compelled to bear witness to the pagans (the third framework), not merely in his home city, but in other cities as well.
The Muslims believe that the messages of Jesus and Muhammad were essentially the same, not in the sense that Jesus and Muhammad had the same vocation, but in that they both preached essentially the same message, the message that there is one God who created all things, one God who calls all human beings to put away their divisions and worship him. Like I said, Jesus was sent explicitly to Israel, as its messiah. But his message was universal in scope: all human beings were called to cast away their idols and come to the one true God.
When Muhammad came on the scene, he encountered something that he considered a distortion of the message of Jesus. The followers of Jesus were actually claiming that Jesus was God, making him the object of their worship, holding rituals where they claimed to be drinking his blood and eating his flesh. (Note: the purely symbolic interpretation of the eucharist was not common until after the Reformation, and then only among the more radical streams of Protestantism, like for instance the Anabaptists, but not among the Reformed or the Lutherans.)
But Muhammad also encountered what he believed to be a distortion among the Jews. The Jews had lost much of their urgency to reach the world with the message of the one true God. They had been persecuted by both the pagan Romans and the Christian Romans, so it was understandable that they would want to preserve their ways of life at the expense of missionary activity. Unfortunately, however, this did compromise the universal intent of the ancient Jewish faith.
According to Islam, the one true God calls all of mankind to worship him. This God will not allow anything to block his mercy toward all human beings. And hence, Muhammad viewed himself to be raised up by this one true God as “a mercy to mankind.”(Qur’an 21:107) In this way, Muhammad saw himself as continuing the mission of Jesus and the prophets before him, the message that the Jews understandably distorted due to their many trials and persecutions. The message of Muhammad was one of a public invitation to all human beings, an invitation to come to the creator, to cast away the false gods and the distortions of his nature.
Was this message the true continuation of the preaching of Jesus? Muslims think so. By this, Muslims do not necessarily believe that everything that was revealed through Muhammad was revealed as well in the time of Jesus. Rather, the basic essence and hope of Jesus was continued in the ministry of Muhammad, the hope of a world where all human beings would bow before the one true God, where they would no longer labor under the great burden of disobedience to their creator, but where they would find the one who is always forgiving and continuously merciful.
I personally do not know whether Islam is true. And I am trying honestly to find out. But I must confess that the message of Muhammad makes a lot of sense. If there is a true God, then it seems to me very difficult to believe that he became a human being (as Christians believe). Note: just because it is hard to believe does not mean it is unreasonable. The Christian doctrine of the incarnation has been argued very reasonably by Athanasius, Thomas, and many other Christian thinkers.
But it is also difficult to believe that the true God would fail to find us, that he would prefer us to live out all our days in a type of darkness, that he would deposit his perfect guidance with one small group of people who (understandably) have little earnestness in bringing the world into the knowledge of their creator (this seems to be the trend in Judaism since the Rabbinic period). Note: there are some movements in Judaism that are proactive in spreading the message of Judaism to the gentiles.
If the true God exists, it makes sense that his message would be something like the message of Islam, the message that there is one God, a God who is compassionate, merciful, and good, and moreover, a God who has created us to know and love him.
Photo Credit: Wikipedia
The debate about the deity of Jesus was galvanized this year through the publication of two books from opposing historical perspectives, one book by the agnostic (and former evangelical) scholar Bart Ehrman, the other book by a team of evangelical scholars led by Michael Bird. The debate specifically was about the origins of the belief that Jesus is God.
Ehrman contends that the belief that Jesus is God does not originate with Jesus himself. Instead of thinking or teaching that he was God, Jesus believed that he was an apocalyptic prophet, one who had a special understanding of his own vocation, but not a vocation that included godhood. The belief that Jesus was God, Ehrman contends, was sort of complex development by the earliest Christians.
Michael Bird on the other hand believes that Jesus did in some ways teach that he was God. He did not do this primarily by explicit speech, but rather through certain actions, like amending the Sabbath laws, or absolving people of their sins, things that no human being has the right to do.
But Bird’s interpretation of Jesus is by no means the standard even for evangelicals. Larry Hurtado (one of the most prominent evangelical Jesus-scholars) thinks that the earliest Christians began to worship Jesus as God after they had certain religious experiences – visions or encounters which they interpreted to mean this: God had commanded them to worship Jesus. Hurtado does not think that Jesus taught people to worship him or that he claimed to be God.
Obviously when one compares this current debate among historians with the teaching about Jesus in the Qur’an and the Hadith, it is kind of striking that the Islamic view of Jesus’s vocation is highly plausible based on the historical evidence. Muslims believe that Jesus was a prophet and the Messiah, but they do not think that he was God.
My own view of Jesus is one of befuddlement. When I read the gospels, it is quite striking that Jesus never clearly claims to be God. And his actions of forgiving sins or amending the Sabbath laws do not necessarily show that he is divine, only that he embodies some unique dispensation in the economy of God. On the other hand, his life and teachings are certainly open to the possibility that he was God. That is to say, even if one thinks that the actions of Jesus are not evidence that he had a divine self-identity, this does not mean that he was only a human being.
Perhaps the knowledge of his own identity was somehow mysteriously cloaked from his human mind, such that he knew that he was divine in some sense, but he was ignorant of his own divinity in another sense. This of course is the Chalcedonian view of Jesus’s two natures. And that paradigm makes a lot of sense for how the historical Jesus might have (in one sense) been ignorant of his own divinity, but how the earliest Christians could worship him as the God of Israel.
The Muslims on the other hand would claim that the apostles were mistaken, and not necessarily because the apostles were lying. Perhaps the apostles had the types of religious experiences which are common among many religious groups, experiences that perhaps were heightened due to the stress and fear that flowed from their belief that their prophet and messiah had been murdered. That is one plausible interpretation of how the followers of Jesus could have come to the belief that God had raised and exalted him. Of course this interpretation is not easy to square with the empty tomb narratives or the so-called witnesses to the resurrection. But neither is the existence of these narratives or this body of witnesses evidence that Jesus was raised.
When we talk about inference to the best explanation, there are all sorts of problems with any reconstruction of the events in question. Those who say that the disciples were in a room and hallucinated visions of Jesus which they interpreted to mean that he was resurrected physically do not have enough data to prop that theory up with historical rigidity. Neither do those who claim that Jesus really did appear to his disciples in physical form after some of them had visited his empty tomb. Any inference to the best explanation will be working with a data size that is too small to make anything but a provisional and hypothetical guess. And often the winner of the debate is the one who can give the most aesthetically pleasing poetic narrative.
That said, the Muslims and the Christians both (in my view) offer competing frameworks for interpreting the historical Jesus. And each of their interpretations cannot ultimately be decided with an appeal to history. Indeed, metaphysics, ethics, logic, in addition to history must come together when we decide the identity of Jesus. This is why I believe the question of Jesus is ill suited to being decided in the context of the Society of Biblical Literature. History works by probability or by an appeal to the best explanation. But the calculus of probabilities or the scale of “better or worse” will in large measure depend on your metaphysical beliefs, things that are not addressed at the Society of Biblical Literature. Whenever you examine a debate between a Christian and an atheist about the historical Jesus, particularly when the resurrection or deity of Christ is being discussed, the conversation will usually always be brought back to the stalemate of presuppositions.
And that is why (in my view) the best context to raise the question of Jesus is in the comprehensive womb of philosophy. Note: I am not claiming that the Society of Biblical Literature has no import for such questions, only that there is a real problem in finding meaning in “probabilities” or the “inference to the best explanations” among a body of historians with different metaphysical assumptions. What this means is that the question of the Muslim Jesus, the Christian Jesus, or whatever other Jesus is not ultimately a historical question, even when we are asking specifically about the identity of the historical Jesus. We cannot look back into the past without assuming all sorts of beliefs about the rules governing the cosmos. And those rules will shape the “historical Jesus” that we pull out of the data.
Photo Credit: Wikipedia
My relationship with Islam is bound up with the identity of Jesus. One of the biggest obstacles to my conversion to Islam is its interpretation of the cross. The last time I visited the local mosque in Irving, Texas, the Muslim gentleman that I was speaking with called an Islamic scholar on his smartphone, and I basically had a conference call with the man concerning the question of Jesus’ last days.
I wanted to know the range of acceptable interpretations of Surah 4:157, the verse which reads: “And [for] their saying, ‘Indeed, we have killed the Messiah, Jesus, the son of Mary, the messenger of Allah .’ And they did not kill him, nor did they crucify him; but [another] was made to resemble him to them.” I wanted to know whether it was acceptable to interpret the verse in a minimalist way, as if it were saying that the Jews did not kill Jesus, that it only appeared to them that they did. (Note: the word “another” is a controversial gloss.) If that is all the text says, then the text is not incompatible with the crucifixion of Jesus. The Qur’an would only be saying that the Jews were not the killers of Christ, even though it was made to appear to them that they were. That interpretation is compatible with some other group being responsible for killing Jesus, e.g. the Romans.
But the scholar I spoke with said that this interpretation was unacceptable, that Judas was made to resemble Jesus and was crucified in his place. Now it seems to me that not all Sunni Muslims have historically held the position of this scholar. The tradition allows for a few interpretations, and does not mandate that Muslims hold that Judas was crucified in the place of Jesus. The scholar was being more restrictive about the possible meanings of Surah 4:157 than is characteristic of the Islamic tradition. Nevertheless, from what I know, there is no precedent in the Islamic tradition for a Muslim to be able to say that Jesus was crucified by the Romans.
My interpretation of the text, however, was not that the Qur’an teaches that Jesus was crucified by the Romans. My interpretation was that the Qur’an does not clearly say whether Jesus was or was not crucified, only that he was not crucified by the Jews. But I think this interpretation is a bit too minimalistic for the Muslim tradition, and hence to become a Muslim in good conscience one must hold that Jesus was not crucified at all, or if he was, that he did not die on the cross. (Note: to rightly examine this verse requires one to interact with the context, which requires special consideration of the next verse, where God is said to have raised Jesus to himself.)
To me this is one of my biggest obstacles to the Muslim faith. It seems very implausible to me that Jesus was not crucified. The details surrounding Jesus’ death are highly contentious among Jesus-scholars (e.g. what day, and by what means was he arrested), but all non-Muslim Jesus-scholars (and some Muslim Jesus-scholars, e.g. Azlan) believe that Jesus was crucified. (Note: the Jesus-mythicists are an exception to what I wrote. They believe that Jesus never existed, and a fortiori, that he was not crucified. This position is very rare, though it has recently been re-invigorated by Richard Carrier.)
The thesis that Jesus was crucified has strong evidence to support it. There doesn’t seems to be any challenge to the crucifixion until the emergence of the Docetists, who rejected the crucifixion for their own philosophical reasons, not because they were heirs of a separate tradition of Jesus’ last days. If any of the early Christians had doubts about Jesus crucifixion, it is likely that such things would have come out. Why? The evidence suggest that the cross was one of the biggest scandals in early Christianity, such a scandal that it was a principle obstacle for the Jews when they contemplated the messiahship of Jesus. The most plausible reasons why the Christians would attach themselves to this scandal (i.e. Christ-crucified) is because they thought it happened.
A thoughtful Muslim would probably respond: just because the apostles thought that Jesus was crucified, does not entail that he was. And that is very true. Moreover, we don’t have strong evidence that any of the apostles actually witnessed the crucifixion. A thoughtful Muslim might say that Jesus was taken captive by the Romans at the request of some Jews, and that God intervened and raised Jesus to himself, all the while making it seem to the enemies of Jesus that they had won. There really isn’t a good argument I could make against that interpretation.
The reason I cannot accept this argument, however, is that it requires me to believe that the Qur’anic revelation is true, which is what I am trying to figure out in the first place. So as of right now, all I have is the historical record, which taken together seems to imply that Jesus was crucified.
Picture Credit: Wikipedia
Qur’an translation: Sahih International