[Editors’ Note: This is the first of a three-part series. Part two will be published on Wednesday morning here at The Blue State Conservative.]
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There is a creeping danger to society in matters of the Spirit
The Sultan known as Saladin, it is said, needed funds to pursue his wars against the Saracen and Christian kings. He invited a rich Jew named Melchisedech to his court.
His guest being known for his miserliness, Saladin felt he needed a ruse to get funds from the Jew. So, he planned to entrap Melchisedech in controversy in such a way that he would have to pay dearly for his release.
After receiving him in a friendly manner, Saladin slips the rhetorical noose around the Jew’s head: “Worthy man, I have heard from many people that you are very wise, and that you have a deep understanding of God’s ways. So I should very much like to know from you which of the three Laws you think the true one – Judaism, Islam or Christianity?”
In addition to being rich, Melchisedech was indeed very wise. And in his wisdom, he tells the Sultan: “If I am to tell you what I think about it I shall have to relate a little story. . . .”
We all, I suppose, have our little stories that magnify in our own lives our personal struggle with understanding the mystery of God and what God would have of us.
Religion, of course, has had its image tarnished in recent years. The image of religion presented in the media is often one of extreme intolerance and terror. To take just one example, Islamic Wahhabism and Salafist thought and their influence on al-Qaeda, ISIS, Boko Haram and other radical Islamist groups becomes, in the minds of many, a paradigm of religion’s violent condemnation of those deemed outside the faith.
A measurable concern is that the very notion of religion is being corrupted by events in such a way that the concept “religion” is becoming, in the minds of many, synonymous with intolerance, hatred, thoroughly narrow-minded thinking and acts of terror. We will, as a society, greatly diminish the quality of our lives if we allow religion to be thus perverted.
A personal interest in rescuing the image of traditional communities of faith, whether Christian, Jewish or Muslim, was made manifest after September 11 by my writing two lengthy articles for a Michigan daily newspaper.
The first article was an historical overview of Islam. It was written to reverse a woeful lack of knowledge about Islam on the part of readers and to show the common historical and theological roots Islam shares with Judaism and Christianity.
The second article, written in reaction to those media reports that presented Islamic jurisprudence as almost medieval in its laws and cruel punishment of transgressors, tried to identify and explain historically the thoughtful philosophical and cultural foundations of sharia, or Islamic law.
Another purpose behind the two articles – and this needs to be emphasized – was to show that much like Judaism and Christianity, Islam is an umbrella term that represents a wide range of religious expression, from liberally humane to extremely fundamentalist. As such, it is important to show that the views of extremist groups like al Qaeda and ISIS, which to my mind are more political ideologies than religious expression, are not representative of mainstream Islamic thought.
Of the three traditional faith communities, however, Islam is the most theocratic, and thus it is difficult if not impossible to distinguish the politics of Islam from its religion. There are also learned scholars of Islam who argue, for example, that the primary leaders of al-Qaeda and ISIS, Osama bin Laden and Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, who are dead but are still revered, represent a true manifestation of Islam.
So, who is any Christian writer like myself to claim otherwise? In fact, isn’t my dismissal of bin Laden and al-Baghdadi as political ideologues rather than submissive Muslims just the kind of religious arrogance I am otherwise going to argue against here? It is a worthwhile question.
It is accurate to say that Jews, Christians and Muslims all point to the same God in worship – the God of Abraham. The problem is that each group, and groups within each group, have varying interpretations of God’s activity in human affairs. The troubling issue is that all three religions consider themselves “revealed” religion, that God is “self-revealing” through the prophets and messengers.
Christianity and Judaism (if Hebrew scripture be the measure) have certainly displayed acts of violence against those outside their communities of faith, all grounded in their experience of revelations from God. Today, though, not so much.
The same cannot be said about Islam. The troubling fact today is that the Qur’an and the Hadith (i.e., the collected words and actions of Muhammad) support an interpretation of Islamic revelation that today is bringing about death and destruction throughout the world, with ever more brutal violence promised to come.
All three communities of faith have at one time or another struggled with intolerance toward those outside their own community, all the while claiming to be faithful servants of God.
One of the iconic stories of the founding patriarch Abraham as told in Genesis 22 and in the Qur’an in sura 37 – simultaneously mysterious and horrifying – is that of God telling Abraham to take his only son, Isaac, to the land of Moriah and sacrifice him as a burnt offering. Abraham does as he is told. God, after all, has revealed to him what is required.
After binding his son, placing him on the altar and taking the knife in his hand to end his son’s life, an “angel of the Lord” calls to him to stop, that his actions have demonstrated his devotion to the Lord.
What are we to make of the fact God reveals to Abraham what must be done in one revelation while an “angel of the Lord” provides the revelation in the second? Why does Abraham accept the second revelation from the angel rather than that directly from God?
The medieval scholar Moses Maimonides, a Sephardic Jew who in Talmudic circles is known as Rambam, deals with this issue in an innovative way by contrasting the “God” (Elohim) of the first revelation with the “Lord” (Yahweh, which is God’s holy and unspoken name in Hebrew tradition) of the second.
But who among us other than orthodox readers of Talmud are reading Rambam these days? So, for the vast majority of us the problem remains: How do we decide among competing revelations?
Contrast this with another Biblical story, the fascinating narrative of the “Man of God and the prophet” in I Kings, Chapter 13. The Man of God gives a powerful rebuke to King Jeroboam by way of the Lord, such that the king’s hand is made to wither and the altar at Beth-el destroyed.
After pleading from Jeroboam, the Man of God appeals to the Lord to restore the king’s hand. And it comes to pass. The king then beseeches the Man of God to accompany him to his home for refreshment and a reward. But the Man of God refuses, saying the Lord had instructed him directly to neither eat nor drink in that land and to proceed where instructed.
But there is also an old prophet in the land who, after hearing of all the Man of God had done at the altar at Beth-el, wants to meet and speak with him. He rides in the direction which he learned the Man of God had gone and, finding him resting under an oak, asks him to be a guest at his home for food and drink.
The Man of God gives the same response to the old prophet that he did with the King, saying he needs to follow the instructions of the Lord and proceed on his journey without stopping. But then the prophet says, “I also am a prophet as you are, and an angel spoke to me by the word of the Lord: Bring him back with you into your house so that he may eat food and drink water.”
We are told metatextually that the old prophet is lying. But how is the Man of God to know that? Isn’t the old prophet a further revelation just as the angel was when Abraham took his knife to sacrifice his son? So, the Man of God accompanies the Prophet to his home for food and drink.
After leaving, the Man of God then encounters a lion and is killed by it, which serves as God’s judgment on the Man of God for his disobedience.
The difficulty of this story, of course, is how does one tell whether that which is “revealed” by a prophet or messenger is true?
Bottom line: revelation needs to be interpreted to be understood and shared. And it is in the very act of interpretation that much folly can result. We are woefully imperfect creatures when it comes to knowing and understanding the revelation of God, which is why it behooves us to approach the task with humility and even a healthy dose of faithful – faithful – skepticism.
So how, then, was the Man of God to know that the old prophet’s revelation was not true? How might any of us, given our limitations, know a true prophet? A true messenger? Most Jews, Christians and Muslims never really confront the challenge of that question. They each have their own “home team” of prophets and messengers who go unchallenged.
And just around the corner from unchallenged “revelation” is religious arrogance, to which all three religions are susceptible.
[In Part II we explore some aspects of spirituality.]
By Ron Nutter
Ron Nutter is a regular contributor to The Blue State Conservative, and retired college professor of Philosophy and Religion living in a cabin on a mountain in Western North Carolina with his retired physician wife, and he still reads voraciously.