AMPed

I went out to San Dimas this weekend for the AMP (Apologetics-Mission-Partnership) Conference. Four speakers presented on Friday night, with six more on Saturday. For an Evangelical gathering, the speakers were surprisingly diverse. Several were unapologetic in their religious chauvinism, targeting Islam as well as “marginal” Christians. Others were surprisingly liberal, most markedly the scholar who asserted that between Genesis 1-2 and Revelation 21-22, the Bible was a testimony to human error. This struck me because the organizing agency, Reasons to Believe, upholds the purpose of proving the inerrancy of the Bible.

The most stimulating talk was Dr. Ross on the geological processes that stabilized the climate long enough to allow homo sapiens to cover the earth. One chart in particular was mind-boggling: it turns out that prior to the Laurentian, temperatures oscillated in a 24 F range around the mean. The oscillation is driven by the gravitational dynamics of the solar system and the wobbles of Earth’s rotation, and is large enough that large-scale agriculture is impossible. But when the last Ice Age ended, temperatures settled into a 3 F band. No scientific explanation is known, but that stability allowed humanity to cover the planet and then turn its attention to religious and scientific inquiry.

Given my intentions out at Love Returns Ministry, the most valuable part of the event was the opportunities that I had to talk with young adults. A young man in high school walked up on Saturday morning to ask me whether I understood Dr. Ross’s reference to “large and small dimensions.” I don’t know why he imagined that I would be able to answer the question, but he got a survey of the problems in the reigning model of fundamental physics. He chased me down during the morning break, eager for my opinions. As the conversation unfolded, he revealed that he had taken the evolution side of the creation debate in class. When I suggested that Genesis was evolution, he was taken aback until I made the connection between photosynthesis and “Let there be light.”

Then there were three young adults, two caught up in conversation during breaks and one that I searched out to supplement the response she had been given by the presenter of a talk on how as a Christian to talk to youth about sex and relationships. I focused on two messages: first, that Islam was merely a compression of the Hebrew tutelage to faith, with a shift from history to psychological analysis of the Old Testament heroes. Secondly, I emphasized that the presence of love in the heart was the best guide to our relationships, with the ultimate goal of becoming “spiritual engineers.” I found myself doing most of the talking, but when I stopped to apologize, they all responded with variations of “No, thanks for sharing.”

Far better to receive that than the attentions of the scholars at RTB. They are all so terribly certain of the truths they propagate. What’s important to me, however, is that the future manifest new possibilities – the possibilities allowed by hearts and minds that commit themselves in service to Unconditional Love. A positive reception by the participants in that future (our young adults) tells me that I’m doing the right thing.

The Zen of Jesus

Upon waking up to the reality that self-serving does not bring joy, the seeker after comfort tends to a superficial sampling of religious wisdom. The sophisticated teacher needs to avoid becoming involved in blame-shifting for the seeker’s miserable state. In the traditions of Abraham, that begins with a vow of submission, formulated in Christianity as “Do you accept Jesus Christ as your personal savior?” In Islam, it is stated as the Shahada:

There is no god but God alone; he has no partner with him; Muhammad is his prophet.

The dissatisfied acolyte is then made responsible for his own condition, in that all wisdom is found in direct relation with the godhead.

Lacking a divine center for its practice, Buddhism takes a different approach, epitomized by the Zen koan. A koan is a cryptic one-liner that organizes an inward meditative journey. The most notorious is:

What is the sound of one hand clapping?

The obvious answer is “nothing,” but that certainly doesn’t point the way to wisdom. The student still needs to grasp that the “hand” being referred to is themselves, and that in seeking after spiritual glory, they earn no lauds.

The story of the rich young man in Matthew 19:16-22 shows Jesus ministering to the problematical seeker. The poor fellow grasps at eternal life as a guarantee that joy can be secured. Calling Jesus “Master,” he then asks what good he must perform to earn that grace.

Presciently, in Matthew 7:21, Jesus had pre-empted the Christian vow of submission:

Not everyone who says to me “Lord, Lord” will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only he who does the will of my father.

Consistent with this warning, Jesus immediately deflects the proffered authority:

Why do you ask me what is good? There is one alone who is good.

No man needing anything but faith to draw upon the strength and wisdom of the Father.

But the teaching does not end with the Zen master’s edict to seek inwardly. Jesus lists the six commandments of human relation: edicts against murder, adultery, theft, and lying; and encouragements to honor our parents and love our neighbors. The latter build intimacy with those closest to us; the former prevent those bonds from sundering. Through this practice, Jesus suggests that his protégé will “enter into life.” In avoiding the drama of struggle, adherence to the commandments allows to blossom those quiet moments in which we gain the subtle and sublime assurance of security in our knowledge of the compassion that embraces us.

We are no longer a hand trying to clap alone.

But the seeker is not just young; he suffers another handicap, one known in Islam as Allah’s greatest test of character. He is rich. Thus, while meaning well, others see him as a potential source of material security. They seek a bond with his money, not his heart. And so Jesus offers him this final advice: give your wealth to the poor and follow!

The young man departs saddened. We can only guess at the cause: was he responsible for managing money that ensured the well-being of the community, wealth that he could not trust others to manage responsibly? Was he simply unable to imagine survival without the perks of wealth: the daily bath, the satisfying meals? Or did he arrogantly perceive his wealth as a sign of divine approval, and so Jesus’ pronouncement as proof that hope had been invested with just another false prophet?

Whichever it may have been, we as readers should recognize the advice not as some generic one-size-fits-all formulation, but a direct response to the needs of this troubled young man. It is the mark of the greatness of his compassion that Jesus does this again and again throughout his ministry: offering just the words that the listener needs to hear to bring solace and healing, even to the point on the cross of:

Father: forgive them. They know not what they do. [Luke 23:34]

Jesus was not concerned with self-preservation – he was devoted to his ministry to the lost. Thus, while his teaching encapsulates the wisdom of the Zen and Christian teacher, it then surpasses it. None can doubt that he does the best that he can for them, although they might not be able to respond fully. Yes, it is this I believe that gives the young man sadness: his realization that salvation was offered him, and he was unable to grasp it. It foreshadows Jesus’ struggle in Gethsemane:

The spirit is willing; but the flesh is weak. [Matt. 26:41]

and:

My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death. [NIV Matt. 26:38]

Beyond Evil to Good

Miguel de Unamuno, considering the road from masculine frailty to faith, observed in Tragic Sense of Life that all men desire two things:

  • To live forever.
  • To rule the world.

The obvious paradox in these impulses is that most of us (myself being a man) attempt to accomplish the second by beating the crap out of other men – which tends to advance the interruption of our seeking after the first.

Work-arounds abound, the most obvious being to have a gun at the ready whenever an altercation arises. The subtlest is the use of psychological conditioning to get others to do the beating up for us. In totalitarian states, that conditioning takes the form of propaganda against imagined enemies, but is often joined with control over basic necessities. In democratic cultures, the conditioning is typically tied to unattainable visions of sexual conquest. When progeny ensue, hypersensitivity to their vulnerability often becomes the lever used to encourage financial exploitation of others.

Obviously in these systems there will be losers – a great many losers. The power of the impulses identified by Unamuno then manifests in a terrible perversion, expressed by a friend who asserted that the world would “know about him.” He testified ominously:

“Yeah, when a man has nothing to lose, there’s nothing he won’t do. And when the world learns about me, it will be nothing like anything that it’s ever seen before.”

I tried to lighten the air, offering that I knew what he meant, and that my sons were sometimes worried that I was going to just walk off and disappear. When he asked “You mean go live on the streets?” I replied, “No, probably they’d find me out someplace like the Amazon in Ecuador helping the indigenous people deal with the mess that Texaco left behind.”

Ah, the contradictory consequences revealed by Unamuno’s observation!

Some men lose everything, and seek to rule the lives of others by ending them, thus finding immortality in notoriety. I have nothing, and so claim this little piece of the blogosphere, writing about everything for almost nobody, and imagine conquering a little part of the world with a sponge and a squeegee. Some men fear the immigrant, and extrapolate our future against Europe’s tragedies where the Muslim population is ten times proportionately larger than ours. Accepting King’s dictum that “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere,” I embrace Muslim America as an opportunity for Islamic scholarship to rediscover and reassert the original message of Mohammed (pbuh), and any acts of violence as a cross to be born in conquering fear.

Unamuno’s defense of Christian faith was that we “create this God of love and eternal life by believing in him.” I see that as heresy: we don’t create him; we rather allow his virtues to manifest in our lives. In doing so, we learn to love ourselves and accept love from others, thereby obtaining dominion over the only part of the world that really matters: ourselves. In focusing that strength to the service of loving others, we lessen the burden of their resistance to our survival, and so enter more deeply into their world.

And for those that cannot learn – either those that lash out in violence or those that consume the innocent? What do they become in the end? Not themselves any longer – they become a headline in a newspaper. The history implicit in the personal “why” is lost. They become simply a “what”: 18 in San Bernardino. 49 people dead in Orlando. 3000 dead on 9/11. 47 million during World War II. Their personal history is consumed by the violence they created.

But men like Buddha – who renounced violence to bring a system of self-control to his people – or Jesus – who died to expose the hypocrisy of the military-religious complex – their names are enshrined in the hearts of those they have liberated. They live on in us.

Tyranny Vanquished by Love

As an advocate of the healing manifested in the world through divine love – that is to say, as an apologist – the most painful apology is that offered by those that justify violence in the defense of received truth.

In modern America, those justifications are flavored with desperation. For many years, Christian culture was synonymous with the dominant Caucasian culture. The twenty-first century promises an end to that dominance, but that eventuality was clearly forecast in the last century. The misguided hope that change and accommodation can be avoided breeds irrationality, manifested in the religious extremism that spawned death-threats against doctors that prescribe chemical abortions or that drives parents to resist education in evolutionary biology. Fundamentalism bred in the military, where “Warriors for Christ” sometimes coerce religious conduct in their subordinates, and issue death threats against leaders in organizations (such as the Military Religious Freedom Foundation) that oppose that unconstitutional practice. In each case, the instigators see the tenets of their faith as justifying imposition of their values upon others, and therefore implicitly justifying a broader defense of inherited social privilege.

In both Judaism and Islam, this tendency is heightened by the intervention of God in martial struggles against those seeking to subdue the faithful. It is only in Christianity that radical non-violence is upheld. That the bookends to Christianity both deny the divinity of Christ may be symptomatic of a pragmatism that makes violence inescapable.

In Islam and the Destiny of Man, Eaton explicitly upholds this principle. A Sunni scholar, his survey of Muslim history after the death of the prophet concludes with the observation that the practical realities of maintaining control of an Islamic culture meant at least paying lip-service to its theology, which was often solidified by investments in public works that facilitated its spread. Through that means, tyranny was turned to the service of faith. But it goes beyond that – Eaton makes a deep statement that truth cannot survive in the world unless evil is divided from it, and that division requires violence. Indeed, the hypocrites of the ruling class in the Umayyad and Abbassid dynasties were short-lived.

In discussion with my Shia colleague at work, I have been slowly establishing the validity of the contrasting proposition of Christian faith: Jesus demonstrated that the pragmatic truths of this world are dust in the hands of those that manipulate them. What is known to be “true” is far less meaningful than what is possible. While the common reaction is “good luck with that,” I keep on pointing out that far more power is available to us than is required to solve the problems we face. A billion times as much energy leaves the sun as reaches the earth. It is not allowed us for the same reason that parents don’t give matches to children – one selfish miss-step can destroy us all.

But, you see, it wasn’t a solar eclipse on Good Friday. It was the sun pouring its power through him.

I discovered Lauren Naigle through BJ out at The River Runs. The compositions on Lauren’s debut album don’t rival those found in the secular (and often profane) debuts of Ricky Lee Jones or Norah Jones, and subscribe to a simple lyrical formula. But they encapsulate the fundamental truths of Christian experience: it is the loving heart that bled for humanity that demonstrates the preconditions for true power. Surrender self-concern and trust that all those that you love ultimately will love you in return.

Lauren is young, and among her tracks are jingles that might be dismissed as overly exuberant. But she has not been without suffering, losing two years of high school to an auto-immune disorder and a beloved grandfather. In How Can It Be’s closing homage, she pleads for self-surrender:

There is victory in my Savior’s loss
In the crimson flowing from the Cross
Pour over me, pour over me. (Yes!)

Oh let this be where I die
My Lord with thee crucified.
Be lifted high, as my kingdoms fall
Once and for all, once and for all.

Oh Lord I lay it down.
Oh Lord I lay it down.
Help me to lay it down.
Oh Lord I lay it down.

Bad things happen to good people not because they are weak.

Evil walks in the world, and hungers for the power that originates from love, but love recoils from its grasp. In Richard Nixon, the great lesson of abused power was visible when he bade farewell to his staff, tears streaming down his face as he juxtaposed his experience of political life with the love he had received from his mother. That is another way of reading Lauren’s lyrics: “Be lifted high, as my kingdoms fall. Oh Lord I lay it down.

There are those immune to these realizations – Beria, Stalin’s security chief, spat on the corpse just moments after his master’s death. But Stalin has already been forgotten by history, replaced by Vladimir Putin, a man who justifies his power by promising to allocate money for road repairs left undone by the local governments impoverished by the corruption he organizes.

Putin’s political aspirations were conceived when unrest in East Germany paralyzed the embassy staff. Stepping in with a firm will, he saw people galvanized to action. It is this strength of will that he relies upon, but the lesson that is demonstrated by history is that the will to power is no match for the discipline required of those that love unconditionally. Tyrants can concentrate spiritual power, but they cannot hold it in any confrontation with a wise and loving adversary. The tyrant simply serves as a dark well in which light shines more brilliantly into the spirits of the oppressed.

The mistake of religious fanaticism is to believe that the institutions of tyranny must be dismantled, for that strategy only justifies oppression. The truth found in Christianity is that we don’t need to destroy the institutions of tyranny. Instead, in service with he that died once and for all, we can dismantle the personalities of the tyrants.

Oh, Lauren, what an joy it is to celebrate your wise old soul!

Islam Reflected

While my understanding of Christianity is rooted in my personal spiritually, my reflections on other religions are stimulated by my encounters with writings that I feel express an authentic immersion in cultural experience. Among these writings I include Wouk’s This is My God, which celebrates the depth of Jewish faith while revealing honestly the costs of its insularity. Thich Naht Hahn’s The Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching is similarly powerful, though Ethan Nichtern’s The Road Home serves better to situate Buddhism in the modern world.

As regards Islam, apologists have the enormous benefit of written records that describe the formation of the faith. This is abused, perhaps, in their claims of authenticity and authority. But it also means that we are allowed a more intimate look at the personal and social transformations generated by a prophet. In Islam and the Destiny of Man, Charles Le Gai Eaton rendered this history appropriately, disentangling cultural and religious influences, but also with a sympathy found only in one steeped in spiritual experience. This summary of the essence of the Qur’an is not untypical:

Other books are passive, the reader taking the initiative, but revelation is an act, a command from on high – comparable to a lightening flash, which obeys no man’s whim. As such, it acts upon those who are responsive to it, reminding them of their true function as viceregents of God on earth, restoring to them the use of faculties which have become atrophied – like unused muscles – and showing them, not least by the example of the Prophet, what they are meant to be. To say this is to say that revelation, within the limits of what is possible in our fallen condition, restores to us the condition of fitrah. It gives back to the intelligence its lost capacity to perceive and to comprehend supernatural truths, it gives back to the will its lost capacity to command the warring factions in the soul, and it gives back to the sentiment its lost capacity to love God and to love everything that reminds us of Him.

The universality of this formulation reflects Eaton’s awareness that revelation is not unique to Islam. Mohammed and the Qur’an are manifestations of the Divine intention in circumstances that were unique to Arabia. Eaton dwells lovingly on those unique characteristics: the vast open spaces traversed by spice traders, the restricted word roots that make Arabic a richly allusive language, and the culture of the warrior poet – all were aspects that made the people’s minds uniquely susceptible to wisdom in the form emanated by the prophet.

But Eaton was also a European writing in 1985. The Occident was just recovering from the first of the OPEC oil crises, and the paroxysms of WWII were kept fresh in mind. Israelis and Palestinians blew each other up in hotels and apartments across Europe, to be succeeded shortly by kidnappings and bombings by home-grown radicals. The scheduled deployment of tactical nukes heightened global tensions between the US and USSR, threatening a conflict that would leave a radioactive waste along the fault line dividing NATO and the Warsaw Pact.

Seeking prescriptions for healing, Eaton’s comparative anthropology led him to elevate the virtues of Arab and Muslim culture. He places much of the blame for the onset of social decay in Muslim states on colonialism (including Zionism) and Westernization of the elite. Worse, his analysis tends to dismiss the virtues of European culture, characterizing our economics as an obsession with administrative efficiency, Christianity as immature idolatry, separation of church and state as self-destructive materialism, and our rational science as justifying exploitation of the natural world.

Placed in proximity, these attitudes seem damning, but Eaton presented them without polemics. To the Muslim, these are obvious realities not worthy of great fanfare, and generally of no great concern except in that the instability of Occidental nations threatens to engulf the Muslim world. But the comparison seemed also to blind Eaton to the subtle miscegenation of Islamic and Arabic virtues, and so perhaps blinded him to the lessons that could beneficially be learned from the history of other nations.

Among the characteristic values of Muslim culture, Eaton lists the sword, manifesting as a willingness to embrace risk in seeking greatness, and a conciliatory attitude towards death. But the symbolism is pertinent: the Muslim world was always a world of conquerors financed by the Central Asian traders whose camel trains linked the Orient with Europe. As in feudal Europe, religion forced the warlords to rationalize their ambitions in religious terms, but it was in large part the constraints of technology and flesh that limited  hardship among the people. Remove those constraints, as happened in Europe following industrialization, and both rational analysis and experience proves that there are no winners in modern warfare. It is far easier to destroy infrastructure than it is to build it. And so, after two great paroxysms, Europe chose to ensure that the struggle for dominance between national leaders was constrained to the free market. Rather than learning from this history, today we witness the Muslim world slowly grinding itself up in Lebanon and Iraq and Iran and Yemen and Egypt and Libya and Afghanistan and Pakistan. Yes the sword created the Muslim empire, but replace it with rifles and suicide bombers and tanks, and no culture has proven itself wise enough to resist the rush to self-destruction.

To the degree possible, restless aggression is moderated by the second Arab fascination: women. Eaton celebrates coitus as the most direct route to spiritual union, but then turns around and supports strict cordoning of the masculine and feminine worlds to guard against sexual immoderation. In a culture of aggressive males, these constraints inevitably fell most heavily upon women. This catering to masculine weakness discourages expression of the feminine virtues, principally among them conciliation and healing. In America, conversely, in my lifetime we have seen a steady disciplining of institutionalized misogyny, starting with removal of cheesecake calendars, passage of anti-harassment laws, and finally aggressive reconstruction of the workplace to assimilate graduating college classes that are more than fifty percent female. If the West is failing anyone today, it is the men that have not been provided the spiritual tools to control their youthful passions.

But can Islam, celebrating a man with twelve wives, offer anything more? Considering the brutal enforcement of female dress codes throughout the Muslim world, it would seem not. Yes, the West is in the ugly stage of the transition to sexual equality, but we are learning from the process, and will emerge far stronger for the investment. The Muslim world should take note.

But this criticism does not detract from the power of Eaton’s presentation. Like a great novel, his work immerses the reader in the Muslim mind-set, aided in no small part by a detailed rendering of the heroism of the founder and his heirs. It is a great story, guided by a holistic faith that has inspired artistic and intellectual achievement for more than a millennium. In recognizing defects, I seek merely to inoculate the Western reader against making too much of them, and to warn the Muslim reader to appreciate the costs of their insularity.

Islam and the Destiny of Man presented its religion as a profoundly human story, much as Christianity did in casting God’s devotion to us as the sacrifice of a son. In that commonality, the true Christian should find all necessary means to reach across the divide, inspiring and being inspired by the greatness that faith calls from humanity.

Tradition Transitions

Locally, the cultural transition from polytheism to monotheism always involves an argument about divine merit. The critical consumer of religion would have been expected to ask “Why should I worship your god?” Not surprisingly, then, the major tenets of monotheistic religions are concerned with the nature of God. In the Old Testament, God is the omnipotent creator. In Islam, the fundamental tenet of faith holds that “There is no divinity except in God (and he has no partners).”

This creates the context for today’s tawdry and tendentious theological arguments between Jews, Christians and Muslims. For the Jew, God is the commanding but devoted groom to the Chosen People. To the Christian, God manifested as man in an act of redemptive service. For the Muslim, God is the fundament of reality and thus the only meaningful subject for contemplation. The Jew argues against Christianity and Islam as against adultery. The Christian, presented with contradictory scripture, uses fragments of Jesus’s teachings to argue that he is the only path to redemption. And while the Qur’an holds that none of God’s messengers can be ignored, it also teaches that Mohammed (pboh) was the culminating prophet, and so that the Qur’an is authoritative scripture, even when it grossly elides the writings of the Torah and Bible.

These controversies provide fertile ground for political manipulation. Al Qaeda was led by a man whose principal concern was the corruption of the Holy Places by the Saudi dynasty. The House of Saud in turn uses its oil wealth to propagate the literalist theology of the Wahabbists that supported their claims to monarchy. The Republican presidential front-runners rally their base by proposing crimes against humanity justified by the idea that Muslims don’t value their own lives. And the Zionists rally Christian support for a slow annexation of Palestine by reference to an ancient land grant and obscure end-times prophesy in the Book of Revelation.

The mature religious scholar admits that all arguments concerning the nature of God are futile. God is infinite, and therefore cannot even be described, much less understood. Unfortunately, this leads to religious relativity. The principal deity of any religion (such as the Hindu Brahma) can be identified with God. In the Qur’an, tolerance is suggested by the warning that not all the prophets of Allah are known to us. Worse, in the Old Testament other gods are mentioned by name, and the inducements to worship only Yahweh are backed by dire threats. To the modern reader, the character of Abraham’s God is not always appealing.

The way out of these dilemmas is to recognize that while God may by the object of religious devotion, humanity is the subject of religious action. That perspective leads us to wonder, of each stage in the journey, what it was the humanity received for its devotion. Naturally, the history of the traditions of Abraham is limited to the human perspective, and in focusing on males leaves much wanting for those seeking to bring women back into the process. But the Torah, the Bible and the Qur’an are all the record we have. What can we make of them?

Prior to Abraham, a mature reading of Genesis would hold that man was offered the guidance of divine wisdom and the support of divine mercy. This was constrained in the covenant with Noah, in which a frustrated God makes men responsible for managing their own justice.

The story of Abraham and his progeny charts the development of moral fortitude in humanity’s change agent, the unstable male. The degree of the necessary transformation is foretold when Abraham is asked to sacrifice his son Isaac, with a ram substituted when Isaac shows fear. It is two generations later that significant strength arises in the lineage, when Israel takes under his wing Joseph the orphaned first-born of his true love Rachel. Even so, while Joseph’s virtue impels his rise to the top of Egyptian society, the Hebrews are subordinated to Egyptian culture. His strength seems to fail its purpose. From the history of the Patriarchs, the only obvious lesson is that boys need fathers.

The story resumes with the Exodus from Egypt and wanderings to the Promised Land. Raised as an Egyptian prince, Moses possesses all the intellectual skills necessary for leadership, but his people are psychologically weak. The work done in this part of the Bible is to create a society devoted to rational problem solving. This is accomplished through the propagation of a complex legal code and foundation of a dedicated tribe of philosophers.

With this resource in place, God again enters into direct relationship with the people after their entry into the Promised Land. The nation, established through conflict, is beset by enemies, but God raises up heroes to prevent its destruction. Once again, however, the investment is betrayed, as the people demand the earthly trappings of monarchy as a means of focusing resources to ensure their security. The great prophet of this era is Elijah, but ultimately it is the tangible presence of the monarchs that commands the devotion of the nation. The consequence is its destruction, with the elite carried off to Babylon.

In this setting, deprived of political power, the greatness of the prophetic relationship is proven in the person of Daniel. Like Joseph entering the royal court as a slave, Daniel is not assimilated, but expresses spiritual gifts that force both the Assyrian and Persian kings to recognize the authority of God. But the Israelites as a whole did not heed this lesson, returning to Jerusalem as an administrative power that evolved into monarchy, with the priests relegated to the role of law-keepers, decaying eventually to profiteers from animal sacrifice.

To that point, then, God had succeeded only in the private sphere. In the public space, the institutions of state and religion were used to suppress the psychological and moral freedom that comes with a personal and direct relationship with God. Overcoming this injustice was the great goal of the ministry of Jesus. In a few short years, he demonstrated that God exists to serve humanity, raised up an entire generation of prophets equal to any among their ancestors, supplanted legal codes with the rule of love, and motivated the lower classes to discover the power that arises from banding together in mutual concern. Recognizing the trap posed by written scripture, Jesus offered his wisdom in parables, leaving it to his Apostles to reconstruct for posterity the history of his ministry. Of course, upon hearing the news of the Crucifixion and Resurrection, any person familiar with the story of Isaac would recognize that the covenants of the Old Testament had been fulfilled in Jesus.

At the close of the New Testament, we have a history of cultural evolution starting from superstitious origins that culminated with ethical maturity that allows even common individuals to experience direct relationship with God through the Holy Spirit. But we had seen this on a lesser scale prior to the conquest of the Promised Land, and the outcome was eventually a corruption of the divine relationship by human power. Indeed, while the Church at first organized around ministry to the disadvantaged, with the collapse of the Roman state it was left as the only European institution. It was not long before the temptations of authority began to corrupt its mission.

While this corruption did not manifest itself fully until the Renaissance (when the European kings moved to dismantle Feudalism by meddling in Ecumenical affairs), the counter-reaction was established in the seventh century as Islam. Islam summarizes the Hebrew experience, defining a religious observance based upon holy edicts (though limited in scope as compared to the Torah), but yet encouraging individual moral judgment through a personal relationship with the creator. Where the Church and Empire had acted vigorously to suppress even mild forms of heresy, Islam recognized local differences, holding that each community chose its authorities through popular acclaim. Even more, the original “people of the book,” the Jews and Christians, were welcomed explicitly as coreligionists, not rejected as competitors.

In two short centuries, the tolerance and vigor of this teaching allowed Islam to grow into the largest empire known to that time. In defending their privileges from Muslim expansion, the authorities in Europe were forced to devolve power to lower levels of the society. As the balance between the two cultures was righted, neither the caliphs nor monarchs would be capable of subordinating religion to the service of the state. Rather, the state came to assimilate religious virtues, allocating resources from the wealthy to support the poor. In the twentieth century, the greater danger to religion was irrelevancy, a threat that has allowed the morally corrupt to foment and exploit literalism and aggression among those daunted by the complexity of modern society.

The secular historian might be tempted to dismiss the beneficial evolution here attributed to religion as due to cultural accident. Against this, we must ask what antecedents foretold the Law, the moral parables of Jesus or the social contract of the Qur’an. Even should such antecedents be surmised, we have to ask why in every case the seminal prophets should have dedicated their work to the glory of a compassionate and forgiving God, and whether anything other than divine participation can explain how those individuals, often culturally isolated, should have created philosophies so ideally suited to propagate moral discernment and freedom in societies that suffered from their lack.

For the person of faith, of course, no such doubt need be addressed regarding their personal religious experience. What I hope that I have illustrated, rather, is the degree to which those experiences are harmonized when we discard our arguments regarding the nature of God, and focus instead on the majesty of the transformation that monotheism has wrought in human nature. What faces us now is to discern the next step in the process, the step that Islam, with its teaching that Mohammed (pboh) is the last of God’s messengers, forces us to recognize must bring us to full realization of God’s purpose for humanity.

Read the Qur’an

When I was sitting for jury duty on Yom Kippur (a sterile exercise, as all the courts were closed), I ran into a man who claimed that the Qur’an used more violent imagery than any other book of scripture. Having read half of it, I was confused, thinking that Muhammed (PBOH) must have had a real change of heart in the second half. When I asked him, “Have you read the book?” he responded “No.”

“But then where do you get your knowledge?”

“A report from a Canadian scholar. I forget his name.”

The Washington Post has published an opinion piece by Michael Dougherty titled “The Necessary Task of Integrating Islam within the West.” Unfortunately, in the large Dougherty uses his opportunity to denigrate Islam by association with ugly politics. This includes references to female genital mutilation (an ancient African custom predating Islam), “triumphalism” (as though Christians don’t assume a right to rule), and “jurisprudence over theology” (as though Judaism isn’t defined by the 613 laws of the Torah).

Dougherty claims that Muhammad was a “military leader and conqueror, a militant posture that shapes Islam to this day.” As I understand the history, Muhammad was a survivor of aggression originating in Mecca, aggression that forced him to Medina, and when the fighting was over, he returned to Mecca as a peacemaker. Military aggression was not propagated by Muslim culture – rather, aggressive leaders used Islam as a fig-leaf for their ambitions, much as Christianity was abused in the West, not least in the Crusades.

To those that truly want to understand Islam, I would recommend Islam and the Destiny of Man by Charles Le Gai Eaton.

As I perceive the growth of the traditions of Abraham, Judaism developed reasoning in its culture through propagation of law under the authority of the covenant with Noah. Jesus came along to remonstrate with his culture, pointing out that the law was being manipulated to divide the faithful from God, and teaching them to set it aside and tie their thoughts and actions to the judgment of a loving heart.

Islam was designed to guide other cultures through that same experience. The behaviors required by the Qur’an are far fewer than those in Judaism – Sharia law is an accretion that came later. And the writing throughout encourages the individual to guard and deepen his individual relationship with Allah.

The poetry of the Qur’an is by far the most beautiful scripture that I have encountered. If anything, what the West should hope for in accepting Muslims is not that the teachings of Muhammad should be moderated, but rather that – liberated from the coarse secular politics of the impoverished regions that Islam serves – Muslims should find the opportunity to rediscover the spiritual depth of their faith.

And if they would bother to actually read the Qur’an, Westerners might find the same.