Saturday, January 07, 2012

Peter Berger on Muslim philosophy and the Arab Spring



Muslims and others like to point out that the Bible contains enough bloodthirsty teachings to compete with any Salafist ideology. Judaism has moderated these teachings early on, and then profited (if that’s the word) from the fact that there was no sovereign Jewish state in all the centuries from the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans to the establishment of the modern state of Israel—no state which, even if it wanted to, would have been able, for example, to inflict the criminal penalties enjoined in the Book of Leviticus. The New Testament is less carnivorous than the Hebrew Bible, but the history of Christianity, from its establishment in the Roman state onward, shows that Christians have had little difficulty legitimating every kind of violence and bloodshed in theological terms. Yet, at least in modern times, there have been sophisticated efforts to separate the core messages of Biblical revelation from various passages, which are deemed to be morally offensive but which can be ascribed to the contingencies of their historical context. I think that the advent of modern historical scholarship has greatly helped this process of separating core and periphery in the scriptural texts. Liberal Protestants have been in the forefront of this development, followed (initially with some reluctance) by Catholics, and then by liberal Jews. Of course there continues resistance in all branches of the “Abrahamic tradition” by conservatives who insist on the “inerrancy” of the scriptural texts.

Such a development is much more difficult in the case of Islam. I think that a major reason for this is the Muslim understanding of the Quran. It is misleading to compare the Quran with the Bible. For most Muslims, the Quran is “inerrant” to a degree far beyond the understanding of this term by even very conservative Christians or Jews. It has been suggested that Christians, rather than comparing the Quran with the Bible, should compare the Quran with Christ—especially the Christ described in the prologue to the Gospel of John—the Christ who is the Word (Logos): “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God; all things were made through him, and without him was not anything made that was made.” Thus it is very instructive that the earliest controversies among Islamic scholars concerned the question of whether the Quran was eternal or created—a question which curiously resembles the Christological controversies of the first centuries of Christian history.

In my MA program at Catholic University, I learned that one way to think about this issue-- the ontological status of the Quran-- would be to say that, for Christians, there is the incarnatio, the enfleshing of the Word, whereas for Muslims there is the inlibritio, i.e., the "en-booking" of the Word. The Christ/Quran analogy is not new.

Be sure to read the whole article. I'm not sure I agree with Berger completely; his stance strikes me as both a bit too optimistic and a bit too conventional. Some form of the "Islam needs an internal Reformation" argument has been floating around for years-- forwarded by non-Muslims, of course, and I've written as much on this blog in years past. But how realistic is such a hope? I have no doubt that Islam will continue to evolve-- that it's evolving even as I write this post-- but I descry no sea changes in my near future.

I wonder what Muslims would make of this Zen story:

[Master Hakuin] asked the crazy monk, "They say you are using Buddhist scriptures for toilet paper. Is that so?"

The crazy monk said, "Yes. I myself am a Buddha. What is wrong with using Buddhist scriptures to wipe a Buddha's ass?"

Hakuin said, "You're wrong. Since it's a Buddha's ass, why use old paper with writing on it? You should wipe it with clean white paper."

The crazy monk was shamed, and he apologized.

--from Zen Antics, translated and edited by Thomas Cleary

I have to say... if I could add a line to that story, it would be:

And then he went right back to wiping his ass with the scriptures.


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