If Muslims and Christians Worship the Same God, Can't the Forgiven and Unforgiven Too?

The latest from Wheaton College is that Larycia Hawkins and the College have agreed to part ways. In the leaks that led to this apparently amicable determination was an email from Wheaton’s provost, Stan Jones, who apologized for his handling of the incident. According to Alan Jacobs, Jones wrote:

I asked Dr. Hawkins for her forgiveness for the ways I contributed to the fracture of our relationship, and to the fracture of Dr. Hawkins’ relationship with the College…. I apologized for my lack of wisdom and collegiality as I initially approached Dr. Hawkins, and for imposing an administrative leave more precipitously than was necessary.

But according to some of Jones’ critics, this apology doesn’t go far enough, as Jacobs explains, “because it does not acknowledge Wheaton’s history (and present) of structural racism and sexism.”

Jacobs then asks:

What if, when a brother in Christ apologizes and asks for forgiveness, one were to grant that forgiveness — instead of immediately criticizing him for not having provided a fully adequate account of the reasons he went astray?

I’d follow up with another question: doesn’t the spirit of Dr. Hawkins’ show of solidarity with Muslims provide an analogy for how Jones’ critics might reach out to Wheaton’s provost? I mean, if you can overcome the division between Islam and Christianity by donning a hijab during Advent, can’t you go without a latte for the month of February to show solidarity with Wheaton’s administration?

Jacobs concludes:

So to those who say that Provost Jones’ apology is inadequate, my answer would be: of course it is inadequate. Every act of penitence, including yours and mine, is inadequate.

That could also be instructive for those who think Purgatory is going to take care of residual human guilt. Once humans sin — think one little bite of a piece of fruit — can you ever go back to being acceptable inherently?

No hope without alien righteousness.


Disenchantment, Christian Style

Protestants get a lot of blame for removing the sacred canopy that covered Christendom with a sacramental presence. But when you know the history of religion maybe that isn’t such a bad thing. In fact, monotheistic faiths have regularly rejected those pieties or ideas that locate divine ways in ordinary affairs. Steve Bruce explains:

The religions of Egypt and Mesopotamia were profoundly cosmological. The human world was embedded in a cosmic order that embraced the entire universe, with no sharp distinction between the human and the non-human. Greek and Roman gods even mated with humans. Such continuity between people and the gods was broken by the religion of the Jews. As Berger puts it: ‘The Old Testament posits a God who stands outside the cosmos, which is his creation but which he confronts and does not permeate.’ He created it and he would end it, but, between start and finish, the world could be seen as having its own structure and logic. The God of Ancient Israel was a radically transcendent God. . . . There was a thoroughly demythologized universe between human kind and God. (God is Dead: Secularization in the West, 6)

Christians (should) get secularization honestly.

Two Cheers (again) for the Enlightenment

While some people are reflecting on which religions execute blasphemers, Protestants may want to be a tad circumspect — Americans as well, for that matter, if they think that John Winthrop made the U.S. a city on a hill.

Here’s one example of an attempt to assess Judaism, Christianity, and Islam on the wickedness of blasphemy:

That Christianity has less of a violence problem is self-evident, but the point is still lost on some people: at The Guardian, Ian Black declared that, in regards to the religion’s resistance to images of the Prophet Muhammad, “Islam is not unique. Judaism forbids the use of ‘graven images’ and Christianity has at times frowned on visual representations of sacred figures, allowing only the cross to be depicted in churches.”

This is a paragraph so shockingly dimwitted in its appraisal of both Christianity and Islam, and the differences between the two, that it is hard to know where to begin. I cannot readily speak for Judaism—the last time I attended a Jewish service was at a buddy’s Bar Mitzvah well over a decade ago—but I can say that Black’s appraisal of Christianity is, quite literally, total nonsense. For starters, Christianity since the sixteenth century has been a fractured religion, particularly on the subject of iconography; it does not really make sense to speak of Christianity “frowning” upon the use of imagery, unless you are willing to clarify just which branch or denomination of Christianity is doing this frowning. Catholicism is well-known for its use of crucifixes, for instance, although you can find them in Lutheran and Anglican churches, along with some other denominations. But you’re not apt to find a corpus amongst Baptists or Presbyterians, and again here Black’s characterization is frankly bizarre: it would be a profound understatement to say that the Southern Baptist Conference, for instance, “frowns” upon the artistic customs generally associated with Catholicism.

But if this piece were written in 1645, it might have a very different feel thanks to Massachusetts Bay’s Capital Laws (1641):

1. (Deut. 13. 6, 10. Deut. 17. 2, 6. Ex. 22.20) If any man after legall conviction shall have or worship any other god, but the lord god, he shall be put to death.

2. (Ex. 22. 18. Lev. 20. 27. Dut. 18. 10.) If any man or woeman be a witch, (that is hath or consulteth with a familiar spirit,) They shall be put to death.

3. (Lev. 24. 15,16.) If any person shall Blaspheme the name of god, the father, Sonne or Holie Ghost, with direct, expresse, presumptuous or high handed blasphemie, or shall curse god in the like manner, he shall be put to death.

That should put a wrinkle in the Reformation-to-Revolution-to-Toleration narrative and may cause some rethinking of the Puritans’ influence in forming the American nation.

This should not be read as some kind of exercise in moral equivalency that likens Islamic terrorism to Protestant state laws against blasphemy and idolatry. It is only designed as a reminder that Protestants too had to come out of their theocratic slumber by means other than those supplied by the reformers.

Turkey Needs the United States (not for the reasons you think)

Do politicized Christians in the United States understand what Turkish Muslims are recognizing, that it’s not the morality but the scale of the government? Ponder this from Mustafa Akyol:

As you probably well know, Turkey has long been stressed by political tension between religious conservatives and secular nationalists, the latter also known as the Kemalists. However, that main fault line is somewhat passé these days given the emergence of a new kind of tension between the religious conservatives who had triumphed together in (OR: previous) tension from years gone by. This time, it is the AKP (Justice and Development Party) government and the powerful Fethullah Gülen Movement that are at odds with each other.

This new tension, like the old one, includes lots of mind-boggling details and jaw-dropping conspiracy theories. However, like the old one, it actually renders down to a simple question: the nature, and the masters, of the state. Since we have such an all-powerful and all-encompassing Leviathan, its control is a matter of life-and-death. Hence come all our bitter and zealous power struggles.

Another element in this new political tension is the Islamic credentials both sides have, according to their somewhat similar yet still distinct interpretations of religion. This religious element inspires a strong sense self-righteousness and causes the tension to get deeper and deeper.

But is there no way out? An interesting perspective came from an Islamic intellectual, Sibel Eraslan, who is a renowned novelist and a columnist for the conservative daily Star. She wrote:

“The [Gülen] Community-AKP conflict invites us to think more seriously on ‘secularism’… [because] the fight for political space and power among the pious forces us to look for a new referee.”

The term I translated here as “referee” (“hakem”) is a powerful word in Islam, referring to a neutral and fair judge who can settle disputes. And it is interesting that Ms. Eraslan, a pious, headscarf-wearing Muslim, thinks that this “referee” may be none other than secularism. Of course, this would not be the type of secularism that Turkey’s Kemalists have imposed for decades. That peculiar ideology, called “laiklik” (from the Frenchlaïcité), was based on the assumption that there was something wrong with religion and therefore it needed to be suppressed by the state.

What Ms. Eraslan probably implied, and what Turkey indeed needs, is a more American-like secularism. In other words, it should be based on the recognition that there is a problem not with religion, but with the concentration of political power.

A Secular Faith

I wish I had read more Bernard Lewis before I wrote a certain book:

Secularism in the modern political meaning – the idea that religion and political authority, church and state are different, and can or should be separated – is, in a profound sense, Christian. Its origins may be traced in the teaching of Christ, confirmed by the experience of the first Christians; its later development was shaped and, in a sense, imposed by the subsequent history of Christendom. The persecutions endured by the early church made it clear that a separation between the two was possible; the persecutions inflicted by later churches persuaded many Christians that such a separation was necessary.

The older religions of mankind were all related to – were in a sense a part of – authority, whether of the tribe, the city, or the king. The cult provided a visible symbol of group identity and loyalty; the faith provided sanction for the ruler and his laws. Something of this pre-Christian function of religion survives, or reappears, in Christendom, where from time to time priests exercised temporal power, and kings claimed divine right even over the church. But these were aberrations from Christian norms, seen and reciprocally denounced as such by royal and clerical spokesmen. The authoritative Christian text on these matters is the famous passage in Matthew 22:21, in which Christ is quoted as saying, “render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s; and unto God the things that are God’s.” Commentators have differed as to the precise meaning and intention of this phrase, but for most of Christian history it has been understood as authorizing the separate coexistence of two authorities, the one charged with matters of religion, the other with what we would nowadays call politics.

In this, the practice of Christianity was in marked contrast with both its precursors and its competitors. In imperial Rome Caesar was God, reasserting a doctrine that goes back to the god-kings of remote antiquity. Among the Jews, for whose beliefs Josephus coined the term “theocracy,” God was Caesar. For the Muslims, too, God was the supreme sovereign, and the caliph was his vice-gerent, “his shadow on earth.” Only in Christendom did God and Caesar coexist in the state, albeit with considerable development, variety, and sometimes conflict in the relations between them. (What Went Wrong? Western Impact and Middle Eastern Response, 2002, 96-97)

Could it be that resistance to two-kingdom theology is simply the congenital human propensity to identify the sacred in the temporal, or to conflate cult and culture? Is it also a failure to grasp how novel Christ’s own claims are from the perspective of human history?

What Makes the Religious Right Different from Political Islam?

I (all about me) will be in Chattanooga this week to speak at the University of Tennessee in the LeRoy Martin Distinguished Lecturer Series. I will be drawing on recent reflections about Islam and Turkey to consider the assets and liabilities of Christian political engagement in the United States. Here is the description from the Philosophy and Religion Department, which is hosting the event:

D.G. Hart’s comparison of Political Islam to Christian activists in the United States is a provocative and even inflammatory juxtaposition. Aside from obvious and significant differences between political activism and the use of violence, conservative Muslims and evangelical Protestants do register significant objections to secular understandings of society and the state. They also seek to have secular governments recognize, if not implement, the morality taught in sacred texts. In sum, both groups are raising important questions about the secular politics and whether efforts to bracket religion actually end up imposing a secular version of morality on citizens. And yet, some political observers in the United States do not find the Religious Right to be as threatening as political Islam. On the other hand, other commentators see no difference because all politically motivated religious groups are at odds with the norms of liberal democracy. These considerations raise important questions about whether Christianity is more compatible than Islam with liberal democratic societies, and whether secular constructions of public life owe their existence the developments of Christianity in the West. D. G. Hart will explore these questions in the light of his recent book From Billy Graham to Sarah Palin: Evangelicals and the Betrayal of American Conservatism (Eerdmans, 2011).

The event is scheduled for Thursday, September 27, 2012, Thursday, September 27, 2012 at 5:00 pm in the University Center’s Raccoon Mountain Room (269). The public is welcome. Rotten tomatoes are not.