Events in Syria and Europe have made me decide to postpone some other thoughts and instead comment on something at the heart of Islam. This overlaps with a Christian issue, and it needs careful handling, so this is a long post (almost 3000 words). I hope readers will give it a fair hearing.
This blog is not a commentary on political and religious affairs in general. It is about science and religion. However, now more than ever, we need accurate thought about what will help, in the long term, to overcome religious violence, and therefore I am posting here some relevant material. I will be discussing the way we approach the Bible and the Qur’an.
Although the organisation going by the name “Islamic State” is not Islamic in any deep sense, it is certainly a religious group. That is worth saying because it is a mistake to characterise it as purely a political group, though it is that as well. Its horrible behaviour follows from its horrible beliefs. Those beliefs come out of the experience of various young men of a sense of emptiness of what they have experienced of life, combined with a conveniently simplistic reading of Islamic history and also a certain attitude to the collection of poems and sayings that is called the noble Qur’an. Of course many of the practices and beliefs that “Islamic State” stands for strike the vast majority of Muslims with the same revulsion felt by any other decent people. Also, of course, things just as bad or worse have been perpetrated in living memory by non-religious groups—Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge, for example. And I think it right to add that “ISIL”, or whatever is the right name, is not Islamic in any deep sense because it has almost zero thoughtfulness in its handling of the Qur’an. Rather, it is a bunch of murderous thugs thirsty for power, money and self-righteousness. Nevertheless, what is going on in ISIL is bad religion, and one of the causes of bad religion is the idea that a written text can be invoked as an unquestionable authority, or a repository of perfection. That is what I want to write about here.
The truth is, there is no written text that is perfect. Not the Bible, not the Qur’an, not the Vedas, Upanishads, Puranas, not the Second Amendment to the United States Constitution, not “The God Delusion”, nor any other text that has come to be venerated by one group or another. All material written by humans, including inspired material, is limited, imperfect and fallible.
It is very important to be clear about this.
I think that many Christian readers will be alarmed by my stating so clearly that the Bible should not be described as “perfect”, but please do not desert this blog post immediately; please give it a chance. Other Christian readers will be feeling their way, not quite sure how the Bible fits in, or how we are meant to allow it to shape our thinking. And I hope that what I write here will eventually find its way to some thoughtful Muslim people, and help them to shape the future of Islam, because some shaping will be needed if we are to avoid a repeat of the sort of violent sustained malevolence that is currently under way.
In the following I will first discuss what is found in the Bible and how it is used by thoughtful and faithful Christian people. Then I will say a little about the Qur’an, and the danger of the claim that the Qur’an is perfect.
In the present day, a large part of the Christian community is trying to hold on to, and promote, the idea that the Bible is infallible. This is a way of managing the issue of how do you protect and pass on the truths you have inherited. The notion of infallibility of a book is one way to do this, but not the only way, and it is, at the very least, questionable whether it is the right or best way. This idea is promoted as a “Christian belief”, but, as I will explain, it is only Christian in the sense that some Christians hold it. It is certainly questionable whether Jesus himself thought that way, and there are convincing arguments to suggest that he did not. The question is not “did Jesus think the Scripture was fallible or did he think it was infallible?” but rather, the question is whether he even thought in those terms, or recommended that others should. It seems to me that anxiety about fallibility of the details of documents is alien to his whole approach; he was interested in wisdom and generosity, and getting the big picture, the heart of the message.
Jesus read the Hebrew Scriptures that he inherited as the precious account of God’s dealings with a group of people. On this we can all agree. Also, he found in them the sort of dependable resource that we often need, in order to navigate the distortions and tensions of human life. However, there is no reason to suppose he thought them uniformly faultless. That sort of notion doesn’t really capture the kind of attitudes he stood for. If anything, it is closer to the attitudes of the lawyers and Pharisees that he mostly clashed with and objected to.
In his directions to followers, Jesus pointed them to the Spirit to be poured out on the community as the main source to whom they should look for guidance and encouragement. His teaching is primarily about radical trust towards God, and determined, uncompromised loving-kindness to people. Jesus stated that he did not intend to overthrow the Hebrew Scriptures, but it comes over very clearly that what he intended was that the more generous and selfless thread that runs through them should be seen as the heart of what is to be learned there. His statement (Matthew chapter 5), about not the least detail disappearing from the Law, is not an invitation to become like a Pharisee, as the so-called “Christian” right in America has done. It is a command to do better than the Pharisees, which means to get at the heart of the Law, as he himself did. His summary statements focus on love to neighbour as the chief sign of love to God. He made no mention at all of a triumphant Israel, for example. If anything, he was either opposing that notion (one that is found in several poetic visions in the Old Testament), or else he was transforming it into the only triumph that counts: the triumph of human hearts filled with love. He used the Hebrew Scriptures wisely, focussing on the parts that help us understand what he was now showing us through his own way of life. He used the prophetic witness to suffering to help people interpret him. It is, I would say, highly doubtful whether he would present the battle of Jericho, for example, as a story of righteous glory.
The idea that the Bible is infallible has had a fluctuating history in the Christian world. Jewish rabbis in first century Israel certainly held their ancient Hebrew texts in great veneration, but that did not mean they could not question them. The Christian community inherited this combination of veneration and lively puzzlement. Later, the Protestant Reformation leaders asserted the primacy of holy scripture, but this was primarily because that was a necessary corrective to over-centralised power and corrupt practices in the church establishment. It did not require that the Bible be perfect in all respects, only that the Bible gives a fair chance to an open-hearted reader to get the important message that she/he needs. The idea that the Bible is simply without any error whatsoever, as originally written, is a much more recent development (it is about a century old). Some readers will have been shown isolated texts here and there that can be interpreted to support this “everywhere infallible” or “inerrant” theory of the Bible, but I hope you will come to understand that in fact this is a modern departure, and a serious mistake. The early church grew and learned in a context where most people had little or no access to the Hebrew Scriptures, and what they did get from their Jewish origins often had to be re-calibrated. This shows that that learning and growth did not require the sort of daily devotion to the text that is often recommended nowadays.
The notion that the Bible is in some sense perfect and infallible, rather than simply precious and to be learned from, originated in America near the turn of the twentieth century. It can also be traced in various sects before that time, but this is when it took more serious hold. It was a reaction to excessive dismissiveness coming from various academic movements in the nineteenth century. It remains a powerful idea because it seems to offer a form of security, and it can be supported by a certain reading of a few texts here and there in the New Testament, as I already mentioned. However, I would like to hold out, to people brought up on this idea, the chance to see and receive a better way. I would like to say this: do not fear. The way of following Jesus that I am advocating here, and that has been followed by many people right from early times, is a better way. It will not lead to dropping the Bible, nor will it lead to moral lapse, but in fact it is the best way to ensure the Bible is kept, and it is the way of truthfulness.
The part of religious life in present-day America that is called the “Christian right” is Christian in the sense of its cultural roots, and in some of its attitudes, but at its heart there is too much fear. This fearful heart should not be called Christian, because it is not sufficiently like Christ. Its grip remains strong, but for many people that grip is at last fading, because people are, quite rightly, uneasy about endorsing the sort of genocidal violence that you can find in some passages in the Bible dating from some thousand years B.C. And people are learning to read the New Testament more as a whole, rather than focusing on individual verses. This helps them get a wiser sense of what Jesus really stood for and stands for.
When I said above that the Bible is “precious and to be learned from,” one example of how to learn from it is to notice the sense of development: the journey away from violence, as seen in the experience of Israel, as they learned, slowly but surely, that that is not the way to show loyalty to God. The developing sense of what such loyalty really means is perfectly clear to anyone with an ounce of thoughtfulness, so that when Jesus was asked about it he could quote the famous statement about love to neighbour and expect to be immediately understood, even in a context where the country was under foreign military occupation.
Taking our lead from what we know of Jesus’ own attitudes, it is clear enough that the Bible includes, in its older part, material that we are meant to see as wrong assumptions made by people before they learned to do better. It is part of our duty, as Jesus’ followers, to say this. We are meant to take note, and move on. We take note, for example, that people long ago saw God as the sort of figure who would endorse their desire to keep slaves and to take revenge. That is far from what the Old Testament mostly says, but it does sometimes say that. However, what we see in the Bible is a clear process of learning. Slowly but surely, justice and mercy win out. There is a definite sense of direction, in which genuine fairness to all, the abandonment of revenge, and straightforward loving-kindness, come more and more to the fore.
By the time we come to the end of the older part of the Bible, religious practices such as offerings and prayers are seen as just so much wind and hypocrisy if leaders are taking bribes and poor people are going hungry. However, there still remains at this point a certain narrowness of vision, in which the Jewish people are going to be “top nation”. This narrowness is finally put to rest by Jesus, who blows it all away. While drawing on much of the Hebrew Scriptures, he neatly side-stepped the triumphalist part, marginalising it by ignoring it. In his hands, reconciliation, forgiveness and peace-making become the clear intention, to be practiced in the here and now. Now it is the peace-makers (not Jewish people, nor Christians for that matter) who shall be called “children of God” (those are his words). He is not particularly interested in nationality, and nor does he suggest that correct religious doctrine is the main need. Quite deliberately, he did not write a book, because that is not how it works. It works by people. A community of fallible, faulty, seeking, learning people, who learn from a book but learn to seek in that book the influence that caused the insights to get better. In the errors therein, we see ourselves—the sorts of faults that humans have. In the growing and deepening wisdom therein, we see and receive the influence which we are hungry for. Don’t get me wrong: we love this book and we are greatly nourished by it. But that doesn’t mean we cannot see its faults. We leave them in because we learn from those too: we learn humility, and we learn not to repeat them.
One of the great problems with the Qur’an is that it does not have this clear sense of development. It is not a record of a journey, but a set of pronouncements. It addresses both absolute existential issues, and also practical military and political issues. It thus promotes an attitude in which people are not encouraged to think for themselves and develop better and better models of society. Instead they are encouraged to read the supposedly perfect model and implement it. There is much humane and merciful writing in the Qur’an, but it is possible for violent or angry people to interpret it their preferred way. It is well documented that people trained in the idea that the Qur’an is completely perfect have used this attitude to justify murderous rage, even against their own sons and daughters. Of course a reasonable reader will know that that is not what the Qur’an is really all about, but my point is that the idea that every last phrase in the Qu’ran is perfect has not helped. If you teach people that every verse is perfect, then the larger message becomes lost, because then people will pick the verse and the interpretation that suits their mood and thus justify either peace or violence, as seems good to them. Such readers have often concluded that people who turn away from Islam, or even fellow Muslims who haven’t got it right, should be put to death.
I am trying to be fair here, and I am making a serious point. The point is that we absolutely need to come together as a community of reasonable people, who are seeking God and trying to live right, and agree, in the name of truth, love and justice, that fair and humane life is not best promoted by regarding a treasured book as perfect and authoritative in every detail.
So what I would like to ask the peace-loving Muslims, and they are the majority, is this. Can you somehow manage to tease your community away from the idea that actions can be justified merely by finding them advocated in a special book? Can you manage to agree with the rest of us that this book is a treasure but not the definitive statement of the management of human affairs? Because to admit this is to be truthful, and that is the only way to give a book true respect. And if you can admit this, then it will help to diminish the violent, murderous aspect of human nature in the future.