Allah commands, Jehovah says, Jesus saves?

To be in southern Spain is to be reminded of the Arab civilization here which has left wonderful traces of its character in the Alhambra in Granada, the Mezquita in Cordoba, the Gibralfaro- Alcazaba complex in Malaga, and in many ancient villages of the region. Its  buildings put to shame the heavy imperialism of many other civilizations by their suble commitment to human scale, playful structure and grace of detail. The sound of water trickling through their palaces is a reminder of the dependency of  human covilization upon the natural world.img_0338

Although the various Spanish kingdoms were ruled by Muslim dynasties, it is clear that for much of the time they found ways of absorbing and granting some human rights to Jews and Christians. This toleration is just as much a mark of their civilization as the elegance of their palaces and remains a challenge to faith traditions in our time.

The noble Qur’an is the holy book of Islam, containing all truth and nothing that is not the truth. Tbere is no room for the believer or the non-believer to question its origin, composition, commands or wisdom: it is the word of Allah given to The Prophet Muhammed  (peace upon him). This makes it an awward companion for any tolerant amd thoughtful belieber as it persistently denounces those who do not believe in its teachings, although it finds some wriggle room for Christians and Jews. As such it is a good companion to very conservative Islamic teachers and the Jihadists who obey their tachings. A holy text which contains much that is humanly vañuable becomes a tool for murderous authoritarian obscurantism because of the way it is understood by its users. Some will argue that that the Qur’an cannot be used differently, but the history of the Islamic kalifates in Spain contradicts that argument.

We can get a better hold on this issue if I confess that as a minister of the Church of Scotland I have  ackowledged “The Word of God contained in the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments to be the supreme rule of faith and life.” This is in itself a carefully crafted phrase, allowing room for theological subtleties of interpretation, but it neverthless embodies a notion of biblical inerrancy, which is in the end of the day polemical: if you accept this view of the Bible you know that atheists and Muslims are wrong and homosexual acts are an abomination. For this reason my church has added a clause the allows “liberty of opinion on such doctrines as do not enter into the substance of the faith,” which means more or less what the church decides it should mean.img_0339

Both the Islamic and Christian adherence to magic books rests on  notions of the divine origin of these texts. They are not human productions but either by means of dictation or inspiration, they are the Word of God. Certainly, in modern times, Christian scholars have been able to investigate the origin and history of the biblical texts, providing probable dates of writing, probable attributions of authorship, and an understanding of their probable meaning in their own time and place. These are forms of acholarship denied to the Islamic believer who cannot for example entertain the notion that parts of the Qur’an existed before Muhammed.

Behind the reluctance of both religions to admit that their holy books may contain errors of fact and faith, is their conviction that the content of theit faith traditions has been revealed rather than invented. This conviction is the source of most of the grief caused by religions, because it gives divine authority to human thoughts, customs and religious functionaries. The amount of human misery caused by this unjustiable authority has been and is, immense, and may even outweigh the undoubted good brought about by religious believers.

Justifiable faith begins with the acknowledgement that its God and its theology are the  fruit of human creativity; and that its sacred literature is of human authorship. I am not naive enough to imagine that religious arrogance, prejudice and violence will thereby be abolished, only that their perpetrators will be deprived of a significant excuse.

Some will argue that it also deprives faith of any claim to truth, but I would answer that it may provide empirical truth like Einstein, or experiential truth like Shakespeare, or practical truth like the anonymous inventor of the wheel. What’s not to like? Nor does it abolish the idea of revelation; it simply insists that if God communicates with human beings s/he does so by way of human creativity and that the fruit of revelation is therefore as fallible as all human productions.

No believer can rightly say with Martin Luther, “My conscience is in chains to the Word of God. Here I stand; I can do no other.” For the content of faith including any interpretation of holy books is the responsibility of the believer, who cannot hide behind his tradition. All those who have killled or sentenced others to death for religious reasons are simply thugs  whose brutality renders their theologies invalid.

img_0044If  Jesus saves, then he must save his followers from the sin of unjustifiable certainty. And the evidence of the Bible is that in life he hardly demanded adherence to any doctrine but asked people to follow his way, did not denounce his enemiies for theological errors,  but argued for his own view; called some scriptural commandments, “sayings from the old times,” and modified them. He reserved his sharpest language for religious leaders who knew they were right. He loved the scriptures of his people but interpreted them in the light of God’s goodness. His argument against divorce is a classic instance: God in his goodness has made male and female of equal value and their sexual union is never trivial but always holds the promise  of lasting faithfulness. He suggests that the Genesis story is more important than the Mosaic commandment.

Yes, one of the Gospel writers quotes Jesus as promising his disciples that the Holy Spirit will lead them into all truth, and that they will be able to do greater things than he has done!  Here indeed is the teacher who can save people from the kinds of certainty too often preached from pulpit and mosque. Nobody should think I am proposing something odd. Common sense wisdom from all cultures has pointed out the fallibility of human knowledge and the folly of dogmatism. “To err is human; to forgive divine” says the old proverb. Jesus would have approved both of its assertions.

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