From Liberty Street: The Religious Quandary

John Turner

Next week I'm starting a series of book talks at a local library on the topic "Comprehending Today's Middle East." The first book I'll take up will be Karen Armstrong's biography of Muhammad, which, of course, is not about the modern Middle East but about the region fourteen hundred years ago. Still, it's a good place to start, because without knowing who Muhammad was and what prophecy he delivered to his people it's impossible to grasp anything about contemporary Islam.

I suspect the average American thinks of Islam as a religion separate from Judaism or Christianity. But that's not how Muhammad saw it. For him, there was only one authentic religion and that involved worship of the one true god. Al-Llah (as Ms. Armstrong calls him) is not a deity different from Yahweh of the ancient Hebrews or the Lord of the Christian scriptures. These are simply alternative names for the single omnipotent force in the universe. The serious question for religion is not who god is but rather who his legitimate prophets are. In Muhammad's view, all three of the great monotheisms are descended from the Prophet Abraham, who was neither Jew, Christian nor Muslim but an antecedent to all three of those designations. And in this respect, Ms. Armstrong essentially agrees with him. In fact, in reading her account of Muhammad one gets the sense that, intellectually, she is more a Muslim than anything else, though in an interview with Bill Moyers about four years ago she described herself as a freelance monotheist.

She is, so far as historical fact goes, a former Roman Catholic nun who has become a prominent scholar of comparative religion. She left the formal religious life after seven years when she became convinced of two things: that being a nun was going to kill both her mind and her body, and that she wanted to continue living. She has told the story of her experience as a nun in a fascinating memoir titled Through The Narrow Gate. It raises a number of questions about the nature of religious authority but does not address the central religious question of all: who is this god who claims the right to direct all human hope and aspiration?

From remarks I've seen her make elsewhere, I've gathered that Armstrong has reached a position in her own spiritual quest that would strike many as quizzical. She no longer believes in the existence of God but she continues to grant to him the authority to direct her being. In other words, although god probably does not exist, she still feels the need to seek his presence in her life and to hope to surrender herself to it. She says that she remains a nun, of sorts and will always be one.

In one of his first questions of the interview, Moyers asked her whether if she were God she would do away with religion. She didn't answer directly but said instead that like anything else religion had both bad and good versions. When Moyers came back that religion seems to cause immense strife, violence and killing, she responded that humans engage in those activities regardless of their religious stance and that religion, rightly seen, is an attempt to reduce the viciousness among mankind. How she knows that compassion is the essence of religion, she did not say.

All these matters are great mysteries which no one can speak of with perfect understanding. What Karen Armstrong does comprehend, though, along with most other serious religious scholars, is that there is a gap between the core doctrines of the three monotheisms and the preachments of the organizations that exist supposedly to serve them. Armstrong explains this in part by saying, "In every religion, the idea of God or the Ultimate Reality is culturally conditioned." Though that's true, it probably takes more than cultural conditioning alone to account for the flood of hatefulness and spite that has poured from the synagogues, churches and mosques of the world. I remember that even as an eight year old boy, listening to sermons in Southern Baptist churches, I would ask myself, what has Jesus got to do with any of this? It's a question I'm still asking.

Despite Moyers's ironic question, I doubt we can count on god to wipe out religion. That means we have to find some way to deal with it ourselves. Since we must, we could do worse than follow Karen Armstrong's lead. In her biography of Muhammad she tells us that whenever a voice arises who is accepted as God's messenger by millions, we should dig back into the situation that brought him forth and try to understand it as completely as we can. Then, perhaps, we can separate the parts of his message that are culturally conditioned from the parts that are genuinely creative. That probably won't bring us to perfect truth. But it might make us less likely to kill one another than we would be otherwise.

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Harvard Square Commentary, January 22, 2007