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Why Religion Pivots and What It Pivots On

Sasha Volokh of The Volokh Conspiracy has joined the discussion about scriptural comparisons between Islam and Christianity into which I jumped yesterday. All of Mr. Volokh's citations, however, are from the Old Testament, which brings Judaism into the comparison and raises questions of the passages' relevance to Christianity.

At this point, I think it important to specify what we're talking about. Hanah Metchis's original post presented no guidance as to opinion except a sarcastic comparison to equally sarcastic statements about Islam being "a religion of peace." That post has since been updated to specify that "it's pretty much impossible to characterize an entire religion, with its entire history, as being simply 'of peace' or 'of war.'" This seems to me to raise the question of who it was, exactly, that first — unsarcastically — declared Islam to be a "religion of peace." Since it was the phrase taken up by supporters/defenders of Islam, it isn't unreasonable to wonder whether Metchis attributes some measure of truth to the sarcasm about which the Christianity post is "poking some good-natured fun." Here's Metchis's now-declared intent:

I wanted only to make the point that quoting texts from the Koran does not prove that Islam has to be hateful and violent any more than quoting texts from the New Testament shows that Christianity has to be hateful and violent.

However, my previous argument was that the cited passages in Hebrews 10, at least, fall short of making this point when put in context. The question is still open: does that "any more than" really apply?

Mr. Volokh apparently believes that it does, and he makes the specific statement that "Jews and Muslims behave different today because of other things than their sacred text, like history, culture, the form of government they live under, their and their governments' political goals, and whatever else you feel like adding on to the list" (emphasis in original). I'd agree with the inclusion of all attributes affecting a religion when assessing its history, current state, and possible futures, but I believe that Mr. Volokh goes too far in treating sacred texts as if they have no relationship to the actual practices and movements of a religion.

As I mentioned above, all of Volokh's examples come from the Old Testament (the first few books, even). One of his readers apparently made the distinction between the Old Testament being "descriptive," while the relevant passages in the Koran are "prescriptive." I don't think this captures the significant difference. Each of the Biblical passages involves God fulfilling his promises to the Jews, His chosen people; none suggest that it is the Jews' duty to conquer other nations to glorify God. Of course, there isn't much rhetorical distance between "God will give us" and "we must take," but it is enough distance for Jewish tradition to specify the former. It isn't a proselytizing faith. Furthermore, Jews have spent most of years since the events in the Old Testament in no position to seek conquest.

One possible factor in this limited capacity is the development of Christianity. The shift to the New Testament confuses the comparison of scriptures; perhaps that is why Mr. Volokh drops it. In fact, the change in the practices of Jewish faith represented by the New Testament and Christianity, with its new covenant, is intrinsic to the sacred texts (i.e., it isn't appropriate to saddle Christians with violence from the Old Testament). Volokh brings it back to Christianity thus:

Finally, Mr. Aronstein quotes Khomeini as saying, "Duh, of course Islam says to conquer the whole world." (Rough paraphrase, click here and search for "Khomeini says".) You could probably find Christians saying quite similar things some centuries ago, and their text hasn't changed since then.

Most assuredly, that final educated guess is correct. In fact, some of the people saying such things were Americans' forefathers. However, the ensuing reformation from the religious practices that enabled such statements involved returning to Christianity as described in the sacred texts and as practiced in its formative years. (For example, the indulgences that the Protestants so objected to the clergy's raffling off are nowhere to be found in the Bible, at least nowhere that I've found.) The process has gone on for centuries, but then, the problem took centuries to develop.

This brings us to Islam, about which I am wholly unqualified to do more than surmise. My understanding is that "moderate" Muslims have evolved away from the Islam represented by the violent passages within the Koran. However, the Muslim fundamentalists advocate a return to the sacred texts, in essence. This in no way means that the fundamentalists are more correct or that the moderates cannot carry Islam through this resurgence of violence, but they will have to do so by explicitly addressing the points, within the foundational texts, at which the two branches diverge.

Beyond this struggle that must be waged within Islam, we outside of it do the religion and its believers no favor by not playing our role in acting as one of those external factors that Mr. Volokh credits as the true changers of religion.

I didn't address an article by Cathy Young in Reason magazine to which Sasha Volokh links because this is already a very long post. However, something about the closing paragraph of that essay struck me:

After September 11, Falwell famously declared that "the pagans, and the abortionists, and the feminists, and the gays and lesbians who are actively trying to make that an alternative lifestyle, the ACLU, People for the American Way -- all of them who have tried to secularize America" had helped cause the attacks. The terrorists who actually carried them out might agree.

If the terrorists themselves agree, wouldn't that mean that Falwell was correct, in a sense? If so, would that be valid turf in which to dig for "root causes"?

Sasha Volokh has responded (within the same post) to this post. He consolidates his point thus: "it's still problematic that Christians have the whole Old Testament and clearly don't reject all of it." My neophyte understanding of the response to this question is that it isn't a matter of picking among chapters, which (again: purely my understanding) seems to be what's going on with the Koran. The Old Testament is accepted as historical fact (which is why some fundamentalists can go too far insisting on the factual exactness of the Creation), but the New Testament acts as the clarification and interpreter — the New Covenant. This is seen in the Hebrews chapter with which this all began (sacrificial offerings are no longer necessary); it is also explicit in Matthew 22:34-40 (all religious law is subordinate to the two commandments to love God and to love others as one's self).

Of course, there's still room — need, even — for tradition and clarification, and therefore, there is room for misinterpretation, often, it seems, resulting from the other factors that influence the face of a religion that Mr. Volokh cited at the outset. The question, with respect to the sacred texts at the core of the religion, is how much they aid or hinder reformation.

Posted by Justin Katz @ 01:33 PM EST