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:
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:
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.
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"?
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