Saturday, July 30, 2016

Dimes and paradigms

Well, it seems that often I read the news these days and I find it so upsetting that it forces me to put aside whatever I'm busy with and feel the need to put my thoughts down on paper. I had started this post some time back, as I sometimes do in the middle of the night, and then I wonder if I should put aside those things that go through one's mind in the middle of the night for another time, when maybe I'm seeing things more clearly or balanced somehow?

The society that I find myself in, I find to be increasingly disturbing. I had this title for a post, some time back, when every time there would be another terrorist attack, the media would seem to see it as its duty to tell me/us over and over again, that "Islam is a religion of peace." Islam is a religion of peace, don't you know, with a camera trip to a local mosque or an interview with a clearly peaceful Muslim, as are most Muslims, as few of us need to be told. If I had a dime for every time the media told us what to think, and what to see...and yet, the hard questions never seem to get asked. What drives a 20 something year old kid with a good education and a bright future to do something so heinous? Is there a factory somewhere for these kids? It reminds me of Orwell's 1984, "War is peace. Freedom is slavery. Ignorance is strength.," the slogan of the empire, and it seems to be working well for the Arab empire at the moment, very well.

And yes you heard me say, the Arab empire, because that is what I think Islam is, underneath its headdress of religious piety. I am convinced more and more that the roots of Islam as an ideology, by looking at the dates of what we have on paper and from archaeological evidence, that the Arab empire came first, dear friends, and that Islam as a religion followed. Just looking at this history, in a nutshell, the Byzantines (the Eastern Roman empire) and the Persians (the Sassanid Empire) wore each other down fighting for centuries, which created a power vacuum on the fringes of their empires, and they didn't see the Arabs coming. Once in power, the Arabs needed an ideology to ground their vast expanse of growing territory, and perhaps taking a cue from what was by then, the so-called Holy Roman Empire, they formalized a competing theology that would privilege the conquerors, and subdue the conquered.

But how do you say that, what I just said, in a world of political correctness? Good thing nobody has heard of me. Jihad attack by truck becomes a truck attack, have you noticed? Better watch out for those idealogue trucks. Gun attack against a gay night club becomes about the conflicted gay individual. Honour and shame culture and a scales based religious system, except in the place of martyrs, couldn't possibly have anything to do with it. Interesting, isn't it? Knife and even axe attacks on trains become about vague exclamations uttered in the night. I wonder what exclamation that might be. Any guesses? How many people have to die before we are allowed to question this ideology (sigh)?

Here I'll skip to what I wrote months ago, and abandoned for months:

Well, here it is, 4 o'clock in the morning and I seem to be out of excuses to not be writing what I've been thinking for some time, in between endless ordinary life and constant hesitation. Do I say what I think, or remain with the silent politically correct majority?

I remember seeing a video in grade one, and it's funny the things that stay with you after 35 years or so, isn't it? Was it religion class of all things, I don't know, but in this video shown to very young kids, I remember learning about Islam somewhere deep in my memory, it's there, and I remember having a very odd feeling, that there was something different about that duck.

And that is the feeling that I've always had about Islam, yet always hesitated to speak of something that is very foreign to a kid who grew up eating meat and potatoes every night and hearing fiddle music on the radio and bagpipes every summer. How do I talk about something that is not my culture, not my history, something that I see every bit through another lens, and I know it?

And so I remain silent, though I've been researching Islam, having started sometime after 9/11. What does a Protestant minded Christian do after 9/11? Naturally, I read the Quran, and in between attacks in Boston and Toronto and Paris and now Brussels... I'm still checking out Islamic sources, and I know I've got plenty more to read, but you know what else?

The more I am researching Islam, I am coming to the personal conclusion that Islam had nothing to do with the Bible or the God of the Bible, and everything to do with the geo-political circumstances of the 7th century and onward in the Middle East. That's right, it's good ol' politics draped in a good ol' cloak of religion. Just ask yourself, if illiterate cultural pagans are going to conquer "the people of the book," were they not going to need a book to do it? So whaddaya' do, when you have an empire, and no book, to rule -"the people of the book?" By golly, you do the same thing that people running for president in the U.S. do, tell everyone you're a Christian, and be seen going to church, am I right? How else do you appeal to your majority Christian audience? You talk the talk. You write the book. Do they really care about what they're talking or writing about? Who knows?

But Muslims do care, they care very much. This book is now sacred to them, the foundation of their world for centuries, and I know that -because it's common knowledge, and because I often talk with Muslims online. Muslims are quick to tell me that Islam respects all the prophets, but do they read the prophets? How do they really know if they're getting the original or a superficial extraction of the biblical narrative? Add to that, how can they know, if they don't have access to the Bible to check what the Quran says alongside the Bible? Isn't it interesting, that the Quran affirms the Bible, and yet Muslims are constantly alleging that the Bible is corrupted? What could possibly explain that internal contradiction?

This was not about the Bible, my friends, this was about usurping the Bible's authority for political and economic purposes. Give them a heart felt story, mention Moses, mention Noah, talk about one God and how that is so important. Talk about Jesus too. Talk about his mom. Mention what a lovely lady she was. It does not matter as long as the message is clear, that we have the "final prophet" and the "final revelation." Make no mistake, this was about power.

And the concern for earthly power continues, as some have said, Islam is communism (or totalitarianism) with a god, and it's death march continues through the pages of history. It doesn't matter that the book they quote is largely borrowed. It doesn't matter that the stories they repeat often can't be found in the source Islam claims to be based on. That doesn't enter the conversation, yet Muslim and non-muslim alike continue to be subjected to the demands of Islam. Of the major conflicts in the world, how many of those conflicts involve Islam? And I'm not saying that the west is innocent, or that Muslims don't have some just grievances, please don't misunderstand me. What I'm saying is that I think there's a reason why so many Muslims respond with force and political action, because this is consistent with its early history and teachings and example of its founder and earliest followers or advocates.

What I'm also saying is that despite our flaws and oft mistakes if not outright abuses, the west has a critical culture, and that Islam largely does not. Feel free to test this view. Look up how many books have been written in the west criticizing the Crusades, and then look up how many books you will find in Muslim lands, criticizing the 400 years of Arab expansionism that lead up to the Crusades. Be my guest, but I think what you will find, by and large, is that the west usually doesn't emphasize the 400 years of Arab or Islamic expansionism, and neither do Muslim sources, unless it's to glorify their early history. In other words, there's a reason for the lack of ability for self-criticism in the Muslim world. On some level, Muslims know that to criticize their early history and Islamic imperialism more generally, is to test the very foundations of their society. Furthermore, how do you question the political, if the political is very much tied in with divine instructions from God himself?

But are we in the west helping by catering to this culture of denial and dogmatic assumption? May I say, as a theologically conservative Christian and part-time seminary student, I can assure you as someone who feels the pain every time Bart Ehrman releases another scathing critique of Christianity, our culture does have the ability to critique Islam, so why don't we? At what point do we have a responsibility to question an ideology that is literally killing our people in our streets, as well as leading to untold suffering for how many millions of people around the world?

Well, I'm just going to speak as a westerner here, as someone who has lived in the west all my life. What I see, is that you can challenge the Bible as much as you want, that's a reflection of our ability for self-criticism in the west, or perhaps, an example of our divided culture, but if all the world religions are the same as were taught to accept without question, and we need to respect people's culture and religion as part of that culture and multiculturalism as a social value, how can we then criticize someone else's religion? That's the way we're thinking, isn't it?

Yet, I have spoken to enough Muslims to know that they are quite happy to read the titles of Bart Ehrman books, and books that criticize the Crusades, and the titles are often all they need to reinforce what they have been taught to accept without question. We don't realize in the west at this time, that our hyper skepticism concerning the Bible and our own history is both destabilizing of our own traditions and is providing sustenance for Islamic supremacist groups. I could say a lot more about that, but for the purposes of this blog piece, I'm not saying that there isn't a place for criticizing Christianity or the west. I think there is, but I don't hear other ancient literature and other cultures being held to the same standard. That's the difference! Do we really stop to ask, how does other ancient or religious literature compare with the Bible? How do other cultures compare with our own? What are our/ their strengths and weaknesses? That would be fair criticism, wouldn't it? My understanding is that the Bible is the best we have from antiquity, and that the Quran would not compare to the Bible textually, in that it cannot be reconstructed because the earliest evidence was destroyed. The Quran also went through a systematic process of standardization that lasted for centuries, but few Muslims know it.

Add to that, that from the perspective of historical monotheism, clearly, the Quran is making reference to the Bible, but the Bible is not making reference to the Quran, which should say something (shrug). Judaism, after all, is the start point of the Abrahamic faiths, and Christianity came out of a Jewish milieu, the first Christians and Jesus being devout Jews, steeped in centuries of Jewish thought and tradition. Muhammad or the Arab empire, in contrast, retains pagan traditions and a historically pagan temple and god, relic, etc., despite superficial mentions of biblical persons and narrative, interwoven with a historically pagan culture. In short, Islam is the religion of outside conquerors and influence that adapted to a biblical culture, not something that came from within a culturally biblical or biblically literate context.

But here's where I want to go a little deeper, with the above thoughts in mind. I don't think we realize how much Judaism, and with Christianity, Jesus: have influenced western culture toward non-violence firstly, but also toward concerns for social justice and human rights. I think we take this influence for granted. I actually think Islam is more the norm of world history, another conquest, another dictum, another strong man, another oppressive regime, often backed up with ideology and the use of force to implement that ideology. Hey, what could be more common? That's not to say that Islam couldn't have represented social reforms in the 7th century, perhaps in some ways it did. However, having said this, I think time is demonstrating that Islam is largely a product of its time, as brutal Sharia court rulings and Islam's totalitarian nature continue to contrast sharply with the perceived norms and expectations of the the modern world.

With this stark contrast between Islam and modernity in mind, between the west's concern for individual freedoms and Islam's demands for social cohesion and conformity: as I alluded to earlier, why is it that the west seems to have this ability for self criticism, even when we don't live up to our own perceived ideals? Why is it, that even as the British ended slavery, we seem to think that we're the only culture to have ever had slavery? Even as the west today has the lowest rates of slavery in the world, somehow we always end up the bad guy, again and again. How do we explain that aspect of our culture, our sense of moral responsibility, if everything that is, is simply what it has adapted to be? I can assure you, from everything I hear in my discussions with Muslims, in contrast, the Muslim world has not begun to question it's own history of slavery and genocide and oppression and assumption of cultural and theological superiority. So why do we? Why do we beat ourselves up, even in the wake of terrorist attacks on civilians, again and again?

"Love your enemies, pray for those who persecute you."Who said that? Was that a mad man or a poet? But we're not listening to that someone anymore, are we? Or are we? Could it be that despite the attacks that our culture levels on Christianity at every opportunity, that somehow that influence remains? Can we stop to imagine, that not all parts of the world have had a Jesus or a Buddha figure, people who looked inward, as their example? Have not some had a Napoleon or a Muhammad as their guiding example, people who got the job done, men of action?  

Just in further reflecting on that point, concerning how ideas and how historical figures have often shaped societies: someone I respect has said that the heresy of humanism is that human beings are at base, good. The world is good, right? People are good. We want to believe that. We want to believe in our ideals, that the world is a good place, that people are good. I do too! But in between "all the world religions are the same," and people are basically good, they just need another hug and a good liberal education...How does that idealistic worldview deal -with evil? You heard me right, evil. Where is evil on a naturalistic worldview, where Jeffrey Dahmer and Osama Bin Laden simply evolved to be what they are/ were?

We can't handle the truth. We cannot handle the thought that 1.6 billion people have been deceived by an over zealous dictator, or worse. And please hear me, I'm not out to get Muslims, I'm out to befriend Muslims. I'm out to share the love of Christ with Muslims, to be very clear about my intentions. I feel for these people, fourteen hundred years of totalitarian rule -without a ray of sunlight on the horizon. We think about what people lived like under Stalin or in China today. How much time do we spend thinking about what Muslims have lived under for 1400 years, or what minorities in these countries have lived under for far too long?

But being the optimist that I am, I need to think of something positive here to end on. Will you join me in not accepting the lines of political correctness? Will you join me in a deeper discussion? Can I tell you what I love about Muslims, which is why I enjoy talking with them so much? I love their passion. I love that Muslims care about things that matter, to a point that they will sacrifice everything for what they believe. I remember a while back I was speaking with a Muslim woman. I think she eventually defriended me, can't remember why, but she said something that was the first moment of agreement that we had shared. She spoke of being a Muslim in the western world and said you know, the people here have forgotten God. And you know what, I think she was right. And maybe that's why despite the tunnel that I feel I'm in, mostly alone in saying the unspeakable, I prefer it over another trip to Ikea.

Not everyone, but in large part, our culture has forgotten its roots. As an old friend said years ago, we want the benefits of a historically biblical or Christian worldview, hospitals for the public, public education, concern for the poor, but we don't want the moral commitments. We take for granted concepts such as equality, even if we can't argue for them on a naturalistic worldview. We neglect to consider a material world in the full weight of its social implications. Human beings become highly evolved primates and that seems to be enough, for now. Does it matter that we were once made in the image of God, meant to be a reflection of His majesty and presence in the world? Would the heights of western culture or any of Europe's great cathedrals be built today? Would they look the same? Does it matter if they're empty? That which we have now put our faith in, the unguided secular sphere, even as the voices of factioning groups get louder, angrier and more myopic. And I think that's why Muslims are confident that they will replace western culture, and you know what, they're probably right.

And I was supposed to be saying something positive here (lol). Regardless of what happens, or what I think may be in the process of happening, may I simply suggest, whether you agree with my perspective or not, can we begin to evaluate ideas for their own sake? And that includes my worldview, in case you think I'm not seeing something here that I should. Let's start with evaluating the religious traditions or world philosophies themselves, the full range and depth of the history of ideas. Let's consider the consequences of ideas around the world and historically. Where do people want to live? China? Arabia? Holland?  Let's evaluate ideas on their own merit, instead of applying a lens of assumption or our own thin cultural veneer of western expectation, to something that may or may not be historically western.

Does this mean there couldn't be positives that have developed or been retained from centuries of history or tradition, that there aren't things that we can learn from other cultures? I'm sure there are! Surely there are. I'm simply acknowledging the need for a deeper evaluation, as well as my own limitations. Having said this, for every time we hear blankety blank in place of news, for every paradigm that we see in place of reality, I have good news. :)

If I may conclude with that which gives me comfort, speaking personally, because I think it's time we acknowledged that maybe, just maybe, Christianity isn't the joke that we've made it out to be. Perhaps there are reasons why people are literally dying to get to the west instead of to China or Arabia. It amazes me how this message of hope and redemption cuts through the clutter of politics and division, when it's allowed to be present in the marketplace of ideas. We have in Christianity a worldview that has the depth to confront the errors of Islam. I am convinced of this. The tradition that we have abandoned in the west, is the intellectual tradition that we need to rediscover, even in terms of social and cultural frames of reference, that which we now term, "western values."

You don't have to agree with me on that point, but isn't it interesting that a country like China is fascinated by our spiritual heritage, not having the comfort of a majority Christian society, historically? But they may yet, have a Christian majority, having seen first hand the underbelly of oppression and the rule of men. Many people around the world are embracing the hope that we have pushed aside, in short, and this includes many Muslims. I think there's a reason for this. People are seeing, that which we may not be able to take for granted for much longer. The value of the individual human person, that all our rights and freedoms hang on, that is grounded in a biblical worldview that says that human beings are created in the image of a loving, personal God, who calls each of us by name. But why would we expect an elevation of human dignity, even if it is assumed, if everything that is, is just the way that nature -developed? Nature simply is, in all its beauty and brutality. It's elemental.

And so, knowing that the Christian era is often overlooked in terms of its influence in the western world, and I'll save that discussion for another time, but I think the human heart needs more than the borrowed well of secularism. People need to know that they are valued outside of an economic or political system, or that which simply developed for natural reasons. And that is why I think the secular west is limited in its ability to confront Islam. Secularism can confront Islam intellectually, in terms of its history, ideas, etc., but can it give people what they need, spiritually? In contrast, I am convinced that Christianity does have the depth, both intellectually and spiritually, to confront Islam at its deviating roots, in that Islam itself may have developed as a Christian sect. They left before the we did, in short, with the Enlightenment. But with this departure from its Christian roots in mind, and drawing from the earliest Christian writings that most Muslims never hear, we have an opportunity. :)

May I conclude, this does not end with a slave world empire, an impersonal god and authoritarian rule. Even if that's the way it's going, even if that's what so many people believe or have been taught to accept as the new reality: what we cannot say and what we're told we must tolerate as the new normal, the heinous, unacknowledged, unspoken, unnamed brutality that we are witnessing. This is not the way it ends, and that's what gives me hope, dear friends. I believe this ends with freedom, and life to the full.

God bless,

Margaret Harvey

Quote: From John 10

 "I am the gate; whoever enters through me will be saved.[a] They will come in and go out, and find pasture.10 The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full." Jesus


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