Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Turnabout Is Fair Play (re: the Qur'an)

Turnabout Is Fair Play.

Having criticized the content/meaning of the Qur'an (while allowing for the possibility that its content is delivered with excellence from a literary/artistic perspective), it is only reasonable that my own sacred cow be subjected to the meat-grinder:

"What about Christian Scriptures? Are they superior to the Qur'an with regard to message? Are they just as bad? Are they not, in fact, inferior, saying all the same things with regard to content, but lacking any comparable attempt at artistry?"

To that, my response is: Christian Scriptures do not, in one way, compete on the same playing-field as the Qur'an, and are not subject to the same requirements. But in another way, they do compete directly with the Qur'an, and come out vastly superior.

Christian Scriptures simply do not claim to be dictated by God. Various types of claims of inspiration are made by different Christians. The term "Word of God" is applied to Christian Scriptures, and this results in such great confusion in the minds of non-Christians and of less-informed Christians alike that these less-informed Christians begin to treat the Bible (for the purposes of hermeneutics) in much the same way that Muslims treat the Qur'an, and the non-Christians, looking on, understandably take this mistreatment of the Christian canon as canonical Christianity!

But the two stances differ, and the difference may be summed up as follows:

Any time that the Qur'an asserts/assumes Fact X and exhorts/approves Behavior Y, it must be assumed that the assertion/assumption and the exhortation/approval are from the mouth of God Himself. If the assertion or assumption turn out to be objectively incorrect, it can only be because (a.) God made a mistake, or (b.) the Qur'an is not authored by God. If the behavior being exhorted or approved turns out to be less than entirely moral, it can only be because (a.) God is not perfectly good, or (b.) the Qur'an is not authored by God.

Now Christian Scripture does not experience anywhere close to the same threat of self-nullification. For the Christian Bible is a collection of writings, selected on the basis of their ability to edify people on spiritual matters, given special authority by the doctrine that the writers were inspired by God during the writing process (to a degree sufficient to avoid spiritual error), and that those responsible for "editorial selection" were similarly inspired by God (to a degree sufficient to avoid spiritual error).

In such circumstances, what can a Christian conclude if a Biblical Author says that, say, there were exactly 23 years between Historical Event X and Historical Event Y, but archeology or other methods conclusively prove otherwise? Is the Christian in the same bind that the Muslim would be? The answer is: No. He can assert that the Biblical Author was incorrect, and repeating the belief of his time, but that this has no bearing on spiritual lessons and says nothing at all about the infallibility of God.

Ah, but what about moral teachings? Can St. Paul engage in what appears to be sexism ("women should be silent in church") without thereby suggesting that either God is a sexist, or the Bible is faulty? Answer: Yes, he can. The Christian can (and in the aforementioned case, does) assert that some teachings of St. Paul, while not erroneous at the time, were intended for that time and circumstance, and are not necessarily universal in application. (Christians are helped in this by the fact that St. Paul sometimes says specifically that a teaching is solely his idea, and that on other occasions he asserts divine teachings with the phrase "Thus saith the Lord.")

In any case, while there are parts of Christian scripture which, if proven false from a factual or moral standpoint, would thereby undermine Christianity altogether, they are a far more narrow set than in Islam, where "the set of all verses able to invalidate the entire religion through the tiniest error" is identical to "the set of all verses in the Qur'an." So, because Christian Scripture does not make precisely the same claim as the Qur'an, it is on a more secure footing. The claim of the Qur'an is not merely dubious because of the flaws in Qur'anic teaching; it is dubious because of the claim itself.

Let me now address my second point: That in some ways, Christian Scripture does compete directly with the Qur'an, and when it does, comes out the better of the two.

Christian Scripture, like Muslim Scripture, produces doctrine and behavior. No doctrine may be Christian if it is utterly contradictory to Christian Scripture; nor can a doctrine be Islamic if it contradicts the Qur'an. And while both Christians and Muslims (being men, not angels) behave in ways which are contrary to their religious teachings without thereby necessarily invalidating those teachings, it is fair to compare their behavior when they are being good Christians and good Muslims, and ask whether "good Muslim behavior" is inferior, equal, or superior to "good Christian behavior" (however rarely either is practiced).

This, of course, brings up the question of whether, for example, suicide bombings of Israeli pedestrians are in fact "good Muslim behavior." My own rough guess is that 80% of Muslims 'round the world hold that they are not. The Qur'an, however, leads me to put Muhammad himself among the 20%, not among the 80%. The occidentalized Muslim is a benefit to his society, I think: But I do not think he is an orthodox Muslim.

If Muhammad's teachings include such notions as "render unto Caesar that which is Caesar's, but unto God that which is God's" they are extremely well-hidden. The notion that conversion by the sword is a theological impossibility because "God looketh at the heart" may be present in the Qur'an, but if so, the corollary that one should therefore never attempt conversion by the sword can only be pried out by some allusion or figure of speech which is completely opaque to both myself and to the vast majority of all the Muslims who have lived at all times in history. For, two hundred years ago, the founding fathers of the United States found, in dealing with the Barbary Pirates, that they were jihadists; and centuries before that, the defenders of Vienna nearly lost their city twice to jihadists, and a long while before that, all southern Spain fell to jihadists and France would have fallen too except for Charles the Hammer, and in still earlier centuries Alexandria and Constantinople and Jerusalem fell to jihadists, and at the start of it all Muhammad was saying, echoing every comparable warlord from every other epoch in every other continent, that those unbelievers who did not convert should be destroyed or enslaved. It is not the jihadist whom Islam calls "heretic."

Meanwhile from Christianity comes that liberty of the soul which culminates in the liberty of the ballot-box. The Christian scriptures begin by announcing that man is made in God's image: relational and free-willed. The former means "able to love" and the latter means "able to choose to love, or not." The message of Christian scripture from that point forward is: God pursues man with his love; man may accept it or reject it. The prophets of Israel show Yahweh as the lover scorned by his beloved; the husband cuckolded by his bride: For man may either choose to love God, or not. The climax of the Christian story is: God gives his life for man out of love; man may accept it or reject it; God defeats death and offers victory over death as a gift to all; but man may accept the gift or decline. The final pages of the book predict a glorious new heaven and new earth, sealing the free choice of all souls with a profound finality: Any who wish heaven may have it; but it is not forced upon those who would rather "reign in hell than serve in heaven."

From this I surmise that while Christianity can survive under any form of government; when Christians construct governments they are apt to be more liberal (in the now-antiquated sense which means "free") than that which preceded them or would otherwise have been formed. History, I think, bears this out: Notions which otherwise would never have arisen in Europe did arise under the influence of Christian teaching; they did not arise where Christian teaching did not prevail, and liberal representative democracy, that manner of government which is worst in the world save all the others, was the result.

And where Islam was taught day and night? Well, so long as the Caliphate could continue to conquer, it could enrich itself with the intellectual and material and cultural treasures of those outside its borders. Once its advance was stymied, it had to rely on its own intellectual capital. The result: slavery, genocide, corruption, despotism, illiteracy, poverty, decay, resentment, stupefaction.

Now, the generalizations made above are so vast and vague as to be worthy of derision were they not, in the main, plainly true. For every cry of "what about injustices during the Crusades?" or "what about the Spanish Inquisition?" or "what about witch-trials?" or "what about the more moderate Muslim states?" or "what about Voltaire?" or "what about Galileo?" there are responses which can be given: A hundred admissions of Christian guilt limited only to certain individuals, a hundred qualifications that the events are misremembered in popular imagination, a hundred notations of worse things happening under similar circumstances when the perpetrators were anything other than Christians, all of which sound evasive and mealy-mouthed and worthy of scorn.

So the Christian apologist is obligated to hang his head and exhibit remorse on behalf of his unwise or corruptible co-religionists of previous centuries, and to agree with both his God and his accuser that, yes, all those things were perfectly horrible, and yes, there are occasions of Jews getting better treatment by Muslims than by Christians, and yes, there have been Atheists who weren't such utter scoundrels as some of the Christians whom they opposed. After this admission the argument is assumed to have been won by those who hold that Christianity isn't so great a thing after all.

But the argument is entirely separate from the admission of sin and the repentance toward righteousness. If we are in the business of confessing and repenting, then of course Torquemada was an evil sadist and so far as our reputations are sullied by his distant and heretical behavior, we loudly deplore it, offering no excuse for it.

But when we are in the business of arguing whether Christianity, founded in her Scriptures, has produced better behavior overall and that the bad behavior is exhibitive not of orthodoxy, but of heresy, then all those qualifications apply. In that context they are not a weasely shirking of responsibility but a sober evaluation of historical detail. And in that context, the history of Christendom, for all its (admitted! repented!) outrages and disappointments, shows itself superior not only to Islam but to every other tradition in the world.


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