August 28, 2007

Radical Objectors of Radical Religion

Newshound Andrew Breitbart is no Christian, by his own admission. In fact, I recently listened to him fill in for the vacationing Dennis Miller, on Miller's own radio show, and I heard him make several very un-Christian statements about his personal moral views. However, he is, in many ways, what I have come to call a "common-sense conservative." That is one who holds certain conservative views, not because they are logically consistent parts of some larger belief system, but because they just seem to be true and right when the politics are dropped (or before they are acquired) and the real-world observations roll in.

As a Christian, I found one of Breitbart's lucid observations particularly refreshing. It was in response to a thoroughly postmodern caller anxious to keep her religiously pluralistic Tao in balance by claiming that radical Islam was no different or worse than radical Christianity, and that it was no more or less common. Here was his rather unsympathetic reply, which also speaks to why he and many secularists like him have parted company with their peers to the left:

If you can tell me that there are Christians in this country that are as radical, or even in the ballpark as radical, as radical Islam, then we're living in two different worlds.

I am not a Christian. I'm not a practicing Christian. As a matter of fact, I was a trained secularist in college. I was trained to hate Christianity. I no longer do, because they kept telling me that Christianity was this extreme religion, and the evangelicals were going to come over the hill, and they were going to create a Taliban. And the second that the Taliban showed up, the second that radical Islam put its flagpole down on America and decreed us evildoers, the Left has been AWOL. It does not even have a language — a lexicon — to deal with the raw evil that is radical Islam. And to talk about Christianity in the same sentence as it causes my head to spin.

As astonishingly ill-conceived as it seems to be, I have often heard this comparison — from Rosie O'Donnell on The View to Thomas Friedman of The New York Times. But let me ask a very basic question:

What comparison do Christians, by the most generous definition of that term and of the most radical form, have to radical Muslims who are numerous enough to form competing armies; who commonly have their entire holy book memorized; who are often students and teachers of recognized religious schools; who assault their enemies with directly applicable scripture verses on their lips; who have deep historical precedence for their actions after the pattern of their own religion's founder; and whose more moderate peers seldom even bother to speak against them?

At what point may we begin calling the radicals "devout" and the moderates "liberal?" Perhaps the confusion is in the idea that "devout" means holy, peaceful, and self-sacrificing rather than one who is earnestly devoted to a belief or cause. The irony is that the former conception of the term is the legacy of our western Judeo-Christian theological tradition.

If we want to make comparisons between two religious systems let's not be narrow and selective in our comparison; let's compare the character of those who are most sincerely and accurately following the teachings and traditions of that religious system. That being said, and with a little historical knowledge of Islam's roots in hand, let us ask ourselves who would be more likely to help pack a truck full of explosives and send it off into the camp of unbelievers: Jesus or Muhammad? What about the Christians of the first hundred years, who spread their message across the Roman Empire through private evangelism under the heavy thumb of the secular and the Jewish authorities, versus the Muslims who had taken much of the old Roman Empire into possession by the sword within 100 years after Muhammad's death?

We can only pray that all of Islam becomes apostate and the more moderate, liberal version of it prevails.

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38 Comments:

At 8/29/2007 8:11 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

This map is telling to your point:

http://www.mapsofwar.com/ind/history-of-religion.html

 
At 8/29/2007 12:44 PM, Blogger Paul said...

Interesting dynamic map. Shows two important things accurately: 1) that the initial spread of Christianity was shot-gun style (mostly) around the Mediterranean, i.e., in specific cities and provinces according to individual outreach, rather than as an advancing and all-consuming front, 2) that Islam spread fast and thoroughly and was only checked at the two eastern and western points of military strength of the "Holy Roman Empire." If it were merely an evangelistic spread it would have gone through the armies like a mist and not been stopped.

I would nitpick at what it includes as regions where Christianity appeared in the first hundred years. There is good reason to believe that it got much farther east, at least in pockets, perhaps so far as India if the Thomas tradition is to be believed. But such claims are difficult to prove.

 
At 9/05/2007 8:40 AM, Anonymous whodat? said...

The point is accented for me when I ask myself, "What would a person look like if he or she actually took his or her sacred texts seriously?" A Christian would look like Christ, a Muslim would look like ________. You fill in the blank.

 
At 9/06/2007 10:19 AM, Blogger Jim V. said...

Excellent post. It drives me nuts to hear people equate devout Christians with the Taliban. And just recently there was yet another cable program that did that very thing (God's Warriors series -- can't think what network it was on). Seems the verdict has already been handed down on Christianity before the evidence has even been heard. "Don't confuse me with the facts."

 
At 9/06/2007 11:36 AM, Blogger Paul said...

I think that was CNN, Jim.

Everyone's anxious to assure us that other religions really aren't so bad once you get to know the people. Or if they are bad, then that's buffered by the claim that Christians can be just as bad too. Seems it's either all good or all bad, but heaven forbid that we suggest that one could be superior to or truer than any other.

 
At 9/08/2007 5:17 AM, Blogger John Bryden said...

I submit, for your consideration, a different viewpoint.

I have no sympathy for those who commit violence in the name of religion in this present day. However, historical perspective is needed when looking at the early days of Islam, during the seventh century AD.

His Holiness the Prophet Muhammad was in a position that opens Him up for criticism of the nature seen above, because he was a temporal leader as well as a religious one. He not only had the responsibility of proclaiming a Divine message, but also for leading a community. He was effectively the ruler of the city of Medina. As such, he had the duty to protect the inhabitants of that city including His followers who resided there. Under the circumstances, as a ruler, he had no alternative but to take up the sword in order to meet the threat that existed to the survival of the Muslim community. But He did so with a restraint, and a mastery of diplomatic alternatives to war, that was extraordinary. A reasonable assessment of Muhammad's conduct as a ruler compared with other rulers during the time in which He lived, must account Him as a brilliant statesman who was able to unite the feuding tribes of Arabia into a single polity. But to their eternal shame, some of the men who led the Muslim community after Muhammad's passing, did not live up to His legacy of wisdom and magnanimity. They committed atrocious acts which caused the fracturing of the body of Islam into sects, the sidelining of great figures like the Imam Ali who possessed true wisdom and insight, and the dilution of its spiritual vigour. Yet despite the weaknesses introduced into Islam by human failings, the religion was able to produce a brilliant civilisation that has conferred countless benefits on the whole world.

There was a particular character to Muhammad's mission that was different to that of Jesus and Buddha, and more akin to that of Moses. He brought benefits to the social organization of mankind that needed to be achieved by a Messenger who was also a ruler.

The Baha'i Faith arose from Islamic roots and is therefore a "fruit" of Islam. This is a religion that has completely disavowed the "sword" in a manner that has never been seen before in history. The Baha'i teachings regard the use of the sword by Muhammad as a necessity of those times. But the time for the use of the sword in the defense or promotion of religion has absolutely ended. This doctrine was proclaimed by Baha'u'llah in 1863. (For historical context, the American Civil War was at its mid-point in that year.)

The legacy of the human race as a whole is drenched in blood. Now is the time for striving to bring war to an end.

 
At 9/08/2007 5:24 AM, Blogger John Bryden said...

P.S. to Paul -- I've been silent here for a while but observing various discussions with interest. I always appreciate the care and rigour with which you write your posts. Best wishes.

 
At 9/08/2007 6:14 PM, Blogger Paul said...

John,

Glad to have you comment again. Sorry I didn't get time to interact with you on your last contributions. I was bored with the topic by that time and ready to move on.

Yours is what most Muslim's would consider a cult of Islam, and so it is understandable that you should act and think differently than they. For selfish reasons, I would prefer that all Muslims would convert to your way, if not mine.

Your most telling statement is this:
"[Baha'I] is a religion that has completely disavowed the 'sword' in a manner that has never been seen before in history."

I would first beg to differ and point out, for example, the first 300 years of Christianity when it had no political allure or temporal power. More importantly, you imply that Baha'i, which is a spin-off of Islam, is different than Islam. And since it has "completely disavowed the sword," then, by implication, Islam has a place for the sword. And the use of the sword has not been historically isolated in the past or abandoned in these modern, "enlightened" times, and they do not look back upon it in shame. In fact, the vast Islamic empire carved out by the sword is the very one seen as the golden age for their faith. And I would submit that much of the "brilliance" of this civilization was not a function of the religion, but rather the natural legacy of having absorbed the conquered Greco-Roman, Persian, and Judeo-Christian cultures and peoples.

Part of the problem is that Islam seems to have no concept of separation of church and state, which has its precedence in its founder. As you say, "[Muhammad] not only had the responsibility of proclaiming a Divine message, but also for leading a community." This means that the spread of the religion of Islam and the spread of its geographic and political borders is indistinguishable. As you say, it is closer to the model of Moses, who was the intermediary between God and a people whom God was establishing as a set-apart priest-nation. One of many differences being that Israel had predetermined borders for its theocracy — its influence being only spiritual beyond that. Islam knows no such national boundaries. Its goal is to make an Islamic Nation of the world for its God.

By contrast, Jesus says that we are aliens in this world. It is His to conquer in His time, not ours. We can only hope to win hearts in this age. And the historic debate over church and state issues among Christians is exactly because there is no direction or mandate for us as to what we must do when Christians are at ease and in the majority.

"The legacy of the human race as a whole is drenched in blood. Now is the time for striving to bring war to an end."

This should tell us something about the human race: there is something wrong with humanity. Jesus said we would have wars (and the poor) with us always. We cannot "strive" and expect to succeed in our own power to bring an end to evil. Only when our redeemer returns like a lion will there be an end to the sin that is at the root of it all. In the meantime, we can only be salt and light in the world. What we should do about the inevitable, aggressive, life-threatening evil has grounds for debate in the Christian economy; but I believe that Jesus' command that we practice justice demands that we at least do something — if not personally, then corporately.

 
At 9/09/2007 3:33 AM, Blogger John Bryden said...

Paul, no apology necessary re previous interaction running out of steam. I was myself not able to give much time to it due to my attention being elsewhere. (I thought I was the one who pulled out!)

Re the above discussion I acknowledge that you've identified important issues and I'm not in complete disagreement with the points that you make. Statements that I agree with are closely interwoven with statements I find doubtful. This being the case, I'm not going to try to immediately give a complete response, as it would be lengthy, and I'm short of time.

My chief worry concerns "demonization" of the "enemy". I don't mean this in a new-age lets-all-be-nice naive kind of way. But the tendency to reject the "other" as basically evil is one of the root causes of strife. I don't see that a basically polemical approach leads to genuine understanding. There are in fact unprecedented troubles occurring in the world. How are they going to be addressed unless responsible people endeavour to work through the issues with exceptional patience? This seems like an aim worthy of those who aspire to be "salt" and "light".

I submit that a wide-ranging programme of reading on Islam and Islamic history would produce a more nuanced and sympathetic view.

 
At 9/09/2007 12:14 PM, Blogger Paul said...

John,

I was referring to the dialog under "A Challenge to Atheists."

I appreciate your plea for grace, and I can't say that I disagree with the spirit of it, but there is certainly a sense in which I can rightly say that radical Islamists are "other." They are "other" in that they want to kill me; they do not prefer to find a peaceful way to coexist with me. They are categorically different than others that we might think of as "enemies." They are also "other" in that they believe something that is irreconcilable with my beliefs. To become theological brothers would mean that one or both of us would first need to give up many essentials of the faith.

I know that these people are no less valuable image-bearers of God than I, and I would prefer civil dialog and peaceful interaction over anything else, but I am afraid that the only options are to convert them from their religion or simply to treat them as enemies of the state. The former is to be infinitely preferred and our missionaries are working toward this inasmuch as they are enabled. The sad thing is that these folks seem to want to conquer the world for Allah, but they don't care a bit about converting the enemy. I don't think I've ever heard a story about their enemies being captured and then proselytized.

It is especially tough to reach these people because of the constraints they put upon letting outsiders in, or allowing interchange between religions. Missionary work among them is a life-threatening endeavor. However, God always provides in His own unique way. He seems to be bringing them to the missionaries through visions of Christ! I have heard more stories of this than I can count. Probably the best, and most credible (in my view), discussion of this can be found in the second half of a Stand To Reason radio show. Here is a link directly to the MP3. If that requires a login to the site, [anyone interested] may have to go to this page and access the Feb 19, 2006 show.

 
At 9/09/2007 3:49 PM, Blogger John Bryden said...

Paul, a quick response, written before I leave for work in the morning.

"I was referring to the dialog under "A Challenge to Atheists."

Yes. I guess technically you left the discussion first, but in fact I wasn't able to continue with it myself, in any case.

I appreciate your plea for grace, and I can't say that I disagree with the spirit of it..."

Thank you. I find this a heart-warming and encouraging statement. We have something in common here.

"... but there is certainly a sense in which I can rightly say that radical Islamists are 'other.' They are 'other' in that they want to kill me; they do not prefer to find a peaceful way to coexist with me. They are categorically different than others that we might think of as 'enemies.' They are also 'other' in that they believe something that is irreconcilable with my beliefs. To become theological brothers would mean that one or both of us would first need to give up many essentials of the faith."

I too have reasons to be terribly distressed about aggression committed by certain Muslims in the name of God. For instance, see the links on my blog sidebar to the "Baha'i Faith in Egypt" blog, which chronicles the severe civil rights difficulties being experienced by Baha'is in that country, and reports concerning the efforts of authorities in Iran to stifle the Baha'i community there. There are few executions of Baha'is these days in Iran, but a more subtle campaign of harassment is being carried out. However, the Baha'i community is able to operate with relative freedom in a number of other Muslim countries, e.g. Pakistan and Malaysia, so the picture is not uniformly bleak.

"I know that these people are no less valuable image-bearers of God than I, and I would prefer civil dialog and peaceful interaction over anything else, ..."

Absolutely...

"...but I am afraid that the only options are to convert them from their religion or simply to treat them as enemies of the state. The former is to be infinitely preferred and our missionaries are working toward this inasmuch as they are enabled. The sad thing is that these folks seem to want to conquer the world for Allah, but they don't care a bit about converting the enemy. I don't think I've ever heard a story about their enemies being captured and then proselytized."

Another alternative is to understand their religion more deeply, and armed with this knowledge, call them to account for practising it as it should be practiced. OK, this will not work with rigid fanatics, but it can be influential with ordinary folks who just want to get on with their lives, especially those living in the west. These are the people above all that we need to not alienate through a fundamentally prejudicial attitude to their religious beliefs.

"It is especially tough to reach these people because of the constraints they put upon letting outsiders in, or allowing interchange between religions. Missionary work among them is a life-threatening endeavor. However, God always provides in His own unique way. He seems to be bringing them to the missionaries through visions of Christ! I have heard more stories of this than I can count. Probably the best, and most credible (in my view), discussion of this can be found in the second half of a Stand To Reason radio show. Here is a link directly to the MP3. If that requires a login to the site, [anyone interested] may have to go to this page and access the Feb 19, 2006 show."

The Baha'is of Iran, those who have remained in their homeland, are already in a position to spread a message of peace that counters militant Islam, and they are doing so, to the best of their ability within the constraints they are under.

 
At 9/09/2007 8:39 PM, Blogger John Bryden said...

Coincidentally, after posting the above, I came across this article
in Gulf News
. It is a commentary written from a Muslim perspective, eloquently protesting against the actions of extremists. The writer rests his argument for peaceful coexistence on Islamic history and the Qur'an. Its such a clear illustration of my point that I couldn't resist adding this note immediately.

 
At 9/10/2007 12:09 PM, Blogger Paul said...

John,

However, the Baha'i community is able to operate with relative freedom in a number of other Muslim countries, e.g. Pakistan and Malaysia, so the picture is not uniformly bleak.

While these countries certainly have large Muslim populations, the governments are more Western in style. That in itself causes much political tension, yet leads to some of the relative freedoms that you mention. Note that word "relative," since there is still great danger for minority religions in these countries. Personally, I would like to see the track record reviewed for those countries self-consciously attempting to govern themselves as guided by the Qur'an and Hadith — not a secular government, an Islamic government.

Another alternative is to understand their religion more deeply, and armed with this knowledge, call them to account for practising it as it should be practiced.

You assume that the most authentic expression if Islam is one of peace with and tolerance for those who do not bend the knee to Allah. My understanding of the religion leads me to have no such confidence, but I would dearly love to be wrong. Certain Suras, Hadith anecdotes, and easily "misunderstood" terms of theirs like "Dar al-Islam and the Dar al-harb," "Jihad," and "Dhimmitude" give me cause for skepticism.

. . . the people above all that we need to not alienate through a fundamentally prejudicial attitude to their religious beliefs.

"Prejudice" implies wrongly judging without real knowledge. It is what I do know about Islam that spawns my concern.

The Baha'is of Iran, those who have remained in their homeland, are already in a position to spread a message of peace that counters militant Islam, and they are doing so, to the best of their ability within the constraints they are under.

It would be comforting to think that at least this much might have an impact, but I'm not sure how a splinter of Islam could be said to bring Islam back to its true (supposedly peaceful) expression. It would be like a Mormon trying to tell me how to be a better Christian. He can tell me how to be a Mormon, but he cannot school me on authentic Christianity, since Mormons believe themselves to be the true church and all the rest to be a corruption. However, I would much prefer the dialog being between Baha'i and Christians (or the West, or just democratic society) than with fundamentalist Muslims.

 
At 9/10/2007 1:16 PM, Blogger Paul said...

BTW, John, I read the article to which you link.

Of course, I think the author is right about the insanity of indiscriminate killing of non-combatants for the sake of one's cause, but I think he over-simplifies that cause.

He distills the terrorist's motivation to a matter of one group simply hating those who are "different" and "other." It's, supposedly, nothing more than what we've seen elsewhere with bigotry over race, class, and ethnicity, and nothing that a little tolerance and religious pluralism won't cure.

The foil to this is the fact that there are people involved in these terrorist groups from many countries, races, and social classes. For heaven sake, we've discovered Americans fighting among the Islamic groups — there are many "others" united by one cause. And it is a cause that they justify by way of the same religious books and traditions that this author claims to "emphatically forbid such outrages."

I'm not sure who this article is preaching to, but as I've said elsewhere, "you won't get very far with Muslim extremists by lobbing postmodern water balloons at them."

 
At 9/10/2007 2:51 PM, Blogger John Bryden said...

Paul,

I won't be commenting on your first paragraph as it would be difficult to avoid getting into political matters that Baha'is refrain from becoming involved with. The Baha'is are obedient to the government of whatever country they live in and will not criticise the policy of any particular government, of any stripe. So I am constrained from going further into that particular matter. The situation of the Baha'is of Iran and Egypt is in a different category. We still keep right out of the general politics of those countries, but we need to speak out on behalf of our co-religionists who are being persecuted. Their only protection is the voice of protest from the UN and the rest of the world. The Baha'is will never, ever, resort to violence in defense of their Faith and their community. Sorry, this is a bit of a diversion from the topic.

You assume that the most authentic expression if Islam is one of peace with and tolerance for those who do not bend the knee to Allah. My understanding of the religion leads me to have no such confidence, but I would dearly love to be wrong. Certain Suras, Hadith anecdotes, and easily "misunderstood" terms of theirs like "Dar al-Islam and the Dar al-harb," "Jihad," and "Dhimmitude" give me cause for skepticism. "Prejudice" implies wrongly judging without real knowledge. It is what I do know about Islam that spawns my concern.

1. How much knowledge is sufficient to guarantee oneself free of prejudice? "A little knowledge is a dangerous thing."

2. Historical perspective, historical perspective, historical perspective. The origins of Islam are 1400 years old. It started in a time very different from the present. The statements in the Qur'an were made in response to particular historical situations and need to be understood in context. Some of the hadith are of severely doubtful authenticity. There have been widely varying views amongst different Muslim scholars and sects, down the centuries. We are talking about the career of a body of people that has existed for almost a millenia and a half. Evaluating something this big is a complex task that taxes the best historians. The interpretation of Holy Books (e.g. the Bible and Qur'an), is known to be a challenging task. Bearing these things in mind, its not a waste of time to get as much information as possible before rushing to judgement.

3. Many Christians have an excellent track record in making a careful study of other religions and cultures. The best trained missionaries have always carefully studied the culture of the country they are going to serve in. (I know first-hand. My father was one of them, in Samoa, for the London Missionary Society, as it was then known, starting in 1958. Although retired, he is still active as a Presbyterian minister.) Some missionaries have made signal contributions to anthropology, etc. They have accomplished this through a sympathetic approach to the cultures they study, even if those cultures be essentially "pagan" (to use an old-fashioned term), let alone believers in the One God of Abraham, like the Muslims are.

4. If Christians are going to comment on other religions, especially in the present inflammatory world climate, they had best do their homework very thoroughly first. A collective animus against Islam within certain powerful countries can have a very real effect on world events. One should think carefully and be exceptionally well informed before one enters the fray and contributes to the public mood on this subject.

3. Regardless of what merits there may be in what the anti-Islamic voices are saying, it is a fact that there is a substantial body of Muslims who want nothing to do with violence in the name of Islam. Their opinion matters, and they should be encouraged. One would have to allow that they might well be the ones who are right about their religion, and perhaps they really know more about it than either the opponents of Islam or the fanatics. They will not be encouraged by telling them that they have the wrong idea about their religion. This is a slap in the face. Democratic leaders want to keep the moderate Muslims "on side", and that is why they repeatedly emphasise that Islam is a religion of peace. This is a wise policy.

It would be comforting to think that at least this much might have an impact, but I'm not sure how a splinter of Islam could be said to bring Islam back to its true (supposedly peaceful) expression.

"Splinter of Islam" is only a characterisation that some choose to apply out of ignorance. What is the reality? The Baha'i Faith is a world religion, not a splinter of anything. If this is true, then it has spiritual resources that make it irrelevant as to what people call it. Its teachings are cogent and its followers courageous. Little by little, people (in Iran and elsewhere) will take it on its own merits, rather than heeding any labels that might be attached to it for the purpose of discrediting it. For the Baha'is to succeed, they need to show an example ("salt and light") that gives credibility to their beliefs. Prejudicial theories must eventually fade away when faced by actions that belie the prejudices. Further, the Baha'i teachings provide an extremely attractive alternative to those who are at their wits' end with the harm being done by prevalent ideas. I know for sure that the Baha'is of Iran are slowly winning this battle of moral fibre, and this is having an effect on their countrymen.

The world of ideas that make up the zeitgeist is an outcome of constant interplay amongst all the different voices in the public square. Everyone is contributing their bit to the whole. The contributions of some are positive, and of others downright negative. The Baha'is certainly do not claim to be the only positive voice in the world, but one with some significance and a degree of effectiveness. It is not necessary that wholesale "conversion" occur from one religion to another, in order for there to be an improvement in general conditions and public thought.

It would be like a Mormon trying to tell me how to be a better Christian. He can tell me how to be a Mormon, but he cannot school me on authentic Christianity, since Mormons believe themselves to be the true church and all the rest to be a corruption.

I would hope that a Christian would be willing to learn from anyone, "even a Mormon". For instance, Steven Covey is a Mormon, who has written many excellent self-help books that bring a moral perspective to the table. Has Steven Covey had no influence on Christians? His insights on moral living, I would wager, have helped a good number of people to be "better Christians".

However, I would much prefer the dialog being between Baha'i and Christians (or the West, or just democratic society) than with fundamentalist Muslims.

Thank you for your openness to dialogue. It is greatly appreciated.

PS. Just before I put this up, I noticed you have made a further comment. At the time of writing, I haven't yet read it.

 
At 9/11/2007 5:46 AM, Blogger John Bryden said...

Paul, regarding your comment on the Gulf News article.

The article is an example of opposing terrorism in the name of Islamic values, showing that this can be done, and is being done. It was mainly this that caught my eye.

By the way, I had a look at the page you referred to for finding mp3 files of radio programmes you mentioned -- but it seems that logging in is necessary for downloading from archives.

 
At 9/11/2007 1:35 PM, Blogger Paul said...

John,

Working on a reply, but won't be able to finish up today. Till then...

 
At 9/11/2007 2:55 PM, Blogger John Bryden said...

Thanks Paul. Bloggers have no deadlines to meet except those they set for themselves, eh? Will read your reply with interest, whether it comes in a day, a week, or a month! I grew up in the Pacific islands, where many things aren't rushed...

 
At 9/11/2007 3:01 PM, Blogger Paul said...

Okay. I just know that sometimes after a couple days people stop checking for a response. And if it gets more than a week I usually lose my motivation to follow-up.

And, in the vein of Homer Simpson, Mmmm... Tropical.

 
At 9/11/2007 3:37 PM, Blogger John Bryden said...

Paul -- errr, my dark secret is I've figured out how to tap into blogger rss comments feeds, so I don't have to keep checking back constantly! Feel free to delete this, if you'd rather the idea didn't catch on too widely, though it seems to me an advantage for a blog.

 
At 9/14/2007 12:54 PM, Blogger Paul said...

John,

The Baha'is are obedient to the government of whatever country they live in and will not criticise the policy of any particular government, of any stripe.

Wow! That'd be tough in a place like, say, Nazi Germany. Christians tend to look on guys like Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who stood against his evil government, as a hero.

The Baha'is will never, ever, resort to violence in defense of their Faith and their community.

There is a difference between speaking out and rationally defending one's faith versus forming armies composed of one's religious brethren. I think you would agree with that.

Christians have a history of dying rather submissively as individual believers, but when we speak of governmental obligations for justice and defense, then we begin to enter different territory. Jesus said we should turn the other cheek when personally insulted, but He does not imply that we should stand by and watch others get slapped around. St. Paul (who was commissioned and inspired by this same Jesus) said that the government does not bear the sword in vain. I think the problem for Christians is confusing their worldly duties with their heavenly duties. It is equal error to think the church is the state and to think the church should isolate from the state. Finding that balance has been an ongoing project for Christians.

1. How much knowledge is sufficient to guarantee oneself free of prejudice? "A little knowledge is a dangerous thing."

Complete knowledge is not always required if you have certain key truths in place. If someone comes at me swinging an axe I am in my rights to duck without first getting his life story. And, it can always be said that there is more depth of knowledge to be acquired on any given topic.

There is enough troubling output from this religion to know that potential for "abuse" is a substantial, inherent part of it. It is not right to expect that every Muslim would like to kill me, but if I am cautious it is not blind bigotry.

2. . . . The origins of Islam are 1400 years old. It started in a time very different from the present. The statements in the Qur'an were made in response to particular historical situations and need to be understood in context. . .

It is important here to note that Christians do not hold to the same position as Baha'i in relation to divine revelation; we do not believe in the evolution and culture-relative nature of revelation in the same way.

Context is indeed important for a full hermeneutic of scripture, but if God does not change, then His underlying moral principles and desires for us should not either. For this reason, justifying something merely because it is in the past can only do limited theological work.

. . . Evaluating something this big is a complex task that taxes the best historians. . . . Bearing these things in mind, its not a waste of time to get as much information as possible before rushing to judgement.

If it is an insurmountably complex task for the historians and theologians who live and breath the Islamic materials, and who have come to different conclusions on this matter, then how is it that you would ever expect that I had adequate information to form any opinion at all? It seems to me that I can at least say that the more aggressive form of Islam is one of those mixed opinions that have been taken away from the text and traditions of the faith. And, judging by history, that position seems to be a frequently arrived at conclusion.

4. If Christians are going to comment on other religions, especially in the present inflammatory world climate, they had best do their homework very thoroughly first.

First, there are plenty of Christians doing their homework and making that knowledge available to the laity. In fact, many are Islamic scholars, having lived and worked extensively in the areas. Many others are Christian converts from Islam. They all seem to uniformly share my concerns about this religion.

5. Regardless of what merits there may be in what the anti-Islamic voices are saying, it is a fact that there is a substantial body of Muslims who want nothing to do with violence in the name of Islam. Their opinion matters, and they should be encouraged. . . . They will not be encouraged by telling them that they have the wrong idea about their religion. This is a slap in the face. Democratic leaders want to keep the moderate Muslims "on side", and that is why they repeatedly emphasise that Islam is a religion of peace. This is a wise policy.

This is your best point. You are right that for tactical reasons it would be best to encourage the moderates, even if it were true that they represented a more liberal version of Islam. However, this may also serve to agitate the fundamentalists even further, as they see the enemy attempting to apostatize the Islamic world. How do you suppose I feel when outsiders insist that those who think God is just a vague idea of love, and Jesus was just a great moral teacher, are the true Christians, and that us "fundamentalists" have simply hijacked the faith? That is a slap in the face to us conservatives even while it is affirming to the liberals.

"Splinter of Islam" is only a characterisation that some choose to apply out of ignorance.

I know that was probably an abrasive phrase to use, but I think it is as true as saying that Christianity is a splinter or "cult" of Judaism. As you go on to suggest, this doesn't mean it is an invalid religion and that the root religion represents true orthodoxy, though.

[Baha'i] has spiritual resources . . . Its teachings are cogent and its followers courageous . . . [It is] an extremely attractive alternative to those who are at their wits' end with the harm being done by prevalent ideas.

John, you're selling it like a self help system rather than as Truth. I believe that truth happens to be practical in the long run, but as Proverbs 14:12 states, "There is a way which seems right to a man, but its end is the way of death."

I know for sure that the Baha'is of Iran are slowly winning this battle of moral fibre, and this is having an effect on their countrymen.

Best wishes there. As I do not believe that either Islam or Baha'i are commissioned by God, I can only hope that the most peaceful and tolerant forms of religious fabrication prevail in the world.

The Baha'is certainly do not claim to be the only positive voice in the world, but one with some significance and a degree of effectiveness. It is not necessary that wholesale "conversion" occur from one religion to another, in order for there to be an improvement in general conditions and public thought.

Unfortunately, Christianity does not share the religious stew view of spiritual truth. It most adamant teaches that God has taken pains to make Himself known and does not suffer idle speculation or commission generally inspired prophets. It is concerned for conversion, because it believes that this is the best thing that can happen to a true spiritual seeker, and it believes there are real consequences to not getting your relationship with God correct. Christians would probably be less concerned for evangelism and "narrow-mindedness" if they also believed that there was nothing in particular from which we are "saved" from or to.

I would hope that a Christian would be willing to learn from anyone, "even a Mormon". For instance, Steven Covey is a Mormon, who has written many excellent self-help books that bring a moral perspective to the table. Has Steven Covey had no influence on Christians? His insights on moral living, I would wager, have helped a good number of people to be "better Christians".

I have issues with self-help books because they tend to be pop psychology. The very fact that there are so many now and through time suggests that there is very little that really takes hold with time-tested content. It's like diet programs. They are a dime-a-dozen because everyone is looking for a way to avoid the hard solution that really works: eat sensibly and exercise.

Christianity teaches that the best "help" is not "self" help. It is important to get first things right or the rest will suffer. Unfortunately, while a Mormon (or atheist) might have stumbled upon general truths in this world, he is lacking certain foundational beliefs that make all the difference in the world for some issues. For one, Mormons do not believe that there is something wrong with us in our nature (no doctrine of the Fall), and secular psychologists reject the very idea of sin and guilt. Consequently, following their advice is like driving without all your cylinders firing, at best, and like trying to get to Hawaii by car, at worst.

Even if I might be able to get a few tidbits of stray wisdom from a non-Christian, if I'm looking for advice on something that benefits from a proper theological foundation, I may as well go to a Christian expert on the topic. While I may receive handy herbal tips from a Shaman, you'll forgive me if I prefer a trained physician if I am dying.

 
At 9/15/2007 12:05 AM, Blogger John Bryden said...

Paul, thank you for your thorough analysis. Below, some clarifications of my earlier statements, and comments on points that you raised. Sorry about the length. Only on a Saturday could I spend this much time on it, you'll be relieved to know.

Regarding obedience to government, here is a more complete statement on the Baha'i position: "We must obey in all cases except where a spiritual principle is involved such as denying our Faith. For these spiritual principles we must be willing to die." (From a letter written on behalf of Shoghi Effendi to a individual believer, December 21, 1948)

The bedrock Baha'i principle of the oneness of humanity was, as you will appreciate, antithetical to the Nazi ideology. The organised Baha'i community in Germany was banned during the Nazi era.

"From 1937 to 1945 Bahá’í activities were banned in Nazi Germany, in part because of the Faith’s progressive teachings, including the oneness of humanity. Local Bahá’í communities were dissolved and their literature was confiscated. Some of the believers were interrogated, imprisoned, and deported by the authorities. Some Bahá’ís of Jewish background were killed by the regime." -- "One Country", newsletter of the Baha'i International Community, issue of July-Sept 2005.

There is a difference between speaking out and rationally defending one's faith versus forming armies composed of one's religious brethren. I think you would agree with that.

Yes, I agree. Here are some statements from the Baha'i Writings that deliberately play on military language to denounce militant religion:

"Aid ye your Lord with the sword of wisdom and of utterance." -- Baha'u'llah.

"... war shall be waged in the path of God with the armies of wisdom and utterance, and of a goodly character and praiseworthy deeds. Thus hath it been decided by Him Who is the All-Powerful, the Almighty. There is no glory for him that committeth disorder on the earth..." -- Baha'u'llah

Christians have a history of dying rather submissively as individual believers, but when we speak of governmental obligations for justice and defense, then we begin to enter different territory. Jesus said we should turn the other cheek when personally insulted, but He does not imply that we should stand by and watch others get slapped around. St. Paul (who was commissioned and inspired by this same Jesus) said that the government does not bear the sword in vain. I think the problem for Christians is confusing their worldly duties with their heavenly duties. It is equal error to think the church is the state and to think the church should isolate from the state. Finding that balance has been an ongoing project for Christians.

I agree overall with this, in terms of general principle:

"Thus when Christ said: 'Whosoever shall smite thee on the right cheek, turn to him the left one also,' it was for the purpose of teaching men not to take personal revenge. He did not mean that, if a wolf should fall upon a flock of sheep and wish to destroy it, the wolf should be encouraged to do so. No, if Christ had known that a wolf had entered the fold and was about to destroy the sheep, most certainly He would have prevented it." -- 'Abdu'l-Baha.

I might add that it is this same principle of justice that required Muhammad to defend the people of Medina.

Nevertheless, the use of military force even by the state has become problematic in our age to a very great degree. I affirm the right of countries to defend themselves, but every effort to find alternatives to war is demanded of us by the circumstances of our times. War has always been terrible. Now it is potentially catastrophic.

Complete knowledge is not always required if you have certain key truths in place.

Granted. But in a subject as vast as the study of history and the forces that shape civilization, there is always more to be learned. Seeking to develop a mature mind through well rounded reading is a lifelong process, and by such means we can gradually free ourselves from prejudice, which afflicts pretty much everyone.

There is enough troubling output from this religion to know that potential for "abuse" is a substantial, inherent part of it. It is not right to expect that every Muslim would like to kill me, but if I am cautious it is not blind bigotry.

I'm not suggesting there's no reason for "caution". Its a matter of perspective & proportion. It is the wholesale writing off of Muhammad and the entire civilization He founded, as something fundamentally evil, that I find worrisome. Movements that are basically evil/misguided from the start, just do not endure. See Acts 5:34-38. Moreover, as I know you are well aware, the Divine message can be perverted by corrupt human beings for their own ends. By all means be cautious when necessary, but extreme views are unwarranted. There was no cause for me to be "cautious" when served at the supermarket yesterday by a young Muslim woman looking out sweetly from under her headscarf. Muslims are an accepted part of the society I live in. They are not definitively a dangerous element.

It is important here to note that Christians do not hold to the same position as Baha'i in relation to divine revelation; we do not believe in the evolution and culture-relative nature of revelation in the same way.

Even if so, it is an accepted principle of historiography that the merits and character of governments, movements, peoples, leaders, etc., are to be evaluated in accordance with their responses to the prevailing conditions of the respective time and place. For instance, the Emperor Constantine found it necessary to do some things that would be considered abominable if committed by the head of a modern democratic state, such as having some of his relatives murdered -- and yet for his times, he was a most enlightened ruler, who, as well as emancipating Christianity, moved the Roman Empire toward much higher standards of civic life, e.g care for the poor, than it had hitherto enjoyed.

Even if one is not prepared to accept that Muhammad was a genuine Prophet, one has a duty to evaluate His actions and his legacy with at least a minimum of fairness and good judgement. In these terms the view that Islam has been fundamentally evil from the start, that I have seen in some quarters, is not sustainable. There have been some all-out destructive and bloodthirsty leaders in history -- like Genghis Khan, Josef Stalin, Adolf Hitler, etc. His Holiness Muhammad is in entirely different company. I shudder to mention His name in the same breath as those notorious tyrants, but it is in order to show that the benchmark of evil is elsewhere. Compare the razing to the ground of Jerusalem circa AD 70 by a vengeful Roman Emperor whose troops ran amok because their commander lost control, with the almost bloodless capture of Mecca by the disciplined army headed by Muhammad. The least that can be said is that His statesmanship was of a high order. A close reading of His life will reveal even greater things that can be said of Him.

Context is indeed important for a full hermeneutic of scripture, but if God does not change, then His underlying moral principles and desires for us should not either. For this reason, justifying something merely because it is in the past can only do limited theological work.

It is not suggested that underlying moral principles change, but those various interacting principles had to be applied in former times under a different set of circumstances than obtains (in certain respects) in the present day. God changes not, but the world is in constant flux.

If [evaluating Islamic civilisation] is an insurmountably complex task for the historians and theologians who live and breath the Islamic materials, and who have come to different conclusions on this matter, then how is it that you would ever expect that I had adequate information to form any opinion at all?

Sorry if I gave this impression. I did not say "insurmountably", but "taxing" -- in other words, challenging, difficult; but not impossible. Also there is the question of the manner that one expresses opinions publicly. On balance, is one contributing to the solution, or making the problem worse? Often, its not an easy call to make, I admit. My suggestion is merely that ever becoming better informed helps tip the balance towards more creative and constructive engagement. God forbid that I oppose anyone's right to hold an opinion. But opinions can develop and mellow over time.

First, there are plenty of Christians doing their homework and making that knowledge available to the laity. In fact, many are Islamic scholars, having lived and worked extensively in the areas. Many others are Christian converts from Islam. They all seem to uniformly share my concerns about this religion.

Fair enough. How about reading the works of non-Christian scholars too? Including Muslims? Not to mention Christian scholars who are more accepting of Islam than those you have apparently read?

You are right that for tactical reasons it would be best to encourage the moderates, even if it were true that they represented a more liberal version of Islam. However, this may also serve to agitate the fundamentalists even further, as they see the enemy attempting to apostatize the Islamic world.

Since when was it a good idea to appease an aggressor by alienating a peaceable friend? (In some cases, a fellow citizen, I might add.) Come to think of it, when has it ever been honourable to do so?

How do you suppose I feel when outsiders insist that those who think God is just a vague idea of love, and Jesus was just a great moral teacher, are the true Christians, and that us "fundamentalists" have simply hijacked the faith? That is a slap in the face to us conservatives even while it is affirming to the liberals.

1. On one level, this shows the drawback that labels can have. I sympathize with your frustration.

2. If I understand correctly, you hold that the pivot of all truth is to be found within Christianity. If so, then beliefs held by non-Christians would be valid truths to the extent that they synchronize with Christian doctrines. If a person believes this and believes that Christianity advocates peaceful conduct, it would lead to the conclusion that non-Christians who advocate peaceful conduct are closer to the truth. This factor would be of greater importance, in such a framework, than whether or not these individuals adhere to the supposed orthodoxy of their own religion. From this perspective (or any sane perspective for that matter), why would one be so concerned for the feelings of people who advocate violence? And why would one wish to support their concept of what is orthodox in their religion? 

3. It is contradictory to maintain that an orthodox form of Islam exists while at the same time maintaining that Christianity is the only true religion, all others being false. The idea of orthodoxy in monotheistic religion implies doctrines and practices that are God-given. If the doctrines are not God-given, they can't be genuinely orthodox. They are just human creations that can be modified by humans at will. It is not viable to negate the orthodoxy of Islam itself and also to claim that some faction, liberal or conservative, represents orthodox Islam. The term, "orthodox" has already been rendered meaningless by prior assumptions. The unbeliever is an outsider to the debate on what constitutes orthodoxy.

4. On the other hand a believer in Islam is entitled to reflect on the guidance that he believes God has given through the Qur'an and hadith, and come to his own conclusions. There is a great deal to be found there that supports those who conclude that Islam is a religion of peace. Non-Muslims who favour peace can happily collaborate with peace-loving Muslims, without needing to concern themselves as to the orthodoxy of such Muslims. They can let the Muslims attend to this themselves.

5. An in-depth study of Islam and Islamic history by a non-believer might eventually lead to an understanding of peaceful currents within Islam that give reassurance that at least this is a movement that is not by nature demonic. Even more illuminating of course would be a study from a Baha'i perspective that is informed by an overarching vision of the God-guided social evolution of mankind. :-)

I know that [splinter of Islam] was probably an abrasive phrase to use, but I think it is as true as saying that Christianity is a splinter or "cult" of Judaism. As you go on to suggest, this doesn't mean it is an invalid religion and that the root religion represents true orthodoxy, though.

To say that Christianity has its roots in Judaism is accurate, but to call it a "cult" of Judaism is a gross distortion. I don't see how it helps to use such terms as splinter and cult, where they are misplaced. The word "cult" implies a minor religious group and probably one that engages in weird rituals. A splinter is a small chip off the main block. These terms are equally inappropriate when applied to Christianity or the Baha'i Faith. Abrasiveness can easily be shrugged off. It is the inaccuracy that's a problem. All the same, there seems to be a level of underlying agreement between us here.

John, you're selling it like a self help system rather than as Truth. I believe that truth happens to be practical in the long run, but as Proverbs 14:12 states, "There is a way which seems right to a man, but its end is the way of death."

By what other means would one evaluate the truth of a religion, besides the cogency of its teachings and the conduct of its followers? Why do you write here on this blog, if not to assert the cogency of the Christian Faith? Why focus so much on morality, if standards of conduct are a side-issue?

Proverbs 14:11 states: "The house of the wicked shall be overthrown: but the tabernacle of the upright shall flourish." I therefore think the following verse, that you quoted, was not referring to courage and upright conduct as the "way that seems right" but which "leads to death".

I said previously that the Baha'is of Iran are courageous. Let's be clear what kind of courage we're talking about. It is not the sort developed by reading self-help books. For instance, in the 1980s there were young Baha'i women (teenagers) who ecstatically went to their deaths for their faith. See A Dress for Mona. If the courage of these young women was not born of God, I am at a loss to know what greater courage would be needed to demonstrate true faith! Every decade of the history of the Iranian Baha'i community from the beginning until now has been filled with exploits that are just as extraordinary.

As I do not believe that either Islam or Baha'i are commissioned by God, I can only hope that the most peaceful and tolerant forms of religious fabrication prevail in the world.

"Religious fabrication" ??? !!! You have a way with words! What can I say...?

Unfortunately, Christianity does not share the religious stew view of spiritual truth. It most adamant teaches that God has taken pains to make Himself known and does not suffer idle speculation or commission generally inspired prophets. It is concerned for conversion, because it believes that this is the best thing that can happen to a true spiritual seeker, and it believes there are real consequences to not getting your relationship with God correct. Christians would probably be less concerned for evangelism and "narrow-mindedness" if they also believed that there was nothing in particular from which we are "saved" from or to.

Supposing I look at this from a Christian point of view. Certainly, encouraging people to convert to Christianity would be highly important, but it is not the ony means by which Christians can have a positive influence on the world. By the same token, Baha'is are keen to see more people embrace the Baha'i Faith, but we also try to contribute to the wellbeing of society in general. If peace-loving people of all persuasions increase their influence and their capacity for constructive action, the condition of the world inevitably must improve. There is always a transfer of thoughts occurring between different groups in society. Seeing things in "all or nothing" terms is not conducive to the patient work that needs to be done over generations to build a better world. All hope of addressing terrorism is not lost on account of Muslims in general being understandably disinclined to convert immediately en masse to some other belief.

Christ said that the Kingdom of God would come in future, but He also said, "The Kingdom of God is within you". We should not wait for some future date to give whatever expression we can to the vision within us of the Kingdom of God on earth.

Even if I might be able to get a few tidbits of stray wisdom from a non-Christian, if I'm looking for advice on something that benefits from a proper theological foundation, I may as well go to a Christian expert on the topic. While I may receive handy herbal tips from a Shaman, you'll forgive me if I prefer a trained physician if I am dying.

The folowing quotation from Baha'u'llah is apposite:

"The Prophets of God should be regarded as physicians whose task is to foster the well-being of the world and its peoples, that, through the spirit of oneness, they may heal the sickness of a divided humanity. To none is given the right to question their words or disparage their conduct, for they are the only ones who can claim to have understood the patient and to have correctly diagnosed its ailments. No man, however acute his perception, can ever hope to reach the heights which the wisdom and understanding of the Divine Physician have attained. Little wonder, then, if the treatment prescribed by the physician in this day should not be found to be identical with that which he prescribed before. How could it be otherwise when the ills affecting the sufferer necessitate at every stage of his sickness a special remedy? In like manner, every time the Prophets of God have illumined the world with the resplendent radiance of the Day Star of Divine knowledge, they have invariably summoned its peoples to embrace the light of God through such means as best befitted the exigencies of the age in which they appeared. They were thus able to scatter the darkness of ignorance, and to shed upon the world the glory of their own knowledge. It is towards the inmost essence of these Prophets, therefore, that the eye of every man of discernment must be directed, inasmuch as their one and only purpose hath always been to guide the erring, and give peace to the afflicted.... These are not days of prosperity and triumph. The whole of mankind is in the grip of manifold ills. Strive, therefore, to save its life through the wholesome medicine which the almighty hand of the unerring Physician hath prepared."

 
At 9/19/2007 12:07 PM, Blogger Paul said...

John,

I'd like to narrow this down if we want to continue, but there are many points to which I am compelled to respond. The last point is probably the most important, though.

I might add that it is this same principle of justice that required Muhammad to defend the people of Medina.

Taking political/military control of the city, much less Mecca, is hardly "defending his people."

but every effort to find alternatives to war is demanded of us by the circumstances of our times.

I don't know anyone who believes otherwise. The problem is, no matter how much this principle is employed, if some disagree with the war then they will always claim that diplomacy was given short shrift and call the war supporters "warmongers." (Sorry, that was more of a rant against the political liberals over here in the US.)

Seeking to develop a mature mind through well rounded reading is a lifelong process, and by such means we can gradually free ourselves from prejudice

Yes, in the sense that prejudice is judgment without knowledge, but if knowledge exposes issues, and one holds an opinion due to those issues, then it is not valid to call it prejudice anymore. It is better, then, to simply say that one is mistaken about their facts than that they are prejudiced.

It is the wholesale writing off of Muhammad and the entire civilization He founded, as something fundamentally evil, that I find worrisome. Movements that are basically evil/misguided from the start just do not endure. See Acts 5:34-38.

First, this passage from Acts is not a divine test of inspiration for a movement. In fact, it actually comes from the mouth (in the verse you cite) of one who was NOT convinced that Jesus was the Messiah!

Second, even if it is true, the timeframe of what bears fruit and/or fails does not have to be a matter of years or decades. Many of the heretical groups of the early church managed to thrive for several centuries before dying out. And Theravada Buddhism, which is essentially atheistic (as I understand it), has a rather long history. The longevity principle may be a necessary condition of truth, but it is not a sufficient one.

Third, some movements that may be said to be enduring have indeed suffered certain historic setbacks. A case can be made that materialistic atheism was introduced into the west by Democritus (and expanded upon by Epicurus) several hundred years before Christ. Christianity largely outcompeted the following of this philosophy in the Roman Empire, but it resurfaced after the Middle Ages and has made a powerful comeback in modern times. So, is materialism inspired? Islam has also seen setbacks; its spread has been rather dramatic, but it has seen some historical . . . disappointments. Must a movement go entirely extinct before we can rule it out of play? There are still flat-earthers around after all.

Fourth, by measure of longevity and success, I would commend to you the Christian faith, which spread quickly, widely, and constantly over the course of its existence, and which has steadily maintained the same doctrine of the unique identity of Jesus, which the Baha'i reject.

Fifth, since Islam and Christianity profess key doctrines that are at odds with each other (and, by a pluralistic standard, at odds with Baha'i), then this implies that something about these enduring religions is not so true after all.

For instance, the Emperor Constantine found it necessary to do some things that would be considered abominable if committed by the head of a modern democratic state, such as having some of his relatives murdered -- and yet for his times, he was a most enlightened ruler, who, as well as emancipating Christianity, moved the Roman Empire toward much higher standards of civic life, e.g care for the poor, than it had hitherto enjoyed.

Without debating over the historical veracity of your claims here, I can say the following. Constantine was not the historical founder of our faith. He was not the mouthpiece of God. In fact, Christians often debate whether he was even a true believer. He may indeed have made it easier on Christians in the Roman Empire and he may have been a comparatively better Emperor than any other, but it matters not a whit to our theology what he did in his life. In fact, an argument might be made that at the very point that the ruling class came to be labeled "Christians" (perhaps some being so in more than name only), and true Christians were put at their ease, then this is precisely when the "Christian atrocities" begin their historical appearance.

Compare the razing to the ground of Jerusalem circa AD 70 by a vengeful Roman Emperor whose troops ran amok because their commander lost control, with the almost bloodless capture of Mecca by the disciplined army headed by Muhammad.

Now doesn't that characterization sound loaded! Answer me three questions here. 1) Exactly why is it that any troops at all, under whatever banner, needed to be sent to Jerusalem? Who was in possession of it and how did they come to hold this alien land? 2) Were there no battles at all with Meccan armies prior to the "bloodless capture" of it? 3) Why is it that the leader of one religion is out capturing cities and leading armies while the leader of another is being submissively captured by soldiers and lead to a cross? And why should there be such a fundamental difference between two supposed "divine manifestations?"

A close reading of His life will reveal even greater things that can be said of Him.

By purely secular standards Muhammad might be thought an interesting and influential man, perhaps even a military or political genius by some reckonings. However, as "the greatest and last prophet of God," we are justified in holding him to a different standard, a standard higher even than we modern, enlightened mortals.

If I understand correctly, you hold that the pivot of all truth is to be found within Christianity. If so, then beliefs held by non-Christians would be valid truths to the extent that they synchronize with Christian doctrines. If a person believes this and believes that Christianity advocates peaceful conduct, it would lead to the conclusion that non-Christians who advocate peaceful conduct are closer to the truth. This factor would be of greater importance, in such a framework, than whether or not these individuals adhere to the supposed orthodoxy of their own religion.

Yes, they are closer to the Christian truth (which I believe to be THE truth). However, my original point related to what was closer to the original teaching and practices of Islam. How we might tactically handle the "radical Muslims" is another point that we might actually come to some agreement on if we pressed forward with the discussion.

It is contradictory to maintain that an orthodox form of Islam exists while at the same time maintaining that Christianity is the only true religion, all others being false.

I only mean "orthodox" in relation to the original teachings of Muhammad, just like it seems to me that Theravada Buddhism is the most "orthodox" form of that religion.

On the other hand a believer in Islam is entitled to reflect on the guidance that he believes God has given through the Qur'an and hadith, and come to his own conclusions.

Ah, now that idea is not so much Islamic as Baha'i. I think Islam and Christianity are generally united in the idea that one can be quite mistaken in the conclusions that we take away from the text and traditions. Baha'i seems to be somewhat more flexible in its doctrines and personal applications.

To say that Christianity has its roots in Judaism is accurate, but to call it a "cult" of Judaism is a gross distortion.

Unfortunately, there are two understandings of that word. I am simply using it in its technical sense, not its popular sociological sense.

By what other means would one evaluate the truth of a religion, besides the cogency of its teachings and the conduct of its followers? Why do you write here on this blog, if not to assert the cogency of the Christian Faith? Why focus so much on morality, if standards of conduct are a side-issue?

Yes, certainly the sensibility of the religion and its fruit are a factor. Unfortunately, "cogency" can be in the eye of the beholder. Logical coherency is the ideal, but even if achieved it does not mean that a system of thought is true. Science has had many cogent theories that turn out to be an incorrect, though internally consistent, model of reality.

And "good" moral conduct is also a question-begging enterprise. You have to first presuppose a standard to judge any given behavior. Peace and religious harmony may seem to be an ideal, but if it turns out that in reality God has major issues with idolatry and false characterizations of Himself, then "good" behavior may cause us to ruffle a few feathers.

In my recent apologetics on issues of morality I am not arguing for Christianity based on how good we Christians are; I am arguing for the "cogency" of the theistic concept of objective morality. I am doing this particularly in response to atheism to show that the mere idea of "standards of conduct" is problematic from their perspective.

If the courage of these young women was not born of God, I am at a loss to know what greater courage would be needed to demonstrate true faith!

Not to take away from the authenticity of their courage, but unfortunately you cannot ascribe truth to a conviction simply because of the courage in holding it. All you can say is that it exhibits the strength of the conviction itself.

Do you think that there were no Nazi or communist spies who showed courage against their interrogators? And the atheist (or possible pantheist), Giordano Bruno, was martyred for his beliefs. The will to be courageous in the face of opposition is a part of the moral fiber that I argue to be intrinsic to humanity. Some exercise this more than others, though surely God gives his people grace in this regard.

"Religious fabrication" ??? !!! You have a way with words! What can I say...?

Sorry to offend, but you must already know the biblical view I hold of other religions and the exclusive and unique place of Christ.

Christ said that the Kingdom of God would come in future, but He also said, "The Kingdom of God is within you". We should not wait for some future date to give whatever expression we can to the vision within us of the Kingdom of God on earth.

He also said He'd be separating the sheep from the goats in the final judgment. Now, if you can for a moment assume for the sake of argument that the biblical view of what comes after death and the end of the age is true, then perhaps you can understand why Christians are primarily concerned with making sheep over keeping the goats from trampling our garden. Harmony in this age is certainly a wonderful thing, but it is not an end in itself.

Our difference of perspective relating to God and salvation will keep us from any tight agreement on these points, and your Baha'u'llah quote is a perfect example of this:

The Prophets of God should be regarded as physicians whose task is to foster the well-being of the world and its peoples, that, through the spirit of oneness, they may heal the sickness of a divided humanity. . .

The entire point of the biblical story is not that humanity is divided against itself, but that humanity is separated from God. The strife among humans is but a byproduct of the spiritual sickness that we suffer. Even if the entire world could possibly achieve the utopian vision of the religionists and atheists alike, it would still do nothing to remediate the alienation from our creator.

Isaiah (ch.52) sums up the root problem in saying, "Behold, the LORD'S hand is not so short that it cannot save; nor is His ear so dull that it cannot hear. But your iniquities have made a separation between you and your God, and your sins have hidden His face from you so that He does not hear."

To fixate on the peace and prosperity of humanity is to both reach for an impossible vision and to treat the symptom rather than the disease. St. Paul (in Romans 5) summarizes the Christian solution in saying to the young church of Rome, "Therefore, having been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ."

 
At 9/19/2007 8:35 PM, Blogger John Bryden said...

Paul, you raise some points that would be interesting to respond to sometime. But I'm content to have "had my say" and I note your suggestion of needing to narrow the discussion. What do you think is the most productive way of narrowing the focus?

 
At 9/20/2007 2:17 PM, Blogger Paul said...

Relevant to the topic of this post, I would ask if it is true that Muhammad blurred the lines between church and state, lead armies and raised the sword against his enemies, and offered many Qur'anic verses that can be easily "misunderstood" to support the harsh treatment of unbelievers, e.g., Suras 2:190-193, 216; 4:74-76; 5:33, 51; 8:39, 67; 9:5, 29, 73, 123; 47:4; 68:15-16?

Relevant to the Baha'i attempt to unify Islam and Christianity (and other choice religions) in their divine inspiration, I would ask why, if they are both manifestations of the same God, the behavior of Muhammad and Jesus is so radically different? And where they are both united in their teaching about a final judgment and hell, why does Baha'i part ways with such doctrines?

 
At 9/21/2007 4:18 AM, Blogger John Bryden said...

Paul, I find myself in a dilemma as to whether to go on. The questions you raise are good ones undoubtedly. But if I were to offer answers I can see that we would soon be into quite a few more rounds of detailed discussion. With your usual acuity, in the two short paragraphs of your last post you have raised matters involving the relationship of church and state; the nature of the use of the sword by religion in history; the precise historical circumstances of the revelation of various verses of the Qur'an in order to understand their implications, not to mention other aspects that bear upon the interpretation of the Qur'an; a comparative analysis of the behaviour of the Founders of two world religions; the doctrines of the Day of Judgement and hell in Christianity, Islam, and the Baha'i Faith; and the concept of a teleological view of history. Knowing me (and you), how to maintain brevity this many balls in the air? Given that I can't promise brevity, I'd only want to continue if I'm assured you find it sufficiently beneficial to explore the topic further. It's perfectly understandable if you'd rather spend your time on something else.

Finally, I can't help mentioning one substantive point, which is that in fact the Baha'i teachings emphatically warn of the Day of Judgement and of hell in language strikingly similar to that of the Bible and the Qur'an.

God bless.

 
At 9/21/2007 12:33 PM, Blogger Paul said...

Okay, I'll grant that I packed both barrels pretty tight, and these are incidental issues to the greatest difference of all between us. In light of your important admission that Baha'i have a place for the belief in a final judgment and hell (heaven too, I assume), then I must ask the most crucial question of all: How do I survive the Judgment; on what grounds might God find me acceptable?

 
At 9/21/2007 4:44 PM, Blogger John Bryden said...

Paul, I'd thought I was entering a discussion more or less centred on the question of whether Islam is essentially a religion of peace. The new question you raise doesn't have an obvious connection to the original topic, although presumably there may be a connection that you wish to explore. If so, you might like to clarify that. However, even if the topic is changing, I have no objection, save a slight reservation that we've been over this ground before. I'll go ahead and answer your question, as it gives me a chance to attempt a more adequate explanation than previously. I need to attend to a few other things before I write it up.

 
At 9/22/2007 1:15 PM, Blogger Paul said...

Yes, John, we're technically off task here, but I'm a bottom line kind of guy. Since your view of what Islam actually teaches is colored by the fact that you think the Baha'i way of thinking is the authentic expression of Islam (and Christianity), then the issue really boils down to the truth of the Baha'i claim. And since the differences in these religions really begins, and is most important, at the point of their doctrines of salvation, then I see this as transcending all other concerns. Now is your chance to preach the "gospel," John. I would think that if your way is true and important that you should not shy away from such an opportunity.

 
At 9/22/2007 4:50 PM, Blogger John Bryden said...

Paul, you are right, the concept of salvation is pivotal. This being so, it deserves comprehensive treatment, and I'm therefore working on an essay-length response, which I will perhaps post on my blog or via Google docs. Please bear with me, as I'm not sure how quickly I can complete this, in between other activities. The essay will be looking at the operation of God's saving grace in society as well as at the individual level. It will also look at the all-encompassing nature of that grace.

God's love for humankind is active throughout the world. God is involved in all human affairs and His"hand" guides history. Assuming one accepts these statements, it is a worthwhile occupation to try to discern the evidences of God's grace beyond, say, the confines of Christendom. Good (i.e. the will of God) and evil (things contrary to His will), exist in varying degrees in the world. In this perspective, there are real differences of good and evil even amongst those who are (supposedly) not amongst "the redeemed of the Lord". Evaluations of movements and trends in the world therefore can and should be made with some subtlety. One is then in a position to support those movements in the world that one perceives, to the best of one's ability, to be more in alignment with the Will of God -- such as movements that are conducive to peace and the betterment of humankind in all manner of ways, whether in alleviating poverty, providing education, preserving the environment, etc. etc. One can also identify evil where it exists. There is light and shadow, and colour, in our picture of the world.

If an individual were to form his world view exclusively on the basis of distinguishing between the "saved" and the "damned", without regard for the wider operations of God's grace, such a person is left with a picture wherein the saved live in a world of brightness, while the unsaved live in an amorphous twilight zone where everything that happens is slightly more or less evil and has no real significance. Such a person, I submit, would have no business concerning himself with happenings in the wider world at all, except as they pertain to perhaps rescuing a few lost souls from oblivion. Indeed, some sects have come to a similar conclusion and have taken themselves off to rural areas where they can live out their beliefs in isolation from the contaminating influence of the world. Your view does not seem to be of this extreme type, for you take an active interest in the affairs of the world, which clearly you find worth knowing about. If they are worth knowning about, they are significant. Nothing is significant except that significance be conferred by God. If it be conferred by God, it indicates the operation of God's grace. Therefore a believer in God who considers happenings in the world to be significant is recognising in those happenings, the operations of God's grace.

The concept of salvation is pivotal, inasmuch as salvation consists of God's grace given to humanity and humanity's response to that grace. There is no more important subject. The whole of history and the meaning of everything that happens in the human world is encompassed by it. It appears that you and I may be less divided by our differing conceptions of divine grace, than we are united in the belief in its reality and its central importance to human affairs.

Even if we are not in agreement that "Jesus is the only way to salvation", I hope we agree that God's love for humankind is active throughout the world, that He is involved in all human affairs and His"hand" guides history. If we agree on this much, we have enough common ground to engage in considering whether, on objective grounds, Islam is a religion of peace. My position is that when Islam lives up to the visionary intentions of the Prophet who founded it, it aims above all for the advancement of the Kingdom of God on earth, which is the ultimate form of peace.

 
At 9/24/2007 12:56 PM, Blogger Paul said...

John,

I think you are making this harder than it has to be.

No Christian would deny that God is at work in human history, or that His earthly "common grace" even extends to the unsaved. Where we divide is in what would be considered divine revelation and whether God gives bits and pieces through disparate religions. It is one thing to say that God sustains all humanity and offers many pointers to the veracity of His revealed Word; it is another thing to say that His Word is found in scattered puzzle pieces that must be assembled under the direction of subjective human minds.

While it is an interesting distraction to explore theories on how God is sovereign over human affairs and in bringing individuals to Himself, I am not asking these questions. What I've asked is a much more personal question. I am asking the question that a lost soul might ask — one who does not know the demands of your God but knows enough about himself to realize he is in need of something. I am asking the question, "What must he do to be saved?" Will you give this poor soul an essay? Is there not a concise presentation of the precious truth that means the difference between an eternity in paradise and the woeful separation from his Creator?

Christians have made an art of encapsulating the Gospel into creeds and tracts. In fact I have often included little Gospel bombs into blog entries and comments. The bottom of the post that launched our very first exchange is such an example.

In the world of computer programming there is a principle I once learned: If you cannot easily assign a comprehensive name to a function that you are about to write, then you haven't really got a handle on what you're trying to accomplish to begin with. If Christian salvation were a function, I would name it and invoke it as follows.

salvation = MercyOfGodThruChristsAtoningWork(faith)

Surely there is some concise "gospel" distillation in the Baha'i world that does not, of necessity, exceed a couple of paragraphs. Fleshing out terms and historical detail is surely important, but there must be a skeleton on which to hang the flesh. What is that skeleton; what is that foundation upon which you build your house?

 
At 9/24/2007 3:41 PM, Blogger John Bryden said...

Paul, the succinct statement that you require was contained in my previous post, and is this: "...salvation consists of God's grace given to humanity and humanity's response to that grace."

My urge to say more at this point must be resisted on account of needing to rush off to work.

 
At 9/24/2007 4:16 PM, Blogger Paul said...

So, one is saved by responding how to the grace in "humanity?" I won't even ask just yet what constitutes God's grace in humanity, what is idle speculation, and what is outright deception and how to know the difference between such things.

However, I can say that if one were turned away at the Pearly Gates because they had not "responded to God's grace in humanity," they would certainly be left perplexed, since people spend all their lives responding to humanity and generally think that they have responded well according to their own subjective valuations. Just ask our atheist friends if they believe that they have taken the low road and not appreciated the good that has come from humanity.

 
At 9/25/2007 5:22 AM, Blogger John Bryden said...

Paul, my humble apologies. Evidently my "succinct" phrase was unfortunately ambiguous, for your interpretation is the direct opposite of my intended meaning. The grace I refer to is God's grace; the grace given from God to humankind; not grace in humankind.

I shall try to clarify, drawing on quotations from the Baha'i writings.

First, the absolute sovereignty of God is central to the Baha'i understanding.

"Praise be to God, the Eternal that perisheth not, the Everlasting that declineth not, the Self-Subsisting that altereth not. He it is Who is transcendent in His sovereignty, Who is manifest through His signs, and is hidden through His mysteries."

God's love for us is the very reason for our existence. On man He has engraved His own image.

"The purpose of God in creating man hath been, and will ever be, to enable him to know his Creator and to attain His Presence."

The ability of human beings to draw near to God, is entirely a gift from God.

"The tie of servitude established between the worshiper and the adored One, between the creature and the Creator, should in itself be regarded as a token of His gracious favor unto men, and not as an indication of any merit they may possess. To this testifieth every true and discerning believer."

Having created man out of His love, God has established with us a Covenant, which has lasted and will last througout the ages. According to the Eternal Covenant, the All-bountiful Creator never abandons us, and, from time to time, makes His will and His purpose known to us through one of His Manifestations.

The Manifestations of God are those special beings who reveal to us the Word of God.

As a famous thinker said regarding the Word of God: "Man may forever do as he will, he can never enter heaven unless God takes the first step with his Word, which offers him divine grace and enlightens his heart so as to get upon the right way."

As to our part in the Covenant with God, it requires us to remember that the purpose of our lives is to know and worship Him. We have a duty to recognise and accept God's Message and His Messengers.

In the following passage Baha'u'llah indicates that recognition of the Manifestation of God [which is faith], comes first. Without faith, one has "gone astray, though he be the author of every righteous deed". The second duty however, is to obey the Will of God, i.e. to act in accordance with moral principles and religious teachings. The two duties are "inseparable".

"The first duty prescribed by God for His servants is the recognition of Him Who is the Dayspring of His Revelation and the Fountain of His laws, Who
representeth the Godhead in both the Kingdom of His Cause and the world of creation. Whoso achieveth this duty hath attained unto all good; and whoso is deprived thereof hath gone astray, though he be the author of every righteous deed. It behoveth every one who reacheth this most sublime station, this summit of transcendent glory, to observe every ordinance of Him Who is the Desire of the world. These twin duties are inseparable. Neither is acceptable without the other. Thus hath it been decreed by Him Who is the Source of Divine inspiration."

Clearly, if heeding the Word of God given through His Manifestations draws one nearer to God, then heedlessness will have the opposite consequence.

"Whosoever desireth, let him turn aside from this counsel and whosoever desireth let him choose the path to his Lord."

If we respond to God's grace through faith, we partake in His spiritual blessings. If we shut ourselves out from His light, it cannot reach us and we are left in darkness.

Baha'u'llah prayed:

"The tenderness of Thy mercy, O my Lord, surpasseth the fury of Thy wrath, and Thy loving-kindness exceedeth Thy hot displeasure, and Thy grace excelleth Thy justice. Hold Thou, through Thy wondrous favors and mercies, the hands of Thy creatures, and suffer them not to be separated from the grace which Thou hast ordained as the means whereby they can recognize Thee."

 
At 9/25/2007 1:02 PM, Blogger Paul said...

John,

The grace I refer to is God's grace; the grace given from God to humankind; not grace in humankind.

I think it is an ultimately indistinguishable point in our discussion, since prior exchanges with you lead me to believe that you take everything good (by your estimation) in humanity and its religions to be the effects of God's grace.

The Manifestations of God are those special beings who reveal to us the Word of God.

Unfortunately, all that they seem to reveal of God is that He is either a logically incoherent being, due to the fundamental discrepancies among the religions, or that He cannot manage to get His point across and/or properly preserve it.

As a famous thinker said regarding the Word of God: "Man may forever do as he will, he can never enter heaven unless God takes the first step with his Word, which offers him divine grace and enlightens his heart so as to get upon the right way."

It should be noted that the very next thing that he (Luther) said was, "This right way, however, is the Lord Jesus Christ. Whoever desires to seek another way, as the great multitudes venture to do by means of their own works, has already missed the right way."

We have a duty to recognise and accept God's Message and His Messengers. . . . The second duty however, is to obey the Will of God, i.e. to act in accordance with moral principles and religious teachings. The two duties are "inseparable".

Now we're getting somewhere. So, the bottom line is that we must believe that all the Baha'i's selected religions were founded by God and that we must be good people as defined by these religions. This means that to those turned away from the gates of heaven, God might say, "You were not a good religious pluralist." This raises some questions.

How do you know you've believed and behaved well enough? Is there any assurance of salvation for the Baha'i, or do you just have to take your chances and find out which side of the thin line you're standing on at the final judgment?

How do you deal with the moral and theological differences in all the religions that you are supposed to believe in? For example, Christianity teaches that you don't earn salvation; you depend upon the atonement of Jesus, who is God incarnate. Islam seems to teach that your good works (such as adhering to the 5 Pillars) must outweigh your bad, and Jesus certainly wasn't divine and probably didn't even die on the cross. The Eastern religions have very novel ideas about how you ought to behave as a devotee, and their view of the transmigration of the soul is at complete odds with the Jewish, Christian, and Islamic religions.

It seems to me that the Baha'i are either very liberal in their theology, so accentuating the positive and eliminating the negative (as the song goes) is perfectly acceptable. Or, Baha'is really believe their own sacred texts to the exclusion of anything that is contradictory. This means that the bottom line for salvation is that you believe that Baha'i is the true religion and you must see everything through its lens and practice its doctrines.

 
At 9/25/2007 3:38 PM, Blogger John Bryden said...

Thanks Paul, for your stimulating and worthwhile questions. I'll get back to you, most probably after work today.

 
At 9/29/2007 6:22 PM, Blogger John Bryden said...

Paul, I've at last completed my response. As its rather lengthy, I've posted it here:

Baha'u'llah: God-sent quickener of mankind

 
At 10/10/2007 1:09 PM, Blogger Paul said...

FYI. I've finally put in a response to John's blog post.

 

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