Book Review: Religion Gone Astray
The authors of Getting to the Heart of Interfaith, earlier reviewed in Koinonia, are back at it again, this time taking on four recurring issues that are raised: How can we talk with those who think they have the only truth? Why is violence associated with religion, and is there anything we can do about it? How can we deal with the outdated patriarchal system in religion and with texts that condemn women to subservient roles? Why is religion so antagonistic toward alternative (gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgendered) sexual practices? They acknowledge upfront that the book is not a comprehensive look at any one issue, but “a highly personal exploration informed by personal experience” (p. 11).
The book’s title acknowledges their common conviction that religions, as institutions, can go astray when they forget the essential nature of their being and drift from their essential spiritual purpose. Losing sight of their greater purpose, they can end up at times serving themselves. Like their individual members, religious institutions may need to be called back. They play an important role: “Spirituality might be seen as the water of life, but without a glass, it is far more difficult to drink. At best, the institution serves as the container” (p.2).
In chapter one, Exclusivity, Rabbi Ted, who has served as both a congregational and campus rabbi in Los Angeles and Seattle, notes that the essential claims to exclusivity made in Jewish Scripture occur prior to the existence of either Christianity or Islam. He acknowledges, however, that the basically tribal nature of Jewish identity often appears as exclusivity. Because Judaism represents a people, an ethnicity, as well as a religion, belief and observance are not sufficient criteria for Jewish identity.
Former United Church of Christ Pastor Don cites a number of scriptural verses supporting the notion that Christianity is the only way to salvation and healing (e.g. Jn 14:5-7, Acts 4:11-12), as well as historical examples, beginning with the legalization of Christianity by Constantine, in which Christianity merged with governments of power to become the authority by which violence, exclusion, and racism could be perpetrated, justified, and supported. Positing unconditional love as the core teaching of Christianity, “the difficulty that remains,” he observes, “is that we have no real or shared sense of the meaning of unconditional love” (p.34). The hope, however, is that since it suffuses all spiritual traditions to some extent, it can serve as a basis for a deeper, shared understanding through dialogue that can help heal our troubled world.
Imam Jamal, Sufi minister and adjunct faculty at Seattle University, acknowledges that there are Qur’anic verses that support the exclusivist tendencies of literalists, and that, as in Christianity, sometimes governments and religious institutions dovetail their efforts to preserve exclusivity, e.g. the protection of Islam’s dominance by enforcing strict penalties for the crime of blasphemy against the Muslim faith or the prophet Muhammad. Internecine exclusivity is also a problem, with Sunnis and Shias praying in separate mosques and sometimes being buried in separate cemeteries (patterns not unfamiliar to Christians). “For the Muslim community, there is the difficult but necessary work of closing the gap between the Qur’anic ideal and the political reality on the ground” (p.43). Unless we transcend our personal and institutional exclusivities, the three conclude, a peaceful, pluralistic society is simply not possible.
In chapter two on Violence, all three authors recognize that brutality has been justified in the name of faith in each of their religions. Examples cited: for Jews, since the creation of the State of Israel in 1948; for Christians, the Crusades; for Muslims, the massacre of hundreds of thousands of Muslims and Hindus in the 1947 partitioning of India along so-called demographic lines (India for Hindus, Pakistan for Muslims), as well as the suicide bombings today.
Each cites verses in his own Scriptures supporting violence. Rabbi Ted believes that in them the writers have projected our own way of thinking rather than that of God. Pastor Don reflects that verses such as Jesus words “I have not come to bring peace but the sword” (Matt 10:34) have lent credibility to the idea that violence is not only acceptable but required. Imam Jamal reports that in the Qur’an’s six thousand verses, less than sixty mention fighting or warfare—but they are there, and today we must interpret them from a higher, more evolved consciousness. He sets the record straight with reference to jihad, which many Islamic extremists (7% of Muslims are “radicals” according to an international Gallup poll) associate with “holy war”. “Jihad literally means ‘effort’, and refers primarily to the spiritual effort to evolve into the fullness of one’s being, to improve relationships with family and neighbors, and to work for justice” (p. 73). What underlies the resurgency of militancy, he says, is not religion but politics, wherein the primary motive is to drive out foreign occupation.
Inequality of Men and Women
Chapter three—The Inequality of Men and Women—focuses on the patriarchal stranglehold on power. The Hebrew bible portrays a patriarchal system. More often than not God comes across as a male figure. The male tribal leaders controlled the women in their tribe. Women were subservient, only inheriting if there were no male heirs anywhere in the family. Nevertheless, 7 of the 55 prophets were women, and in our time, Jewish women are among the most vocal feminists. There are now women rabbis serving congregations in every branch of Judaism but Orthodoxy, and even there, women are well-recognized teachers of Torah in Israel.
In the New Testament, “Nothing in Jesus’ teachings suggest weakness or inferiority in women. On the contrary, he honors their full humanity” (p.91). While the early Church tried to honor the status of women on an equal par with men, as the hierarchy of leadership developed, it did so in a way that reflected the cultures in which Christians were living, thereby gradually excluding women. Pastor Don cites several factors which in more recent times have given birth to a change of heart: the civil rights movement, the feminist movement, and the environmental movement. Christians, he says, have been awakened by these secular movements to see that equal status among men and women is fundamentally in keeping with the message of Jesus.
While the reflections of the rabbi and pastor on this topic occupied seven pages each, those of the imam filled eleven. He admits that the unprecedented rights granted to women in the Qur’an during the Prophet Muhammad’s time—to own and inherit property, to divorce—have not translated into reality on the ground. The enduring female inequality is not rooted in religion, but in the entrenched tribal and cultural traditions of patriarchal societies. Some practices perduring today that support patriarchal bias: male polygamy, segregation of women in mosques (“contrary to the spirit of Islam”), stoning of women convicted of adultery, and genital mutilation (“neither are mentioned in the Qur’an”).
“All these traditions of secluding women arose from a medieval consensus among male jurists and clerics” (p.100). Female infanticide, common in seventh century Arabia, was condemned, but today the “honor killing” of a woman by a male relative who believes that she has brought shame on the family by refusing to enter into an arranged marriage or by having a relationship deemed unacceptable, still continues. Similarly, while the Qur’an permits women to divorce, Islamic legal rulings and customs in several Muslim societies have made it extremely difficult for women to leave their marriages. And the requirement of four witnesses to prove rape means the victim is presumed to be guilty, while leaving the alleged rapist innocent in the eyes of the law.
Today, however, reports Imam Jamal, women are challenging the stranglehold of the male medieval consensus. “In most Muslim countries today, more women than men are enrolled in university. In Saudi Arabia, according to a 2010 United Nations report, 60% of university graduates are women and the percentage of female science graduates is higher than in the West . Forty percent of doctors are women. . . . In Iran, women PhDs outnumber men. Particularly exciting is a generation of female scholars steeped in knowledge of the Qur’an and Islamic jurisprudence and able to challenge the interpretations of male scholars” (p.105).
In chapter four on Homophobia, the authors question whether the religious condemnation of same-sex unions is religion speaking or whether it is reflecting something else, e.g. the growth and strength of the tribal unit. As the values of oneness, love, and compassion are central to all our religions, they write, “we need to question the source of that condemnation. We must encourage difficult conversations that can help us hear each other and ultimately support greater expressions of love” (p.112). Such conversations, they conclude, are the best alternative to anger and unnecessary suffering. “At a certain point in the evolution of consciousness, we become aware that the love we experience is bigger than the particular relationship in which it manifests” (p. 118).
Rabbi Ted notes that while homosexuality was simply forbidden during most centuries of Jewish life, in liberal Jewish communities today, there are openly gay rabbis and cantors in Reform, Conservative, Reconstructionist, and Jewish Renewal communities.
Pastor Don’s approach to the question is that the forgiveness needed is not for being gay, but for thinking that homosexuality is anything but natural. The fear of homosexuality “points to our uncertainty about the value and strength of our essential humanity along with the essential dignity that is a feature of every human being. Loving without conditions is a way of living effectively with that uncertainty” (p. 125).
Imam Jamal shares how in most of the Muslim world, homosexuality is considered a moral disorder that can be reversed. He notes that homosexuality is punishable by death (a prescription without Qur’anic basis) in Saudi Arabia, Iran, Mauritania, Sudan, Nigeria, and Yemen, though the imposition of the penalty is infrequent.
Throughout, it is clear that their reflections are inclusive not of just homosexual orientation but behavior as well. In their concluding comments, the three acknowledge that “our religious traditions do not favor homosexuality, largely because the primary concern has been on increasing the strength and numbers of our communities” (p. 133). In saying as much, they do not address or give important place to the convictions put forward by religious institutions within each of their faiths apropos of the nature of sexuality as revealed in human physiology and fertility, the nature of marriage and family, and of the benefit for every child of having both a father and a mother.
God and Revelation
Chapter Five, which takes on the questions of God and Revelation and the nature of Divine Being, is appropriately titled “Underneath It All.” Imam Jamal effectively captures their orientation to the questions when he says “If the face of Allah is everywhere, it behooves us to spend less time and energy on trying to ‘understand’ God and more time living in a way that expands our awareness of God in every face we meet” (p. 154). Whatever our differences, they say, whenever our connection with Ultimate Mystery is forged, words of teaching appear. While the many translations of all our sacred texts reflect the difficulty of grasping exactly what was being expressed, the connection will be translated through the ones most willing and able to hear.
While not every reader will agree with all their conclusions, the willingness of the three authors to not only engage with the questions but to do so together is itself a valuable and inspiring witness for our time. As they say, “When we dare to share our institutional strayings, we open our institutions to advance their own evolution. How can we think that evolution has stopped? It is the very nature of the spiritual quest to provide ever-deepening levels of awakening” (p. 161). As Marshall McLuhan said, “The medium is the message”: members of the Abrahamic faiths facing and responding together to the challenges of our times.
Thomas Ryan, CSP, directs the Paulist North American Office for Ecumenical and Interfaith Relations in Washington, DC