As of late I have been given over to thoughts pertaining to Christianity and Christendom [definitions forthcoming] and how it has affected myself as well as society, in my opinion, on such topics as cosmology, God-concept and how we think about religion as a whole. These thoughts come from my thirty four years, sans three of four years of early childhood, in observance of how I have come to think of God as well as the many interactions and reactions that I have witnessed people have when conversing about God and religion.
First, I should introduce the notion of Christianity and Christendom as two very separate and distinct entities. One does not equate the other. In fact, I hope to point out some similarities between the evolution of Christendom out of Christianity and such neologisms as Islamic this or Islamic that [especially things like “Islamic society”, etc]. Recent research into early Christian Gnostic literature has shed an amazing amount of light on early notions of what constituted Christian belief, both in terms of exegesis and practice. This bears a striking resemblance to early Muslim thought regarding creed and practice as well. They both share a commonality that can best be summed up as “agree to disagree”. In other words, there was no single, overriding authority that could claim a hegemonic orthodoxy and excommunicate others as heretical. How funny it is that we should be living at a time when such early questions should come around again – what remains is how will we answer them. Shall we answer them as the Early Communities did, fostering a real sense of diversity or inclusion, or give way to narrow-minded viewpoints [yes, I am avoiding fundamentalist here as I believe this word has been striped of any linguistic meaning given the media’s indulgent misuse of it]. Time will tell.
Like it or not, many of us here in America, and certainly in Europe, have gown up in the shadow of Christendom. Much of our understanding of God and religion has come from what we have absorbed passively from this environment. Like a sponge, we soaked up what lay around us, not giving too much thought as to whether it was worth digesting or not. This should not be thought of as something base or vile but rather the function of culture. One of the primary functions of culture is that we don’t have to think, process, and answer every minute detail of our lives. It is always on auto pilot, filtering and processing all that we come into contact with, especially in our formative years. This cultural process is conceptual as well as highly iconic and visual. For example, whether many people believe it or not, the classic Italian paintings that depict God as an old white man in the clouds reaching down to Adam has been exceeding potent in informing many of us on our visualization of God. In fact, through many conversations with people who are atheists or non-religious, many of their verbal objections have included rejection of such “ridiculous notions”. But we should be careful to not cloud our judgment that what we see now in a sort post-Christendom should not be taken part and parcel for Christianity as a whole. This same cautioning should be applied to so-called Islamic or my preference, Muslim societies. History has proven to be a powerful matchmaker for politics and religion. Constantin’s embracing of Christianity as the imperial religion of the Roman empire was done so at the exclusion of many other teachings and interpretation’s Christianity. This process has been repeated time and again across the globe and throughout time and including almost all religious traditions.
It is certain, that in Europe, Christianity developed in a vary iconic manner; meaning that the visualization of God and the Bible affected religious thought – an affect that we have inherited right down to today. It has shaped and defined the conversation of God/religion in our socio-cultural context to an extent far greater than we are aware of. As church historian Hugh McLeod puts it, “most Christians learnt and practiced their faith in the context of ‘Christendom’”. McLeod continues, “That is, they lived in a society where there were close ties between the leaders of the church and those in positions of secular power, where the laws purported to be based on Christian principles, and where, apart from certain clearly defined outsider communities, every member of society was assumed to be a Christian.” [Caputo, John D. and Vattimo, Gianni. After the Death of God. New York: Columbia University Press, 2007. Pg. 4.].
So why all this talk on Christianity from an American Muslim convert? Well, to be sure, these very same perceptions played a part in my own conversion to Islam, even if it were more passive than vehemently active. To be certain, I was not thinking about the Sistine Chapel when I wandered into the mosque one fateful day but nonetheless, such iconic renderings by Michelangelo impacted my choice to refute such concepts of an “old white man in the clouds”. And if I had these experiences I am bound to think others may have had them as well. Indeed, such “rejections” are not the domain of Muslim converts alone. I have had several conversations with other Christians who have sought out earlier renditions of Christ’s teachings that predate all of the great Italian painters. I have found their journey akin to many American Muslim converts who, usually attracted more to Sufi-style teachings, have looked to return to an early understanding of Islam, one that is uncluttered by the intervention of institutional authority, be it state sponsored or a school of thought that has wedded itself with a state supporter, much akin to the Constantinian edict which set up a particular interpretation of Christianity as the orthodoxy whilst banning others as heretical [it should be confused that I am against a school of thought in any way as I adhere to the Maliki school of Muslim thought]. In many ways, this process of establishing orthodoxy can be said to be the nemesis of modern day diversity. For in the face of orthodoxy, how can there be room for multiple, valid interpretations?
There is much talk these days about an Islamic reformation. That the Islamic world is in an upheaval and much like its Christian counterpart, all of this blood and conflict can be attributed to this transformation. While I do not find this opinion to be completely baseless I am critical of the thought of simply seeing the historical struggle of Muslim thought, growth, and development through the lens of Christianity. Indeed, I think much of the problem of misunderstanding Islam on the part of non-Muslims is this tendency to see Islam not for what it is but for how it is or isn’t Christianity. This misunderstanding can certainly be linked to the above mentioned issues such as iconic visualization and residual understanding of living in a post-Christendom society. I do believe that Muslims are in a state of flux and change. What seems to make this seem so dramatic is that Islam and Muslims have been thrust on to the world stage by process of media attention. The idea that Islam as a religion and Muslims as various people have been some sort of sleeping giant that has suddenly chosen to cease its slumber is as clumsy as it is unobservant. Modernity is a talented trickster and can often seem to pull rabbits out of our hats. To the contrary, Islam and Muslim thought have been in a constant historical flux since the death of the Prophet. This reformation is nothing new under the sun. Indeed, from Malaysia to Yemen. From the Xinjian province in China to Detroit Michigan, Muslims have not simply been victims of history but have been drivers of this vehicle as well. In this case, the tree does make a sound in the forest. The question is not where there is some one to see it fall but rather who do we give importance to as the observer. Spock’s comment to the marine biologist in Star Trek IV sums of the falling of the tree: when she asks how he knows if Gracie (the humpback whale) is pregnant. She insists, “Nobody knows that.” Spock’s reply was, “Gracie knows”.
Modern interfaith dialogs seem to be stagnated at a simple, “can’t we all just get along”. What seems sad to me is the great wealth of experience that other religious traditions have to offer. Much of the early Gnostic approaches bear a clear resemblance to much of what Dr. Sherman Jackson has oft-repeated in his many publications and speeches. That true diversity isn’t a clumsy redefining of diversity as uniformity but rather the real possibility of coexisting and even socially supporting theories that may seriously contradict one’s own core beliefs. It is my sincere hope that more American Muslims will turn their thoughts inward and reflect on our very unique and rich experiences growing up in a post-Christendom society. And that even though we’ve chosen another path to pleasing God, we shouldn’t throw the baby out with the bathwater. That there are still viable opportunities to engage other communities and to really add something meaningful to the social discussion on religion.
And God knows best.