The Decline of Religious Thought

perennialRecently, someone shared with me a translation of a speech that was given last May by Navid Kermani, a German writer and scholar of Islam, upon his acceptance of the Peace Prize of the German Book Trade.  Kermani is German-born of Iranian parents.  In his speech, he talks about the way in which classical Islamic scholarship is being swept aside in favor of a more fundamentalist approach.   He said, in part,

“it was once conceivable, even self-evident that the Qur’an is a poetic text which can only be grasped using the means and methods of poetology, just like a poem. It was conceivable, even self-evident that a theologian was at once a literary scholar and connoisseur of poetry, and in many cases a poet himself. In our time, my own teacher Nasr Hamid Abu Zaid in Cairo was charged with heresy, lost his university post and was even forced to divorce his wife because he understood Qur’anic scholarship as a form of literary scholarship. This means that an approach to the Qur’an which was taken for granted, and for which Nasr Abu Zaid could draw on the most important scholars of classical Islamic theology, is no longer even acknowledged as conceivable. Anyone taking such an approach to the Qur’an, even though it is the traditional one, is persecuted, punished and declared a heretic. And yet the Qur’an is a text that is not only composed in rhymes, but speaks in disturbing, ambiguous and enigmatic images; nor is it a book so much as a reci- tation, the score of a song that moves its Arab listeners with its rhythms, onomatopoeia and melodies. Islamic theology not only took the aesthetic peculiarities of the Qur’an on board; it declared the beauty of its language the authenticating miracle of Islam. What happens when one ignores the linguistic structure of a text, however, when one no longer understands it correctly or even acknowledges it, can be observed all over the Islamic world today. The Qur’an is degraded to a manual in which one can search via Internet for some catchphrase or other. The powerful eloquence of the Qur’an becomes political dynamite.”

Kermani’s statement about the Qur’an resonated with me in terms of what has happened in Christianity over the past few decades with our approach to the Bible.  While the Bible and the Qur’an are quite different in many respects, they are both part of the world’s body of sacred literature.  And sacred literature, by its very nature, is not meant to present meaning in a self-evident way.   Part of the reason for that is because these texts arose in times and cultures that are less accessible now.  But another part of the reason is that these texts were meant to be read within the particular religious communities that revere them.  They are meant to be read and interpreted within a larger context of religious tradition and practice.  And just as the goal of any spiritual path is to go deeper, so the texts are meant to both help us and make us take that journey into the depths of meaning.  Texts that are easily accessible don’t invite us into that depth.  And yet, so many Christians have robbed the biblical texts of their depth by insisting on literal, surface meanings as the only possible meaning.  The result, as in Islam, has been to displace traditional ways of reading and interpreting these texts, and to degrade the Bible into “a manual in which one can search via Internet for some catchphrase or other.”   Thus, its “powerful eloquence…becomes political dynamite.”

Kermani goes on to say, “Islamic State was not just founded today, nor did it only emerge with the civil wars in Iraq and Syria. Though its methods meet with disapproval, its ideology is Wahhabism, whose effects extend to the furthest corners of the Islamic world today and which, in the form of Salafism, has become especially attractive to young people in Europe. If one knows that the schoolbooks and curricula of Islamic State are 95% identical to the schoolbooks and curricula in Saudi Arabia, one also knows it is not only in Iraq and in Syria that the world is strictly divided into what is forbidden and what is permitted – and humanity divided into believers and unbelievers. Sponsored with billions from the oil industry, a school of thought has been promoted for decades in mosques, in books and on television that declares all people of other religions heretics and reviles, terrorises, disparages and insults them. If one denigrates other people systematically, day after day, it is only consistent – how well we know this from our own history, from German history – that one will end up declaring their lives worthless too. That such a religious fascism even became conceivable, that IS finds so many fighters and even more sympathisers, that it was able to overrun entire countries and take over cities of millions with barely any resistance – this is not the beginning, but rather the provisional endpoint of a long decline, a decline also and especially of religious thought.”

He describes the process by which an ultra-conservative, reactionary, and fundamentalist form of Islam — one that has turned the eloquence of the Qur’an into dynamite — has spread around the world.  By a much different process, the same thing has happened in Christianity:  ultra-conservative, reactionary, and fundamentalist Christian theologies are now presented as what Christianity is, and its spokespeople are everywhere to be found.   While their ideology seems to be losing ground in the United States, the desperation of its adherents grows precisely because mainstream America doesn’t seem to be buying it.  That desperation reaches out, on occasion, in violent tantrums (like the recent violence at a Planned Parenthood clinic in Colorado), but I fear that as time goes on, even more violent outbursts will come.  As the representatives of this form of Christianity continue to “denigrate other people systematically”, they gradually turn those people into less than human others amongst their own followers, and that will eventually enable more and more violence to be enacted against those who are being denigrated.

And outside North America and Europe, these fundamentalist theologies have a much deeper hold, and have already motivated Christian terrorist groups in some parts of Africa.

All of this is tied to what Kermani calls a decline of religious thought.  Whereas in both the Islamic and Christian worlds, religion and theology once represented sophistication and intellectual rigor, they have now become synonymous with the very opposite.  There certainly are people in both traditions who are attempting to keep alive a more sophisticated theology and spiritual life, but they appear often to be losing ground — in large part because the machinery of public information chooses to ignore them.  Or, perhaps, is unaware of them all together.

Yet we must continue to push against reactionary, literalistic, and denigrating theologies.  The religious traditions emerged from the human experience of the sacred, and as human beings, to lose touch with the sacred is to lose touch with something vital about our humanity.  Those who would disfigure this experience of the sacred by making it justify their own violent ends cannot be allowed to have the final word.

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