Lesson 6: Islam

IslamMy Monday night symposium responded to Taylor’s Holy Envy by asking about the function of religion in a culture. It’s a complex question. On the one hand, religion supplies meaning and purpose for a society. In this role, it expresses the standards by which its people and institutions evaluate themselves. On the other hand, it legitimizes the establishments and structures of the culture. In this one, it too often plays cheerleader for those in power.

Back in the 1960s when I was in divinity school, theologians reacted to the generally embarrassing conduct of religions in the world wars by emphasizing the difference between the two roles. We claimed being Bible-centered, the Christian faith is intrinsically counter-cultural and insisted it should not be regarded as a religion that serves the needs of a culture. As far as I remember, we simply ignored other world religions, pretty much assuming they were bound up with the culture in which they were found.

The relationship between religion and culture has reemerged as a problem in our time, most particularly in the terrorism practiced by some Middle Eastern groups. Politicians on both sides have used religion to justify their military actions. Taylor reports this situation made teaching Islam her most difficult unit. My experience confirms hers. I find that I have to be ready, whenever I mention Islam, to hear someone spontaneously react with something about all Muslims wanting to kill all Christians.

Stendhal’s second guideline is critical at this point. We can’t understand Islam if we compare its worst to our best. I came to appreciate how important this is when one of my late friends who was regarded as the unofficial Lutheran ambassador to the Islamic world began calling himself a Christian Muslim.

He reported that this happened quite naturally after he came to admire the Muslim understanding about submitting oneself to God. He described this as being more about practices than theology and so felt free to offer a Christian interpretation to all of the Five Pillars: “There is no god but Allah, and Muhammad is the Messenger of God,” praying five times daily, giving alms and care to the needy, fasting during Ramadan, and making a pilgrimage to Mecca that demonstrates the equality of all God’s people.

Although this sounds mighty strange at first, my friend was a very orthodox Lutheran who loved the Augsburg Confession and the traditional liturgy. He simply acknowledged that Islam like Judaism and Christianity are Abrahamic faiths with more similarities than differences. And significantly, he found the Islamic scholars with whom he associated accepted the way he interpreted The Prophet supplementing Jesus’ teachings.

My friend sprang into my mind when Taylor mentioned having holy envy for the prayer life of Muslims. I think she was expressing the same appreciation I heard from my friend for the discipline that aided submission. Her thoughts also reminded me of other Muslim acquaintances. None are militant. Everyone centers their life on family. And all are very conscious about leading ethical lives in a society that they regard as immoral. One young person who grew up in my congregation converted to Islam in college, because he thought they offered the only group on campus with any values.

All of this leads me to think building a safe world in our time demands restoring a realistic understanding of Islam. That is going to involve listening to good theologians rather than bad politicians. And that will mean discussing, carefully and honestly, the relationship between culture and religion.

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