Historical Truth? Not so easy to find.

History isn’t necessarily an independently verifiable account of what has happened in the past. For many religious people history is the unfolding of timeless revelation and the ideals that it engenders.

Recently I attended a dialogue between religious leaders where this became manifestly clear. The Muslim speaker made a number of assertions about the history of Muslim-Jewish relations that could not be taken seriously by anyone who has studied history, even the history written by Muslim sources.

But I know from experience that having an argument about what actually happened historically would be pointless. Most historical evidence is by definition anecdotal, particularly in the hands of non-historians. And in any case for the speaker history isn’t an independently verifiable account of what has happened in the past. History is the unfolding of timeless revelation and the ideals that it engenders. If revelation teaches that Muslims must respect non-Muslim religions and indeed protect them then this must be what happened historically. Anything else is clearly an exception to the rule and can be discounted.

Put another way, for this religious leader the revealed ideal determines the content of experience, rather than experience determining what is true.

Muslims are not, of course, the only one’s who can think along these lines. We find plenty of Christians and Jews who likewise in some way dismiss the significance of historical events inconsistent with revealed ideals. And thus equally dismiss the understanding of history of those who don’t share their viewpoint.

The problem with this in dialogue is that by making reveled ideals the determiner of experience, the speaker has effectively ceased speaking to those who don’t acknowledge the revelation. In each case a theologian (Muslim, Christian, or Jewish) has no need to appeal to a broader public, since all other publics are by definition misguided and thus irrelevant.

When you walk by faith and not by sight (to quote Christian scripture) you don’t really need to pay attention to those who do.

Are Islam, Judaism, and Christianity religions defined by their history as experienced within the community? As experienced by those outside the community? Or by revealed ideals? Or in some complex way by all three? Until we have some understanding of our different answers to these questions our inter-religious dialogue will often prove fruitless.


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