Tackling the elephant in the room of doctrinal exclusivism: Thoughts from a Muslim on Brian D. McLaren’s “Why Did Jesus, Moses, the Buddha, and Mohammed Cross the Road”

Tackling the elephant in the room of doctrinal exclusivism: Thoughts from a Muslim on Brian D. McLaren’s “Why Did Jesus, Moses, the Buddha, and Mohammed Cross the Road” September 26, 2012

This post is part of an inter-faith discussion on Brian McLaren’s new book Why Did Jesus, Moses, the Buddha and Mohammed Cross the Road?, hosted at the Patheos Book Club.

Reading Brian D. McLaren’s Why Did Jesus, Moses, the Buddha, and Mohammed Cross the Road: Christian Identity in a Multi-Faith World–which I was invited to review as part of its Patheos Book Club discussion– has been an enriching experience for me. I found it a profound, thought-provoking and unexpectedly creative meditation on authenticity in faith, religious identity and religious pluralism geared to a Christian audience, but which I suspect resonates for any person of faith who is committed to interfaith dialogue . It’s also a cri de coeur to fellow Christians for soul-searching and openness to new paradigms that promote peace and interfaith understanding, objectives I certainly support (and for my fellow Muslims, as well)

The book examines the scriptural foundations and consequences of aspects of contemporary Christian faith that are often taken as self-evident cornerstones of authentic Christian faith, especially among American Evangelicals. He argues that some widely accepted traditional Christian beliefs and interpretations have either outlived their usefulness or never rested on solid ground scripturally. He then proceeds to make an often fascinating case for creatively but faithfully re-conceptualizing them for today’s pluralistic, postmodern and increasingly polarized and violent world.

In important matters of law, sacred epistemology and lay/clergy relations Islam differs quite profoundly from Christianity, so it can sometimes be difficult to make meaningful comparisons. Aside from some theologically-outlying (though disproportionately influential) Christian sects like Christian Dominionism, you generally don’t see specifics of religious law figuring prominently in campaigns for Christian reform/renewal. In Islam, on the other hand, the prominence of sacred law within a Muslim’s daily life and within Muslim society naturally make legal reforms the centerpiece of most such campaigns in the Muslim world.

Despite these differences, reading McLaren’s reflections on what he sees as the failings of much contemporary Christian spirituality and his fascinating proposals for addressing these concerns, I was struck by how kindred his concerns are to mine and those of many (if not most) reform-minded Muslims. McLaren is arguing for a reexamination of doctrines and practices that conservatives within his tradition contend were settled definitively–if not God-given–centuries ago, and is no doubt accused of betraying Christian orthodoxy for doing so. I suspect that he would contend that these proposals are in the spirit of authentic Christian faith and more supportive of that’s faith’s aims than would be continuing to uncritically hew to outdated traditions. A similar case is made by Muslim reformers today make, even if the focus is usually on legal reforms as opposed to questions of doctrine. Advocates of reform (Ijtihad) and renewal (Tajdeed) often invoke the principle of the Maqasid al-Shari`a, or the overarching “Objectives of Islamic Law,” to justify revisiting rulings that were once, at least theoretically, set in stone centuries ago. (For more on Ijtihad and related issues in a modern context, here’s a bouquet of excellent scholarly treatments.)

With the exception the members of a few rather small and nebulous modernist movements (e.g., Quranists), Muslims regardless of sect subscribe to something roughly analogous to what Catholics sometimes refer to as the “Deposit of Faith.” Islam famously has no priesthood, but the believer is expected to ground her decisions in not only scritpure, but also an inherited sacred tradition and the guidance of its contemporary interpreters (namely, traditionally trained religious scholars). Thus, though I share his aims some aspects of McLaren’s hermeneutic approach are challenging for me to get my arms around as a Muslim. I’d love to see a exchange on his bolder suggestions and the reasoning behind them with kindred spirits within the Catholic, Greek Orthodox and Anglican traditions which, like Islam, have reservations about “Sola scriptura.” How, I wonder, do Christian reformers who subscribe to some notion of an unbroken sacred tradition relate to his proposals and what, if any, other resources or perspectives do they bring to bear to the question?

McLaren pays particular attention to an issue dear to my heart, the salvation for non-believers. The author then systematically incorporates this non-zero-sum vision of spiritual life to other aspects of Christian faith and practice–the nature of the Trinity, Original Sin, Election, the liturgical calendar, among others –in a fascinating synthesis that I have no hope of doing justice to here.

I’ve always taken the question of salvation for the religious Other very seriously and find the insouciance with which many otherwise sensitive and thoughtful religionists approach the question perplexing and a bit scandalous. To my mind and heart, the notion of non-Muslims being condemned to eternal damnation is more than paradoxical–it is blasphemous for the unseemly qualities it imputes to God. (I am thankful that there always has been a minority among Muslim scholars arguing, based on Quran and Sunna, that all people eventually reach Paradise.) Yet the fact remains that for many traditionalists in either religion, the idea of universal salvation is rejected out of hand–seemingly independently of any evidence–as if it were not only self-evidently contrary to reason but downright immoral.

A careful, holistic examination of either religious tradition’s sacred texts hardly leads inescapably, in my view, to the conclusion that God’s mercy is so fickle and constrained by simplistic human categories, so I find this curious. There are many Quranic verses and prophetic traditions which seem to indicate the punishments of the next life to be finite in duration and designed to not to scourge but prepare one for eventual return to God’s presence. Likewise, the Biblical evidence customarily adduced strikes me as highly open to interpretation. (I find it curious that many people who are perfectly able to accept and grapple with mind-bending concepts such as the hypostatic union of the Chalcedonian creed or the intricacies of Predestination find it impossible to entertain the idea that John 3:16 or John 14:6 might offer their 1st century Christian audience one of a multiplicity of paths to a loving, just God who, as the Quran declares, chose to create humanity in a multiplicity of nations, tribes and, yes, religions.)

Sometimes, I suspect that the underlying objection isn’t scriptural or even philosophical. Perhaps what’s really objected to is the radical notion of a Creator whose mercy and power aren’t constrained by human insecurities or demands for simple, binary truths. Given how often assent to doctrines of eternal perdition for non-believers is treated as the touchstone of orthodoxy in popular religious discourse–I’ve noticed this trope in conservative websites attacking Tony Compolo and Javed Ghamdi, for example; each thinker’s openness to the possibility of the other’s community enjoying God’s mercy is held up as prima facie evidence of rank heresy, as if such ecumenically minded suggestions strike a nerve–perhaps what truly puts one beyond the pale is calling into question tribalistic, Manichean visions of the world come naturally to many, but which obscure the full implications of our shared humanity.

I confess to not having given this particular angle much thought before reading this book, but I think McLaren is right in arguing that the exclusion of the religious Other from one’s vision of God’s plan can have pernicious real world effects. It is thus not merely a narrow theological issue. The modern world is far too complex, shifting and dangerous for simplistic identity binaries that in effect reduce spirituality to tribal affiliation and questions of language. They do more than foster unnecessary mistrust, if not hostility, between religious communities–they discourage much needed self-criticism and introspection.

A highly stimulating, thoughtful and multifaceted book that I recommend to Christian and non-Christian alike.

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