Complexify Religion if you Want to Stamp Out Fanaticism

Complexify Religion if you Want to Stamp Out Fanaticism October 9, 2015

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[This post, co-written with John W. Morehead,* originally appeared here at ]

If jihadi groups are ever to be defeated, among other things, it will involve ‘complexifying’ the interpretation of Islamic values. “Jihadi groups thrive on simplicity: the more that they are forced to defend their interpretation of Islamic values, the harder it will be to maintain that simplicity.” The quotation comes from a report of the Centre on Religion and Geopolitics, an initiative of Tony Blair’s Faith Foundation which was recently reported on by CNN and other media outlets. The report studied the propaganda of terrorist groups, including ISIS. (The quote and the broader context of Blair’s comments can be found here in CNN’s essay “Blair: ‘Perversion of Islam’ behind Middle East Problems”).

It is not simply jihadi groups that thrive on simplicity. Other ideologically extreme traditions do so as well. For our purposes, we are defining ideologically extreme traditions as those seeking to demean, marginalize and perhaps even stamp out other traditions that are seen as grossly errant and not compatible with their claims.

We should pause at this juncture to make a clarifying remark.  Sometimes you will hear Christians talking about being “fanatics for Jesus.”  If by “fanatic” one means “zealous and passionate for the Lord” then all well and good—as long as such zeal is bound up with wisdom.  But a “fanatic for Jesus” should never convey “being a jerk for Jesus.”  Jesus Freak—yes.  Jesus Jerk—no. The long and the short of it is that we are to be gentle and respectful, as 1 Peter 3:15 says; otherwise we will not receive many opportunities to be able to give a reason for the hope that is in us to those around us (see again: 1 Peter 3:15). Nor should we expect others to treat us with respect, if we don’t treat others respectfully. Whatever we wish for others to do to us, we should do also to them, for this is the Law and the Prophets, according to Jesus (Matthew 7:21). So, if you are a Jesus freak, treat others respectfully; no one wants to be jerked around, not even jerks!

Concerns over fanaticism among religious and political conservatives are well documented. While in the mainstream media it is conservatives that are often seen as fanatical, extremes can be found on both ends of the political spectrum. In addition to certain conservative groups, we find such oversimplification among some liberals who argue that we are all ultimately saying the same thing and marginalize those faith communities who promote thick religious narratives that run counter to the prevailing Liberal mindset. Such oversimplifications do not wipe away fundamental differences between various traditions, but simply sweep them under the carpet only to trip us up when we least expect them. In our highly polarized political environment, ideological extremes in need of complexification are not limited to the right.

We all need to move beyond oversimplification and ‘complexify’ our respective traditions, Christians and non-Christians alike. We have three areas of needed complexification in mind, if we want to stamp out fanaticism wherever it appears:

First, we all need to complexify our interpretive engagement of Scripture. Although we tend to think of the biblical text in ways which makes things simple and tidy, there are difficult topics which call for deeper thought and conversation among evangelicals. For example, the seeming divine call for the extermination of the Canaanites has been the topic of fresh consideration by Christian writers and scholars. Evangelicals often dismiss the difficulty of these texts in a number of ways, whether by appeal to the gross sin of the Canaanites, that God commanded it, and that God can do as he pleases, etc. While these answers may seem helpful and comforting, they do not address the textual and ethical challenges posed by the Conquest narratives. Hermeneutical or interpretive humility is essential. While we believe there is a meaning in a biblical text, we also maintain that it is not always easy to draw out that meaning. Sometimes the meaning is not immediately clear. Sometimes our presuppositions and social and cultural lenses cloud or color the meaning. We need to dialogue with various traditions, coming at the text from various angles so as to expose one another’s distorted lenses and offer correctives. There is an irony here in that the accusation is often made of the compromise of scripture against those who seek more complexity and humility in hermeneutics, when in fact it is a deeper sense of the engagement of scripture that is involved, one that seeks to wrestle with the phenomenon and teaching of the text in a search for greater understanding and transformation in discipleship.

Second, we need to complexify our interpretations of history, that is, our historiographies. Christians are often quick to point to aspects of Islamic history when it comes to military conquest, for example, and then conclude that Islam is truly a violent rather than peaceful religion. This ignores the diversity of Islamic history and differing interpretations of Islam among the world’s Muslims. It also ignores problematic aspects of Christian history, including the Crusades, colonialism and slavery, all done at the time with alleged biblical support and in the name of Christ. Various religions have messy histories involving strongly held differing convictions, infighting, violence, and scandals. All too often, we tend to look past our warts and scars or reinterpret them as beauty marks. We must not simply point out the problematic historical events and trajectories in other traditions; we must be honest about our own problematic accounts.

Third, we need to complexify our interpretations of ourselves. After all, we are conflicted people. We often tend to think better of ourselves and our tribes than we do others. This is a natural “us vs. them”, “insiders vs. outsiders” dichotomy common to humanity. We tend to trust those in our tribe, the Christians, and at times the circle gets increasingly narrow so that it’s only our kind of Christians, or our denomination or our church, that has it right, and therefore garners God’s blessings. No matter who we are, we often tend to think we are the publican in Jesus’ parable, not the Pharisee. Our prayer goes, “God, thank you that you did not make me like this Pharisee, who is a self-righteous creep….” Will we ever learn?

*Paul Louis Metzger’s bio appears at the “About” page of this column. John W. Morehead is the Custodian of the Evangelical Chapter of the Foundation for Religious Diplomacy, the Director of the Western Institute for Intercultural Studies, and has been involved in interreligious dialogue and religious diplomacy for many years in the contexts of Islam, Mormonism, and Paganism. He is team leader for the Multifaith Matters grant project, and editor of Beyond the Burning Times: A Pagan and Christian in Dialogue, by Philip Johnson and Gus diZerega.

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