Saturday, May 31, 2014

Prophetic Progress

"There is no god but God, and Muhammad is His Messenger."  -- the shahada, or witness, of Islam

Studying other religions is integral to understanding God, and one's own faith, better.  I also find it a fascinating endeavor.  Where there is agreement between  many religions, I often think, "There is a universal truth."   For example, most faiths have a similar moral or ethical outlook, of caring for those less fortunate and oppressed, and of treating people the way you would like to be treated.  Most faiths encourage such personal attributes as integrity, humility, and generosity.  Most faiths promote a message of living simply, of being content with the food, clothing, and shelter that one needs, not accumulating more than you need, or hording the excess.  Most faiths share an understanding that we all have an internal source of enlightenment -- our heart, soul, or mind -- as well as an external source of enlightenment -- God, the World Soul, or the Universe; and that these sources can be tapped in moments of quiet openness.  However, where these various religions differ, I wonder...  If there is only one God, as I believe there is, why is there a difference in understanding?  Is the difference a mistake?  Is it a necessary piece of the whole puzzle?  Or is something else going on?

Lately, I've been studying Islam.  It's not the first time I have studied this faith.  Each time, I gain a little more insight, see more similarities between Islam and Christianity, and gain more appreciation for Muhammad and the message he preached.  Yet, also each time, the more I struggle with the differences.  Perhaps it is The Law of Diminishing Differences rearing its ugly head:  the greater the overall similarity, the more important appear the remaining differences.  Yet I can't help but wonder why Islam seems to be more like Judaism than Christianity.

I know that Islam purports to be a middle way between Judaism and Christianity, and that Muhammad believed he was following in a long line of prophets, beginning with Adam and continuing with Abraham, Noah, Moses, and so on, down to Jesus.  Yet I find the words in the Qur'an which emphasize God's fearsomeness, judgment, and eternal punishment for wrong-doers (as the Hebrew prophets did), to be much more prevalent, and weigh much more heavily as a result, than the words which speak of God's mercy and compassion (as Jesus did).  Why, I wonder, does Muhammad emphasize law, as Moses did in the Torah, as opposed to emphasizing love, as Jesus did?  Why is fighting ones enemies given God's approval, as it is in the Hebrew Scriptures, and not loving ones enemies, as Jesus preached?  And why are women not given completely equal status; as opposed to being treated the same, as Jesus did?  In essence, why does Muhammad seem to go backward from Jesus, instead of forward?   

It makes me wonder how religions develop, and how faith progresses.

Last week in church, I listened to a passage from the gospel of John in which Jesus tells his disciples that he will send an "Advocate" or "Counselor" who will "guide you in all truth."  Christians think of this as God's Holy Spirit, and over the week, I have thought about how God's Holy Spirit has impacted my life.  I have learned many lessons about faith since I began questioning what I had been taught as a child.  As I thought of the things I have learned, I remembered also the struggles that preceded them.  Insight only came about as the result of intensive mental struggle.  In fact, the greater the insight, the greater the struggle beforehand.

And that, I think, is a clue to my question about religion as a whole.  Our insights are particular to our own concerns, to the culture and world in which we live, and to the needs around us.  Revelation comes only as required, to particular people, as the need arises.

It seems to me that this is how progress happens, in general.  We go along with the way things are until they begin to bother us.  The more we are bothered, the more likely we are to find a solution.  We may not always like what we learn, but change only begins when we question the status quo.    However, not everyone has the same questions.  Not everyone has a problem with the way the world works.  Many people are content with the status quo.  They don't want anything to change.  For them, change in the way things are done, or they way people think, is not progress, but regress.  When such a dichotomy arises between the old and the new ways, separation occurs.  When a change occurs in the way people think about God, or their faith, depending on how significant the change is viewed to be, a new sect or new religion is born. 

Huston Smith, the great religious scholar, had a theory that some religions develop from others because the time had come for the truths gleaned in the original tradition to spread to a wider audience.  He said, for example, that he could never be a Hindu because he was not born into a caste.  But he could be a Buddhist, the religion that grew from Hinduism, because the Buddha's insights did away with caste.  His teachings were open to anyone, equally.  And yet some people were content with the original Hindu faith.  The same could be said for Christianity and Judaism. 

Jesus primarily questioned the laws and traditions which served to exclude people from God's kingdom.  Jesus was most concerned about the sinner, the sick, and any one else who was judged to be outside of God's favor.  To these, he spoke of God's forgiveness and love.  But because his ministry challenged the exclusivity of male Jewish leadership, he also addressed those who did the excluding.   He tried to bring down the expectations of those who thought too highly of their place in God's kingdom, and he tried to raise the expectations of those who despaired of their place in God's kingdom.  While Jesus probably did not intend to found a new religion, Paul took Jesus' example of inclusion and ran with it, sharing Jesus' message with Gentiles in a way they would understand.  And thus a more universal religion grew from a more insulated one.  So, clearly, progress can happen in small increments, or in great leaps, depending on the questions of the individual seeker. 

This progress from an insulated, or tribal religion, to a more universal one also provides a clue to my questions about Islam.  For Islam grew from a tribal culture.  Muhammad was a goodhearted and trustworthy man who lived in the midst of great brutality, where individual tribes promoted their own individual concerns above those of anyone else, all while praying to their own individual gods.  Included in this mix were various segregated Jewish tribes, Christian sects, and a handful of monotheistic Arabs.  In effect, he was surrounded by warring factionalism.  His culture was a lot like the culture in which the Jews found themselves when they crossed the wilderness and lived in Canaan, which is probably why his message is so similar to that of the Hebrew prophets of old.  Muhammad lived in a different culture than Jesus.  He struggled with different questions.  And he shared the insight he received which addressed those specific questions.

Confucius, Lao Tsu, Buddha, Socrates, Moses, Jeremiah, John the Baptist, Jesus, and Muhammad all questioned the accepted practices and religious beliefs of their time and place.  Each received enlightenment and were compelled to share their new understanding with the people around them.  These prophets are remembered, and revered, because their message resonated with a significant number of people.  But progress is an ongoing endeavor.  As people's consciousness evolves, new questions arise, and new answers are found.  Which makes me wonder if there will ever be a final prophet.  Perhaps there will be, but only in God's good time.

May the Peace
which passes understanding
be with you


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