Monday, April 13, 2009

Why I Believe in God - or Why Bill Maher Would Really Think I'm Crazy

In the film Religulous, a Christian Jew named Steve Burg explained to Bill Maher that he believed in God because God did miracles. As an example, Burg said he once held a cup out the window and asked God to fill it with rain. In a few minutes, it started pouring. Maher's reply was that if that happened to him, he wouldn't think it was a miracle; he would just think it was raining.

If Maher thought Burg was naive, he would really think I was incredulous. Why do I believe in God? Because of the stuff that keeps happening to me, like the other day. I'm back from Saudi Arabia now, hanging out in Monterey CA, and I've been driving my wife and daughter to work in the morning. Last Friday, daughter says she will drive herself and mom to work, because she wants to have lunch with mom. Then daughter asks if I will drive mom to work first and come back, and then daughter will leave with the car (giving daughter a few minutes extra sleep). I say fine, drive wife to work, and come home. As daughter is about to leave with the car, wife calls to say she she needs the car later in the morning; can I drive daughter to work, leave the car off at wife's location, and walk home? I again say fine. So I'm driving daughter to work, and she wants to go through Starbucks drive-thru to get a cup of coffee. I suggest we don't have time, because wife needs the car in just a few minutes; maybe we can just stop off at the East Village Cafe which is closer, and daughter can run in and get her brew. She does so, and while I'm waiting for her I scan my way through the AM radio channels and hear the local station interviewing a musician named Mike Beck. He sings a song he wrote about an Army girl in Iraq called Amanda Come Home. I really like the song, and after it's over the interviewer says Mike and his band will be playing at a local bar that night. Wife, daughter, and I go to hear them and stay until midnight. It gives me a chance to do two things I love; listen to good live music and support small town American talent.

And that's why I believe in God. If any of the elements of the story above had fallen out of sync, the whole thing wouldn't have happened.

OK, Bill, I know it's so weak you could poke holes through it with a garden rake. But that's the way it is.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Why Don't We Do This With Islam?

I'm probably one of thousands of people who never heard of Dr. Bart Ehrman until I saw his new book "Jesus Interrupted" in the bookstore a few days ago. It caught my attention immediately, and as I read it I became aware of the similarities between his background and mine. We both attended fundamentalist Christian schools, and later in life began to question beliefs we had always assumed to be true. As Dr. Ehrman puts it, you've got to go where the scholarship takes you.

Recapping Ehrman's life as he describes it in his book, he was a devoted believer who wanted to dedicate his life to studying the Bible. Knowing that Greek was the language of the New Testament, he became a Greek scholar. Inconsistencies in the ancient texts caused him to doubt they were "divinely inspired" in the evangelical Christian sense, and also caused him to question the "divinity of Jesus". He is now head of the Department of Religion at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.

The thought that came to mind as I read Ehrman's book and listened to a few of his speeches and interviews available online is, why don't we do this with Islam? Ehrman's argument is powerful because he began as a believer. Imagine someone with the exact same background, but who grew up Muslim in an Islamic country. Someone who really believed, and wanted to dedicate his or her life to Allah and Muhammad. Perhaps they even went to university to study Islam, and graduated with a PhD from the most famous Islamic university in the world (as Mark Gabriel - not his true name - did from Al Azhar University in Egypt). But along the way their faith was challenged, they began to question it, and concluded they no longer believed the Quran was inspired by Allah and Muhammad was a prophet from God. Not only that, they became convinced that their religion as envisoned by its prophet was incompatible with life in the 21st century.

Suppose I wanted to study with one of these people. Where would I go? Georgetown, UNC, Princeton? I could be wrong, but I don't think so. Rather than being accepted by American academia for professorships, they have been marginalized. Again I could be wrong, but I think there are two reasons for this. First is the fear of Muslim reaction. Second, and even worse, is that universities have prostituted themselves to receive millions of dollars from individuals such as Prince al-Walid bin Talal and the Emir of Qatar for Islamic studies departments. You don't bite the hand that feeds you.

I've noticed an interesting phenomenom over the years - Americans who are very critical of their own religion are equally defensive of others. A few years ago I had a conversation with a coworker who grew up in the Bible Belt of Tennessee. He'd even been leader of his church youth group before life and its events caused him to become extremely critical of anything remotely Christian. In our conversation, I mentioned a few ideas I was developing about Islam. His astonished reply was, "But you're putting down the whole religion!"

I've got no problem with Dr. Ehrman continuing his research, and I wish him success. But it would be nice to look at the list of graduate courses in the Department of Religion at the University of North Carolina, as I've done, and see something like:

Islamic studies 505 - fall, 2009. Examining the empirical evidence that Muhammad was a prophet of God or that the Quran was inspired by God.

And with a professor from a Muslim background who would use the same methodology in examining Islam as Ehrman does in examining Christianity. There are people out there who could do it, but there's a cost to be paid for hiring them (and I don't mean paying their salaries). I hope we have the courage to do it.