Tuesday, October 12, 2010

The Critical and Devotional Approach to Religious Belief

I am indebted to Professor Bart Ehrman for pointing out the difference between the devotional and the critical approach to religion.

Most Christians and Muslims take a devotional view of their faith. The Christian who goes to church, takes the Lord's Supper, and listens to a sermon wants to draw closer to God. The Muslim who attends the Masjid, prays Salat, and listens to the Khutbah desires to Irda Allah, or please God. The motivation for both is the same.

A critical approach is quite different. A Christian or Muslim who looks at their belief system critically is willing to examine the evidence as objectively as possible and go wherever that evidence takes them. It is much less comfortable than a devotional approach, with a less certain outcome.

Imagine a Christian and a Muslim who would each describe themselves as moderate and educated being confronted with questionable texts from their respective Sacred Scriptures. How might each respond?

Emily, a committed and conservative Christian, has often said that the story of Jesus and the Woman Taken in Adultery as told in John 8:1-11 is her favorite Gospel story. She had noticed, of course, that her Bible contained the footnote "The earliest and most reliable manuscripts and other ancient witnesses do not have John 7:53-8:11", but she never paid any attention to it. Until, that is, the day when her curiosity led her to examine that footnote more carefully and she learned that ancient texts dating to the 3rd and 4th centuries contain no mention at all of the story which first appears 200 years later.

How might Emily respond? She could take the devotional approach and insist the story must have been in the original text because it is in her Bible, after all, and has to be true. She could become disillusioned, conclude that if she can't believe everything she can't accept anything, and jettison her faith completely (believe it or not, more than one Christian minister has done this and continued his quest for the perfect book which he eventually concluded to be the Quran). Or she could take a critical approach, use the occasion to grow in her understanding of faith, and realize that even if the event never historically happened it is still a beautiful story that expresses in many ways the heart and attitude of Christ.

Now imagine Fatimah, a devoted Muslimah, who believes the Quran was revealed in perfection from Allah to his Prophet. She is familiar with the account repeated in Surat Al Araf and Surat Al Hijr about the Thamud tribe carving their houses out of rocks thousands of years ago in the third generation after Noah in the area of Saudi Arabia known today as Madayn Saleh. The story of the Prophet Saleh and his miraculous camel that provided milk for the entire tribe was one of her favorites.

Until, that is, the day Fatimah came across my blog and learned here that the impressive structures dug into the rocks were not the houses of the Thamudians at all but the tombs of the Nabateans. The Thamud tribe did not even live in that region but further north and first appeared in history much later than the alleged time of Noah. The story of the Prophet Saleh and his magic camel was not a revelation given from Allah to Muhammad, but a local folk tale learned by Muhammad from one of his relatives, the poet Umayyah Ibn Abu Salt.

How will Fatimah respond? Questioning the Quran or Muhammad is condemned in Islam as Museeat An Nabi, speaking ill of the Prophet or criticizing the Muqaddasat Ad Deen, the sacred things of Islam. In much of the Muslim world, Fatimah literally is unable to express her doubts or voice her questions, but forced to lock them all inside.

Let's go back to another Christian, Frank, who read one day the Elton John statement that Jesus was "a super-intelligent gay man". Frank decided to do some research and reach his own conclusion about Jesus' sexuality. He realized that Elton, himself gay, might have a personal bias for wanting Jesus to be gay, but for the sake of objectivity put that on the back burner. Frank carefully read the original documents, analyzed the relationship and interaction of Jesus with both men and women, and finally made his personal decision. What was it, you might ask? The simple answer is, Who cares? Frank, as is Elton John, is free to believe whatever he wants about Jesus.

We'll next consider Ahmed, who learned with all sincere Muslims that all of the Prophet's marriages were sacred and honorable unions, including his marriage to the Jewess Sofiya. He agreed with Omid Safi in Memories of Muhammad that "Muhammad offered her a choice of remaining Jewish and going back to her own people or becoming Muslim and marrying him. Her answer was: "I choose God and his Messenger."

One day Ahmed made the same fatal mistake as Fatimah; he came across this blog and read my account of Sofiya here and here. He was challenged to ask himself this simple question, "How could anyone possibly believe that a sane, 17 year old girl would willingly climb into the bed of the 62 year old conqueror who had just tortured and beheaded her husband, along with her father and brother? Is this a beautiful love story, or a brutal rape?"

What can Ahmed do with his newfound questions and doubts? Like Fatimah, who can he talk to? His local Imam? University professors? His friends?

I believe there are millions of Fatimahs and Ahmeds living in the Muslim world today. They realize that many of the things they were taught to believe just don't make sense. They don't really believe it anymore. They don't yet have the courage to leave Muhammad behind, but they are questioning him. And that's a good thing.


observant observer said...

I do hope so that this happens more often, but to see how the Indonesian muslims just believe what their clerics tell and never really look into what is presented in the hadits with objective eyes, less could be expected that they will have the guts to be critical.
They only hold on to the notion that Islam is the perfect religion since it teaches the pure monotheism and rituals that seemed to be devotional to God, while other religions have their own burden to explain.
I do sincerely hope that we will be able to reach them not merely by presenting the many faults of its prophet, but to answer their own question of who God is.

Susanne said...

I've actually questioned a Muslim friend about some of the more difficult aspects of Islam and Muhammad's life. He admitted that usually his people (friends/family) don't dwell on these topics (one example: those houris) choosing instead to focus on the lovely parts of Islam.

I really enjoyed this very interesting post. I've read a couple explanations to the woman taken in adultery story not being included in the earlier manuscripts that made some sense to me.

Thanks for sharing this.

sara said...

Great blog, you have certainly inspire...d me to examine my faith critically!

Cornelius said...

Unlike Fatimah and Ahmed, it's certainly not a mistake that I found your blog. In fact, I am so glad that I found it!

There is a kind of magnetic effect in your posts that I have to be careful each time I visit it. I must be sure that I have the time. For I'm bound to get stuck for a while! Awesome!

Cyril Lucar said...

While I think Bart Erhman is often dishonest scholar with an axe to grind against his former faith, I think the distinction has SOME merit. But he often mis-applies it by accusing all evangelical Christians of having a non-critical faith. In reality, and I speak as a pastor and biblical studies professor, most evangelicals have no problem at all with textual criticism, while I understand most Muslims are literally violently opposed to it. Evangelicals mostly read modern versions of the Bible which all contain notes about the things which Erhman pretends Christians are ignorant, while Muslims all read Korans or Koranic translations which repeatedly proclaim the perfection of both the text from Muhammed and the text as copied over 1400 years. I think the devotional and critical distinction is between Islam and Christianity, not competing groups in each. Though it is true that there are small minorities of critical Muslims and somewhat larger group of devotional Christians.

The story of the woman caught in adultery is clearly marked in all modern translations, both in the text and explained in footnotes. And while it is missing from the some of the oldest manuscripts, many textual scholars argue that it represents authentic tradition. Sometimes the text actually shows up in the Gospel of Luke. This would mean that the story might be accurate but is wasn't written by John. The argument for the authenticity of the story (perhaps in oral form) is that it a) appears in several different places in John and rarely in the Luke text and b) it is very difficult to see why this story would have been invented late when it does not match what we know regarding how the church treated female sexual sinners.


Susanne said...

Cyril, I like the explanations you shared about that adultery story. Author Thomas Cahill believes Luke probably wrote it because the Greek is much better than John's, but that it was stuck or sneaked into John's gospel by a later editor. Something to do with *Jesus* forgiving adulterers, but the church/society NOT doing so. Since John's gospel was last, this bit of oral tradition collected and written by Luke was added this John's book.

Kenneth Bailey who spent many of his years in the Middle East suggests people back then hired scribes to write copies of the scriptures (gospel of Luke for instance) for themselves. Since he knows how in ME culture the family's honor depends on its women, he thinks fathers didn't want any of their daughters to get a wild idea that they could easily be forgiven for their own sexual sins. So they would simply tell the scribes to make them a copy of John, but leave out that story about Jesus forgiving the adulteress.

It would be interesting to know if any of these thoughts are true!

Cyril Lucar said...

Susanne, I don't know much about Cahill's background in this area, but Bailey is first rate. Your suggestions are plausible guesses, intriging, but without any positive evidence to support them. I haven't read Bailey's latest work yet and I'm wondering if that's where you found this. It would certainly make sense that a stray highly trusted story would be redacted into the latest text.

Even given my clain for a higher level of sophistication than Erhman concedes, you are no average Christian.

Susanne said...

Cyril, not sure if you have read "Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes" which is the only Kenneth Bailey book I've ever read, but I highly recommend it. I read it earlier this year and absolutely enjoyed it!