Reconceptualizing the “Other”: Biblical Wisdom for the Modern World (Edition no. 11/October 2016)

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common wordBy Ustaz Mahmoud Mathlub Bin Sidek

Introduction

Islam is the final message of the Truth. A message of peace and emancipation which signifies humankind servitude and submission to the Almighty. One is not a Muslim without having faith in the apostles of previous Ummah and the books of these apostles.

This short reflective paper describes an initial attempt as a person of faith to read the Bible and analyse its enduring essence and teachings which are, despite its current corrupted form, compatible with the teachings of Islam. In my humble view, a Muslim who professes a deep, profound and “moderate understanding” of Islam should have the confident to learn from the “Other”. He should not be perturbed by images of Christians as savages of the crusades; the sworn enemies of Islam and as people who were led astray. Rather, Muslims who live in this  post-modern era of enmity must rise above the occasion and try to forge a “Common Word” (Al-Imran 3:64) and build bridges of understanding between Muslims and the “Other”, particularly the People of the Book.

In reference to the study of world religions and interfaith understanding and cooperation, I would try to analyze, in this paper, the impact of modernity on the Christian tradition and how it has altered the notion of ethics, faith and morality from a religious standpoint. It further expounds the declining state of religious tradition and authority in the modern, or to be exact, post-modern world and proposes measures of how the modern man could possibly embrace the wisdom of the Biblical tradition in particular, as his panacea, even as he navigates his daily life in a physically-chaotic, spiritually-draining, secular-capitalistic life system. This effort is not, by any measure, a complete analysis of the malaise of modernity and ethical failures of the modern man nor an argument for God in a secular nation state, nor does it pretend to speak on behalf of organized religions. Rather, it is a personal reflection and a novice analysis of the Christian tradition from the “Other”; a tradition that shares many commonalities and modern challenges with its brotherly religions – Islam and Judaism. 

Modernity and postmodernity

The “Renaissance Man” understood that the challenge to Christian tradition reached its peak with the dawn of the Enlightenment in the 17th century. The spirit of the Enlightenment is well summed up by Kant with his famous dictum “Sapere aude!” – Have courage to use your own reason!”  The movement emphasised “the power of reason to discover the truth about humanity and the world”. This marks a fundamental shift, in my view, of how man perceives and understands truth, revelation, religious-based ethics and the divine message. Renaissance was seen as a counter movement to address the abusive, corrupt nature of the Church and its clergymen.Print

This scepticism towards religious dogmas resulted in the perception of the Church and her traditions as an impediment of progress. The prime example of the Church acting as a barrier to the advancement of humanity was the Church’s condemnation of Galileo’s discovery that the earth moves around the sun. This was in contrast to the acceptance of and deep inquiry into natural sciences in the Muslim world. The negative mood towards the Church and her traditions eventually led a significant number into agnosticism and even atheism. Those who sought to defend the Christian faith increasingly found themselves forced to justify its existence on the basis of reason. This gave rise to the movement of modern scientific thought where its proponents tried to paint Christianity, at best, as an enemy of empirical reason and scientific knowledge, or at worst, at least according to Dawkins (2008), a God-delusion tradition.

The crux of the matter, in my view, is the question of modernity which was unleashed with the Enlightenment and by the mid-19th century extended its tentacles as the recalcitrant child of modernity. Modernity de-centred God and in its place crowned reason and the sovereign authority that alone determined the legitimacy of truth claims. Postmodernism theory has chosen to dethrone not only reason but the very notion of authority and the very idea of truth. Modernity, and by extension post-modernity, is a socio-cultural, philosophical movement that began in 17th century Europe that altered the course of humanity. Thus, one could surmise with the dawn of modernity, faith, religious values and ethics took a back seat while secularism and scientific revolution moved centre stage. And with post-modernity, a new wave of cultural relativism and the demise of meta-narratives and truth becomes the order of the day.

According to Grentz (1996), one of the sources of the advent of post modernity is Friedrich Nietzsche’s attack of Enlightenment principles of the modern era, in particular his rejection of the Enlightenment concept of truth, which provided the impetus for various others such as Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida to pursue their ideologies.

In today’s world where no single entity, scientific or otherwise, could lay claim or monopolise truth and by extension ethics and ethical leadership, the challenge for the modern man or mind, is to consider and draw inspiration from long-standing traditions in human’s history to preserve man’s sanctity and his sanity. The paradox of human development is clear for all to see. Man has achieved material progress far exceeding his forefathers, yet as society progresses, devoid of a moral compass or an ethical core, the failings of human morality goes beyond comprehension. Amongst the many traditions worth considering, is the Christian tradition.

bibleLessons of wisdom from the Bible

It is almost impossible to cite the each lesson for life from the Bible in this short paper, as it is both a divine scripture and a Book of wisdom. Nevertheless, I would like to offer key ideals for the modern man to consider for his personal well-being, effective leadership and to maintain a peaceful, sustainable, livable world:

  1. i) Preservation of Strong, Traditional Families

The family in its traditional conception is the union of a man and woman, not same-sex unison, with the goal of both companionship and human procreation. Throughout human history, man has always viewed marriage as a sacred, matrimonial unification of two different sexes and is celebrated and widely treasured by both Western and Eastern tradition. It is the first crucial step towards the establishment of a family and procreation of the next generation. The Chinese tradition according to Confucius (1893) established the importance of filial piety and respect for elders while Christians emphasize child-bearing (Genesis 30:1), forbid divorce, at least in the Roman Catholic tradition (Matthew 19: 3-12), and place a great deal on love, respect and benevolence to one’s spouse and children. It is of little wonder that we find traditional families closely-knitted and are usually large. At the center of such families is the primary role of men and women as fathers and mothers respectively, tasked with child-bearing, their upbringing and by extension the preservation of humankind.

According to an analysis and future projections by OECD (2012), Japan as a nation would cease to exist by 2050 if its TFR – total fertility rate – remains at 1.39 or if it fails to amend its immigration policy. To state the obvious, the modern man should learn from the Biblical teachings of love, passion and compassion, and the need to procreate and develop strong, happy families. Failing to do so would result in the breakdown of social structure and sustainable human and economic development as exemplified by developed countries, with the Japanese people at the forefront.

The call for same-sex marriage is nonetheless an anathema to Biblical teachings, at least for the Catholics. The Bible goes to the extent to subjecting those who practise same-sex to the harshest treatment. It is of little surprise that the Christians (Right and Catholics) are at the forefront of the debate. They are the staunchest defenders of the traditional family and its values. Clearly, the unaltered, unadulterated reading of the Bible in reference to the support and promotion of a gay lifestyle would lead to the same conclusion of an unbiased analysis of the Qur’an and the Sunnah.

Thus, marry the “Other” – opposite sex – procreate and spread the blessings and love of a happy family on mother earth and thou shall prosper and be blessed.

  1. ii) Selfless Leadership

Leadership, in particular political leadership, is seen more often than not as battle of interests. It is built on the premise, as argued by Machiavelli (1998), of the ends justifying the means. While his thesis is logically sound and is seen as indication of strong, effective, politically-savvy leadership, it is often misused by individuals intending to pursue their personal greed and interest. Political leaders and institutions could possibly transform to an entity that places emphasis on ethics, mutual respect, virtue and values, transcending individual interest and personal gains. I posit that humankind could gain more if it draws inspiration from the founder of Christianity. His death at the hands of power and worldly authority is a clear indication of a man willing to sacrifice his personal interest for the larger good of humanity and a higher divine calling. In his heart and at the centre of his cause, was the interest of his people, the weak, the oppressed and humankind, to the point that he sacrificed himself. (1 Peter 3:18)  In my view, his death at the cross is a profound act of selflessness, and disregard of personal gains. How many leaders in today’s post-modern, capitalist world who are willing forgo personal interests and material wealth to gallantly stand by virtuous principles, fight for righteous ideals, and die for the well-being of their people?

iii) Sustainable Development in The Modern World

The Bible speaks at length of the creation of the heaven, the earth, animals, plants and trees According to the Bible, God created earth in six days and then rested on the seventh. (Genesis 1:1-31). The modern man, on the other hand, argues based on scientific evidence that the world was created in more than six days billions years ago. From a scientific standpoint, the modern man concludes it is of little value to study the bible and offer lessons for human’s progress and worldly development. However, reading the Gospel using through the wisdom lens, one would be able to uncover nuggets of truth and timeless values. This book of wisdom calls on humankind to love God’s creation, including the insignificant sparrow (Luke 12:6), preserve life, and cultivate the land and to live in harmony with the environment while emphasizing a strong conservation message against over-utilising and wasting natural resources. (Leviticus 26:3-6) In fact, the Jewish practice of Sabbath which traces its origins from the second book of the Old Testament, in my observation, calls for man to live his life in moderation and to maintain a perfect work-life balance; between pursuing material economic activities and personal well-being. (Exodus 31:13-17).

While I do not claim these suggestions exhaustive nor cover every facet of modern life, thereturn-of-religion larger question is how one would posit such ideals derived from a divine scripture in a postmodern landscape devoid of God and divine morality.

In the following passage, I would try to illustrate one such possibility. 

God is alive: A new future for ethics and morality

When Nietzsche proclaimed that God is dead, as explained by Kaufmann (1974), little did he know that today’s 2.1 billion of the world’s population still believe in the Christian God according to a report by the United Nations Secretariat (2009).

Nevertheless, we live in an increasingly, God-less postmodern world where the postmodern phenomenon assumes a multiplicity of forms. It is embodied in various attitudes and expressions that impinge on the day-to-day lives of people in every segment of our society. Their effects are evident in almost all popular culture one could imagine – literature, music, fashion, film, the arts, architecture. It is so pervasive such that, from rock music to tourism to television and even education, advertising imperatives, and consumer demand are no longer for goods but for experiences.

In light to the above phenomenon and without sounding evangelical, the modern man and mind must reasonably consider the ever-relevant and perhaps transformative model of Biblical teachings and its wisdom and try to apply it to cultural relativism to address the challenges of post-modernity. This wisdom is the center of ancient Israel’s hope that the world would be restored (Isaiah 65) and of the New Testament’s focus on Christ’s redemptive work (Romans 5:12-21).

This vision according to Cottret (2000) is easily translated into optimism of culture’s transformation based on timeless teachings and age-old wisdom. A historical example of this model which centers on the transforming work of the Gospel’s wisdom in a geographical area is evident. From the Protestant’s reformation standpoint, in particular John Calvin’s Geneva reflected this transforming power. Calvin stressed the ethical teachings of the Gospel that is extended to the state and to economics. Therefore, the government of Geneva experienced radical reform and pursued righteousness in making and enforcing its laws. Work, to Calvin and Geneva was in many ways a “God-ordained vocation”, whatever its specific nature was. The city, therefore, to a larger extent, experienced a remarkable economic transformation as well.

This “religious model” calls on man to recognize his responsibility to work ethically toward the day when we would witness the world and society at large governed in a more ethical and sustainable manner. Success begets success; respect begets respect; ethics begets ethical living. 

Conclusion

The challenges of modernity are far-reaching and according to Hallaq (2013) untenable, and pose a “real threat” to traditions and religious narratives and its authority. Values, ethics and timeless truth are now seen through the lens of cultural relativism and individualism. While these unprecedented changes brought tremendous progress in man’s economic and material development, his personal, spiritual, ethical realm are left wanting and much to be desired. In order to maintain his sanctity and wholesome development as a human, he needs to rediscover his true self and uncover timeless wisdom and age-old virtues to guide him in his post-modern adventure.

This paper is a modest, novice attempt to read into and analyze a tradition distinct yet similar to my own faith tradition. I’m tempted to arrive at a simplistic conclusion, disregarding the whole corpus of Christian history, teachings, schism and reformation and counter-reformation ideas and doctrines and its interplay with secular Western thought and philosophy, which posit Christianity as a major religious tradition that deserves the unabated attention of Muslim scholars, if the common argument is justice, equality and ethical living.

Muslims must be able to reach across the aisle and speak in a language that are common and understood by the “Other”. At times, I lament the lack of serious Muslim scholars who profess deep knowledge of Christianity and Judaism, while at the same time we find an abundance of “Others” professing knowledge of Islam and its rich tradition.

hikmah-dhalat-mukminWaywardly, I would add that a simple substitution of most Christian terms and narratives mentioned in this paper with an equal term or verse from the Quran or Sunnah, would deem the paper more “Islamic and readily accepted by Muslims”. A question beckons – Can we extract, appreciate and accept Islamic values and teachings from distinct, seemingly opposing traditions and make it part of an integrated, common ethical framework? It would, ultimately, lead people of different faiths, ideologies and traditions to come together and make the world a better place. However, that would require a separate paper commemorating a separate occasion for a separate audience.

I hope this brief paper on a tradition which is in many aspects alien to the author, albeit brief and far from meeting the high academic standards’ of Wasat On-line, will spur courage and confidence, develop wastiyah-thinking and interest amongst fellow asatizah to further read, research, criticize and analyze both the similarities and differences in different faith traditions, that “paradoxically make us equal” in HIS eyes.

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Bibliography

Books and articles

  • Connor, Steven. (1989). Postmodernist Culture. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing.
  • (1893). The Confucian Analects, The Great Learning & The Doctrine of the Mean. Translated by James Legge. New York: Cosimo Inc.
  • Cottret, Bernard. (2000). Calvin: A Biography. Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.
  • Dawkins, Richard. (2008). The God Delusion. New York: Houghton Mifflin Co.
  • Grentz, Stanley. (1996). A Primer on Postmodernism. Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.
  • Hallaq, Wael B. (2013). The Impossible State: Islam, Politics, and Modernity’s Moral Predicament. West Sussex: Columbia University Press.
  • Kant, Immanuel. (1784). What is Enlightenment. Konigsberg: Prussia.
  • Kaufmann, Walter. (1974). Nietzsche: Philosopher, Psychologist, and Antichrist. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
  • Machiavelli, Niccolo. (1998). The Prince. Translated with with an introduction by Harvey C. Mansfield. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.
  • Population Division of the Department of Economic and Social Affairs of the United Nations Secretariat (2009). World Population Prospects: The 2008 Revision Highlights. New York: United Nations.
  • The Holy Quran, translated by Abdullah Yusuf Ali, Wordsworth Editions (2000).
  • The Holy Bible, New International Version. (1989). Michiga:
  • Wong, Benjamin. (2010). The Machiavellian Problem and Liberal Secularism, Michael Heng, Siam-Heng and Chin, Liew Ten. (Ed), State and Secularism: Perspectives from Asia. Singapore: World Scientific.

Websites 

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