Faith & Social Justice: In the spirit of Richard Overton and the 17th C. Levellers

Islamic Fundamentalism: Self-Reflection for Both Muslims and Christians?

Since nearly the entire world is parsing the strengths and weaknesses of Pres. Obama’s speech in Cairo, I’ll pass on that for now.  But Obama brought up some history that OUGHT to lead to (painful?) introspection on the part of both Muslims and Christians.  Many Americans are blissfully unaware of it (because our knowledge of history is notoriously TINY), but the European Dark Ages were marked by a Christian Church that discouraged learning.  The rebirth of learning in the High Middle Ages and the Renaissance was largely sparked by ISLAMIC philosophers, scientists and poets.

The 7th and 6th Centuries C.E. are known to historians as the Islamic Golden Age.  They made many advances in science, engineering (including the arch and the flying buttress), mathematics (we now use Arabic numerals, the zero was invented in Arabic civilization, and Muslim mathematicians invented algebra), medicine, and astronomy.  Christians in Europe adopted these discoveries (sometimes building on them) when Arabic troops invaded Europe and again when Europeans invaded the Middle East (Holy Land) during the Crusades.  The scientific revolution of the 17th C. would not have been possible without the advances of the Renaissance that paved the way–and those depended on very forward looking Muslim scholars.

Muslim-majority nations throughout the Middle East had universities, some offering graduate and postgraduate degrees, before European nations started them (usually under the influence of the Christian Church).  They had a higher rate of literacy and were educating women as equals or near equals long before the Christian West.

Many of the Western advances in philosophy and theology also owe their roots to Medieval Islam.  The great flowering of Catholic theology came from St. Thomas Aquinas’ interactions with Aristotelian philosophy. (Originally, this was considered controversial and some called Thomas a heretic. Plato was the approved philosopher and Aristotle was suspect.) But Aristotle’s writings had been lost in Europe.  They were saved in Arabic lands, both before and after the rise of Islam.  The Islamic philosopher Averroes (the Latin version of Ibn Rushd) was not the only Islamic Aristotelian, but because he wrote much of his material in Latin (not just in Arabic), Thomas could interact with it.  Thomas also used translations of Aristotle into Latin.  (Thomas was also influenced by Jewish philosophers, but that’s a topic for another day.)

The Islamic contributions to the arts (especially architecture and calligraphy), poetry, music, and drama were also many and dramatic.  Because of their ban on alcohol, and their kashrut food restrictions, they worked to create new culinary delights–including coffee, without which I would not be civilized.  Women as well as men contributed to the flourishing of Islamic societies.

But all this came crashing down about the 17th C.  Today, almost all Muslim-majority nations are poorer, less-educated, and extremely conservative.  The rise of rabid Islamic fundamentalism has increased this trend, with incredible oppression of women, minorities, and religious dissent.  Obama’s brief recitation of some of this history, along with his critique of the current state of many Muslim-majority nations, should be the cause of deep, even painful, reflection by Muslims–not by the extremists, but by the progressives, centrists, and non-extremist conservatives. 

But I think this should also serve as a cautionary tale for Christians.  I KNOW that ultra-right Christian fundamentalists hate being compared to Islamic fundamentalists, but there is much in common.  And the rise and threatened domination of fundamentalism among Christians has brought with it a terrible hatred for the equality of women, for religious liberty and diversity, and a fear of science and the arts.  Too much of Christianity today is not open and does not welcome debate, dissent, or education.  And, both Islamic and Christian fundamentalists foster violence and terrorism in pursuit of totalitarian theocracies. 

Now the “new angry athiests” would conclude that faith and religion are themselves toxic.  I do not.  But fundamentalist forms are and the problems that Islamic fundamentalism has brought to Muslim-majority nations should be troubling both for contemporary Muslims (who need to throw off fundamentalism and reclaim their progressive past) and Christians (who need to defeat the fundamentalist forces among us).

June 6, 2009 Posted by | Christianity, faith, fundamentalists, Islam, progressive faith, Reformation, Religious Social Criticism | 14 Comments

Reformed Pacifism

Bryan Peters, who runs the Young Evangelical blog, is beginning a series on “Reformed Pacifism.” Bryan is an evangelical American Baptist who considers himself both a Calvinist and a pacifist and is trying to show how the two parts of his identity fit together.  Although I think his definition of the Reformed tradition is too narrow (he rules out such prominent Reformed pacifists as Ellul, Trocme, and Lassere as not part of the main Reformed tradition), the series should be extremely interesting. As I said, I think Bryan construes the tradition too narrowly: Reformed pacifists include Jean-Michel Hornus, Paul Ricoeur, Jacques Martin, Charles Delizy, Eduourd Theis, Henri Roser, G. H. C. MacGregor, D. M. MacKinnon,  G. J. Heering, George A. Buttrick, Nels F. H. Ferre, Maurice McCracken, George H. Hunsinger, Beyers Naude, Allan Boesak, the Presbyterian Peace Fellowship (U.S.A.), the United Reformed Peace Fellowship (U.K.). Not to mention such Reformed theology bloggers as Kim Fabricius, D.W. Congdon, Ben Myers (I think), Chris of Disruptive Grace, Aric Clark, etc.   But I think Bryan is referring to conservative Calvinists:  Those who see themselves as being able to affirm the Synod of Dordt, or the Westminster Confession, or, perhaps, as the heirs of the Hodges and Warfield.  Even in this narrower definition of “Reformed,” I think there have been more pacifists than Bryan seems to acknowledge in this first post in the series, but the series definitely bears watching closely. Those who are Calvinists and challenge Christian pacifism from within that tradition should pay close attention as should pacifists (especially Anabaptist-influenced folks like myself, or Franciscan or Quaker types) who are suspicious of the Reformed tradition because of its historic opposition to nonviolence, should also follow the series.  It promises to be a very interesting series.

Maybe others from other theological traditions would like to respond:  A Wesleyan argument for pacifism, an Orthodox pacifism, a Processs theology pacifism, Lutheran pacifism, Boston Personalist pacifism, etc.  The Anabaptists and the Quakers and the Franciscans have done this often enough.  I am not convinced that any and all theologies will support gospel nonviolence equally.  But given that the gospel commands of peacemaking are so clear, it would seem that any theology which undermines that must, at least, be in serious need of revision, right?

May 2, 2007 Posted by | Baptists, nonviolence, pacifism, Reformation, theology | 20 Comments

Happy Reformation Day!

To the left, of course, is a picture of Martin Luther. Why? Because on All Hallows Eve (31 Oct.) of 1517, Martin Luther, then a Dominican Monk, nailed his 95 Theses on the door of the church at Wittenberg, Germany. This act is usually cited as the beginning of the Protestant Reformation. Sing several verses today of Luther’s “A Mighty Fortress is Our God.”

But don’t stop at celebrating Luther’s legacy: Investigate and take time to appreciate the contributions of other Reformers–Zwingli, Bucer, Bullinger, Melancthon, Karlstadt, and, yes, Calvin, who was a great expositor of Scripture and whom I like far more than I do most of his followers (Calvinists). (But, then, I pray every day that Jesus will not be evaluated by his followers!) And go further and celebrate the Radical Reformers: Conrad Grebel, Felix Mantz, Georg Blaurock, Balthasar Hubmaier, Michael Sattler, Menno Simons, Pilgram Marpeck, Hans Hut, Jakob Hutter, Pieter Riedemann and more.

Also, although the Protestant Reformation was necessary, it did break the unity of the Western Church and, thus, I must agree with the late Jaroslav Pelikan, Lutheran church historian, who called the Protestant Reformation a “tragic necessity.” While celebrating the Reformers’ legacy, take time to shed a tear for the fragmentation of the church universal.

And Catholics have also been graced by Reformers before the 16th C. (e.g., the monastic movements), during it (e.g., Erasmus, Savanarola, Ignatius Loyola), and later (especially Vatican II). All reform movements soon need their own reformations, too. Pray for further reform of the whole church. And read a Reformer today! Posted by Picasa

October 31, 2006 Posted by | Christian calendar, church history, Reformation | 3 Comments