Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Creative Theology

In reading Sura 53, I was pretty mystified.

Have ye seen Lat. and 'Uzza,
And another, the third (goddess), Manat?
What! for you the male sex, and for Him, the female?
Behold, such would be indeed a division most unfair!

Manat sounds familiar-- and Ali helpfully gives us the note that it is the name of a goddess.  That means the other two names are probably goddesses as well, right?  

But what about the next two lines?

Looking around (in a commentary) I see that the verse is highlighting the pagan hypocrisy.  It is a common pagan practice to allow female babies to starve, if they were really wanting a male one.  No one wanted to refuse to have female babies, but just not as many as male ones, as male babies grow up to be farmers, breadwinners and defenders.  Women, in the ancient world, grew up to be house cleaners and pregnant, and generally a burden to fathers and later husbands in patriarchal societies.

The Quran is pointing out that the pagans make up females for their gods (under the authority of the Most High God, of course), but they aren't really interested to have daughters for themselves.  "Go ahead and refuse to have daughters, but you will fill heaven with women!", it seems to be saying.

The Quran is not saying anything against women here-- although it does say that no spiritual power is given a female name-- rather, the word is just pointing out that the pagans don't know the first thing about the Spirit world.  They make up what they want and present it as the truth.

The Quran speaks the truth-- the only way anyone can know anything about the spirit world is by revelation, not by invention.  

For this reason, theologians of most types truly disturb me.  Theology is not supposed to be innovative or imaginative.  Theology is supposed to be conceptually conservative.  This is because, ultimately, the Spirit World is a mystery, displayed to us in fits and starts unless there is someone who can be proven to know more about that world than any of the rest of us.  The Spirit world is like an image in a kaleidoscope-- one person may see one image, and other person may see another image, but it is impossible to determine in that image.  Only when we put the Kaleidoscope down and look directly at the object, can we really know what it is.

But who has actually seen that world, directly.  Only God Himself, or angels.  Muhammad claimed to have his revelation directly from an angel.   Jesus claimed to have seen it himself, directly.  Moses claimed to have his revelation directly from God.  So, as long as their claims are true, they qualify.

Theologians, however, are only dealing with shadows and mysteries.  Interpretations of texts and dreams and ancient stories.  They should be the most conservative, careful of sciences.  Instead, most theologians are slip-shod, careless and inventive.

This is not to say that the presentation of truth shouldn't be imaginative-- Madeline L'Engle isn't to be denied, nor her ilk. Nor does it mean that theology shouldn't be radical.  If theology is true, it must demand radical change to the world.  But the message of theology should be only that which was revealed, without innovation, without addition.

A Quranic Shift

Just to remind readers of my comments on the Quran, that I am reading the Suras (poems/chapters) in the chronological order that is presented in the WikiIslam.  There is some disagreement as to what the original stated order of these Suras are, but I find this order to be plausible, for the most part. 

Now we approach Sura 53, The Star, which changes the literary aspect of the poems.

I believe the message is still pretty much the same: focusing on the supremacy of God, and ethical action based on the reality of the resurrection and the judgement of all mankind.   However, I think that from here on out, the Suras become more complex, and they deal with more specific issues.

Up until now, the Suras have been pretty much Theology 101.  Introduction and discussion of some pretty basic monotheistic ideas.  Now, the conversation gets more complex.  And longer.  And more details.

This is all good, and I'm glad that we are going to get more specific.  But it also means that we will be heading into areas which require more study on my part.  And, frankly, not everything will be in my areas of interst.  So instead of grouping Suras together, I will be more often just speaking about parts of Suras, and letting the rest go, just as I did with other theological texts.  It was never my plan to write out a complete commentary on the Quran.  First of all, I'm not qualified, but also that would be pretty tedious at times, and the last thing this blog needs is more tedium.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

The Problem of Preaching...

Anytime we try to convince others of a truth based upon our presuppositions, we will have our presuppositions questioned.  Some would say that is the basic purpose of teenagers.

Muhammad went to the pagan believers with a message of repentance based on the coming judgment day.

First they questioned: How will we get to a judgment day, if we are already dead?

Muhammad says: God will raise you from the dead.

They responded: No one can raise the dead!  Once you are dead, that's it!

Muhammad says: Is anything impossible for God?

They responded: What has God done that even comes close to that scale of creation?

Muhammad says: Well, how about creating you from sperm?  How about creating the earth?  How about sending out winds, sometimes to our benefit, sometimes with destruction?  How about the sky-- can you find a flaw in it?

They say: Well, perhaps, perhaps not.  But even so, how do we know that anyone will actually be judged?

Muhammad says: Because some have already been judged by God.  The generation of Noah, Pharaoh of old, Sodom and Gomorrah, and some of our own generation has been punished and we will freely admit "Oh yes, they have been punished by God."  If some are judged this way, why not all?  Will God not determine justice for all the earth?

At this point they will get uncomfortable and leave.

And the preacher keeps on preaching, and some will believe and many will not.  That is the state of being a preacher.

The Final Day

When the Bible speaks of the last days, it doesn't do so in a  way that we might consider obvious today.

When we speak of the "last days" we talk about a few basic ideas:
-a time when every person will be resurrected from the dead
-a judgement day when each person's eternal destiny will be decided by their deeds
-final destination will either be a permanent state of bliss/contentment or a permanent state of punishment

In the Psalms, such as Psalm 22 or Psalm 37, it is a more personal statement, assuring oneself of the justice of the cosmos through the will of God.

In Isaiah, the Gospels and in Revelation it is spoken of a warning for followers of God to act faithfully and justly.

In Daniel and in Paul's writings, it is a statement of comfort to those who suffer under persecution.

It is left to Muhammad and the later Christian writers to make the obvious step of using these eschatalogical events to warn unbelievers of their coming demise unless they repent.  Admittedly, it is not far from what John the Baptist does, but even John is speaking to those within the folds of Judaism.  It is interesting that Muhammad uses the ideas of resurrection and judgment and eternal destiny to convince pagans of their demise unless they repent.

In Sura 101, Muhammad speaks generally of the day of judgment, explaining what it is and the eternal destiny that awaits both the good and the evil.   It is more like a teaching poem, but still delivering the emotional impact of the final day.

In Sura 75,  Muhammad is confronted by those who claim that the resurrection of the dead, and thus the judgment day, is impossible.  The Sura's only proof is the omnipotence of God-- that God can do whatever He wishes.  Today, the resurrection of the dead shouldn't be doubted on the level of ability since it has been shown that one can clone any cellular creature.  The only real question is why would one want to resurrect the dead.  And the answer given here is simply: justice.

At the end of the life of each person, we can see that it is rare for a person to get what they deserve.  Those who have done evil to many often live according to their own terms.  Those who have done good often get only punishment and suffering in return.  The resurrection and judgment is an opportunity for pure justice to exist.  It is like karma, except instead of continually being stuck in an unjust universe, there is a final break and justice-- true justice-- finally comes to all.

The Quran and the Bible recognize that unless true justice prevails, those who make excuses to do evil will continue to do so.  Only with true and perfect justice-- even a justice that only happens in an unknown future-- can evil be kept at bay.

Finally in Sura 104,  all the pieces come together and a message to those who do evil is given, like any good fire and brimstone preacher.  It is spoken to those who slander God through their actions: specifically those who pile up wealth as if that would give them eternal security.  Rather, those who think that this life is all there is, and acts accordingly, will end up burning forever in punishment.

Right belief can lead to right action and right action to bliss, if only we are willing to wait for it.

Ah woe, that Day, to the Rejecters of Truth!
(It will be said:) "Depart ye to that which ye used to reject as false!
 "Depart ye to a Shadow (of smoke ascending) in three columns,
 "(Which yields) no shade of coolness, and is of no use against the fierce Blaze.
 "Indeed it throws about sparks (huge) as Forts,
Ah woe, that Day, to the Rejecters of Truth!
That will be a Day when they shall not be able to speak.
Nor will it be open to them to put forth pleas.
Ah woe, that Day, to the Rejecters of Truth!
That will be a Day of Sorting out! We shall gather you together and those before (you)!
                                                                                                                  -Sura 77