Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Are We Enlightened Yet?

In this post I want to segue back to our previous topic of defending the faith. In the last two posts I tried to argue for an Islamic enlightenment. The problem for Islam is that such a process will expose some truly serious historical and factual contradictions that have the potential to destroy it as a viable belief system. But many would say in our day that this is exactly what happened with Christianity. They believe that the Enlightenment destroyed Christianity as a valid worldview/philosophy option for any educated person. For example, the famous neo-orthodox theologian Rudolf Bultmann wrote, "It is impossible to use electric light and the wireless and to avail ourselves of modern medical and surgical discoveries, and at the same time to believe in the New Testament world of spirits and miracles." (New Testament and Mythology, 5)

While there is no question that the Enlightenment was the attempt to expose what its leaders believed was a religious myth called Christianity, we must remember that both the nineteenth and twentieth centuries saw the greatest numerical expansion of the global Christian church in human history, and that even in the West, the church has survived and in many places, thrived. Yet, we must ask, who is right? Are the skeptics correct that our scientific age has made religious belief impossible, or are the Christians right in saying that God is not dead? Could it be that the rapid growth of Christianity worldwide is just the death throws of a dying religion as it still holds sway over the superstitious who inhabit the Third World? After all, isn't the church shrinking in the West?

This is a huge question, too large for a single blog post, so I want to pare it down to look in very general terms at how the Christian church responded and continues to respond to the forces of the Enlightenment.

In the early years of the Enlightenment, the age of Voltaire, Rousseau, Hume, and Kant, the Evangelical church mostly ignored the world of philosophy and simply went about their business of preaching the Gospel. It is worth noting that the time of the revolutions (America, 1776 & French, 1789) and the heyday of philosophy (Hume & Kant), was also the time of the Great Awakening in both England and America. One of the significant results of these revivals was the birth and expansion of missions. A case can be made that one of the characteristics of all revivals is that they result in an increased involvement in missions both in numbers of missionaries and in support and engagement by the affected churches. For example, pietism (a revival in its own right) resulted in the Danish-Halle mission and the Moravians, and the Great Awakening gave us William Carey and the first American missionaries (sent around 1812) as part of the great wave of evangelical missions that marked the nineteenth century. In other words, while philosophers were attempting to deny the possibility of miracles and to debunk natural theology (nature reveals the existence of God), God was performing miracles in people's lives, calling them to take the Gospel to the ends of the earth, and enabling the incredible growth of the global church that continues to this day.

These two dramatic and historic movements almost literally were "like two ships passing in the night." Each one nearly oblivious to the other. At the time, the Great Awakening was more momentous and impacted the general population to a far greater extent that the Enlightenment. The Great Awakening produced dramatic social change in England and America, bringing prison reform, education and social reform, and the abolition of slavery to England, while dramatically shaping American culture and laying the ground work for the civil war and the end of slavery in America. Yet, the Enlightenment, born of philosophers and intellectuals, gained an ever increasing foothold in the academic institutions of the West. And, those who control the educational system, ultimately control the culture. Whether it was intentional or not, the forces of the Enlightenment were playing the long game.

By the middle of the twentieth century, all of the major Protestant denominations (Lutheran, Presbyterian, Methodist, & Episcopalian) had been coopted by theological liberalism and the majority of their churches ceased giving a clear and intentional proclamation of the gospel. They instead became centers of the "Social Gospel" as they advocated for an end to the social ills of racism, poverty, and inequality. This move toward liberalism created a strong backlash among the committed Christians within and outside these denominations. Many split off from the parent denominations to create conservative alternatives, such as the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA). Others moved to the remaining conservative denominations such as the Baptists, various evangelical denominations, and the growing numbers of independent/interdenominational churches that were being established at this time. This was also the time of the Bible college movement as an alternative to secular universities and seminaries, along with the development of Christian radio, publishing, and other alternative institutions to serve the conservative Christian community. This was all part of a strategy of separation that has served to disenfranchise biblical Christianity from the larger society. And, whether we realized it or not, left evangelical Christianity an increasingly marginalized counter-culture with little or no voice in the larger American society.

One of the reasons for this strategy of separation was the belief that the solution to the growing secularism in America was revival. This view was actually founded on a good deal of historical evidence. American culture, literally from its founding had been periodically transformed and shaped by a series of significant revivals. As we already mentioned, the Great Awakening had a clear American component beginning with Jonathan Edwards, the preaching of George Whitefield in Boston, and the spread of the Methodist circuit riders across the frontier. A second major revival originated with Charles Finney in New England and the camp meetings in the South. Both of these movements had a visible impact on American culture, and were seen as examples of how important revival was to the spiritual and material well being of the society. It was to encourage, pray for, and work for revival that caused the church of this generation to separate from the larger culture.

There is certainly merit to this approach. In my lifetime, there have been at least two significant identifiable moves of God that impacted thousands of individuals and families. The first was the Jesus Movement of the 60s which profoundly impacted my generation. Many of my classmates at Bethany came to the Lord in this move of God. The second, that greatly impacted my family was the Charismatic movement in the Catholic, Lutheran, and Episcopal churches. The movement spread out beyond these denominations to have a significant impact on that generation. By this means, whole churches, families, and even communities were transformed.

But there is a fundamental difference between these recent revivals and those of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the older revivals affected the whole culture, while these later movements only affected some of the people in the culture while leaving the larger culture unchanged. There are several reasons for this reduced impact, but one of root causes was the dominance of secularism in the larger society. As a result, many of the beliefs and values that were held in common by Christians and non-Christians alike in previous generations we no longer held in common, and this disconnect makes it increasingly difficult to share the Gospel with people today. As James Davison Hunter has argued the grass-roots approach to cultural change is very difficult and ineffective, and that recent history shows that the groups that made the effort to dominate the institutions of influence (education, law, media, and politics) have come to hold sway over American society. We already cited the control of American seminaries by liberal theologians. We also see the ways that the leftist student radicals (who were radicalized by the leftist professors of that generation such as Herbert Marcuse) of the 60s earned their Ph.D.s, thus leftist politics came to dominate our colleges and law schools for the past several generations. This is part of the reason there is such a large disconnect between our Christian values and the values of the larger society in our day.

 I wish there was an easy answer to this serious problem. There is not. We certainly need to pray. We also need to recognize that we are a counter-culture, and act accordingly (and unappolgetically) in defending and living out our values. And we need to share our faith whenever and wherever we can, knowing that Jesus' call to be salt and light surely applies to our dark and thirsty time.

Sunday, July 13, 2014

The Islamic Reformation II

In my last post I examined the development of the current state of affairs in the Muslim world with the intent of asking what might bring about a change for the better, and how they might be willing to lay down their animosity and violence toward the non-Muslim world. Many who have looked at this problem concluded that Islam needs a "Reformation." But those who say this, are thinking of the Protestant Reformation that not only changed the Christian church, it changed Western civilization, and opened the door to many of the blessings of freedom, equality, rule of law, and prosperity that we enjoy today. No less an authority than Max Weber, who coined the phrase "Protestant work-ethic" has described the positive impact that Reformation teaching had upon Northern Europe and the United States. As Ibrahim stated in his article, "How Christianity and Islam can follow similar patterns of reform but with antithetical results rests in the fact that their scriptures are often antithetical to one another." (Front Page Magazine, "Islam's Protestant Reformation") The reason that the Protestant Reformation brought about so many of the blessings of modern culture is that is was based on the principles of scripture: the rule of law, all men equal before God, the importance of personal integrity, the sanctity of marriage, and the sanctity of human life. Not to mention the need for checks and balances on governmental power (because of human sin) and the call to the use of wealth and power for compassionate, charitable purposes. We could also add universal education and the end of feudalism to this list of contributions. Many have assumed that the modern West is the result of the Enlightenment, when, in fact, it was the product of the Reformation. This is not to say the Enlightenment didn't have a role, it did. For instance we got our emphasis on the "consent of the governed" from Rousseau as well as the clause about the necessity of revolution in the affairs of a state. But our emphasis on God given rights (natural rights) and the need for checks and balances in the division of our branches of government, along with our understanding that freedom can only be granted to self-governing men, thus the founders emphasized the freedom of religion. All one need to do to establish that the United States did not originate from the Enlightenment is to compare the American Revolution and its documents with the French Revolution and its documents (and results).

Islam had nothing like this. In going back to its roots, it had to reject what Ibrahim describes as the "medieval synthesis" (developed in an attempt to make Islam compatible with practical society). He writes, "While the medieval synthesis worked over the centuries, it never overcame a fundamental weakness: It was not comprehensively rooted in or derived from the foundational texts of Islam. Based on compromises and half-measures, it always remained vulnerable to challenge by the purists." (Ibrahim is quoting Daniel Pipes here) Islam's original documents take it back to Sharia Law and Jihad.

So what might bring about a transformation of the Islamic world? First, it will not come from outside of Islam. While attempts in significant academic circles to present historical, philosophical, and theological criticism of Islam by Western scholars would be helpful. Its assistance would be to give reason and voice to intellectuals within the Islamic world.

It seems to me that Islam needs to face, not a reformation but an enlightenment. I have often wondered where is the Islamic Voltaire, Hobbes, Spinoza, or Diderot? In the current environment within the Muslim world, they are in hiding. They dare not speak for fear of certain death. There are some voices, we have already mentioned them, Salmon Rushdie and Ayaan Hirsi Ali. Yet even in the West, they must live in seclusion. The world will need many more of these brave souls, and we must support and encourage them as we can.

It is guaranteed that this process will be bloody. It will require exposing the texts and teachings of Islam to the kind of brutal criticism that was directed at the Bible in the late nineteenth century. It will seek to separate fact from fiction, and include something like the search for the historical Jesus only directed at the Prophet. As we might imagine, entire societies would be up in arms at such questioning of their fundamental teachings. Just look at what happened when a series of cartoons depicting the Prophet were published. It will take a monumental shift within Islam for such a process to even be contemplated. But in some ways, the current crisis with its terrible brutality and now the desecration of churches, mosques, and holy sites has the potential of turning many in the general population away from this terrible extremism, and cause some to even question the tenets of their faith.

A natural question that arises from my two posts is where is the Sunni-Shia divide in this description of the Islamic revival. Both of these factions have contributed to the revival, and in many ways, the revival has deepened the animosity between them. One of the notable elements of the recent Iraq war was the amount of Sunni and Shia violence against each other, not to mention the increased persecution of the ancient Christian communities in the region. It is part of what is disconcerting about this so called revival of Islam, it has deepened ancient animosities and produced unprecedented violence.

We must say that our concern is for the Muslim people along with all the peoples living in the Middle East. Our hope must be that the Muslim world itself will rise up and oppose the brutality and evil that is being perpetrated in the name of Islam. We must remember that one of the factors that contributed to the Enlightenment was the deep revulsion among European intellectuals at the terrible bloodshed in the post-Reformation wars that devastated Europe. Our hope must be that the awful violence that we see today will invoke a similar reaction in the Muslim world.

Sunday, July 6, 2014

ISIS and the Islamic Reformation

In this post I want to change the subject a bit. I have been talking about the misuse of science in our political debates, and now I want to talk about what is happening in the Muslim world. The reason for the change of topic is a recent article published on the Front Page website by Raymond Ibrahim (June 30, 2014) entitled, "Islam's 'Protestant Reformation.'" Mr. Ibrahim makes the very important point that contrary to popular opinion, Islam does not need a "reformation" such as that which transformed the Christian church in the 16th century. Islam has, in fact, undergone just this process of reform, of returning to its original documents and taking them literally in theory and in practice. It is just this return to the Koran and the Hadiths that explains the difference between the two "reformations," one was a return to the truths of the Bible and the other to the warrior religion of Islam. It is just this return to its original beliefs and practices that has led to the current crisis we face today.

Mr. Ibrahim is right, of course. By the end of the nineteenth century, there were two competing forces at work in the Islamic world which at the time was dominated by the Ottoman Empire. One impulse was a desire to modernize Islamic societies and take advantage of the tremendous benefits of industrialization, modern education, and representative democratic governance. A significant number of Muslim academics and political leaders held to this point of view in the first half of the twentieth century. But there was also a very powerful reactionary movement that rejected what it considered the anti-Islamic forces of secularism and decadence. At first, the reactionary movement was small but it amassed a deeply loyal following. It produced the salafist movement, Wahhabi Islam (Saudi Arabia), and the Muslim Brotherhood (Egypt). These all began as protest movements which opposed the rapprochement with the West expressed by the many governments in the Islamic world who were trying to advance their nations into the developed world.

History as we know it might have been different except for three very important events. First, in the very core of Islam, in the land of Mohammed and of Mecca and Medina, came the discovery of the largest petroleum reserve the world had ever known. Saudi Arabia had already separated itself from both the Ottoman Empire and Western colonial rule, and existed as a tribal monarchy defined in no small part by its embrace of wahhabism. As the protector of the holy sites and the destination for the Haj (pilgrimage to Mecca), which is an obligation for all Muslims, it needed to be the champion of Islamic purity and so the embrace of a return to the Koran and the beliefs and practices of the Prophet clearly fit Saudi Arabia's role in global Islam. But with its vast oil revenues, it possessed wealth and power that enabled it to influence the rest of the Islamic world, to build mosques, and fund wahhabist madrassas around the world.

Even this would not have been enough to produce the global resurgence of Islam that we see today, were it not for two more extremely significant events: the overthrow of the Shah in Iran. The Shah was one of the most prominent examples of an Islamic leader who desired to modernize and industrialize his nation. Like Ataturk in Turkey before him, he was trying to model his vision for Iran after the Western powers. No one should argue that he was an enlightened monarch, he attempted to use repression in imposing his will on the Iranian people, but neither should we lose sight of the fact that he wanted to move ancient Persia into the twentieth century.

The changes that the Shah wanted to make to Iranian society were bitterly opposed by a group of conservative clerics led by the Ayatollah Khomeini who was sent off into exile in France. In exile, he developed his manifesto for an Islamic revolution and an Islamic state. His sermons in exile were smuggled back into Iran, and he became the leader of a large revolutionary movement that ended in the overthrow of the Shah and the establishment of an Islamic government ruled by the leading clerics of Iran with Khomeini as the "Grand Ayatollah."

This momentous event had a profound affect on the rest of the Muslim world. It, in effect, demonstrated that "it could be done," that is a nation leaning toward the West could be transformed by a popular uprising and restored to Islamic purity. I remember the rhetoric of the mostly young radicals of the 80s who had been captivated by the "revolution." They clearly saw the possibility of a "pure" Islamic society ruled by Sharia Law, and that became their dream. Even though the revolution had produced the terrible hostage crisis at the American embassy in Tehran, many in the West were, at least, supportive of the goal of the revolution: the overthrow of Western influence in the Islamic world. They saw this influence as a form of colonialism, and while they didn't necessarily support (or even understand) the underlying ideology/theology, they supported the ends. This is why you see so many Western academics (Orientalists, anti-colonialists, etc.) who either openly support or are silent about groups like Al Qaeda, Hezbollah, or Hamas. They see them through revolutionary eyes, and for many of them, the end justifies the means, just as they tacitly supported the Viet Cong and the PLO in the sixties.

The other event that shaped today's movement was the Russian invasion of Afghanistan. It marked the restoration of the "mujahedeen," the holy warriors and became a modern example of Jihad, and a successful Jihad at that. It also contributed to the sense that the restoration of the glory of Islam was possible. It further enabled all of the skills necessary for global recruitment, training, equipping, and funding of Holy War. It was in Afghanistan that Bin Laden learned what was needed to create Al Qaeda and to attack the United States. These skills have produced all the vast terror networks that we confront across the world today.

If we add all these things together, we see that what has produced all of the "movements" that we see today, Al Qaeda, Hezbollah, Hamas, Boko Haram, Al Shabab, and now ISIS, are a product of a deeply reactionary desire to return to the purity of Islam as it was originally practiced, and with the vast amount of wealth and influence that has arisen at the very core of the Islamic world, they have the resources to do it. This turn of events is the Islamic version of the Reformation. Muslims, however, do not call it that, to them this is nothing less than an Islamic revival and many of them see it as a great re-awakening of Islam. This is why so many of the people on the so-called "Arab street" considered Osama Ben Laden a hero. His vision of Islam on the rise has captured the imagination of many in the Muslim world, and while many don't support the means, most agree with the ends.

This raises two related questions: where do "moderate" Muslims fit into this equation and if this is "reformed" Islam, how can we hope to see an end to the radicalism and violence that predominates in the Muslim world? In other words, if a reformation hasn't been able to bring the Islamic world into the larger family of nations, what will?

The Islamic revival of the past forty years has overwhelmed all or most of the moderate voices within the Muslim world. Only in the West do you see Muslims or former Muslims willing and able to criticize  the current drive toward Islamic purity. There have been some statements opposing some aspects of Islamic terrorism by journalists and clerics in the Muslim world, but they are relatively mild and ineffective. In the instances where politicians have taken steps toward social and educational reform, they have often paid with their lives (as in Pakistan in the past few years). Even for those living in the West, it is dangerous to criticize Islam. The first, and most famous, example was Salman Rushdie whose heretical writings put a literal price on his head. Recently we have seen the forced exile of Ayaan Hirsi Ali for her cooperation on the film critical of Islam that resulted in the assassination of Theodore Van Gough in Holland. After Van Gough's death, she was forced to flee to the United States in order to escape the same fate. If these critics of Islam don't feel safe in Western nations, imagine how difficult it must be to criticize Islam in Africa or the Middle East. But, and this is what I want to discuss in my next post (next week), how, apart from this type of criticism from within, will Islam be able to change, develop pluralistic and tolerant societies, or just even co-exist with the modern world?