Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Boundaries, Boundaries, Boundaries

One of the occupational hazards found in working and teaching humanities, especially religious studies, is the practice of drawing boundaries. Humans are messy, and so human culture is also messy.  When teaching about religion, its necessary and dangerous to draw boundaries, precisely because religion, like ethnicity and class, works at the center of creating personal and social identity. Its easy to threaten a person's sense of identity by redrawing maps of identity s/he has previously embraced.
Two situations come to mind. Both are students in my World Religions classes at Iowa State. Earlier in the semester one student pulled me aside to talk about Sufism. He asked me whether Sufis were Muslims. I said yes, of course--while there are exceptions, the vast majority of Sufis identify themselves as Muslims. He tried to convince me this was not true---because his family and community were deeply suspicious of Sufis.

After I answered his objections, he told me he was a Muslim and as a Muslim, he had become attracted to Sufism. I explained that some of the most highly regarded Islamic philosophers and theologians, like Abu Hamid al-Ghazali had been Sufis, and that the only traditional judge of a Muslim's core faith ("iman") has been God alone--because in Islam only God truly has total access to a person's heart. Do they have important differences from other Muslims in understanding and applying the Quran and hadith? Sure. So do Ismaili Muslims. Do Muslims argue about who is more authentically Muslim among professing Muslims? Of course they do. That's common to certainly most religious traditions.
Which brings me to my second example. Yesterday I gave a lecture that tends to turn heads--on comparative Christologies (theologies of the Christ) between Catholics/Orthodox, Protestants (John Calvin, really) and the Mormon church. A student who had been giving me some seriously angry looks (and a few comments) during Hinduism and Sikhism challenged Mormon Christology's source of authority to identity themselves as Christian. After class he engaged me further, using arguments that suggested he was an evangelical Protestant. I explained that suspicion over both Mormons and Catholics as "legitimate" Christians had been a long tradition in American religious history. The issue of progressive exaltation in LDS theology and the presence of the Book of Mormon seemed the most troubling to him. He said he would come to my office with Scripture and I invited him to do so.
Protestants, despite repeated attempts to establish social systems based on theocratic principles, have also historically had a deep skepticism of human institutions and claims to authority. As rabbinic Judaism has had not only the written Torah but also the oral Torah tradition, so too have Catholics, Orthodox, and Mormons embraced the idea and practice of apostolic authority as a valid source of Christian knowledge. Mormons understand their church as a Restoration of the primitive Christianity that existed as the early Church--alongside and influenced heavily by Hebrew traditions at the time. The Catholic Church has always drawn not only from Scripture but also the authority passed down from the Apostles, who in turn received their spiritual charge from the Holy Spirit at Pentecost.
In embracing the doctrine of "sola scriptura" (Scripture is the only authority), Protestant Christians have had some difficulty dealing with communities that embrace Apostolic authority as a source of knowledge, and also with the primitive Church before the canonization of the New Testament. Before the New Testament's finalizing, many different Christian communities used many different new scriptures, teachings and accounts, as well as a reliance on the Septuagint. There are still churches today, both new and old, that have never accepted the Councils of Nicea or Chaceldon. The LDS Church famously rejects the former as a corruption. Oriental Orthodox churches like the Coptic Christians of Egypt reject the latter. Rejecting these churches as not Christian makes little sense when one takes a historical view. How could the New Testament in the 21st century be used to excommunicate those Christians who lived much closer to Christ in time and culture than anyone since? Disputes over the nature and function of the Trinity (and its constituent personas) contributed to  the break between Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Churches, as well as of course smaller disputes and breakups.

As C.S. Lewis once famously wrote, the name Christians seems to have emerged at Antioch and is addressed in the New Testament (Acts 11:16). Lewis notes that its 'objective' sense refers to anyone embracing the teachings of the Apostles. If this is true, it is certainly odd, perhaps even ironic,  then that centuries upon centuries later the term has often used by some Christians (some evangelical Protestants to be exact) to police those who openly embrace Apostolic authority out of the Christian tradition. Like trying to use the Quran to police those who draw themselves nearer to God in their hearts, it tells us far more about those doing such policing than the communities supposedly in question. As far as the Roman Catholics and Mormons are concerned--they focus on Christocentrism, which seems to me to far more workable way of distinguishing Christians from others.