"The Innocence of Muslims" and "Islam: the untold story" - a meditation upon something they tell us about our own liberal Christian tradition

Readings:

Matthew 18:21–22
and Luke 17:3–4

A theological joke . . .

Rudolf Bultmann's (1884–1976) most famous work was on what was called the ‘demythologization’ of the Bible. On the basis of historical research he acknowledge that the Bible is full of fictional stories. For Bultmann the fact that these stories are fiction need not effect faith because, he thought, the commitment to Christianity is primarily existential. Indeed Bultmann remained a committed Lutheran theologian throughout his long life.

One day the Pope received a phone call from an archaeologist in Palestine.

“Holy Father,” the archaeologist said, “I'm not sure how should I say this... I don't know if it's fortunate or not but the bones we have discovered have proved, beyond doubt, to be the very bones of Jesus!”

Hanging up, the Pope immediately sought consultation with his closest Cardinals. After revealing the situation, he asked them for suggestion. One Cardinal spoke up, “Holy Father, I believe there is someone who might be able to help. His name is Rudolf Bultmann.”

So, with some urgency, the Pope called Bultmann’s office at Marburg University. "Hi Bultmann, I’m afraid we have quite a problem here, and we’re hoping you can advise us. You see, our archaeologists in the Holy Land have discovered the bones of our Lord Jesus!”

After a moment of silence, Bultmann replied with utter astonishment: “What! You mean he actually lived?!”

A “confession” by Timothy Sprigge (1932–2007), Professor of Logic and Metaphysics at Edinburgh University and member of St Mark’s Unitarian Church, Edinburgh: 

I must confess that I am very much the metaphysician [. . .] inasmuch as I would not like to base my life upon any claims about historical fact of which I am quite incompetent to judge the accuracy. You may suggest that I am just as likely to go wrong in metaphysics as in history. However, each person has the evidence to think out their metaphysics for themselves, so that even if we cannot all be right we can at least all have a right to our opinions. But I might have spent my whole life in appropriate historical enquiries and still had no right to a settled opinion as to what happened in the life of Jesus (Sprigge, Timothy: “The God of the Philosophers: Faith and Reason” in “Studies in World Christianity” Vol. 4 Pt. 2, Edinburgh 1998).

-o0o-


This week I saw two films with religious connections that prompted this address.

The first was the recent anti-Islam film made in the US called the “Innocence of Muslims” that has resulted in some extremely violent responses in various places in the Middle East, North Africa and Asia. In addition to the direct ad hominem attacks made upon Mohammed concerning his sexual proclivities this appallingly inept film also expressly states that the Qur’an is a fictive, human creation. It’s a film that was clearly made deliberately to cause offence and provoke already volatile and radicalised religious groups to violence. It has succeeded.

But this is not the only very recent film on Islam that has roused anger in some Muslim circles – if nowhere near the level of anger we are currently seeing about the US film. The film in question is Tom Holland’s Channel 4 documentary called “Islam: The Untold Story” which – on the basis of what for us is a wholly responsible historical study - presented the view that Islam did not emerge suddenly and fully formed with a single text (the Qur’an) composed by a single identifiable Prophet (Mohammed) but instead developed gradually over many, many years alongside, and symbiotically related to, the rise of various Arabic empires. This view (one which I should add I share with Holland) cuts, of course, against traditional Islamic understandings of how their faith came to be in the world.

Shortly after the documentary’s live airing on terrestrial TV Holland was threatened online. It appears that one message read: “You [Holland] might be a target in the streets. You may recruit some bodyguards, for your own safety.” One thousand complaints were sent to Channel 4 and a further two-hundred to Ofcom and, off the back of this, a Channel 4 spokeswoman quickly announced that: “Having taken security advice, we have reluctantly cancelled a planned screening of the programme Islam: The Untold Story. We remain extremely proud of the film which is still available to view on 4oD.” (Report in the Daily Telegraph here; report in the Guardian here.)

In the face of these kinds of reactions it is highly tempting for someone like me to go on to say something critical about Islam and its evident current problems in dealing with satirical humour and historical-critical research and then to move on to talking about how “we” – whoever the “we” is understood to be – “we” have learnt to do this and how much better our society became because of this. (I should add here that the US film can hardly be seen as satire – as I said it was clearly made simply to offend.)

Now, in a general and strong way I am, in fact, more than prepared to affirm some such claim on behalf of our culture but, and it’s a massive but, but we cannot ignore the current social, religious and political contexts in which all this is kicking-off, namely the subjugation and mistreatment by our own US and British governments over many years of populations composed mainly of Muslims. This situation cannot be used as an excuse for violence and threats of violence to those who laugh at or who critique historically any religion but we’d be politically and religiously naïve not to take into account this wider context. Neither must we forget that, taken as a whole, Islam is an extraordinarily sophisticated and nuanced religion and with many aspects of it our own religious and philosophical traditions can and does have meaningful and constructive dialogue. So, although certain clashes between our religious/political cultures are occurring at present this is by no means inevitable nor, indeed, a final state of affairs.

With this important thought in mind rather than go on to point at “Islam” I want to use what has happened with these two films briefly to reflect upon our own faith’s relationship with historical critical research and humour.

But, before I go on I need to say that although I could examine it in some detail today I’m going to take one thing for granted, namely, that historical research *is* an absolutely necessary (but not sufficient) element in seeking what we here call truth, that is to say the things which show up for us as worthy of living by as we engage in an ongoing search to understand how the world is and our place in it.

The second thing to that needs to be said is to repeat the wise mantra of my Old Testament tutor at Oxford, Fr John Davies. Every now and then he would stop the class and say to us, “Dear boys,” (and we were all boys), “Dear boys, always remember that there is no such thing as the assured results of historical research.”
OK, now we can move on.

Our liberal Christian tradition’s problematic relationship with historical critical research can perhaps best be seen with regard to our relationship to Jesus. We were enthusiastic supporters of what has become known as the “Quest for the historical Jesus” – a quest begun in the eighteenth-century with Hermann Reimarus (1694–1768) and which has run through several phases until this very day with the network of New Testament scholars known as the “Jesus Seminar”. Throughout this search one common hope has been that, by getting back to the "authentic", historical sayings of Jesus, we would be able to clear away the “superstitions” and “corruptions” of later Christianity and so come to encounter directly the “clear”, “pure”, “uncorrupted” teachings of the man himself. Only then, it was argued, could we make a proper decision as to what exactly was Jesus’ basic message and, of course, whether and how we should continue to heed it.

Various methodologies have been used in the attempt to uncover this “pure”, “uncorrupted” teaching but throughout the centuries there has never been any meaningful agreement on the matter of what Jesus actually said or did. Some scholars thought Jesus said and did A, B, C. but not D, E, and F. Others have said precisely the opposite and still others have said variations of all the other, almost countless, possibilities.

This left our own tradition as a whole in a terrible state. Could we really trust the text as saying anything true about the historical Jesus? Could we really continue to say with integrity that we were trying to be followers of Jesus when there was the real danger that all we were really doing is merely following later human interpretations of who Jesus was thought to be? When you start to think your community's foundational text is *just* fiction (and the word just is important here) and of definitively secondary importance to so-called “historical fact” then you are in trouble.

But in recent years what most of us in liberal circles who have embraced some of the key insights of existential and post-modern philosophy have realised is that the idea getting back to some pure beginning or ground of anything is simply a chimera. To put the insight in it’s most down to earth terms we have come to recognise, in the words contemporary African-American Baptist preacher Johnny Ray Youngblood that always-already: “we've caught a moving train” and, together, we're on our way. We have come to see that our faith is not one made up of static, immovable and permanently revealed truths but rather its truth is to be “found” by belonging to an unfolding story and family of faith. Today this means our faith tradition has a very high regard for the place of historical (and of course scientific) research. Research which, on our moving train of faith, doesn’t supersede our foundational religious story but rather always allows it be seen in a constantly changing light which is always letting something new show up in it and which, in turn, provokes us to further creative reflection and action.

In our readings I told you the joke about protestant theologian Rudolf Bultmann and the Pope speaking to each other about finding the bones of Jesus but I hope you can see that the power and truth of the joke relies not upon the relative rightness or wrongness of the positions held by the “Pope” or “Bultmann” but the possibility that we can make the joke in the first place and find it funny – the joke allows us to keep the importance of both views in play in our overall understanding of how our tradition is unfolding.

The kind of faith that is encouraged in our liberal tradition can never, therefore, be one which opts for either slavish adherence to the supposedly historical truth of Christianity (of which there can never be assured results) nor a slavish adherence to some personal but ineffable philosophical truth of Christianity (of which there can never be assured results) but, instead, to find a delicate creative balance between these two poles through the concious living of an unfolding form of life.

In my opinion, although this general balance must be struck, the overall weight leans ever so slightly towards the philosophical end of things for the reasons hinted at by Timothy Sprigge in his “confession” (see the start of this blog post).

In Holland’s film the Muslim scholar Seyyed Hossein Nasr (he’s at George Washington University in Washington DC) made a number of points from the Islamic perspective that strongly echoed Sprigge’s point – which is that we cannot judge the truth of any religious faith simply by looking at its historical veracity or otherwise. Islam, like Christianity and Judaism – indeed the whole of human culture - is always-already a moving train.

Holland, not least of all by having Nasr contribute to his film, clearly has not made the mistake I’ve just outlined. On the other hand the “Innocence of Muslims” does make such a mistake. Alas, religious fundamentalists of all varieties as well as their atheistic mirror images always seem to make such a mistake. It is a truth universally acknowledged that these fundamentalists just love to get angry, to start arguing and fighting and, at times, even to kill or to engage in the worst kind of political and religious repression.

It’s a very sorry state for us to be in and we should be extremely concerned about this.

However, in the face of this situation – which will take a great deal of time and work to work through - we can at least do a couple of things. In the first instance we can remind people that, at least as far as we here understand our liberal Christian tradition, we are looking for the trembling divine life that lies at the heart of every human event whether that event occurs in fiction or in historical fact.

In the second instance – even though I know it is so hard to do - we must do our best as a community to follow Jesus’ teaching to forgive our angry brothers and sisters seventy-times seven (Matthew 18:21-22) and always be prepared to go back with them to the table to talk of faith and of history so we can all begin better to see that, whether we like it or not, we’ve caught a moving train and together we’re on our way.

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