#71 Islam, the Imagination, and Human-Caused Climate Change


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Green plant growing trough dead soil

Image Credit: Aproximando Ciência e Pessoas / Compfight.com

NOTE: This post is based on an academic talk presented at the American Association of Religion (AAR) conference in late November 2015. Each of the five members of a panel was asked to answer these two questions: 

Q1: Is there a distinctly liberal perspective on climate change?

Q2: If so, what resources can be drawn from this perspective to work toward a healthier planet?

The science is clear—anthropogenic climate change is occurring. Though it may seem fool-hardy to argue with numbers, it is well established that empirical data and computer-generated weather-pattern predictions are refracted through people’s pre-existing scientific understandings and favored representations of environmental processes. Climate-science data and predictions are also refracted through people’s religious framings of reality and are understood differently based on those framings.

Recent research by Kathryn Yusoff and Jennifer Gabrys has, from the perspective of the arts and the humanities, explored the positive effects of the imagination on reducing climate change. Their 2011 article, “Climate change and the imagination,” indicates that the kind of imagination associated with the arts and the humanities can, in important ways, create the conditions for the possibility of material intervention in anthropogenic climate change.

Yusoff and Gabrys define imagination as “a way of seeing, sensing, thinking, and dreaming the formation of knowledge, which creates the conditions for material interventions in and political sensibilities of the world.”

Whereas previous generations of scholars focused on a putative division between the imagination—understood as an internal perceptual faculty—and the world—understood as an external material reality, Yusoff and Gabrys focus on the imagination as a site of interplay between material and perceptual worlds “where concepts cohere,” “forces pull and attract,” and “things, discourses, subjects, and objects are framed, contested, and brought into being.”.

According to their research, the imagination, as a site of interplay, is capable of generating cognitive and affective images of the impact of human activities on the climate in unfamiliar parts of the world; these images, in turn, inspire efforts to develop potential solutions and foster support for these solutions.

Yusoff and Gabrys have identified three ways that temporal and spatial “techniques” of the imagination can help. Together, these techniques can create the underlying framework that communities need to establish a “new” culture better suited to the work of combatting climate change in substantive ways.

Here’s how techniques of the imagination can help establish a “new” culture:

1) the futurity of climate change—here techniques of imagination serve to project toward possible futures and back again, and they assist individuals and communities to identify scenarios, narratives, and contingency plans.

2) adaptive strategies embedded in everyday practices—here techniques of imagination reframe climate change as something “here,” (instead of something “out there,” far from us, and thus not an immediate threat) relevant for everyone and “entangled” with all cultures across the world.

3) critical engagement with the practices of climate science—here, artists and researchers turn to techniques of imagination as they work together to make scientific information accessible to a wide audience, shifting climate science out of the lab in order to “democratize” it.

I will focus on #1, the “futurity of climate change” in which the kind of imagination we deploy in the arts and humanities assists us to envision possible futures if climate change continues at the current rate or worst yet, accelerate.

Yusoff and Gabrys suggest that we imagine ourselves at a future time when the looming environmental apocalypse has taken place.

[Let’s pause here and use a technique of the imagination as Yusoff and Gabrys propose. Can you project yourself into the future? Say 100 years from now?

Imagine. It’s December, 2025.

You’re in a small prop plane, flying just below the clouds.

What do you see? How does the world look?]




Having imagined the ruined condition of our planet (which many of us are complicit in creating), we return to the present.

This “technique” of the imagination helps us better understand the consequences of not altering our current trajectory. It helps us perceive what’s at stake for our children and future generations if we don’t alter our present trajectory.

Upon our return to the present, we navigate the day-to-day with vivid images of an apocalyptic future firmly in mind. As a result, we are more likely to embrace strategies capable of warding off the future that our imagination has enabled us to visualize, even if these strategies require sacrifices on our part.

Let’s now take a look at the work of the Muslim theologian, Martin Nguyen. As far as I know, Nguyen does not label himself a “liberal” theologian, perhaps because he, like many non-Muslim theologians, find the label “liberal” problematic. However, I am going to highlight the ways in which Nguyen’s theological approach can be characterized as “liberal.”

I wish, in part, to honor a Muslim scholar like Charles Kurzman who insists on safeguarding the term “liberal” because, he argues, some strands of Islamic traditions have long defended commitments that parallel those of so-called “Western” liberalism—for example, freedom of thought and the potential for human progress.

But, what do we mean when we speak of a liberal perspective? Such a perspective respects and makes space for the kind of imagination we’ve been discussing. In his book of literary criticism, The Liberal Imagination, Lionel Trilling examines the promise —and limits—of liberalism, challenging the complacency of a naïve liberal belief in progress and the panacea of science, and asserting instead the complexity of human motivation and the inevitability of tragedy.

Only the imagination, Trilling argued, could give us insight into these realms and only the imagination could ground a reflective and considered, rather than a programmatic and dogmatic, liberalism. [This description of Trilling’s views on the imagination and liberalism may be a paraphrase or a quote from a source that I can no longer recall].

Following Trilling, I am going to focus on the “religious” imagination in liberal Muslim theology. This should not be taken to mean that liberal Islam is a “stale and reassuring imitator of Western philosophy.” Liberal or otherwise—Islamic theology is almost invariably rooted in Qur’anic exegesis, in the life of the Prophet Mohammed, and in the lives of his companions and of other early converts to Islam.

And so it is with Nguyen. In his paper, “The Religious Imagination in Muslim Theology: Towards a Reimagined Tradition” (presented at the 2012 Society for the Study of Islamic Ethics conference), Nguyen defines the imagination as the faculty that works in conjunction with our sense perceptions and rationality. Our moments of creativity, daring, insight, and profound connection, he says, spring from this faculty which illumines untried avenues and overlooked connections.

Nguyen traces the role of religious imagination in Islam to the Prophet Muhammed who is reported to have said: “Worship God as though you see Him, for though you do not see Him, He sees you.” This quote is attributed to a trustworthy source—one of the Prophet’s leading companions,ʿUmar b. al-Khaṭṭāb (d. 644 CE), who eventually assumed the role of Second Caliph.

Nguyen explains that Mohammed’s response invites believers to use their imagination to leap into the future and there, to envision possibilities beyond their current ability to see. They are to picture God before them, the God they hope to see when they cross the threshold of death but whom they will never see in this life.

When they return from this leap, they are to maintain the image of God before them “in all his Might and glory” as they engage in acts of worship and attend to their everyday tasks. Individuals and communities are expected to identify scenarios, narratives, and contingency plans to assist them in securing this imagined day.

In effect, believers are tasked with navigating the present with vivid images of the future firmly in mind.

The “religious” imagination described by Nguyen recalls Yusoff and Gabrys’ techniques of the imagination. Both imaginations make the future vivid and drive individuals and communities to identify and enact plans to avert the undesirable consequences that they now clearly perceive.

According to Nguyen’s analysis of the saying attributed to the Prophet, the imagination is a feature that has been fundamental to Islamic theology from the beginning.

But Nguyen doesn’t stop there. He argues that several of Islam’s most important thinkers also understood the importance of the religious imagination—a faculty to which they referred as khayāl, wahm, or tawahhum. They, too, deployed the “imaginative faculty.”

Having demonstrated that the imagination has played an important role in Islamic thought from its earliest expression by the Prophet, Nguyen argues for its “explicit” reincorporation into contemporary Islamic theology.

The religious imagination, whether implicitly or explicitly, integrated into liberal Muslim theologies like Nguyen’s, is a ready-made resource for combatting climate change if it can be brought into harmony with the “techniques of the imagination” described by Yusoff and Gabrys.

As described by Nguyen, the religious imagination could be used creatively to interpret Islamic teachings in ways that support the “new” zeitgeist of deep concern about climate change among Muslims. This “new” zeitgeist was evident in last August’s “Islamic Declaration on Climate Change,” which was announced as part of a two-day International Islamic Climate Change Symposium in Istanbul.

The Declaration calls for an end to the consumption of ever-more resources, respect for nature’s “perfect” equilibrium, and recognition of the “moral obligation” to conserve. The Declaration was issued in anticipation of the U.N. Conference on Climate Change currently under way in Paris.

Climate-change scientists and activists have too often neglected the role of religion and its power to cultivate new patterns of living and being among believers. For many Muslims (as for many religionists), life-decisions and everyday choices are refracted through theology.

The imaginative faculty that underwrites liberal Muslim theologies like Nguyen’s has important parallels with the arts-and-humanities imagination necessary to create the “new” culture described by Yusoff and Gabrys. In other words: Yes, there is a distinctly liberal, Muslim perspective on climate change. And yes, this perspective offers resources that could lead to a healthier planet.


#70 A This-Wordly Theology of *Minimal* Transcendence


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NOTE: A version of this post first appeared in the Summer 2015 issue of the UU World magazine.


Credit: Yvette T. / flickr

Jerome Stone still remembers the day he got the call that his father had died. He hung up the phone and slumped onto the living room sofa. His daughter, eight years old at the time, asked what was wrong. “Oh, Dad!” she cried, and threw her arms around him.

Stone, a Unitarian Universalist theologian, sometimes tells the story of his daughter’s hug to illustrate his theology. Her hug, he explains, was an unexpected and freely given gift of comfort and love—what religious people call grace.

For him, this gift was not the work of a personal God nor was it a “mere” event. He understands his daughter’s hug as transcendent grace because it came from outside of the situation in which he found himself.

Though technical language and dry prose often mask the personal questions and concerns that drive their work, theologians are inspired by the business of daily living. Stone is no exception.

One of his worries is that Western secularization has undermined our ability to appreciate the sacredness of life’s many blessings. As a result, we are closed off from important resources of grace, which offer us renewal, meaning, and healing.

While Stone wishes us to grow more attentive to life’s transcendent, sacred goodness, he resists the urge to say more about the origin of that goodness. In his view, such explanations are excessive because they can’t be defended.

Stone calls his “this-worldly” theology a minimalist vision of transcendence, hence the title of his best-known book, The Minimalist Vision of Transcendence: A Naturalist Philosophy of Religion.

Stone prefers the term “the transcendent” to the word “God.” But this wasn’t always the case.

The son of a Congregationalist minister, he grew up with God-talk. His father understood the Bible as symbolic, poetic, and infused with prescientific understanding, and so, for him, it did not conflict with science.

Stone fondly remembers car rides to Sunday evening services when he and his father would discuss the differences between atheism, deism, and theism. They sometimes chatted about Ralph Waldo Emerson’s views on the over-soul and on the importance of self-reliance even in times of despair.

While in high school, Stone attended a church youth program, including church camp. The general tone, he recalls, was one of attentiveness to doing good and of responsibility to the world: “Instead of oppressive moralism, there was offered a vision of service.”

But as a 16-year-old freshman at the University of Chicago, he had a conversion experience. Until then, his religious life had mostly focused on striving to be morally good and on seeking God’s forgiveness when he failed.

But two Easter services that year, one at Chicago’s Methodist Temple, and the other at the University of Chicago’s Rockefeller Chapel, led him to begin reflecting deeply on his closely held beliefs. Stone eventually concluded that his and other people’s “ultimate significance” did not depend merely on their actions.

Stone loved many of Emerson’s ideas, but he decided that Emerson had gone too far in his insistence on self-reliance. Stone continued to see the necessity of T through despair, moral or otherwise. Still, he now realized that humans could not always travel this road alone. Nor should we want to do so.

No doubt, striving to be and to do good mattered and should be taken seriously. But unexpected and uncontrolled gifts of help and comfort offered by others and by the world mattered, too.

A balance between self-reliance and other-reliance was not just possible—it was desirable. There was value in being open to transcendent grace, and in receiving it.

By the time he completed his master’s degree, Stone was a Congregationalist minister married to his college sweetheart, Susan, and the father of two children. While serving a congregation to support his family, he pursued a Ph.D. in theology at the University of Chicago.

As he began to write his dissertation, Stone realized that his theology had shifted toward a thoroughgoing “there-is-nothing-beyond-this-world” naturalism. He had lost his faith in a personal God. What to do?

His adviser, Langdon Gilkey, helpfully noted that all of the world’s religions point to something beyond the self. He recommended that Stone focus on theologians who appeal to secular or horizontal (instead of vertical) experiences of transcendence.

Thanks to this suggestion, Stone completed his doctorate and became a college professor. He officially became a Unitarian Universalist after he retired from teaching at Harper’s College, although his theology had long had a deep resonance with Unitarian Universalism.

As his theology developed, Stone never lost sight of his discovery of the importance of grace.

However, he also never lost sight of his pre-conversion views about the value of judgment. Judgment offers the possibility of criticism and challenge. The contemporary world’s loss of resources of judgment is the other concern at the core of Stone’s work.

He worries that Western secularization (in his words, “self-assured secularity”) has led to the loss of any perspective from which to call into question our society’s “attachment to relative meanings,” and our own.

Just as Stone calls for the recovery of transcendent resources of grace, he calls for the recovery of transcendent resources of judgment.

Stone tells another story from his life to illustrate how transcendent resources of judgment fit into his theology. During the late 1960s, it was still legal in Evanston, Illinois, the city where he lived, for property owners to refuse to sell or rent housing to Jews and black people.

To pressure the city council into passing an open-housing ordinance, the black community, together with the liberal white community, organized weekly marches. Pulled by a moral demand to act against Evanston’s discriminatory housing practices—a demand coming from outside of his everyday routine—Stone responded. Though he was a graduate student, teaching full time and raising a family, he juggled his schedule so that he, too, could march.

For Stone, the insistent call to overturn immoral laws inspired him to join the protesters. His daughter’s unexpected hug was a gracious gift of renewal.

Both the challenge and the gift came from outside of the situations in which he found himself. Transcendent resources of judgment and of grace work in tandem, Stone believes, to deepen the human spirit.

#69 How To Read the Qur’an?


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Cover of the Qur'an Credit: crystalina flickr creative commons

Cover of the Qur’an           Image Credit: crystalina / flickr creative commons

How to approach the Qur’an? This is a pressing question, given the Qur’an’s powerful influence on decisions and events that impact millions of people around the world.

Many non-Muslims have the (mistaken) impression that the Qur’an is a compilation of Muhammad’s verbatim accounts of what God said to him. Though this may not be a significant distinction, it was not God who spoke to Muhammad, but the angel Gabriel.

More significant: Muhammad himself did not write the accounts of these conversations. He verbally repeated his revelations to his Companions (the earliest converts to Islam which included several family members and close friends). It was they who wrote down what Muhammad shared with them. How long after Muhammad described a given encounters, how faithfully they transcribed his accounts, and whether the scribes heard any particular account directly from Muhammad or second-hand, is not always clear.

Algerian (Muslim) scholar, Mohammed Arkoun (1928-2010), in his book Lectures du Coran (unhappily, only available in its original French), identifies three key moments in the chronology and epistemology of the Qur’an:

  1. The period of the revelations to Muhammad (d. 632)     610-632 CE
  2. The collecting and putting together of the final version   632-936 CE
  3. The time of orthodoxy                                                 936 CE ->present

Arkoun finds that by the time the polymath, جلال الدين السيوطي, al-Suyûtî (d. 1505 CE), wrote his1500-page analysis of the Qur’an, the table of contents of which included eighty-four categories, he was already treating the Qur’an as an authoritative “as is,”—in other words, as if it had always been a single text with unchanging content. Though, at first glance, al-Suyûtî’s analysis appears exhaustive, a deeper look shows that he focuses on the “external” linguistic features of the Qur’an—its lexicon, morphology, syntax, semantics, rhetoric, and prose style.

In a sense, then, al-Suyûtî takes an approach to the Qur’an that, according to Arkoun, had already become de rigueur in the Islamic world; he builds a fence around it. He does not breach the fence by moving past externalities to explore the Qur’an’s “internal” assumptions, claims and convictions.

Like the majority of scholars of the Qur’an, even to the present, no questions appear or are answered in al-Suyûtî’s treatise about how and why the Qur’an is organized in the way that it is rather than in some other way, about the thought-world that formed and informed Muhammad, about the theological shifts internal to the text, about the layers of Islamic imaginary embedded in this collection of texts written by various people over a period of time, etc.

The upshot, for Arkoun, is this—by the early 1500s, the Qur’an was already being treated—even by scholars like al-Suyûtî—as the fixed, literal Word of God.

Arkoun also finds it significant that al-Suyûtî mentions the name of ‫مُجَاهِدْ بِنْ جَبْر‎, Abû Bakr Ibn Mujâhid (645-722 CE) only once and peripherally. Why is this significant? Because Ibn Mujâhid, born after the death of Muhammad, was, according to Arkoun, responsible for the final changes made to the Qur’an.

By the time al-Suyûtî conducted his analysis, Ibn Mujâhid’s “reforms” as Arkoun calls them, had become so normalized that they did not attract attention and, even for a highly-regarded scholar like al-Suyûtî, they did not warrant evaluation.

Besides Ibn Mujâhid’s reforms, the most significant event with regard to the Qur’an was, in Arkoun’s opinion, the publication in Cairo in 1924 of a standard edition of the Qur’an. From that moment forward, Arkoun writes, the text became intertwined with the problems of everyday life, treated as ahistorical and as an immediate and direct connection to the Word of God whether by government functionary, party activist, schoolteacher, writer, recent convert, or whomever.

He notes that, as late as 1969, when authorized representatives (by virtue of their religious roles or positions at universities) from all of Islam’s communities gathered, their unanimity on the Qur’an—be it on the question of reading strategies, of positions defended, or of ideas developed—was striking.

Even Shi’ites and Karijites, who agree on little else, harbored minimal disagreements with regard to the Qur’an. (Although the Qur’an garners unanimous support, the Hadith, or collected sayings of Muhammad, take different forms which divide Muslims.)

Thus, the Qur’an, the historicity of which has been largely set aside as a topic of reflection, continues to serve as the foundation for various forms of Arabic culture in conversation with the structures of the State and of an expanding society.

But, Arkoun argues, this reading of the Qur’an is based on the idea that each Sura corresponds to a textual unit whose origin can be traced to Muhammad’s Meccan or Medina periods. The truth, in his opinion, is much more complex, and requires study. Work, Arkoun asserts, is also needed on the chronology of the Suras and on the exegeses transmitted in the closed “official” corpus.

Though enough manuscripts and decisive works have been lost that definitive answers may never become available, for Arkoun, Islamic thought, so attached to reading the Qu’ran in its “fresh state of revelation,” can no longer ignore the fruits of historical inquiry.

What difference can such inquiries make? What’s at stake?

Arkoun offers the following example: the word kalâla is used only twice in the Qur’an. One reading of this word would allow wealth to be passed down to a daughter-in-law or a female fiancée. This reading, however, has been rejected in favor of an orthodox reading limiting rights of inheritance to male relatives.

Research on the system of inheritance in place in Arabia during the time of the Prophet in comparison to that of Iraq and Syria during the same period would show, Arkoun predicts, that interpretation of these passages by the first jurists was consistent with a system of inheritance not rigidly tied to the male line.

Arkoun places part of the blame for fixed readings of the Qur’an on Western translators. Intense interest in Islam has led to an acute demand for translations of the Qur’an in all languages. Editors, anxious to keep costs down, re-edit old translations or accept eclectic versions touted as “improved.” Although these offerings are conceived and executed as well as possible—they do not venture outside the limits of classical philology. Western translations thus do not challenge the accepted, orthodox understandings of the text.

If a translator of the Qur’an were to choose instead to pay attention to the historical, social, and cultural background of the text, he or she would need to develop, for each language, a way to capture cultural nuances, and to identify metaphors that correspond to Arabic metaphors. The reticence of linguists to engage in these efforts reinforces the long-standing hostility of Muslims to translations.

In contrast, the Biblical sayings of Jesus, who spoke Aramaic, were quickly rendered into Greek, then Latin, then in the 16th Century into German by Martin Luther and into English by William Tyndale. The Bible’s linguistic code changes with every new translation, Arkoun notes, and its cultural code changes as well, giving rise to new religious sensibilities and reinforcing a sense of the text’s historicity. Successive interpretations and re-interpretations of the Bible have provided space, he explains, for transformation and tension, and thus for reflection and investigation.

For now, according to Arkoun, intensive studies of the Qur’an are limited to descriptive and linear studies of thinkers like al-Suyûtî and their works, or to structural and semiotic analysis of the text.

In either case, areas of scholarship are being neglected. Arkoun calls for studies of the arc of Islamic consciousness in the Qur’an (whether mythical, historical, social, economic, political, philosophical, moral, esthetic, or religious), of the rational and the irrational, of the profane and the sacred, etc.—each, he holds, has a history that has not been explored for its own sake.

Arkoun points out that as long as the distinctions between myth and history, rationality and the imaginary are ignored, as he claims they are, the dominant current of Islamic thought can continue to assume that contemporary reason remains identical to the reason at work in the Qur’an and in the thought-world of the Prophet.

And then, as a result of overlooking important distinctions, the word kalâla, for example, which could be read to allow wealth to be passed down to a daughter-in-law or a female fiancée can continue, instead, to be rejected in favor of an orthodox reading limiting rights of inheritance to male relatives. Clearly this impacts the lives of millions of women.

Who knows what other distinctions with the potential of having a significant, positive impact on the lives of Muslims and non-Muslims could be discovered if research into the areas proposed by Arkoun were to take place.

Arkoun wrote his book on reading the Qur’an three decades ago and his conclusions could be outdated. If you are an expert on Islam, and the investigations for which he called in 1982 have occurred or are under way, please let us know!

Sources: Mohammed Arkoun, Lectures du Coran, Paris: G.-P. Maisonneuve et Larose, 1982.

#68 Suffering on Trial


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Image Credit: Neil Moralee / flickr creative commons

Image: Neil Moralee / flickr creative commons

In my latest article for the UU World magazine, “Suffering on Trial,” I explore how suffering plays a key role in the thought of three theologians—Rebecca Parker (sexual abuse as a child), Theodore Parker (the deaths of most of his loved ones), and Anthony Pinn (African-American slavery). Though each is influenced by suffering, each develops a distinct theology.

Click here to read the article. And let me know what you think!

#67 Which family comes first?


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Credit : Marilyn Barbone / Dreamstine Stock Photos

Credit : Marilyn Barbone / Dreamstime Stock Photos

Theistic religions ask us to put God’s law—a higher, universal law that applies to the human family—above the needs of our immediate family. We feel the tug to care for our families more piquantly than we do the tug to care for strangers. Religions ask us to give the same or higher priority to non-family members or to some abstract “humanity.”

This non-natural demand calls on us to take into account the happiness and well-being of people we don’t personally know. We may be called upon to make sacrifices for the sake of these strangers. Many of us resist giving up something we cherish for the sake of some “Other,” even when we understand the logic of doing so. Truth be told, we are much more likely to comply if such a demand is bound up with the power and authority of religion.

Take, for example, Christianity. In the book of Matthew (10:34), Jesus tells his followers: “He who loves father or mother more than Me is not worthy of Me; and he who loves son or daughter more than Me is not worthy of Me. And he who does not take his cross and follow after Me is not worthy of Me.”

The author of the book of Luke (14:26) echoes the passage above. (This is not surprising since Matthew is a source for Luke, along with the book of Mark.) In Luke, Jesus says: “If any man come to me, and hate not his father, and mother, and wife, and children, and brethren, and sisters, yea, and his own life also, he cannot be my disciple.” Jesus tells those who wish to follow him that they must leave their families and make him (God) more important than parents and siblings. Disciples must be ready to take the Cross—meaning that they must be willing to suffer and to sacrifice to do his will. Doing God’s good work, and heeding God’s moral demands must be given highest priority at all times.

Islam also requires attention to the stranger. According to scholar Reza Aslan, author of No god but God, a focus on higher laws was true of Islam from its earliest beginnings. Muhammad, the messenger of God, was a member of the leading tribes of Mecca called the Quraysh. Breaking custom, he rebuked his tribe (his family) because of its unethical practices.

What were these practices? During Muhammad’s childhood, the Ka’ba housed the many gods of Mecca and the many gods of surrounding areas. Members of the Quraysh family controlled access to this site of pilgrimage. During the pilgrimage cycle, people came from near and far to pay homage to their gods. Vendors from the region capitalized on the influx of visitors by bringing merchandise to commercial fairs. A “modest but lucrative trade zone” formed around Mecca. Eventually, the Quraysh realized that they could charge a tax on all goods brought into Mecca. As a result of this tax, they became yet more prosperous and powerful.

The problem, which Muhammad saw clearly, was that this extreme concentration of wealth altered the social and economic balance of the city and destroyed the tribal ethic regulating the interactions between tribes. The rapid rise in revenues collected by a few Meccan families led to rigid social stratification and “swept away [the] tribal ideas” of egalitarianism that previously existed: “No longer was there any concern for the poor and marginalized… The Shayks of Quraysh had become far more interested in maintaining the apparatus of trade than in caring for the dispossessed.”

More interested in wealth and in the affairs of trade than in the lives of their kinsmen, the Quraysh offered no formal protection to the masses. Since neither orphans or widows had “access to any kind of inheritance,” their only means of survival was to “borrow money from the rich at exorbitant interest rates.” This usually led to enormous debt, which “in turn led to crushing poverty, and ultimately, to slavery.” Muhammad, himself an orphan, was all too aware of this possibility. He was spared this fate solely because an uncle, a member of a clan within the tribe of Quraysh, became his guardian.

When Muhammad revealed God’s messages to the Meccans, he “decried the mistreatment and exploitation of the weak and unprotected.” He also demanded help for the underprivileged and the oppressed and argued that “it was the duty of the rich and powerful to take care of them.” God, he said, “had seen the greed and wickedness of the Quraysh, and would tolerate it no longer.”

As Muhammad’s message spread, those who joined his movement not only changed their religious faith to the worship of Allah, they also cut themselves off from their families and their tribes. In essence, they left their homes, the people they loved, the tribe that gave them protection and identity, in order to join a self-created community without standing—Muhammad’s growing group of Companions.

Like Jesus’ followers, the Meccans who adopted Muhammad’s ideas had to choose: remain with their families even though they could no longer abide their loved ones’ religious or moral tenets, or leave their families of origin and give priority to their adopted family and to Allah’s moral demands.

The costs of leaving one’s tribe to adopt Allah’s laws were exceedingly high because the tribe was the basic, and only community unit. Each tribe had a Hakam, a trusted, neutral party who acted as arbiter during disputes. His rulings set precedent and, collected together, became the “foundation of a normative legal tradition, or Sunna, that served as the tribe’s legal code.” Each tribe had its own Sunna. Indeed, one tribe’s Sunna did not necessarily match another tribe’s. Because each tribe operated as something of a stand-alone community, outside of his or her own tribe, an individual had “no legal protection, no rights, and no social identity.”

Today, the standard objection against higher moral laws is that such laws fail to account for the special bonds we have with loved ones. But, in the story of Muhammad, we see the impact of focusing uniquely on one’s family members and considering “non-family” members as existing outside of the circle of care.

Muhammad demanded that his followers loosen, if not abandon, their special bonds to loved ones if these loved ones hampered them from attending to individuals with “no legal protection, no rights, and no social identity.” Jesus underscored that becoming his disciple required putting service to God ahead of family ties and required sacrifice—taking up the Cross.

Who constitutes the “neighbor” is contested, both in Christianity and in Islam, though it is easier for Christianity to make a case for a universal notion of neighbor than it is for Islam, which includes only fellow Muslims under the rubric of neighbor.

Stories tied to Jesus and Muhammad highlight the tension between doing what is right and good for those we know and love, and doing what is right and good for those we don’t know or don’t love. These religions call into question our “natural” drive to care for our simple family-unit and demand that we broaden our perspective to include care for those who are not like ourselves.

Because balancing the two sorts of moral demands that make claims on us can be confusing under the best of circumstances, religions like Christianity and Islam (as well as other religions) remind us of the importance of remaining—in spite of obstacles—attentive to our “neighbors.” They also offer, as a result of centuries of reflection, argumentation, and refinement, guidance for how best to navigate unclear situations and negotiate complex and intertwined dilemmas.

Most of the religions (in their best instantiations) remind us unequivocally of the rights that others have on our time, finances, and skills even although we will never meet them and never know their names. The religions remind us that first priority is to be given to the support and care of the poor and oppressed even if this means we must shirk the needs of close family members. Yes, guilt and disappointment and frustration will surely follow such decisions, but this is the kind of sacrifice Jesus and Muhammad asked of their disciples.

Whether we are disciples or Jesus or Muhammad or not, do our world views ask as much from us? If not, they warrant a second look.

Resource: Reza Aslan. No god but God: The Origins, Evolution, and Future of Islam. Updated edition. New York: Random House Trade Paperbacks, 2011.

#65 “Duck Dynasty” Phil Robertson’s Theology: Dead or Alive?


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Originally posted January 2, 2014, in Sightings, a publication of the University of Chicago Divinity School’s Martin Marty Center for the Advanced Study of Religion.

Phil Robertson, patriarch of A&E's "Duck Dynasty"               Image: screen shot

Phil Robertson, patriarch of A&E’s “Duck Dynasty” (Image credit: screen shot)

Since a recent GQ Magazine article outed his homophobic and pro-Jim-crow views, left-wing commentators have declared open season on Phil Robertson, the patriarch of A&E’s “Duck Dynasty.” Robertson, based on his reading of Christian scriptures, considers homosexuality a sin and predicts that homosexuals will be excluded from the Kingdom of God.

In Salon, Joan Walsh pronounced Robertson a “bigoted pseudo-Christian.” Another Salon author, Brittney Cooper, a self-professed “reluctant Evangelical,” took aim at Robertson’s “conservative theology,” denouncing the “violence” that it “does to gay people in the name of God.”

Cooper’s Bible and Robertson’s Bible are the same. However, Cooper’s practice of “hermeneutic [interpretive] consistency” differentiates her from Robertson who likely reads scripture literally (as if a literal reading were possible). Those of us who treasure scripture would do well to emulate a thoughtful and compelling approach like Cooper’s. Hers is a living theology.

For Cooper, the “first and foremost” truth disclosed by the Bible is that “God is love.” Intent on making scripture consistent with this fundamental truth, she rejects passages that contradict it. Cooper acknowledges that the Bible sanctions slavery. But since she is certain that a loving “God is not a racist,” she rejects racist scriptural passages. She agrees with Robertson that the Bible “declares sex between men to be an abomination.” But since she is certain that a loving “God is not a homophobe,” she rejects homophobic scriptural passages.

Robertson would find Cooper’s approach anathema. Literalist Christians consider scripture to be the verbatim transcript of God’s revealed laws, beliefs, and commandments.

Contra Robertson, a living theology, according to Jewish theologian, Michael Fishbane, treats ancient, sacred writings as more than simple and fixed storehouses of information. A living theology, Fishbane writes in Sacred Attunement, includes an intentional, ongoing effort of “adaptation and clarification” of religious texts. This effort helps us remain alert to the traces of transcendence that break through our everyday consciousness and to “sustain (and even revive)” them “in the normal course of life.”

Readers of the Bible who eschew the effort of adapting and clarifying scripture cut themselves off from traces of transcendence. Their theologies are dead.

Also, the unquestioning acceptance touted by such as Robertson is neither coherent nor honest. Though literalist Christians believe that they take scripture at face value, they necessarily, at some level, interpret it.

On some issues the Bible is inconsistent or opaque. Martin Luther, who advocated relying on scripture to decide all issues, discovered that, at times, it is silent on important questions—for example, child baptism. As a result, each of us, whether we are aware of it or not, constructs meta-Bibles out of passages we select from the actual Bible. We assemble proof-texts that make sense to us or align with our commitments and values. We downplay Biblical proscriptions that inconveniently conflict with our favored mores—for example, the indifference of many contemporary Protestants to Jesus’ prohibition on divorce. Contradictory passages are set aside (Cooper does this with admirable transparency and clarity of purpose) or hyper-interpreted until they harmonize.

Consider in this regard, Robertson’s likely view that God so loved us that he sent his only Son to die for us on the cross. This is an interpretation of the crucifixion to which St. Paul hints in the New Testament but which did not enter the arc of Christian thought as a fully rendered doctrine until Anselm of Canterbury (1033-1109) developed the satisfaction theory of Christ’s atonement.

Proof-texting and interpreting the Bible is unavoidable.

In addition, as Fishbane notes, the books of the Bible were spliced together. Varying worldviews and theological commitments are interwoven, sometimes within a single passage. Thus, scripture itself is an example of the work of interpretation and revision; its internal disagreements invite us—nay, prod us—to follow its lead and adapt and clarify. By doing so, we keep scripture and our theology alive.

Fishbane helpfully recommends reading events in the Bible as “theological expressions of primordial truth. The narratives of scripture thus become paradigms of perennial matters bearing on divine presence (both transcendence and immanence), as well as the human response to them.” More generally, “the old words of scripture are spaces for ever-new moments of spiritual consciousness and self-transformation.”

Christians like Robertson resist looking for such spaces and maintain their (imagined) literal grip on scripture. Joan Walsh calls Robertson a “bigoted pseudo-Christian” but she’s wrong about the “pseudo-Christian” part. Robertson is a Christian; his beliefs rest on interpretations at odds with those she prefers. There’s no doubt, though, Walsh is right about the “bigoted” part. Let’s be clear: Robertson’s dead theology is downright ugly.

References and Further Reading:

Magary, Drew. “What the Duck?” GQ, January 2014.

Cooper, Brittney. “Evangelical church’s ugly truth: ‘Duck Dynasty’ and Christian racists.” Salon, December 24, 2013.

Walsh, Joan. “2013: The year in whiteness. From Phil Robertson to Megyn Kelly, peddling white grievance became a bigger, crazier, more lucrative racket.” Salon, December 30, 2013.

Fishbane, Michael. Sacred Attunement: A Jewish Theology. Chicago: Chicago University Press, 2008.

Axelrod, Jim. “A&E can’t win on ‘Duck Dynasty’ flap.” CBS News, December 28, 2013.

Fixmer, Andy. “A&E Ends ‘Duck Dynasty’ Patriarch Suspension.” Bloomberg, December 28, 2013.

Photo Credit: Screenshot of A&E’s “Duck Dynasty”

#64 Season of In-breaking Light and Love


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Credit: ellenm1 / CreativeCommons.org

Heading toward the final days of the year, the weather turning resolutely nasty, temperatures dipping into the single digits, snow threatening to clog side streets and motorways, ice making commuting a dangerous sport, the sun setting earlier every afternoon, adding the burden of ever shorter and drearier days—Christmas lights suddenly pop up everywhere.

The long autumn darkness that weighed on our spirits becomes the backdrop for bright lights in every shade on the color wheel.

In December, lights blink and twinkle and shimmer, bringing us cheer when the work day ends and we are released into the night. No more mood-dampening darkness; we are bedazzled by trees and bushes festooned with tiny electric stars, street poles decorated with shiny rows of candy-cane red and white, edges of balconies and eaves of houses dripping with brilliant icicles.

When these Christmas lights are taken down in January and placed in storage for another year, the solstice will have passed. The worst will be over and the loveliness of spring will feel within reach. The sky will be lighter when we leave work, and though the winter-weather will worsen, snow will fall more often, temperatures will stay in single digits, the early months of the year, with their gradually lengthening days, will be bearable.


Credit: Martin Beek / CreativeCommons.org

For Christians, the birth of Jesus symbolizes the in-breaking of God’s love, just as it did among an ancient people who, too long trapped in the harshness of Roman domination and the nightmare of the tyrant Herod’s oppression, despaired of goodness and hope.

Many of the Israelites, when love broke into their midst, knew only the life of the subjugated, under the battering ram of a colonial power determined to control them physically and to mould their thoughts, their beliefs, and their ideals. Spirit-crushing poverty was the order of the day, unrelenting misery that we, Westerners, can try to imagine today but which we must fail to understand.

An ethos of meaningless brutality ruled from birth to death. And yet love could not be stopped.

Love that, in the narrative of Jesus’ birth, came in the form of a child, a child who appeared, not at an expected or convenient time, not to a middle-class or settled family.

Love broke through the sordid and violent times of domination in the form of a mother’s love for her child—a love beyond the reach of the most powerful empire the world had yet known.

Love, this story reminds us, can come any time, unbidden, unexpected, and without regard for whether we are ready.

Love this pure, this selfless, this strong, is rare. It is surely the most prized gift in anyone’s life.

Love, in this story, also appears in the more-complex love of a stepfather for his child. Because Joseph’s eyes, like Mary’s, shine with love as he gazes at the newborn Jesus.


Credit: laszlo-photo / CreativeCommons.org

Just as light breaks into and brightens the ever-earlier nights of December, love breaks into and makes bearable the most desperate and dismal of circumstances.

Whether we are Christians or not, blessed light buoys us during these days of dreariness. And blessed love cradles us during days of trial (whether we are the bearer of love or its object).

During this season of light and love, or during any season, may love break into your life like the lights of Christmas. And may you, like the light, be an in-breaking source of love to others.

#63 The Theology of Nelson Mandela


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Image: Ashish Lohorung / flickr

Image: Ashish Lohorung / flickr

Much has been said and written about Nelson Mandela—except about his theology.

Because he became drawn to the ideology of Communists like Karl Marx, Vladimir Lenin, and Mao Tse Tung, many commentators (and their readers) assume that Mandela also embraced these thinkers’ atheism. Near silence about Mandela’s religious views has contributed to the plausibility of this reasonable, but misplaced conjecture.

Since Mandela’s death, only one, brief analysis probing his relationship to religion has appeared in the media: Fredrick Nzwili’s “Shaped by Methodists, Mandela paid tribute to the role of religion,” RNS, Dec. 6, 2013.

As Nzwili reported, the primary religious influence on Mandela was the Methodist Church which, with 7% of the population, is the largest mainline Church in South Africa. Throughout his life, Mandela was deeply attached to the Methodist tradition in which he was raised. In 1994, at the age of 76, he addressed the Annual Conference of the Methodist Church and, sharing his joy in participating, he explained that, for him, the Conference was a spiritual homecoming. “I cannot over-emphasise [sic],” he said, “the role that the Methodist Church has played in my own life.”

Though the impact of religion and of the Methodist Church on Mandela may come as a surprise to admirers and disciples, it is probably no accident that South Africa’s great anti-apartheid activist came out of the most anti-apartheid religious tradition in the country.

Mandela highlighted the Methodist Church’s strongly-held commitment to social-justice activism in his 1994 address:

It is fitting that this Conference is taking place in this particular Chamber, after the advent of democracy in our country. The Methodist Church was the only Church to be declared an illegal organisation under apartheid, and for ten long years you were forbidden to operate naat e Transkei bantustan. It is in this very chamber that this banning order was promulgated.

One cannot over-emphasise the contribution that the religious community made particularly in ensuring that our transition achieves the desired result. The spirit of reconciliation and the goodwill within the nation can, to a great measure, be attributed to the moral and spiritual interventions of the religious community.

Distinguishing features of the Methodist tradition are its dedication to helping the poor and its systematic approach to moral, spiritual, and educational development. In his 1994 speech, Mandela praised, in particular, the early commitment of the Methodist Church to building schools in remote areas and to educating black Africans.

According to the History of the Wesleyan Methodist Church of South Africa, the Church’s program of education began in a sustained way in 1815 when the Wesleyan Methodist minister, the Reverend Barnabas Shaw, and his wife set out from England for Cape Town with instructions to preach to the English soldiers stationed there and to the local white community, but mainly “to pay special attention to the large slave population.”

The Shaws opted to leave the comfort of city life and to travel some 500 km north into the thinly-populated land of the Namaqua tribe. By 1817, Rev. Shaw had baptized two Namaqua converts. As the Church grew, converts became schoolteachers, preachers, and tribal leaders; a few became missionaries to other tribes.

Additional Methodist missionizing activity, this time focused east of the Cape, began in 1820 when the Reverend William Shaw (no relation to Barnabas) arrived with British settlers. He, too, did not limit his attention to whites. By 1830, he established Wesleyville, planted six more mission-stations stretching east, and laid the foundation for another in the former Transkei.

In his 1994 speech, Mandela noted that the Methodist Church’s commitment to educating black South Africans had an invaluable and positive effect on the course of South Africa’s history. He was himself a beneficiary of the Church’s ministry of education.

Your Church has a proud record of commitment to the development of Africa’s sons and daughters in more areas than one. The great institutions of learning which spread from the Reverend William Shaw’s “Chain of Mission Stations” in this region shaped the minds and characters of generations of our people as well as many of our present leaders.

Note that Mandela uses the possessive pronoun, “your,” to refer to the Methodist Church instead of “our,” suggesting distance exists between himself and the Church. However, according to the Presiding Bishop of the Methodist Church of South Africa, Bishop Ziphozihle Siwa, Mandela “remained a committed Methodist [throughout] his life.”

Born to a Transkei chief and a devout Methodist mother, Mandela was baptized Methodist and sent to a local Methodist school at the age of seven. Though his first-name was Rohihala, he was given the English name, Nelson, by his teacher, as was customary at the time.

Mandela’s father died when Mandela was nine and the boy was sent, by his mother, to live with his guardian, Paramount Chief David Dalindyebo. With Dalindyebo and his family, Mandela attended Methodist services every Sunday. Mandela also attended a Methodist mission school next to his new home.

For the start of his secondary education, Mandela chose to attend Healdtown, a Methodist college. Continuing his studies, he worked on a Bachelor’s of Arts at the University of Ft. Hare, where he joined the Student’s Christian Association and taught Bible classes in the local community. Of his education, Mandela said:

Although the dark night of apartheid sought to obliterate many [religious] institutions, the impact of their academic and moral teachings could not be trampled on. We who passed through them will not forget the excellent standards of teaching and the spiritual values which were imparted to us.

By 1941, Mandela had moved to Johannesburg where he attended Communist talks and gathering. However, he refused to join the Communist party, in part because its atheism conflicted with his Christian faith. In 1947, after he participated in founding the African National Congress Youth League (ANCYL), Mandela tried to expel Communists who joined. The same year, as a member of the ANC Transvaal Executive Committee, Mandela successfully helped oust its regional president for his cooperation with Communists.

Not until 1950, when he was elected President of the ANCYL, did Mandela concede to welcome and cooperate with atheistic Communists.

Was Mandela’s increasing politicization caused by his growing interest in Communist thinkers like Marx and Lenin? No. The record makes clear that he began to devote more time to politics and to participate more frequently in direct actions (like boycotts and strikes against the apartheid regime) before 1950, when he was actively anti-communist.

It is more likely that Mandela’s increasing politicization grew out of his religious commitments.

A distinctive tenet of Wesleyan Methodism is that faith in Jesus Christ is only the first step toward salvation. What is required, from then on, is to lead a moral life and to devote oneself to good works and social justice. In Mandela’s words:

The sense of social responsibility that the religious community has always upheld found expression in [the Methodist Church’s] immense contribution to the efforts to rid our country of the scourge of racism and apartheid. When pronouncements and actions against the powers-that-be meant persecution and even death, you dared to stand up to the tyrants.

The Methodist Church of South Africa expressed its “sense of social responsibility” by objecting to the policy of apartheid from the moment its imposition in 1948. The Church’s opposition culminated in its election of the Reverend Seth Mokitimi as President in 1964—an election that put the Church at risk of being declared “black” and thus evicted from properties located in white areas.

According to Mandela:

Especially while political leaders were in prison and in exile, bodies like the South African Council of Churches and its member churches resisted racial bigotry and held out a vision of a different, transformed South Africa. Methodist leaders were prominent among the prophets who refused to bow to the false god of apartheid. Your ministers also visited us in prison and cared for our families. Some of you were banned. Your Presiding Bishop himself shared imprisonment with us for some years on Robben Island. This you did, not as outsiders to the cause of democracy, but as part of society and eminent prophets of the teachings of your faith.

Besides Mandela’s positive view of the difference religious communities can make in righting political wrong, little is known about Mandela’s personal religious views during, and after his prison years. Yet, while jailed on Robben Island, he attended Christian Sunday services and participated in Holy Communion.

There are several possible reasons for the sparseness of the public record about Mandela’s religious commitments. Possible reasons include: media interviewers and biographers did not ask; well-known to have been an intensely private person, Mandela may have been reluctant to discuss his beliefs; in the interest of inclusivity, Mandela may have wished to model how to welcome multiple traditions (according to Bishop Siwa, Mandela received Holy Communion from an ecumenical team while at Pollsmoor Prison); after leaving prison, Mandela was preoccupied with implementing his vision of a free and democratic nation-state.

In Bishop Siwa’s obituary for him, the Bishop affirmed that Mandela’s life “demonstrated the finest characteristics of the Methodist faith: tempered with graciousness; a strong ethic of industriousness; and honesty with reconciliation.” (Of course, we might say, Bishop Siwa would claim Mandela as part of his Methodist community—who wouldn’t?)

Whether Bishop Siwa’s assessment is accurate or not, it remains important to ask why, in recent news reports and in the plethora of published obituaries, so little has been said about Mandela’s religious views, because the absence of a substantive treatment of these views allows the millions inspired by Mandela’s life to ignore what, ultimately, may have inspired him most—his grounding in Methodist beliefs and values.

The absence of such details also sends the message (if only unwittingly) that his political commitments can be divorced from his religious commitments, although the latter, by all indicators, ran deep, informed his actions, and remained consistent until his death.

With the hope that scholars, media commentators, and biographers will at last turn their attention to Mandela’s under-examined theology and its relationship to his political advocacy, Mandela reminds us of religion’s ability to serve as a powerful moral force:

The Church, with its message of forgiveness, has a special role to play in national reconciliation. After so much suffering and injustice, the instinct for revenge is a natural one. But the transition we are going through shows that those who suffered under apartheid are prepared to bury the past. At the same time, those who enjoyed the fruits of unjust privilege must be helped to find a new spirit of sharing. Your message and example can enable that to happen.

Source for the text quoted in green above: African National Congress. “Address by President Nelson Mandela to the Annual Conference of the Methodist Church.” Delivered September 18, 1994.

Other sources: 1. Alistair Kee, The Rise and Demise of Black Theology (Burlington, VT:  Ashgate, 2006); 2. J. Whiteside, The History of the Methodist Church in South Africa (Capetown: Mssrs. Juta & Co, 1906); 3. “Methodists Mourn Tata Madiba: Statement by the Presiding Bishop of the Methodist Church of South Africa, Bishop Ziphozihle Siwa, Johannesburg,” 6 December 2013; 4. Fredrick Nzwili, “Shaped by Methodists, Mandela paid tribute to the role of religion,” Religion News Service, December 6, 2013.

Note (added January 2, 2014). For an in-depth article about the role of mission schools in Africa, read Samuel Freedman’s December 27, 2013, International New York Times article: “Mission Schools Opened World to Africans but Left an Ambiguous Legacy.”

#62 Compassion: what is heck is it?


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Jon Barstad/Riksarkivet (National Archives of Norway)

Jon Barstad/Riksarkivet (National Archives of Norway)

Compassion? Do you know exactly what you mean when you use the word “compassion”? Do you mean “compassion” as in Karen Armstrong’s Charter of Compassion, or as in Arthur Schopenhauer’s “compassion is the basis of morality,” or as in the Bible’s “Good Samaritan who had compassion for the wounded traveler?”

“Compassion,” after all, is used in different sorts of conversations and in different contexts. It has a wide range of meanings. It could mean a feeling akin to empathy. Or it could mean an act of kindness. Is Christian compassion equivalent to Buddhist compassion? Or is compassion trans-religious, or philosophical, or not religious at all? And what is the relationship between compassion and ethics?

The 19th Century Jewish philosopher, Hermann Cohen, took up the question of compassion decades ago but his answers remain helpful even today.

Compassion, for Cohen, turns our entire orientation in the world towards one, unavoidable question: “How can suffering be overcome?” Compassion, he said, pulls us up to a summit of sorts; from there, new vistas open up, along with new insights on how to overcome suffering.

Like any good philosopher, Cohen studied the history of the meaning of compassion. In his masterpiece, Religion of Reason: Out of the Sources of Judaism, he offers a brief retelling of this history. Two factors emerge. First, “compassion” is a term long embedded in European thought—Cohen describes what compassion meant to the Ancient Greek Stoics. Second, it is clear that the meaning of “compassion” has shifted over time—in a hundred years, it might well be understood differently than it is today.

Just as we do, the Stoics, Cohen explains, knew that people suffered. They, too, were interested in answering the question: “How can suffering be overcome.” Their answer? They believed that decisions about how best to alleviate suffering should be made on the basis of reason alone because, in their view, reason is the human faculty best suited to making right and good choices. The problem with compassion? Reason may tell us to do one thing while emotions like compassion may tell us to do something else. For the Stoics, when we evaluate our options with respect to suffering, options prompted by compassion must be set aside when they conflict with options offered by reason.

Cohen also discusses the unusual, but internally consistent, view of Baruch (the Latinate version of “Barack”) Spinoza, the seventeenth-century Dutch philosopher. Spinoza rejects compassion which he understood as feeling or “affect.” He is pantheist and thus God is everything that is. Human beings are “only modes” or expressions of God, the one substance. As “modes” or expressions of God, each of us is just like every Other. No single person has individual worth. What we have, as individuals, is differing knowledge of God, the One. Good knowledge is knowledge that we are all expressions of the One. Evil knowledge denies this. Spinoza holds that “compassion is of the same breed as envy”—a surprising equivalence but one that is fully aligned with his pantheistic worldview because, according to him, compassion and envy either lead us to focus on the Other, or they lead us from the Other back to the Self. Either way, we have abandoned the “good” knowledge that we are all expressions of the One for an “evil,” differentiating knowledge of the Other or of the Self. (If you, too, are a pantheist, how do you get around Spinoza’s unsatisfying view on suffering?)

Cohen disagrees with the Stoics and with Spinoza.

In his opinion, most human beings are incapable of succeeding at a Stoic-like approach. We are, quite simply, constitutionally unable to be indifferent to our own suffering. We find it impossible to set aside pain—whether emotional or physical—and pay attention only to reason.

Cohen also argues against allowing, or training ourselves to be indifferent to other people’s suffering. For him, this is a moral issue and a religious one. Compassion must be more than an “inert” response like that of the Stoics. It is not enough simply to note that others suffer or that we suffer. An “inert” reaction is tantamount to laissez-faire ethics because, most likely, it will fail to motivate us to make efforts (and sometimes sacrifice) to alleviate or end suffering. Compassion, on Cohen’s telling, is no “fruitless sentimentality”—it is a fruitful reaction if it drives us to act.

As for Spinoza’s approach to compassion, Cohen worries that the indifference to the unique worth of each human that this pantheist recommended will result in narrow-mindedness. Such indifference, Cohen believes, makes us passive with respect to suffering and reduces compassion to a “reflex action”—we act, yes, but our actions are informed by habit or by our community’s customs, not by our appreciation of the individual before us.

Suffering is pain, Cohen writes. Who wouldn’t agree? But he gets more interesting. When we attempt to be indifferent to other people’s suffering as the Stoics and Spinoza suggest (on Cohen’s reading), we rob ourselves of the possibility that the Other before us might change from a mere “S/he” (“a representative carrier of humanity,” a human like other humans in the world falling under the purview of ethics and of laws of the state) to a “Thou” (“a classification within the notion of humanity,” an individual person distinct from all other persons). The moment we shift, for Cohen, from encountering the Other as a “S/he,” to encountering them as a “Thou,” is the moment when the suffering of the Other pulls us out of the generalized “He/She” realm of concepts and ethics into the particular “Thou” realm of compassion and religion.

Important to Cohen as well: through the compassion to which suffering gives rise, we discover the Thou in the Other, and when we do so, we wonder whether “S/he” is like me, whether S/he” can suffer like me. The discovery of the Thou thus leads to an ethical realization. We hope that when the “I” reappears (after the moment of discovery passes) it will reappear “liberated from the shadow of selfishness.”

Can compassion, Cohen asks, illuminate ethics and help it answer its own questions about how suffering is to be overcome?

Ethics, according to Cohen, relies on concepts like “the good” and “the right” and “duties.” To this conceptual work, compassion has nothing to offer except when ethics takes a pragmatic tack. In this case, compassion becomes “a useful illusion,” because it serves as a lens through which we can try to understand the suffering of others. Compassion, as “a useful illusion,” helps us share the suffering of others. By virtue of this sharing, we may help ethics find answers to the question of how suffering can be overcome.

To return to this post’s initial question: does the oft-used word, compassion, signify more than a feeling-ful or action-ful response to suffering? Cohen offers an insightful and nuanced understanding. Using the language of poets rather than philosophers, he writes that compassion knows suffering as a dazzling light that “suddenly makes [you] see the dark spots in the sun of life.”

When struggling to define compassion, remember Cohen’s lovely riff on this word. Suffering brings you to the limit of the ordinary realm of “S/he.” It is at this borderline that compassion and religion arises. Compassion for suffering may then propel you into the “higher pinnacle” of “Thou.” From this place, this summit, you can see more clearly what actions on your part and your community’s could ease the pain. And, upon returning this place, you are spurred to make it so.

Reference: Hermann Cohen, Religion of Reason: Out of the Sources of Judaism (Atlanta, Scholars Press, 1995), 11-19.

#61 A humanizing and humane God


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© Dreamstime Agency | Dreamstime Stock Photos

© Dreamstime Agency | Dreamstime Stock Photos

Ever wonder what an academic paper on theology looks like?  Or wonder what this Naked Theologian does with her “spare” time when she’s not writing blog posts?  Here’s a short paper that I presented in November 2012 to the Liberal Theologies Group of the American Academy of Religion (AAR), a yearly conference hosting more than 10,000 religion scholars.  Should you choose to accept the mission of reading my paper, don’t worry about arcane technical language; there’s almost none (in order to be accessible to an AAR audience of specialists from a variety of disciplines).  Also, the paper was intended for oral delivery and so avoids possible tongue-twisters.  Enjoy!

Lived Religion and the ‘Agent-God’: Making a Case for the Personalist Theological Method of Gordon Kaufman

Gordon Kaufman’s constructive theology evolved significantly over the course of his decades-long career.  However, since 1993, the year that he published In Face of Mystery, much of the scholarly engagement with his work has focused on this text and those that followed.  This last phase of Kaufman’s theology with its impersonal concept of God as serendipitous-creativity has much to recommend it.  However, I want to argue for renewed attention to the second, or personalist, phase of his theology.

In my view, there are three phases to Kaufman’s theology:  first, Kaufman’s historicist phase; next, his personalist phase—so-called because he assumes that God-concepts will have person-like characteristics, and finally, his naturalist phase.

My case for taking a new look at the personalist phase of Kaufman’s theology and its associated theological method is based on a two-pronged argument:

First, during his personalist phase, Kaufman designed his theological method to facilitate the construction of God-concepts ranging from a sparse God to an Agent-God.  This method is of special interest to theists who seek to construct, or more likely re-construct, a concept of God which is existentially meaningful, comforting in times of suffering, and which serves as an ultimate reference point.  For the theists he has in mind, Kaufman writes, the word “God” “stands for” or “names” the “ultimate point of reference or orientation for all life, action, devotion, and reflection” (ETM, 17).

Second, the personalist phase of Kaufman’s theological method is well suited to the hybrid theologies that have become a fixture of the American religious landscape.  His method, during this phase, is open to diverse religious and theological perspectives and to perspectives from science and secular humanism.  But, for theists who incorporate a variety of religious symbols, rituals and texts from multiple traditions or from non-traditional sources to create individualistic theologies, Kaufman’s personalist phase provides checks to reduce the risk of producing Feuerbachian—or human-writ-large—God-constructs.  And his method includes criteria to help theists identify the most humanizing symbols, rituals, and texts from among the plethora of possible options.

I now want to elaborate my first point—namely, that the personalist phase of Kaufman’s method, by offering a procedure for constructing an Agent-God, is helpful to theists who seek to construct, or more likely re-construct, a concept of God which is existentially meaningful, comforting in times of suffering, and an ultimate reference point, moral and otherwise.

In this phase of his work, Kaufman holds that the only God available to human beings is the concept of God that we imaginatively construct.  He accepts Kant’s claim that it is impossible to have knowledge of God since God is not a “thing” like other “things.”  Though God may exist, knowledge of God is beyond the capacity of our limited intellects.  For this reason, Kaufman writes, “theology is (and always has been) essentially an activity of imaginative construction.”[1]  Though imaginatively constructed, our concepts of God can play a central role in our lives.  “Believing in God,” Kaufman argues, ”means practically to order all of life and experience in personalistic, purposive, moral terms, and to construe the world and man accordingly” (GP, 107, italics mine).  For Kaufman, as for Kant, theology is above all a practical discipline (GP, 101).

During the personalist phase of his theology, Kaufman anticipates that individuals constructing a concept of “God” are likely to incorporate terms, concepts, and metaphors drawn from their relationships, every day experiences, and familiar images (TI, 155).  Indeed Kaufman recommends that “God” include anthropomorphic characteristics though he does not require them.  However, Kaufman argues, unless we conceive of God as person-like, God can’t be existentially meaningful to us since “the human person is the only reality we know” for which our “concerns are of significance” (ETM, 65).  Thus, Kaufman writes, “it is not surprising that metaphors such as ‘merciful father’ or ‘powerful savior’ were from very early on prominent in talk about God and that they remain among those which are more existentially meaningful to many” (ETM, 65).  Indeed, these metaphors are also comforting to many in times of suffering.  God as “merciful father” or “powerful savior” is, of course, an Agent-God.

The personalist phase of Kaufman’s method includes three mutually adjusting steps or moments as he calls them to signal that he does not intend them to be undertaken in any particular order and that they can be used recursively.

In broad strokes, Kaufman’s three moments for “methodologically sound theological work” are as follows (1995):

1.            Construction of the concept, “world”

This moment entails a description of “reality” (for example, a phenomenological or scientific description).

2.            Construction of the concept, “God”

The God-concept is required to include a “humanizing motif” for devotion, work, and practical orientation, as well as a relativizing motif to call into question our values, norms, and goals.  I will have more to say about the humanizing and relativizing motifs when I discuss the second prong of my paper’s argument.

3.            Adjustment of the concept, “world,” based on the relativizing and humanizing components of the concept, “God”

The concept of “world” is now to be understood as being “under God.”  As a result, “world” may need to be adjusted to reflect the relativizing and humanizing components of the concept, “God.”

To recap the first prong of my argument, the personalist phase of Kaufman’s method is well suited to help theists who want to construct a person-like God who is existentially meaningful, comforting in times of suffering, and an ultimate point of orientation for their day-to-day decision-making.

Now, for my second reason for recommending renewed engagement with Kaufman’s middle, personalist phase—namely, that this phase of his method is well-suited to the hybrid, “lived” theological approach that has become a central feature of the American religious landscape.

Charles Taylor, in his 2002 Varieties of Religion Today, describes what he considers a new, contemporary age of “widespread ‘expressive’ individualism” (80).  In the religious sphere, according to Taylor, expressive individualism means that (and these are Taylor’s words) “More and more people [are adopting] what would earlier have been seen as untenable positions, for example, they consider themselves Catholic while not accepting many crucial dogmas, or they combine Christianity with Buddhism, or they pray while not being certain they believe” (107).  Though he traces this kind of expressiveness back to Europe’s Romantic period, what is new, he argues, is how it “seems to have become a mass phenomenon” (80).

More recently, Heidi Campbell, in her March 2012 Journal of the American Academy of Religion article, confirms Taylor’s assessment. Campbell reports that, in their autonomy, theists practice what she calls “lived religion.”  By this, she means that theists pick a variety of religious symbols and narratives out of traditional structures and dogmas and then recombine them into new theologies.  This mix of symbols and narratives often originate from multiple traditions including traditions previously considered non-religious.  Like Taylor, Campbell finds that “pic-n-mix” (her expression) religiosity has become mainstream.  She writes:  “The process of mixing multiple sources of forms of spiritual self-expression…once done by individuals in private or on the fringes [is growing] more accessible and visible to the wider culture” (Campbell, 79).

Why is Kaufman’s personalist-phase method especially helpful for those who practice “pic-n-mix,” lived religion?  Because, during this phase, his method is intentionally open to diverse religious and theological perspectives as well as to perspectives from science and secular humanism.  Indeed, Kaufman assumes that encounters with other worldviews are important.  These encounters, he believes, are bound to lead to discriminating and informed judgments about what is humanly significant.  In his words:

The coming new age of a thoroughly interconnected and interdependent worldwide humanity must build upon the best insights and disciplines of all our long and varied human experience, as conserved for us in the many religious and cultural traditions alive and meaningful today.  We must be open to all, in conversation with all (GMD, 40).

No doubt, picking and choosing from various models and images can lead to God-constructs that are formulated in terms of human needs and desires.  As I mentioned earlier, Kaufman finds nothing strange about this.  For God to be “God to us” and orient our lives, then our concept of God must share at least some of our human attributes and be capable of understanding our concerns in a significant way whether these are physical, moral, social, or cultural (ETM, 64).

While Kaufman’s personalist phase is open to anthropomorphic concepts of God, it is designed to combat anthropocentrism in two significant ways.  Kaufman insists that any concept/image of God include what he calls 1) a humanizing motif and 2) a relativizing motif.

The humanizing motif of the God-construct helps transform us into” genuinely humane beings” and enables us to fulfill “our human potential” (TI, 32, 41).  It is the humanizing motif that tends to introduce anthropomorphism into a concept of God.  Powerful anthropomorphic images enable the God-construct to personify our highest and most important “ideals and values” (TI, 32, 41).  Indeed, these images, Kaufman writes, can emphasize “the goodness of creation as a whole and specifically of human existence,…the importance of human communal existence and [of] just social institutions, a high valuation of morally responsible selfhood and such virtues as mercy, forgiveness, love, faithfulness, and the like…” (GDM, 94).  In addition, the humanizing motif enables theists with a pic-n-mix religiosity to adjudicate between symbols, ideals, and artifacts and decide which to incorporate (or remove) from their hybrid God-constructs.

In contrast, the relativizing motif of the God-construct judges all of our achievements, according to “a very demanding norm,” to reign in our “tendencies toward anthropocentrism, hubris, and self-aggrandizement, our tendencies to make ourselves into gods instead of accepting our proper place within the creaturely order” (TI, 154-156).  The relativizing motif “emphasizes God’s radical otherness, God’s mystery, God’s utter inaccessibility” (TI, 41).  By virtue of its radical otherness, the God-construct provides us with “a center of orientation” outside of ourselves.  As an ultimate reference point, the concept of God calls into question all of our projects, values, and goals.  And because it calls into question everything finite, the relativizing motif of the God-construct even calls into question “every formulation or expression” of the concept of God itself (TI, 35, 87).

The humanizing and relativizing motifs are connected.  If a God-concept is properly constructed, the two motifs operate as a powerful dialectic internal to its structure.  The tension between them, Kaufman asserts, gives “the symbol much of its power and effectiveness as a focus for devotion and orientation in human life” (TI, 41).  As long as “its highly dialectical character” is maintained and “its demand for continuous self-criticism” is honored, the God-construct cannot be “converted into an idol sustaining and supporting our own projects, but is apprehended as truly God,” forcing the self “into a posture of humbleness in its claims” (TI, 87).

I want to underscore the point that, during his personalist phase, Kaufman held that an anthropomorphic concept of God is not necessarily anthropo-centric.  In fact, it is designed to fight against anthropocentrism.

It is true that he eventually decided that human beings are unable to resist 1) giving God-constructs ontological status and 2) reifying the anthropomorphic attributes of God-constructs.  The only reliable way to deflate these impulses, he decided, was to make an impersonal God the proper object of devotion.  Thus did Kaufman abandon his personalist phase.  These considerations led him to the naturalist phase of his theology. 

Yet, even in his naturalist phase, Kaufman recognized what I have argued in this paper—namely, that many theists continue to “opt for the more traditional agent-God” (IFM, 273).  Despite the shortcomings that he came to associate with the Agent-God, Kaufman granted that this concept, “based on the model of the self-conscious and dynamic human agent, has been (and still is in many quarters) of great effectiveness in the ordering and orienting of human life” (IFM, 272).  A world picture with an Agent-God at its core, he wrote in In Face of Mystery, continues “to function in important ways, not only among the traditionally pious but also in shaping ideals and goals in society at large” (IFM, 273).

Kaufman may not have fully anticipated contemporary “lived” religion or the degree to which theists today practice pic-n-mix religiosity, but the personalist phase of his theological method supports and even encourages exchanges between different religious, theological, and secular worldviews.  This phase offers the possibility of constructing a wide range of God-concepts while also designed to defeat Feuerbachian God-concepts.  The humanizing motif inspires theists to become more humane and to fulfill their highest potential; the relativizing motif calls the God-concept into question as well all of our projects, values, and norms.

Given these strengths, the personalist phase of Kaufman’s theological method deserves another look.


[1] Kaufman, “Theology as Imaginative Construction,” The Journal of the American Academy of Religion, Vol. I., No. 1, March 1982, p. 73.


Campbell, Heidi.  “Understanding the Relationship between Religion Online and Offline in a Networked Society.” Journal of the American Academy of Religion, 80:1 (2012): 84-93.

Choi, Yang Sun.  “A Critical Study of Gordon D. Kaufman’s Theological Method.”  Ph.D. diss., Drew University, 1995.

James, Thomas.  In Face of Reality:  The Constructive Theology of Gordon D. Kaufman.  Eugene, OR:  Pickwick, 2011.

Kaufman, Gordon.  “Theology as Imaginative Construction.” The Journal of the American Academy of Religion, I:1 (1982).   Also GP, ETM, TI, IFM.

Nordgren, Kenneth.  God as Problem and Possibility:  A Critical Study of Gordon Kaufman’s Thought Toward a Spacious Theology.  Uppsula, Sweden:  Uppsula Universitet, 2003.

Taylor, Charles.  Varieties of Religion Today:  William James Revisited.  Cambridge, MA:  Harvard University Press, 2002.

Gordon KAUFMAN’s book-length works organized by phase:

Phase I    Historicist Phase  (God-known-through-Christ-event)

RKF    Relativism, Knowledge, and Faith (Chicago:  The University of Chicago Press, 1960)

CD     Context of Decision (1961)

ST     Systematic Theology:  A Historicist Perspective (New York:  Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1968)

Phase II   Personalist Phase  (Imaginatively-constructed-agent-God)

GP     God the Problem (Cambridge, MA:  Harvard University Press, 1972).

ETM   An Essay on Theological Method (Atlanta:  Scholars Press, 1975, 3rd ed, 1995)

NR     Nonresistance and Responsibility and Other Mennonite Essays (Newton, KS:  Faith and Life Press, 1979)

TI      Theological Imagination:  Constructing the Concept of God (Philadelphia:  The Westminster Press, 1981)

TNA  Theology for a Nuclear Age (Philadelphia:  Westminster John Knox Press, 1985)

Phase III  Naturalist Phase  (Steps-of-faith-process-God)

IFM    In Face of Mystery:  A Constructive Theology (Cambridge, MA:  Harvard University Press, 1993)

GMD   God—Mystery—Diversity:  Christian Theology in a Pluralistic World (Minneapolis:  Fortress Press, 1996)

IBC     In the beginning…Creativity (Minneapolis:  Fortress Press, 2004)

JC       Jesus and Creativity (Minneapolis:  Fortress Press, 2004)


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