The Certainty Trap: Can Christians and Muslims Afford the Luxury of Fundamentalism?

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Holy Book

The Rt. Rev. Dr. Bill Musk has lived in the Middle East for many years, gaining quality experience in Turkey, Lebanon, Egypt and Tunisia. An Oxford graduate, he holds a doctorate in the Science of Religion from the University of South Africa and is author of several books including The Unseen face of Islam; Touching the Soul of Islam; Kissing Cousins and The Certainty Trap which is the topic of this blog. Bill is currently an Anglican bishop in North Africa, as part of the Diocese of Egypt.

I believe there is a battle going on within both the Christian and Islamic faiths. It’s a battle for the soul of these faiths. The battle is about “hermeneutics” – the fancy word – or “how Scripture is to be seen as authoritative and how it is to be interpreted”. How is the Quran to be loved, trusted and obeyed – by Muslims? How is the Bible to be loved, trusted and obeyed – by Christians?

Within both Muslim and Christian communities, there exists a hermeneutic that revels in a literalistic reading of Scripture. Such a reading differs massively from a merely literal reading, which recognises a variety of literary forms and the cultural and historical contexts of religious texts.

Literalism assumes a simple, face value reading that is presented as absolutely the only and right interpretation of the relevant Scriptures for all adherents and for all time.

Such a view is expressed, for example, in saying that today in the printed version of a Quran one has before one’s eyes the exact same words as were mediated in Arabic to Prophet Muhammad through the archangel Gabriel in the seventh century. Literalistic interpretations of Scripture sound, on the surface, neat and tidy and eminently reasonable. Think, for example, of the various, detailed timetables for the end-times which are proposed by those who subject apocalyptic literature within the Bible to a literalistic remix.

Such literalistic serving up of Scripture is presented to the adherents of both faiths with the appearance of authority that is derived from the simple, innate certainty: “that is what the Quran/Bible actually says!”

This kind of approach illustrates, what I call, a “hermeneutic (interpretation) of certainty”, the propagators of which – within each faith – often tend to stigmatise those who are less confident about claiming a complete understanding of their Scriptures.

Within Islam, such an authoritarian reading of the more aggressive and violent verses in the Quran, along with supporting Traditions, has in the past and now, spawned the radical ideology that motivates violent Islamists – Muslims often referred to as jihadists or Salafists or “terrorists”. The “hermeneutic of certainty” held by such groups, is an embarrassment to mainstream Muslims because, while the violent conclusions are deplored, it is hard to argue that the Quran doesn’t say “Kill them!” for example. The extremists appear to hold the high moral, or at least scriptural, ground.

Certainty Trap Book CoverIn the West, such literalist views of the Bible have come to dominate much evangelical thinking, especially in America. As a consequence this has influenced political decisions by that superpower. In particular, end time projections raise the danger of self-fulfilling prophecies, especially when American politics on the world stage is shaped by them.

I join others in both faiths in suggesting that unhealthy literalism produces a so-called certainty that is derived from a limited, even faulty understanding of the relevant text’s message.

Muslim theologians, both current and historic, have variously wrestled with the need for understanding the context of the “sending down” of the Qur’an in the details of Prophet Muhammad’s life and experience. This has involved assessing Muhammad’s personal history, discerning what verses were revealed when and why; as well as reviewing the process by which the various early renderings of the Quran became the (almost) one written text.

The issue of “abrogation” whereby texts that conflict with one another are prioritised leads to the question of whether the later text written in Medina should prevail; or should the earlier ones written in Mecca be seen as “purer” and more authoritative? This gets us quickly to the core of the issue. Mainstream Islam can live with the tension of seemingly conflicting verses, given the different contexts in Prophet Muhammad’s life. However, the more radical theologians want everything lined up in one authoritative view (i.e. on how acceptable drinking alcohol is; or how adulterers should be punished; or how jihad is to be done etc).

Honest Christians also have to wrestle with violent, holy war texts in the Old Testament, which must be owned by them as part of the Word of God.

As Christians, we have our own range of views on the dropping of Old Testament civil and ceremonial law; on Jesus’ claim that no food is to be seen as unclean; and – most controversial – Paul’s claim that ‘Christ is the end of the Law’.

Does “inerrancy” refer to a dropped-down-from-heaven, absolutely mistake-free Hebrew/Aramaic/Greek text, or does it refer to something more organic, to which a sometimes somewhat frail text points? Indeed, is “the Word” a text or essentially a Person? Within Christianity, also, a literalistic reading of the Bible often tends to co-exist with Christian extremist behaviour, which can be “violent” in lesser ways such as in words and attitude.

Actually, I am just as concerned about the West, where there is another hermeneutic – that of “suspicion”. Most Westerners, including Christians, function in an intellectual and moral world where the only thing they are certain about is that nothing is certain.

For many Westerners, there can be no overarching meta-narrative or big story (such as the gospel), which claims to speak to the whole of humanity.

So how can reluctant Western-minded, post-modern Christians be persuaded that the text of the Bible is to be trusted and taken seriously?

In the end I have to confess doubt – not as a sin but as part of an appropriate kind of confidence or certainty – in God and in his Word. If screaming “Why?” to his Father from the cross was alright for Jesus, I see no problem with doubt or uncertainty constituting part of a realistic and honest approach to trustworthy, but not always neat-and-tidy, Scripture.

Rt. Rev. Dr. Bill Musk – Bishop in North Africa in the Diocese of Egypt

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