Sunday, April 5, 2009

the center cannot hold:
being Christian and Muslim at the same time

I think(?) it was my walk manager Alan Cook who first mentioned the name Ann Redding, an Episcopal priest who entered the Muslim fold while trying to retain her priestly status. At the time, it seemed that she had managed a rare feat, balancing two rival traditions in her personal life, but we now see that the tapestry is unweaving itself.

Get Religion has an interesting article on Redding and the coverage of her defrocking. I note with some surprise that the current trouble seems to be coming mostly from the Christian end: it is certain parties in the Episcopal Church who do not accept what Redding has done.

The common wisdom is that, the more similar two people are, the more likely they'll be in conflict. There are exceptions to this, of course, but I think it holds true as a general rule. The tension between and among the three major Abrahamic traditions is a good example of this. As Islam scholar Bernard Lewis notes in his book Islam and the West, when a Christian or Muslim uses the pejorative "infidel," the interlocutor clearly understands what is meant. Judaism, Christianity, and Islam are, despite their major differences, similar in many fundamental ways. Familiarity often breeds contempt, and if not contempt, then at least tension and rivalry, especially between religions with strong missionary components like Christianity and Islam.

Radically different traditions seem to lend themselves more easily to syncretism. Three personal examples come to mind right away: Robert Kennedy (not RFK), his mentor William Johnston, and a Benedictine monk named David Steindl-Rast. Kennedy and Johnston, along with being Catholic priests, are both Zen masters who undertook Zen training and received "inka," a certification of enlightenment that legitimizes their teachings when they speak in an institutional Zen capacity (in Buddhism, the ultimate magisterium is your own experience, so it might not be exactly right to refer to inka as something that grants or signifies "authority" in a conventional sense). Brother David is not, to my knowledge, a Zen roshi like the other two men, but he has undergone extensive Zen training, much of which took place in the context of monastic interreligious dialogue (he co-wrote a book with Robert Aitken, a roshi of the Rinzai-Soto fusion Sanbo Kyodan school, titled The Ground We Share: Everyday Practice, Buddhist and Christian).

Zen nondualism probably sits very comfortably beside Catholic contemplative spirituality, which may be why these three men have been able to pursue their Zen studies so deeply without risking a raised eyebrow from the Roman magisterium. Zen also seems to go down easily if you're Jewish, as evidenced by the whole, "JuBu" (Jewish-Buddhist) movement, emblematized in such books as Roger Kamenetz's The Jew in the Lotus (a pun on the Buddhist expression "jewel in the lotus"), a story of Jewish-Buddhist dialogue through the eyes of a Jewish journalist who met the current Dalai Lama along with fellow Jews of different traditions to discuss, among other things, what it means to survive as a persecuted people.

What's your opinion on this sort of thing? Could you (assuming you belong to a specific tradition) adopt another tradition's beliefs and practices while keeping your "home" beliefs and practices? Is this even possible, or are people who try such things fooling themselves? Are such meldings doomed to failure? Why or why not? What do you think of Ann Redding? Is she brave? Misguided? Onto something?

Comments welcome.



Rhesus said...

I'm not sure that Islam could really be called a "missionary religion." The purpose of jihad was to seize political power, so that government and society could be properly ordered. It was understood that conversions would follow naturally, which is what actually happened. This doesn't have the same meaning as "missionary" (note that I'm only talking about this meaning, not broader historical issues).

If the issue is simply one of performance, then Ann Redding could do whatever she wanted. However, if distinctions in belief have any meaning, then it's hard to see how Islam and Christianity could be reconciled. Islamic scripture, commentary, tradition, and law are extremely precise about what does and does not constitute Islam. Redding's "syncretism" would require either ignoring all of of that completely or re-interpreting it to a degree that it no longer had any coherence.

A normal response in American society would be to say that Redding's personal choices are her own business and she can believe whatever she wants. Objectively and practically this is true (in American society - I can think of some places she wouldn't fare so well). But from this perspective religious beliefs have the same substance as one's choice of toothpaste or salad dressing. It's just something you happen to like, with no explanation required or necessary. On the other hand, if religious beliefs are supposed to point to something true, then differences in belief must be important, at least to people who have those beliefs.

In the West, syncretism typically involves nothing more than throwing out the challenging or uncomfortable aspects of a particular tradition. Some New Age types, as well as many liberal Christians, accept the loving God of the New Testament while discarding sin and judgment. Others relish union with Brahman but don't want to think about dissolution of individual identity. This may be acceptable as a personal choice, but it's not respectable, even from the perspective of someone with no discernible religious beliefs (like me).

Kevin said...


Good comment.

re: the term "mission(ary)"

For what it's worth, the term "mission" is applied to more than Christianity in academic circles.

Islam is considered one of the three big missionary religions of today, along with Christianity and Buddhism. Some people are surprised by the inclusion of Buddhism in this list, but Buddhism has had a long tradition of "going out among them," establishing temples, and having lay communities grow up around those temples, with monks and citizens living in symbiotic relationship. The temple founders have often been itinerant monks who preached the buddhadharma, which means they were already doing something that Christians and Muslims would recognize. Many modern folks, in their rejection of Christianity and their idealization of Buddhism, are often unaware of this aspect of the tradition. Buddhism isn't generally known for coercive proselytization, but occasionally throughout history it has had its polemical, coercive side.

There are different forms of mission (perhaps the Muslim form is "mission through submission"), but they're all about spreading the word and (though many adherents would be loath to admit this) gaining membership. Cf. The View from Mars Hill by Charles B. Jones for more on this point. Granted, the term "mission" is Christian-centric, but the concept to which the term points is found, in some form, in the aforementioned three traditions.

re: Redding doing what she wants

My own take is that religions are as they are practiced, so the issue of the permissibility of what Redding was doing will be approached in various ways, according to perspective. Redding obviously ran up against problems in her church's hierarchy-- problems that, from her perspective, were non-problems-- implying that she might not have been as free to convert as she had thought. Within the authority structure of her church, she was probably under certain constraints in terms of belief and practice. There are ways to circumvent these strictures, to be sure, but many in the hierarchy will take a dim view of such behavior because they believe there are certain lines that cannot be crossed.

Technically, there's nothing to stop a person from simply declaring that she is now both Christian and Muslim. But then the question arises as to how meaningful the declaration is, if the ulterior intention is to make such a declaration while also remaining part of the institutional structures of both traditions. Once we factor in Redding's apparent desire to remain an Episcopal priest, i.e., part of the institution, we can see that she wasn't free to convert to Islam-- at least, not in the eyes of some members of the Episcopal hierarchy.

The Get Religion blog post notes that the articles about Redding say little to nothing of the Muslim perspective on all this. I can imagine that, as you imply, many Muslims would have trouble accepting a person as both fully Christian and fully Muslim. Muslim doctrine includes the almost docetic idea that Jesus did not die on the cross, but was rescued. Jesus might be considered a son of God, but Muslims reject the notion that he was God the Son.

Not knowing more about Redding's spirituality, though, I hesitate to speculate too deeply on her specific case without doing some research. My own studies in Asian philo and religion lead me to believe that a reconciliation of the two traditions is possible within a single person, but only by adopting an apophatic spirituality in which most core religious concepts (like "trinity" or "prophet") are considered inadequate labels for the ineffable. This is a legitimate spiritual path that has a lot to recommend it, but it does tend to lack discursive and conceptual specificity.

As I argue in my book, though, nondualism shouldn't be equated with "mushiness." It's possible that Redding's spiritual path leads through a form of nondualism, but again, I'd have to know more about her before I could say anything for sure.


Rhesus said...

I'd like to come back to the mission issue at some point (mission as a substantive practice vs. mission as a category). Not now, though. One long comment per week is all I can manage.

I did want to say that I've read about Redding before, and her own comments about her beliefs amount to "I like it this way so I'm going to believe this way." If she's said anything with any more depth, I haven't seen it. That's not to say it doesn't exist, though.

To a mystic, there may be some supra-understanding where the inadequacy of all methods as well as their commonality are clear. Most of use are inadequate non-mystics, though. We need some artifice or scaffolding to lead us in the right direction, however "right" is interpreted.

Of course, the mystic may just be nuts.

Ibrahim said...

The typical comments I find here about Islam, whether from commentators like Rhesus or pulled from dubitble sources like Bernard Lewis*, are frequently inaccurate when they aren't also crude generalizations.

For the record "Islamic scripture, commentary, tradition and law", like the trappings of any other religion, allow for and actually require a significant amount of interpretation or ijtihad. Redding's choice is highly unorthodox, but no more so than it is from the Christian angle. In general the largest difference between Islamic belief and Christian belief has to do with the bodily resurrection of Jesus.

* The man is an expert in the history of the medieval Ottoman Empire, not Islam in general or the modern geopolitical situation. I know his views generally agree with the architects of foreign policy in this country, but that doesn't make him an "expert" in anything outside his relatively narrow field of study.

Kevin said...


I know Lewis is a source of controversy, but I find him more solid, in terms of scholarship, than wild-eyed polemicists like Edward Said.

If there are specific inaccuracies you'd care to correct, feel free to do so. I don't spend nearly as much time talking about Islam here as I do about Buddhism, largely because Islam was never my field of study. We have other Muslim commenters who visit and leave remarks on occasion, so you're welcome to join their company.


Kevin said...

Regarding this:

"In general the largest difference between Islamic belief and Christian belief has to do with the bodily resurrection of Jesus."

There's also the problem of the Trinity, a doctrine Muslims reject outright because it makes Jesus into God. This is, I think, a fundamental chasm between many Christians and Muslims (and Jews, truth be told, as Muslims and Jews hold to a notion of divine unity without tripartite consubstantiality).

You also bring up the question of interpretation, which is a good topic for discussion. In Muslim circles, is there a wide range of hermeneutical stances, spanning everything from scriptural nonliteralists (like me) to absolute literalists?

I'm more interested in the nonliteralist end of the spectrum, sine that's where I am. How easy would it be for me to find Muslims who would happily contend that the Koran isn't literally/factually true, but is instead a source of symbolic narratives that inform our moral life and bind people
together into communities?

Personally, I don't believe in a literal resurrection, or a literal Trinity, or in miracles, yet I call myself Christian and know that there are millions who feel as I do. There are, of course, far more Christians (most, in fact-- about 2.2 billion) who would view me as "not a true Christian" because of my stance.

How does this situation play out in Muslim circles?


Rhesus said...

Ibrahim, when you engage in apologetics, it's best to avoid personal attacks and the ad hominem fallacy ("this sounds like Bernard Lewis, therefore it's bad").

The "gates of ijtihad" are closed. Maybe they aren't for some, but they seem to be for most, and they're the ones that matter.

As for interpretation, much of the Qu'ran and Haditha are in remarkably clear language. All the commentaries provide further clarity. They all draw very clear distinctions between Muslims and non-Muslims. If Christians were really so similar, why would they be required to pay the jizya, for example? Anyway, maybe the Sufis would be able to bridge this distinction, but it's hard to imagine it coming from anywhere else.