Monday, November 10, 2014

Belief stripped down; essences remain, or do they?

In an extraordinary opinion piece in the New York Times, historian and commentator James Carroll, a faithful if questioning adherent of the Roman Catholic Church, ponders Pope Francis' broad appeal and the contemporary vocation of his church. He wonders where people from his branch of the Christian tradition can locate spiritual, intellectual and moral authority in these times.
More than a century ago, the church was thrown for a loop by the mind of modernity, and even now struggles to assimilate the established ideas that change is essential to the human condition; that truth is always seen from a particular point of view; that all language about God falls short of God.
Carroll propounds answers for himself: he takes seriously the witness of Jesus, both as God and as a man with and for others, especially the poor and suffering, and finds meaning in the community of humankind. That all sounds a little vague compared to the baroque edifice of Vatican courts and curia, of rubrics and ceremonies, but it works for him.

This echoed a book I've been reading which explores another spiritual terrain. This book throws its author into a somewhat similar space despite exploring what might seem different problems. Here too intellectual inquiry fails to deliver certainty but an uncertain faith remains. In Feminist Edges of the Qur'an, Professor Aysha A. Hidayatullah describes the rigorous intellectual struggle of Muslim feminist scholars to elaborate readings of Islam's revealed text that affirm justice and equality for women. She sympathetically, but cogently, points out the limitations of their readings. Yet she holds out hope for women and men within Islam to reconcile contemporary understandings of justice with their tradition.
I imagine that for many Muslim women, it is their belief in the divinity of the Qur'an that so passionately motivates them to try to redeem the text from sexist interpretations in the first place. The starting point is that God is just, and that the Qur'an is the word of God, so then the Qur'an must also be just (in a way that upholds the absolute equality of men and women).

But if, as it turns out, we cannot be sure that the text upholds the justice we seek, then we are left to question whether the Qur'an is really a divine text. If we do not question the divinity of the Qur'an, then we are left to question whether God is just (in a manner that upholds female-male equality). Both questions are, of course, deeply disturbing, even unbearable for some ...

There have been times in the past when I have feared that questioning the certainty of the Qur'an's justice for women would send me headlong into an abyss of uncertainty that would inevitably result in the end of my faith and my demise as a Muslim feminist. It was unthinkable to admit that feminist exegetical thought had reached dead ends in some places. It was only after allowing myself to ask questions that were once unthinkable, reassessing many of the most basic principles of feminist exegetical thought, that I have been able to look into the abyss of uncertainty and see it as a place of life and not only death. ...

Embracing "an unknowing" is always a risk, as I am confronted with "a beyond that I cannot ever fully construct, author, or control," but this confrontation might also be the best way to think the unthinkable...In the journey of writing this book, I have come to see uncertainty as a mercy in the face of the daunting finality of certainty and the permanence of its limits. ....
This is an almost unthinkably brave assertion in the current context in the United States. Ordinary Muslim citizens have to worry about recurrent abuse and even physical threats from bigoted or ignorant neighbors. Muslim-haters are quick to try to co-opt the idea of "liberating" Islamic women to attack the religion. Public honesty about spiritual uncertainty might seem to betray family and community under siege. But Hidayatullah seems impelled to go where inquiry leads her, without repudiating her faith. I hope there will be more from this scholar ...

Full disclosure: Hidayatullah teaches at the same university where my erudite partner works; I have had the privilege of hearing her speak on these issues.

1 comment:

Rain Trueax said...

The same dilemmas challenge anyone who follows faithfully a supposedly divinely written text. We are supposed to think it was okay for Abraham to be tested by God when asked to murder his son. That is criminal and insane by any reading of that today and yet some follow it religiously as a perfect divine test and justified. I think fundamentalists in any faith come up against this problem.

We are facing a time of challenges for deciding on what is moral and acceptable. Big changes and some holding firm to old rules. Every time I read the paper, I hear of something new that makes me wonder-- what do I personally feel about that!

Fortunately here, we don't risk our lives (most of the time) with the challenge as happens in other places around the world where speaking out takes great courage-- and accepting a truth, which challenges what has been considered divine, can lead to murder.

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