Religion Today

Thursday, April 25, 2013

Wanted: An American Islam

We readily speak of “American Christianity” and “American Judaism” and are even wrapping our minds around the notion of “American Buddhism,” particularly on the West Coast. So why does the notion of “American Islam” strike us as strange?

Part of the reason, of course, stems from 9/11 and the events and politics following in its wake. But as the fourth (or is it now the third?) largest religion in the United States, it should be more settled than that. More than 3 million Americans believe in Islam, about the same number as American adherents of Buddhism, and only a million or two less than Judaism. So why does Islam not yet seem settled? Perhaps because it is only beginning to develop as an American religion.

Living in a land of immigrants, Americans have always had a back-and-forth relationship with religious centers abroad. At America’s founding, European Christian churches supported their followers by sending missionaries and preachers to lead them. But many of our earliest institutions of higher education were founded to educate the clergy: Harvard, Yale, Princeton, St. Mary’s in Baltimore, and William and Mary. Americans wanted their own religious leaders, so Catholic and protestant churches opened colleges and seminaries to supply them.

America’s Christians wanted more than trained clergy; they also wanted their lay people to know the details of their religion and to practice it. Toward this end, the churches invested in education and founded primary and secondary schools. Since there was little state-sponsored education in America prior to the 20th century, these schools often provided the only education available.

When Jews began settling in America in large numbers, they followed the same pattern. After drawing upon foreign-trained rabbis for a century or so, Jewish synagogues joined together to found Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati in 1875 for training rabbis. Other Jewish seminaries and yeshivas were created in the ensuing decades. At the same time, Jewish high schools and educational programs sprang up across the U.S. in areas of Jewish settlement.

At the start of the 20th century, Buddhism followed a similar pattern. Asian-trained monks had come to the United States during the 19th century, along with the waves of Asian immigration. After 1900, some founded sanghas (Buddhist monasteries) here and started to train others, Buddhists of both Asian and European ancestry, in the monastic form of leadership common in Buddhism. Buddhist schools also became widespread, especially on the West Coast, to educate Buddhist youth.

How is Islam doing in its Americanization process? It has gotten a good start, but has not moved very far along yet. While Muslim primary and secondary schools have arisen in regions with larger numbers of immigrants, only one or two institutions of higher education have developed, such as Zaytuna College.

However, there are no seminaries dedicated to the education of imams for mosque leadership. Muslim communities either bring in foreign-trained imams or follow dedicated lay leaders. That means there are no American institutions where Muslims can gain the education and training they need to lead a mosque and its congregation.

Religions always reshape themselves to fit into the nation in which they are practiced. When Judaism entered England in the late 1600s, for example, one of the first things it did was create the post of Chief Rabbi, imitating Anglicanism’s Archbishop of Canterbury.

Religious reshaping does not come overnight; it comes from a process of debate and discussion by religious authorities. Muslim seminaries would provide a location for that discussion by religious clergy who understand America’s social dynamics and can think about how Islam fits into them. And, more importantly, those clergy can then train others.

The lack of Islamic seminaries in the U.S. means there are no training programs through which an American Islam can be formed and passed on. American Muslims recognize this need and have begun taking steps to address it. In Connecticut, Muslims have worked with Hartford Seminary (Christian) to establish the first certified training program for Muslim chaplains to supply the requirements of the military and hospitals. At Claremont University, a master’s degree has been established to train Muslim educators and other community workers.

What America needs, however, is a full-fledged Islamic seminary (or two) so that our Muslim citizens can have their religious necessities and practices met by Americans who have been trained here -- just like America’s other larger religions.

Thanks to the University of Wyoming's Seth Ward for providing background for this essay. Read some of his remarks at

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Jesus the Sailor

There are several locations which Christians immediately associate with the life of Jesus. There is Bethlehem, in Judea, where Jesus was born; Nazareth, in Galilee, where he grew up; and Jerusalem, where he was crucified. These are the places where Jesus began and ended his life. But the places where Jesus carried out his ministry are less familiar.

The most frequently mentioned town, and perhaps the most memorable, is Capernaum. Jesus seems to have made his ministry’s headquarters there -- at the home of Simon Peter’s mother-in-law. Not only does Jesus return again and again, but when the gospels of Mark and Luke say Jesus “returned to his hometown,” they usually mean Capernaum rather than Nazareth.

It should then not be surprising that many of the other named locations of his ministry are near Capernaum, such as Ginnesar, Chorazin, Bethsaida and Gergesa. These are the most frequently mentioned places in Matthew, Mark and Luke, and most of Jesus’ ministry takes place in and around them.

These towns bring out another observation about Jesus’ ministry. It took place around the Sea of Galilee. Several other events, such as Jesus driving out demons or preaching to large crowds, take place at unnamed locations “in the wilderness” on the shore of the Sea of Galilee. At another point, Jesus takes a trip into the “cities of the Decapolis,” a region on the southeast shore of the Sea of Galilee.

All this points to a single conclusion. For most of his ministry, Jesus based himself on the Sea of Galilee and used it as a means of transportation. This shows that Jesus took advantage of the fastest mode of transportation in the ancient world, the sailboat. Neither walking nor riding on donkeys or camels could match the speed or the comfort of moving about on the water. By sailing, Jesus could cover the most “ground” in the least amount of time.

While Capernaum and the Sea of Galilee was a good transportation choice for Jesus’ activities, it raises the question, what was Jesus doing so far from home? In the ancient world, few people ever traveled more than a day’s walk, about 15 miles, from the place where they were born. After all, their entire family, the family land, as well as their livelihood and responsibilities were all right there.

To leave familial territory was to cut off contact with one’s family, for there were no means of communication. Few people could read or write a letter, but even if they could, there was no postal service. And, of course, the telephone and email were millennia in the future. So what Jesus was doing was a two-day journey, some 30 miles by road, away from his home in Nazareth.

Most of the gospels ignore this question, but Luke addresses it head-on. In Luke’s story, once John the Baptist baptized Jesus, Jesus fasted for 40 days in the wilderness. Jesus then returned to Nazareth where, in the synagogue, he claimed to be the fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy of being God’s chosen messenger. This bold claim was seen by the villagers as blasphemy and they attempted to carry the appropriate punishment for this sin, death. They could only see him as Joseph’s son, who had grown up among them, rather than a prophet. Jesus escaped from them and left the area. According to Luke, Jesus then proceeded directly to Capernaum to begin his ministry around the Sea of Galilee.

So Jesus picked the best location in Galilee for his ministry, the transportation center of the Sea of Galilee. In doing so, he left his home region behind, but he was pushed out by the inability of those with whom he had grown up to grasp his new role.

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Humanity and God in the Catholic Church

The election of Pope Francis I was significant because the Catholic Church is the world’s third largest human organization. With a membership of 1.1 billion, the church’s size is exceeded only by the countries of China (1.3 billion) and India (1.2 billion). Taken together, more than half of the world’s 7 billion people are either Chinese, Indian or Catholic.

More importantly, the Church of Rome has been the central, constant feature in the growth of Western Civilization since its founding nearly two millennia ago. During that time, it has played a number of different roles; its power has waxed and waned; and it has been endorsed and criticized. But it has always been there. Much of the character of today’s “Western World,” or in economic terms the “First World,” has been shaped in line with or in opposition to Catholicism.

Given this stature, we should analyze what the papal election reveals about the church’s concept of God before our memory of the media blitz fades away.

The pope was chosen in the traditional manner. All the church’s cardinals gathered, went into a secret conclave in the Sistine Chapel and voted. As in past elections, the choice was not made on a single ballot, but took several.
This conclave was fairly short, just two days; others have taken longer. Perhaps this was helped by the days of meetings beforehand, much like a business convention, where the cardinals got to know one another and shared their views of the state of the Catholic Church in both formal and informal sessions. According to media reports, they discussed the challenges facing the church, its present successes and accomplishments, and its future needs.

The cardinals’ votes and meetings show the human procedures the church undertakes to identify a new leader. God does not put in an appearance and publicly announce His choice. Nor does an Old-Testament-style prophet step forward to convey God’s word. God’s will, to use religious language, is instead sought by the cardinals through prayer, confession and shared worship.

Catholics certainly believe the pope is chosen by God, but the process reveals that the choice is mediated through and conveyed by human beings. It is not a revelation, but a group decision made by a majority (not a unanimity) of several dozen men. The face of God in this process is a human face.

This approach fits traditional Catholic theology nicely. The church understands its role as mediating between God and Christian believers. Its hierarchical organization places cardinals closest to God, and so they are best positioned to listen for and follow divine promptings. In a pope’s election, God reveals His will through them.

The human character of the pope was emphasized in Pope Benedict as well. In his decision to step down, Benedict showed he understood that his increasing frailness of both body and mind was beginning to hamper his ability to lead the church. He could no longer function as the “Vicar of Jesus Christ.”

In the past, it was believed that God would make this choice and that the pope would die at a moment of God’s choosing. But with the advent of modern medicine, it has become clear that this is no longer the case. Diseases that would quickly result in death just two decades ago can now be easily overcome and life extended for years.

But with long life often comes increasing mental and physical weakness, as is well known by people with elderly parents. A pope, like all human beings, experiences the diminution of old age, interfering with and ultimately preventing the fulfillment of his papal role, and even the ability to look after himself. Pope Benedict’s decision to step down was a recognition of this.

So the Catholic Church reveals God through its human members; He is mediated through humanity. Catholics may believe that God is unchanging and unchangeable, but human beings are not. Our increasing knowledge of humans’ physical, mental and social character, as well as the increasing role of technology in our lives, alters the way humans relate to the divine and to each other. In the end, it brings about changes even in the Catholic Church.

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Commanding Morality

[posted March 17, 2013]

It is a tenet of Christian belief that the moral values which God commanded are “good.” By this I do not mean to say that they are a “good job” or that they were “done well” or that God should receive a gold star for creating them. No, I mean that, according to Christian belief, God’s ethics represent the highest form of good possible. They are the epitome of moral values; it is impossible for a better moral system to exist.

Of course, in the modern world we disagree with specific moral rules and no longer practice some of them, such as the rules about slavery and divorce. Indeed, fewer than half of the Ten Commandments are encoded in United States law. But as a theological claim, if God is good, then the moral rules He proclaimed must be good. And, since God is by definition perfect, then the morality he proclaimed must also be perfectly good.

From this viewpoint, it is interesting to ask this question: Is God’s morality good because He commanded it, or did He command it because it was good? This is a difficult question, and different forms of Christianity have answered in different ways. It is so difficult that many forms of Christianity have refused to address it. It is a conundrum for all monotheistic religions, including Judaism and Islam.
The conundrum is this: While all Christian and monotheistic believers happily affirm that God and his ethics are good, the possible answers to the question require the affirmation of a second point, and that point is less willingly accepted. Indeed, there are two possible points, one for each answer to the question, and both are uncomfortable for monotheists.

If God’s morality is good because He commanded it, then that means that whatever He commanded would have been equally good. He could have commanded anything and it would have been just as good. God could have decreed that Wednesday was the holy day instead of the Sabbath. And that would be good. He could have decreed that murder or theft were good.

Our ethical and moral sense, therefore, comes from God’s commands. If He had commanded something else, then Christian moral sensibilities would be different. It is rather uncomfortable to think that Christian morality was open to all possibilities before God uttered His commands, and that He arbitrarily chose to declare some actions good and some actions evil.

The alternative answer to our question resolves this problem, but only by creating another one. If God commanded Christian morality because it was good, that means that each rule in it has an essence of goodness. Due to its inherent nature, then, and not because God said it, each command is good in and of itself. When all moral rules are taken together, that means there is a standard of goodness that is independent of God. The standard did not come from God, because then it would evidence the problem of arbitrariness and actually be the answer discussed above. Instead, this moral standard exists apart from God, and existed before God commanded the Jewish and Christian moral rules.

The problem this causes for Christianity, or for any monotheism, is that it creates something ultimate that is not God. It also implies that God is not omnipotent in the area of morality, but consults the standard to ensure the goodness of his moral rules. To be sure, the goodness standard is not a second god, and so does not require the conclusion of polytheism. But it does mean that God is not alone and that He did not create goodness, but instead followed a pre-existing standard of inherent good.

Of course, this theological conundrum has no impact on the specific character of Christianity’s moral rules. Its ethical demands remain the same whichever answer one takes, and even if one chooses not to address the question. For in the end, Christianity believes, God’s morality requires obedience, not understanding.

Thanks to James Rachel’s “The Elements of Moral Philosophy” (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1986). For information, see the section on Divine Command Theory.

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