How to Deal with Controversial Questions
Inter-religious dialogue today
For over six decades now inter-religious dialogue and tolerance have been expressly cultivated on our planet, mainly in a climate of emphasizing shared views. So now we could ask ourselves if we are ready to step up and approach the most controversial questions, those which have for millennia given rise to mutual offense, even wars, between the followers of three Abrahamic religions. In other words, is it possible now to get parties which have in the past clashed frequently to agree happily on a certain mode of viewing their differences?
All three of the Abrahamic religions have their origin in God, so they say. And in fact, in every one of them at least some people can be found who clearly show signs of having realized their relationship to the Creator. Thus all of them appear to contain a genuine path to that goal. Inter-religious conflicts and insults can therefore only be based either on deliberate ill-will or on mutual misunderstandings.
But the controversial issues also pinpoint the areas within the belief system of each of these religions which are likely to be misunderstood by their followers themselves.
If these misunderstandings and the wounds afflicted in the resulting disputes are to heal, it will be necessary to deal with the controversial questions – not defensively, but with a willingness to learn and to broaden and clarify one’s own viewpoint by understanding the perspectives of the others.
Please let me begin with an example taken from the realm of Islam, because it can highlight the whole complex of controversial questions:
According to Islam the Bible contains falsehood
The Holy Qur’an states – and in so doing gives offence both to Jews and to Christians – that the Bible contains falsified narratives. According to the usual Islamic account, Abraham, for instance, did not try to sacrifice his son Isaac but his other son Ishmael and this did not take place on Mount Moriah (the Temple Mount in today’s Jerusalem) as the Biblical tradition has it, but near Mecca. As a second example I would like to take the Qur’anic statement that Jesus did not die on the cross.
What would Jews and Christians need to understand in order to be able to accept these versions? At a first glance, this seems impossible. But if all three Abrahamic faiths are truly approved by God, as the adherents of each one of them believe, should it not be incumbent upon us to find a way to agree? What is it that’s preventing us – apart from our infantile desire to be better than the others?
If we want to understand we shall have to understand the context of these statements.
What is “truth”?
The first obstacle is rooted in a habit of our culture and our time: we tend to understand “truth” solely in a scientific sense. The Holy Books of the three Abrahamic Religions have a completely different understanding of ”truth”.
In our contemporary understanding of truth, two contradictory versions of the same story cannot simultaneously be true; at least one of them must be false. Yet the authors of the Holy Scriptures had no problem in reporting two contradictory versions of the same story: Saint Matthew, for example, has the lineage of Jesus end with Joseph, the spouse of Mary, but only two lines further down he states that Joseph is not the father of Jesus (Mt 1:16-18). In the account of the Jews passing through the Red Sea the Biblical author at first talks of a strong wind pushing the waters aside but in the very next line he tells us that the waters divided when Moses put forth his rod. (Ex 14:21)
The authors of the Holy Scriptures are not interested in historical accuracy; they are interested in the effect a story will have on the reader or listener. For them the story itself is not the truth; it is only a vehicle to transmit the truth behind the story. That transmission will have been effective only if the story causes the listener to experience the power which emanates from his relationship to the Creator, in other words, if the listener is brought into contact with some form of mystical experience. The form of the vehicle therefore can therefore never be open to dispute. The form of the story depends on the listener. He needs to be touched by the story, only then can the truth which it carries be effective.
The intention behind the Islamic statement
When he declares the Bible to contain falsehoods, the Prophet Mohammed is reassuring his listeners, telling them that it isn’t their fault if they are not sufficiently moved by the Bible. After thus freeing them of their anxiety the Prophet can present his message which touches his listeners because it is an act of direct communication.
As he is speaking to Arabs, he is narrating the Biblical stories from an Arab point of view. The Biblical stories of Ishmael and Isaac provide a unique chance to show his people their true roots: Abraham, the founding father of the Bible is their father too. We can see: divine inspiration is thoroughly rewriting not only the Bible but also the history of the Arab people. Healers, visionaries and prophets of all cultural traditions, and also the authors of the Bible, used and transformed traditional stories to provide their listeners with a clear set of landmarks for orientation in a perplexing world.
Now, which is wrong, the new Muslim version or the old Biblical stories? From a scientific point of view at least one of the two versions must be regarded as wrong, if not both of them, but neither the Bible nor the Qur’an is interested our “scientific” concept of truth.
Divine inspiration enlightens the listener
If we really want to understand the Bible or the Qur’an, we need first to understand what “truth” means for the Bible and the Qur’an. In other words we need to understand the central importance of the listener to the message: something that is considered to be true in one context may be false in another context and vice versa, depending on the perspective of the listener.
In an Arab context Ishmael will have to be the legal successor of Abraham, in the Jewish context it has to be Isaac.
These are the realities behind the Bible and behind the Qur’an.
In the Prophet Mohammed’s time and culture the Biblical stories sounded somehow out of place. They did not ring true for an Arab audience. They were, exclusively, tales of a different people. Therefore, if the listener was to be moved, an Arab audience would need an Arab perspective, any other perspective would appear to be ‘distorted’ – while the Jews, of course, need the Jewish perspective. The circumstances determine the capacity to understand; obviously, something that is right for one audience may sound wrong to a different set of listeners.
Did Mohammad traduce the Bible by narrating versions of the Bible stories that contradict the originals which are more than one thousand years older? No, in the view of Mohammed’s listeners, divine inspiration caused him to use the well-known Biblical material to create new originals. Muslims say the Archangel Gabriel transmitted them from the ‘eternal primordial Revelation’. Primordial Revelation is claiming the Bible to be falsified; with that claim the new listeners now get the true original. They are not just being told a traditional story; they are in immediate contact with the source of revelation. – And the Bible stories in both the Old and the New Testament were created/inspired/ revealed in a similar way.
The stories are told in order to transmit a truth; they themselves are not the truth. They are only the vehicles of truth. In its spiritual sense truth is not a matter of facts or of logic. Truth reveals itself in an existential experience, ultimately in the experience of the relationship of a specific human being to his Creator. To convey such experience is the sole aim of Holy Scriptures and of their stories.
This is true also for another Qur’anic saying:
Controversy 2: Did Jesus die on the cross?
The Qur’an states that Jesus did not die on the cross. Logically, this denies the very basis of Christianity: without the death of Jesus no Resurrection – a fundamental deconstruction of the whole Christian religion.
The Hellenistic formulae sounded alien to the Prophet Mohammed and his people. Nor, it seems, had he met any Christian who would have been able to communicate the experience of Resurrection. Jesus did not appear to Mohammed in the same light as he appeared to St. Paul. The basic story of Christianity had not led the Prophet Mohammed to an existential experience of truth. It therefore did not seem useful to his listeners; a new account had to be formed. He had to set against the Christian religion a new religion whose truth could be experienced by all those to whom he reached out.
Only the listener matters
Obviously, there is something we can learn from the authors of Holy Scriptures: since anything is always revealed to a given audience, to people living at a certain time, in a certain culture, with certain questions and needs, revelation is never timeless.
Nevertheless it always emerges from the timeless reality of human existence. In a person who is in contact with timeless reality, or as Jesus put it, who is in contact with the ‘Father’, the channel of revelation is open. The Qur’an calls this channel the ‘Archangel Gabriel’, because through it ‘God’, the eternal origin, can “speak” to human beings. In today’s language: the ability to make contact with timeless reality is available to us all in ‘human nature’. Under certain conditions human nature allows the channel of revelation to open.
But any specific revelation which flows through this channel is formed by the life-circumstances of the specific person who is revealing something and is therefore also framed by the spirit of that time. And thus in each new time or cultural setting any past revelation needs new interpretation – again by someone who is in contact with timeless reality.
Since the days of the Holy Scriptures many new ideals have come to the fore which played only a minor role back then, such as our current scientific notion of ‘truth’. Such shifts in value systems cause religions to be misunderstood or even to lose all credibility. So, after the relativity of the contents of revelation has become evident, how can we today experience the effect which was originally intended?
In my view that is possible only if these historic shifts in values are taken into consideration. Thus, one’s faith will undergo an evolutionary change. It will cease to be defined solely by identification with a certain group – especially if a majority in this group is identifying with a literal understanding of Holy Scriptures; faith will then – over and above any group affiliation – once more become an existential experience; in other words, the believer will be personally brought into a state of revelation; he will experience human nature, as it – of its own accord – bows to the greatness of the Creator. And along with that reverence there follows another essential experience: knowing that one does not have to accomplish everything by oneself – but that in real life one’s energy, creativity, endurance, etc. all derive from the abundance of the Eternal.
The value of one’s own tradition
The natural path to experiencing that abundance remains that of one’s own tradition. Yet now this tradition does not have the same significance it had before. While it is in no way devalued, its validity ceases to be exclusive. And one who attains this state of personal evolution will see: the notion of exclusiveness did not lead believers to the experience originally intended by revelation, in other words, to revelation itself – on the contrary, the narrowness of the old exclusivity gave rise to terrible atrocities – and as long as some members of any group continue to confuse ‘faith’ with group-identification – group-ego – there will, by definition, be outsiders and hatred and possibly even grave hostile acts.
Even when one’s own tradition is no longer seen as representing absolute truth, it remains effective, enabling honest seekers to obtain the existential experience of which we have spoken. And should one’s own tradition, for whatever reasons, not lead to the awesome awareness of the Whole, it will still be possible to get there using the paths of other traditions. Seeing the relativity of traditions in no way diminishes the seeker’s ability to attain a state of revelation – on the contrary, his chances will be rather better than those open to believers during the aeons dominated by automatic group-affiliation. Seeing the relativity of truth has therefore enriched us, because in addition to traditional paths to true spiritual experience, the seeker will now find true and unrestricted tolerance and respect for all other paths to God – and that, of course will contribute to worldwide peace.
In order to address the problems of group-identification, but without analyzing these problems the way we just did it, the Prophet Mohammed advised his followers simply to say in any religious controversy: “May you have your faith, and I have mine!” With that formula any controversy can be ended without a clash. The Prophet’s advice is still wise and commendable. Nevertheless, with today’s possibilities of scientific reflection we can go one step further and take up the antagonisms itself: by changing our perspectives we can learn to understand contradictions not as oppositions of true and false, but as arising from differences of culture and socialisation.
One example from Christianity:
Controversy 3: Is Jesus the Son of God?
The Christians say – and this offends both Jews and Muslims: Jesus is ‘the’ Messiah and ‘the’ son of God.
Jews feel offended, because with that statement they are told that they have missed the Messiah and have failed to recognize ‘the son of God’. And they have even been blamed for being ‘murderers of God’.
Muslims feel offended, because for them it is out of the question that God could have a son. Additionally the Christian notion of Jesus’ metaphysical nature also makes a later revelation, like the one of Mohammed, unlikely, for how could there be anything going beyond the incarnation of God?
So, how could the Christian understanding of Jesus, as the Messiah and the Son of God, be comprehended in a way Jews and Muslims could accept?
Jesus himself gives an explanation, Muslims can fully agree with. The gospel of St. John (John 10:33-38) records him saying (in short): why should I not call myself ‘Son of God’, as I know of my divine origin and as I am doing the will of my heavenly Father?
This is exactly how Muslims see the nature of any messenger of God. But Jesus’ view of himself is far from the later dogmatic formulae about the Holy Trinity. To understand these formulae it will be helpful to remember what I said earlier about new versions of old stories, how stories of older Holy Scriptures are retold in later Scriptures always adapted to the changed world of the new listeners; in this case the new listeners did not belong to Arab tribal cultures, but to the Hellenistic world of the third and fourth century A.D.. Whereas in the Bible every human being is a Child of God, in the Hellenistic heaven of Gods one single God easily could have one single son. For people acculturated in a Hellenistic world it was perfectly right to see Jesus as the only son of God. But in our time the Hellenistic formulae have lost their original connotations. They have degenerated to drab marks of group identification, and for many these marks have ceased to serve as paths to that immediate relationship with him, which Jesus had intended for every one of us.
Finally one example from Judaism:
Controversy 4: Is Jesus an historic person?
Jews usually reject Jesus by totally ignoring him. By ignoring him not only do they offend the Christians but also the Muslims, for in Islam Jesus is regarded as the greatest of the Prophets beside Mohammed himself.
In daily life Jesus bore witness to how the strict observance of the Jewish Law could easily lead to injustices and to obscure God’s mercy. He therefore emphasized the ‘spirit’ – in contrast to the ‘letter’ – of the Law. With that he opened the way for the later setting aside of the Jewish Law and the new moral tradition of Christianity.
But in so doing he also opened up a way for non-Jews to follow the insights of the Jewish Patriarchs and Prophets. Nevertheless, the Jews could not tolerate his relativization of their Law. It seemed to threaten their existence as God’s chosen people. For them it was therefore vital to cling to the letter of the Law. Thus they were able to secure their religious and cultural identity to this very day. – But for this they had to pay the prize: they had to eliminate from their collective memory one of their greatest sons.
Both Christians and Muslims can understand this today. For both of them tolerance therefore does not mean having to clench one's jaw and accept the unacceptable but rather to understand the existential threat Jesus meant for the Jews as a people and to accept their insistence on their view and, additionally, to accept their reaction to Jesus and to the new movement that began with him – because this is the truth from the perspective of the Jews.
In this way the most controversial issues between the Abrahamites can be resolved. It will, one hopes, have become apparent that these are just different aspects of one and the same subject. And it will also, one hopes, have become clear that these differences cannot be eliminated, because in a multidimensional world one and the same thing must inevitably look different when seen from different viewpoints. It should, moreover, also have become clear that not only space but time alters our perspectives and makes adaptations necessary.
And I again hope that you, the listener of today, can see that the followers of Islam will need to fully embrace the sciences and their potential to place everything in relation with everything else, in other words, to relativize it. Under the same scientific aspiration Christianity will have to open up to a terminology beyond the culture of Hellenism. Whether and to what extent modern Judaism may likewise be affected by a certain ideological inertia, the Jews will have to assess themselves.
After that there will be no obstacle to mutual recognition, mutual respect and living together in peace.