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Truth, Integrity and Tolerance: Terry Jones and Religious Literacy 20 January 2011

Posted by Dr Moose in Faith, Ponderings.
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I was most interested to hear a brief interview on Radio 4’s Today programme this morning with the Banned American Pastor, Terry Jones. It highlighted the difficulties of holding distinctive religious opinions in a pluralist society, a pluralist society where tolerance can easily be understood as the imposition of lowest common denominators.

I would not condone burning a copy of the Qu’ran in protest at Fundamentalist Isalmic Extremism any more than I would condone burning a copy of the Bible in protest at some deviant Violent and Fundamentalist Christian groups. Burning books serves no purpose, certainly not in this context, even without an understanding of the place of the Qu’ran within Isalmic thought as being closer to the place of Jesus within Christian thought than the Bible.

Pastor Jones clearly stated that he held Jesus Christ to be the One true way to salvation, and Islam to be “of the Devil.” This is not a deviant off-shoot of Christian faith but a legitimate historical and contemporary interpretation which is adhered to by many practising Christians today, and I personally know many who would agree with the statement.

He even went so far as to claim that this is the position of the Anglican Church. This is true in so far as it goes, in that no one position seems to be held by the Anglican Church and that a plurality of interpretations is almost a defining mark, certainly of the Church of England, if not some of our sister African churches.

Herein lies the problem. Christian faith, like many other historic faiths, while rooted in it’s scriptural sources of revelation, exists within the context of changing times, scholarship and understandings. The interpretation of all other faiths as being inspired by the Devil is one legitimate interpretation among many. It is admittedly simplistic and reductionist, but still valid. It does not seem to be neccessarily consistent with the practice of the very earliest Christians, as it is part of the developing understanding of the Christian faith, but neither are many of our practices.

Within Christian understanding of the nature of God and the universe is the existence of the Devil, the paramount, but not omnipotent, opponent of God’s purposes. To ascribe the creation and promotion of alternate faith systems (Judaism excepted), which by their very nature and existence distract from the practice and promotion of the “true”, Christian faith, to Demonic inspiration is consistent and logical.

So, however, would be the attitude that understands other faiths as mis-understandings of divine revelation or as misguided human attempts to explain and attain connection with the divine. And that’s just scratching the surface.

The danger of the Fundamentalist view, as espoused by Terry Jones, is the reduction of all arguments into a series of binary oppositions based around the “if it’s not of God, it’s of the Devil” stance. Within this there is little space for human action and responsibility. However, at the opposite end of the spectrum, as greater and greater emphasis is based upon human ability,  and increasongly nuanced, subtle or variant positions are held, there is the loss of any absolutes as points of reference or doctrine. (I well rememeber in the wake of the Dunbaine shootings the tenor of a commentatator in the Guardian who appeared to be shocked at having to re-consider the possibility of the reality of evil, for example).

In the interview Pastor Jones revealed a clear awareness of the challenges of holding a faith position, in tension with the values of a liberal western society and the rights it enshrines, even if those stand in direct opposition to those of belief. It is a question that all people, of all faiths, must must answer and continue to answer if the faith is a real and genuine to them.

If any readers are still with me by this point I suspect the best way for me to understand the challenge of Isalm to Christian faith is best dealt with by viewing it ultimately as a Christian heresy, a deviation from the truth. There is no simple call to scriptural precedent to deal with a faith that arose after the canon of Chrsitian Scripture. Certainly Mohammed lived in a culture which had perverted and distorted some of the facets of Christian faith, meaning, for example that a Muslim understanding of the Christian concept of the Trinity could genuinely be compsed of God the Father, Mary the Mother, and Jesus the Son. Islam claims to be the final and correct revelation, freed from the errors of both Judaism and Christianity.

While liberal western Christians and Muslims may well find much that is honourable and worthy of imitation within one another’s faiths, they would agree that the faiths are not the same. Muslims are just as likely as Christians to clearly say that they believe the others faiths to be wrong, and plainly so. While various Christian groups may debate the need or reality of charismatic phenomenon such as speaking in tongues there are Muslims who wold very clearly label such practices as unquestionable Satanic, so the ascriptions are on both sides.

There are two very real challenges to all people of faith that the current situation reveals. Firstly, the need of courage to honestly and openly live, proclaim and explain our faith in an increasingly secularised, but more importantly a spiritually-and religiously- apathetic and-ignorant society, one which lacks in many cases the will, or the tools, to engage.

Secondly, there needs to be the continued fostering of inter-personal and inter-faith relationships that allows a free sharing of each other’s positions in regard to faith and practice. This is potentially dangerous, of course, as there are plenty of points for conflict. For example, I understand that while most Muslim users of the Chaplaincy Centre may, and indeed should, regard me as plain wrong in my faith, this has never been said. Likewise my frustrations over the culturally, and maybe unconscious, arrogance of presumption of Muslim primacy in the use of space. Nevertheless it is entirely possible to enjoy good and wholesome relationships between individuals as long as disagreements are treated with respect, courtesy and acceptance of the other, virtues which are far more likely to lead to change that simple proclamation and slanging matches.

Very little of what Terry Jones said this morning can genuinely be considered infammatory of itself. However, removed from the context of an understood faith, and especially given the attempted co-option into a wider right-wing agenda, I can understand the problem. Perhaps the greatest irony is that, should Pastor Jones have been allowed to speak unhindered it is entirely possible that many within his audience might well ahve actually been exposed to a proclamation of the truth of Jesus Christ, through whom I will be bold to say, lies the path of salvation, a salvation which is as much freedom from political agendas, bigotry and misguided zeal, as any freedom from sin and judgement. And that, of course, might have been rather good news!

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1. Ken's Cushion » Belief – The Path Has A Beginning. - 25 January 2011

[…] Truth, Integrity and Tolerance: Terry Jones and Religious Literacy (drmoose.wordpress.com) […]


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