Saturday, July 18, 2009

Building Bridges?

Back on July 4th, Pastor Rick Warren addressed the annual convention of the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA). Initially, I saw only a few choice soundbites from Warren's speech. Those soundbites didn't lead me to believe that Warren's time here was what I would call well-spent, but it's hard to make that judgment without hearing the whole speech. I searched for a transcript online, but eventually had to settle for watching a video of the speech, which was 25 minutes long.

In Warren's speech, I found just a few things to appreciate, but unfortunately there was a fair amount in there that made me say "HUH???" I've done my best here to think things through and avoid knee-jerk reactions, but at this point I'm really having a hard time understanding just what it was Pastor Warren hoped to accomplish with this speech.

I will start off with what is far and away the best 'bite' from the speech, which happened fairly late in the speech:

When I talk about the civil public square, I'm not talking about a civil religion where everybody compromises their beliefs and we dumb it down so we really don't believe in anything. Differences make a difference, differences do matter. The right to believe anything does not mean everything is right.

I agree completely. Big rounds of applause. This appears to be a welcome slap in the face to post-modernism. Bravo. The only trouble is, earlier in the speech he said this, and the context was religious beliefs:

You can disagree without being disagreeable, you can walk hand-in-hand without seeing eye-to-eye, you can have unity in America without uniformity. We don't need that. I don't know if you've discovered this, but God likes variety. Have you noticed this? God likes variety, God likes diversity.

He goes on to describe, quite correctly, that God created 60,000 different kinds of beetles. He cites this as testimony for the notion that God likes diversity. Well, certainly there are diverse forms of life on the planet. But Warren was speaking in the context of religious beliefs, and when it comes to religious beliefs, God most certainly does not like diversity. Jesus is the only way. That sounds like uniformity, does it not? Now, granted, it should not be forced uniformity. But when Jesus said to go out into the world and make disciples of all nations, He wanted the disciples to spread the uniformity of the gospel, not diversity. So I'm not at all sure what point Warren is trying to make here. This statement sounds for all the world like religious pluralism. I don't know how a person could get anything else from it.

The tensions that we see around us in the world are not going to be solved by mere tolerance. Tolerance is not enough. People don't want to be tolerated, they want to be respected.

I know that Warren supported Prop 8 in California. And that's a good thing. I guess I would know better how to react to this if I understood exactly what he means by "tolerance." But again, this has a very post-modern "flavor" to it, with "tolerance" being a popular buzzword for the post-modern crowd. I'm not saying that's necessarily what Warren intended, but it definitely has that flavor especially in context. And by the way, I don't believe the tensions in the world are ever going to be solved by mankind at all, with or without "tolerance."

As the Holy scriptures tells us that since we are created in the image of God, each person has intrinsic value and dignity. We may disagree on the beliefs, we may disagree on the behavior. But we are called and commanded to treat each other with dignity and respect.

Let's break this down into three parts. Two of these three sentences I agree with:

As the Holy scriptures tells us that since we are created in the image of God, each person has intrinsic value and dignity.

Absolutely right. No problem there.

But we are called and commanded to treat each other with dignity and respect.

Well sure. I agree with that, too. All humans are called to treat each other with dignity and respect. Now put the third sentence together with the second:

We may disagree on the beliefs, we may disagree on the behavior. But we are called and commanded to treat each other with dignity and respect.


Well, surely Warren deserves applause for speaking the truth here in the first and third sentences. But throw the second sentence into the mix and everything goes sideways. The question you have to ask is this: "Who commands us to treat each other with dignity and respect? God of the Bible, or Allah?" You see, it turns out that the matter of who and what God is is one of the beliefs about which Christians and muslims disagree. In spite of the popular understanding, Allah and the God of the Bible are not the same entity. This is crucial, because it determines whether you're going to accept the Koran with its set of commands and principles or the Bible with its set of commands and principles. And yes, the commands and principles are very different.

So Warren says we may disagree on beliefs. But then he cites this command to treat each other with dignity and respect, a commandment with which they don't agree! Well if it's okay to believe different things, then why present the commandment to them? Do you see my quandary here? The two religions are different. Sure… we're taught to try to convert unbelievers to Christianity. But we're not taught to kill people that won't make the switch!! We are taught to treat the unbeliever with respect in spite of their unbelief.

Muslims and Christians can work together for the common good without compromising my convictions or your convictions

I don't see how this is possible, given what Islam actually teaches. Working together with Christians without killing them seems to be a compromise of what should be muslim convictions. Don't get me wrong… it would be a compromise I would welcome (them compromising, not me) but I don't see how they can, as truly good muslims who follow the Koran, do what Warren asks and not compromise their convictions.

I can't know Warren's intentions here. Maybe Warren has some brilliantly conceived incremental strategy that we don't know about. That's possible, and I wouldn't necessarily be opposed to such a thing. But I am opposed to any strategy that gives any support at all to a post-modern, pluralist view of religion. And whether Warren intended it or not, the vast majority of his speech comes across that way.

To reinforce all of this, consider the comments of a muslim attendee named Ann Zahra, who, according to the Associate Press, said she had never heard of Warren before Saturday but agreed with much of his speech.

"The basics are the same. No religion teaches cruelty or disrespect or hatred."

Before I actually heard Warren's speech, I was prepared to conclude that this woman simply may not have been listening. But now that I've heard the speech in its entirety, it's obvious she was listening. Warren's speech contained nothing to challenge this woman's beliefs. She took from it a message of religious pluralism. She came away with her false beliefs reinforced. How is that helpful? The basics are not the same, and some religions most certainly do teach cruelty, disrespect and hatred. Islam is one of 'em.

I guess I can't really blame Warren too much for the content of the speech, because I cannot imagine that ISNA did not insist on approving the content of Warren's speech ahead of time. And that's no criticism, by the way… it's their event, they have that right. ISNA should not be expected to allow Warren to say anything meaningful from a Christian viewpoint… they're going to restrict the content of Warren's speech to vague platitudes in order to 1) prevent the truth from being presented and b) to perpetuate the myth that Islam is a "peaceful" religion.

Assuming that ISNA had such oversight, I think it's fair to be critical of Warren for having accepted their terms. True, if he hadn't, he would not have presented at all. But what's the difference? Either way, these muslims will go on believing what they believe, and by giving the speech, Warren has given many more people reason to think that "God likes diversity" when it comes to religious views. This is no help at all, I'm afraid.

The lesson here is not that Rick Warren messed up. Rather, I think the lesson here is that evangelizing muslims is something that is best done on a person-to-person basis where we don't have to operate under the Islamic authority structure. It's not that I'm opposed to evangelizing a large group of muslims, that's fine. But I can't find any evangelism in Warren's speech, and I think it's obvious that ISNA would not have allowed it, anyway.

Monday, July 06, 2009

Faith Against Reason?

I heard a particularly helpful--and brief--analysis of a common problem we face in Christianity having to do with how we discuss faith and reason.

It's all too common for Christians to shrink from employing reason when discussing their beliefs, their "faith". And part of the problem there is a misunderstanding of what "faith" is and what role "reason" has in that faith.

It's common to hear the view expressed that reason has no place in matters of "faith". Many people understand "faith" and "reason" to be two distinct categories, where reason cannot be employed in matters of faith and faith cannot be employed in matters of reason. In these folks' minds, faith and reason are opposites and "faith" is something you employ only when reason is not available.

Well it turns out this is a critical mistake. Faith and reason are not opposites at all. And it doesn't take a whole lot of reflection to see why:

Reason is not the opposite of faith. Rather, "unbelief" is the opposite of "faith". "Faith" means to trust that something is true, and so the opposite of "faith" would be to not trust that something is true. Similarly, reason has an opposite, but it's not "faith". The opposite of "reason" is "irrationality" or, that which is unreasonable.

Given this understanding, it's possible to have faith that is entirely consistent with reason, and it is possible to have faith which is irrational or unreasonable.

That's simple enough, isn't it?