Islam as Progressive, Reformed Christianity: 10 Reasons We Don’t See That

Living here in Spain, for the last few months has given me a new appreciation of Islam. As some might remember, my wife, Peggy, and I are here with our daughter, son-in-law, and their five children (ages 3-14). We plan to stay till the end of June.  

Our rented apartment stands in Granada’s historic Albaicin district overlooking the 10th century Islamic walled city, the Alhambra. Right next to us you’ll find a mosque with a tall minaret. Five times a day we hear the muezzin summon us all to pray. Many of the churches here are also converted mosques distinguishable by their keyhole or horseshoe arches.

This intense Islamic presence has led me to rethink the prejudices I’ve inherited about Islam as backward, misogynistic, violent, and anti-Christian. For the most part, these are misconceptions.

Let me show what I mean. 

Islam as Christianity

To begin with, I’ve come to understand that Islam is a kind of reformed Christianity. Yes, I think It’s a branch of Christianity. In fact, one might say that the transformation of Christianity and the ecumenical movement itself began with Muhammad (570-632) in the 7th century – roughly 1000 years before the Great Reformation begun by the likes of Jan Hus (1369-1415), Martin Luther (1483-1546), and Jean Calvin (1509-1564).

As a Christian reformer, Muhammad (like some other “heretics”) recognized Jesus as the greatest of the prophets, but not divine. He evidently saw the divinity part as a Roman fabrication. At the Council of Nicaea (325) it turned the great Jewish Reformer into a dying and rising Roman mystery cult god like the Roman Legion favorite Mithra.

Mystery cults believed in gods who descended to earth, died, rose from the dead, and then offered to their faithful eternal life if they ate the god’s body and drank its blood under the form of bread and wine. The upshot for Christians was a central liturgical ceremony (the Mass) that in Roman times was mostly indistinguishable from mystery cult ceremonies.

Muhammad saw through all of that. He rejected Jesus’ divinization as a violation of Judaism’s (and emerging Islam’s) fundamental monotheistic principle. Consequently, and even apart from Islam as a separate religion, that rejection gives Muhammad his own place in the line of the great biblical prophets and reformers. His surahs in the Holy Quran could easily be considered a later addition to the Bible.

As an ecumenist, Muhammad recognized several religious traditions as inspired. Accordingly, his Islamic movement blended Jewish traditions, Christian beliefs, and Arabic spirituality and practice. So, 1300 years or so before the start of Christian ecumenism (at the Edinburg World Missionary Conference in 1910), Muhammad started the ball rolling.

As I’ve suggested elsewhere, Muhammad was also a type of liberation theologian. He was a champion of social justice and an early feminist.

Islamic Scholarship

Muhammad was as well an advocate of education and learning. And since Islam was undeterred by Vatican fundamentalism and its suspicion of science, Islamic scholars in centers such as Baghdad’s House of Wisdom anticipated by centuries the achievements of Europe’s Renaissance, Scientific Revolution, Enlightenment, and Industrial development.

So, precisely during the centuries when Christian Europe was sunk in its Dark Ages, Islam experienced a contrasting Golden Age of Learning across Eurasia and up into the Philippines. And this despite mighty resistance from Rome and Europe’s Catholic royalties still mired in superstitious darkness.

In fact, during the 1400 years that Europe was controlled by Moorish armies, Islam’s enlightened philosophers, theologians, mathematicians, astronomers, inventers, architects, poets, and artists did some of their best work (like our neighboring Alhambra) “over the heads” so to speak, of their resistant and backward European Inquisitionists.

It was only after the Moors had been driven from Europe that leaders like those mentioned earlier followed Muhammad’s lead with their versions of church reform. It was only then that artists like DaVinci and scientists like Copernicus, Galileo, and Newton copied (usually without attribution) the achievements of their scholarly Muslim antecedents.

Islamophobia

Well, if all of that is true, why do so many have such negative attitudes towards Islam? There are many reasons. Here are ten of them:

  1. Eurocentric Education: How many of us westerners (whatever our level of education) have studied Islam and its history? How many know that Europe’s “dark ages” were accompanied by that just-mentioned Golden Age of Islamic science and learning precisely within (but also far beyond) Europe’s borders? Speaking for myself, I must admit that my own Eurocentric schooling has excluded encounter with humankind’s most significant Islamic achievements. These include the monumental contributions of Muslim scholars such as Al-Farghani (+861) in astronomy, Avicenna (980-1037) in medicine, and Averroes (1126-1198) in philosophy.
  2. Christian Ideology: Christian ideology explains the eurocentrism of western education and its erasure of such Muslim highlights. That is, the west’s promotion of the prophet Jesus to the divine status of God’s only son inexorably led to the establishment of Europe as supposed ruler of the entire world whose principal rival was Islam.
  3. Christianity’s Deadly Syllogism: Christianity established itself as world hegemon according to something like the following quasi-syllogism. (1) Jesus Christ is God, (2) God owns the entire world, (3) The Catholic Church (led by Rome’s pope) is Christ’s representative on earth, (4) In God’s place, the church of (European!) Rome therefore enjoys the exclusive right to govern the entire world, (5) Lands (like Arabia) not controlled by the church are illegally occupied by God’s enemies, viz., Arabs (6) Those enemies deserve to die by holy wars and torture.
  4. The Legacy of the Crusades:  The holy war part of the syllogism’s conclusion took the form of Christian Crusades (1095-1291) aimed at “recovering” from Arabs parts of Arabia considered as belonging to Europeans according to the ideology just summarized. (Again, our Eurocentric education leaves virtually unquestioned the “fact” that Jerusalem and surrounding holy sites were European property and therefore “recovered” by the Crusades.)
  5. A Similar Legacy of the Inquisition: The torture practices of the Spanish Inquisition (1478-1834) were aimed precisely at Muslims and Jews. The atrocities and accompanying rationale left deep impressions of anti-Semitism and Islamophobia on the collective western psyche.
  6. Reducing Islam to Islamic Fundamentalism: The negative (but largely unconscious) legacies of Crusades and Inquisition have led most Eurocentrists to ignore progressive Islam and to identify it exclusively with its most narrow, closed, and conservative versions – for instance as practiced today in Iran or Saudi Arabia.  
  7. Ignoring Islam’s Political Achievements: As biblical and Jesus scholar Reza Aslan reminds us, there are 1.5 billion Muslims in the world.  Pakistan’s dominant interpretation of the Quran is not the same as Turkey’s. The same is true for Indonesia and Saudi Arabia. In Aslan’s words: in Turkey for instance, women “are 100% equal to men.” Muslims have elected seven women as their country’s head of state.
  8. U.S. Empowerment of Muslim Fundamentalism: Tendencies to reduce Islam to its fundamentalist versions have been aided and abetted by U.S. political and military practice. Over the years, the United States has given rise to and allied itself with Islam’s most reactionary interpretations. In Iran, for instance, decades of support for the ultra-secularist dictator, Reza Pahlavi, led to a nationalist pendulum swing that replaced him with an ultra-conservative form of Islam. In Saudi Arabia, the U.S. has allied itself with Islam’s most fundamentalist form, Wahabism. In Afghanistan, U.S. support of the narrow-minded Mujahedeen eventually gave rise to al-Qaeda and ISIS.    
  9. The Aftermath of 9/11: The latter, of course, have been blamed for the attacks of 9/11/2001. This in turn led to furious Islamophobia in the United States and among its allies.
  10. Misdirected Feminist Concerns: Again, Reza Aslan reminds us that Iranian and Saudi Arabian controversies over women’s attire are not universal in Islamic countries. Moreover, he points out that concerns about female genital mutilation do not represent an Islamic problem, but an African one. 90% of females in Eritrea undergo circumcision. Eritrea is a Christian country. 70% of women in Somalia are subjected to the practice. Somalia too is a Christian country.      

Conclusion

Muslims may not agree with my assessment of their religion as a kind of reformed and ecumenical Christianity. But I think the evidence is there and would love to hear from Muslims on this point. At the very least, Muslims and Christians have far more in common (good and bad, progressive and not) than our culture allows.

In any case however, (as Aslan suggests) Islam like Christianity and other spiritualities is “just a religion.” This means it is not inherently violent, patriarchal, backward, or misogynist. In those terms, it instead takes on the values of its practitioners. If they are violent, their practice of Islam (or Christianity) will be violent. If not, it will be peaceful. The same is true for patriarchy, misogyny, and rejection of science. With its 1.5 billion adherents, Islam is far too big and widespread to be pigeonholed in such stringent terms.

Living here in Spain has helped me realize all of that. It has exposed my Eurocentric miseducation while helping me think about and appreciate the west’s profound debt to the prophet Muhammad.   

“No Priests” Is the Remedy for the Priest Shortage: Notes for a Home Church (Pt. 4 of 4)

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A friend of mine recently told me, “If you’re trying to initiate something new (like reclaiming my priesthood) and the response isn’t ‘Hell yeah!’ you’re probably on the wrong track.”

Well, I haven’t yet heard many “Hell yeahs!” in response to my efforts to (as I said here) re-appropriate my priesthood and start a house church in Berea, Kentucky.

Oh, my very good and generous friends have humored me by showing up on Saturday evenings. But even the closest of them have made it clear that they were doing so out of a sense of duty, rather than enthusiasm.

On top of that, my own reflection on our gatherings has been less than “Hell yeah!” And that’s led me to think that perhaps the whole form of Eucharistic gathering (Mass) might be passé. Certainly, as Garry Wills has pointed out in his book Why Priests? “priesthood” as we’ve known it is beyond recall.

That’s not surprising, since the office of priest turns out to be foreign in the experience of the early church. In fact, no “priest” is mentioned In the accounts of Eucharistic meals found in the first two centuries of Christianity [e.g. in the Dialog with Typho and First Apology of Justin Martyr (100-165)]

Instead, we find mention of a presider – a proestos in Greek – whose function was to stand in front of the congregation, call it to order, and keep the meeting on track. That’s what proestos (the Greek word for the presider at the Eucharist) literally means – the “stander-in-front.”

“Priests” came in much later – and definitively after Christianity became the official religion of Rome. Then, as mentioned earlier, the Christian Eucharist took on the trappings of Roman “mystery cults,” like for instance the cult of the Sun God, Mithra, a favorite of the Roman army, whose birthday was celebrated each year on December 25th.

Mystery cults worshipped gods and goddesses like Mithra, Isis, Osiris, and the Great Mother. All of them descended from heaven, lived on earth for a while, and then ascended back to heaven. From there they offered eternal life to followers who in at least one cult ate the divine one’s body under the form of bread and drank his blood under the form of wine to attain eternal life.

Does that sound familiar?

Of course, it does, because that’s what Jesus became under the aegis of Rome. And priests were part of the syndrome. The new Christian Holy Men dressed up like their mystery cult counterparts, and performed a liturgy so similar to the pagan sacred meal rituals that most Romans probably couldn’t tell the difference.

Nonetheless, the pagan cults were eventually swallowed up entirely by Christianity, and believers were left with a ritual that resembled neither Jesus’ “Lord’s Supper” nor a blood sacrifice. Even the bread stopped looking like bread, but more like a plastic wafer.

But the priests remained, accompanied by an ideological lore that justified their existence by claiming that:

  • Jesus was a priest.
  • His apostles were the first Christian priests.
  • In fact, Jesus’ right-hand man, Peter, was the first pope.
  • Priests were necessary to forgive sin.
  • And to offer what was now called “the holy sacrifice of the Mass.”

Such convictions meant that priests became separated from ordinary Christians. The cleric’s alleged power to miraculously change bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ did that. Performing the miracle seemed to be something between priests and God. Mass was often “celebrated” by the priest alone accompanied by an altar boy.  Even in public, Mass rubrics had the priest facing away from the congregation in a sanctuary fenced off from the congregation by a “communion railing.” There priests completed their duties more or less in secret and using a language (Latin) that few besides the clergy could understand.

Mandatory celibacy also contributed to the otherness of priests. Largely to protect church property from priests’ heirs, the requirement became de rigueur for all priests in the Roman dispensation after the 12th century. Priests were so special that contrary to Jesus’ specific teaching about calling no man “Father” (MT 23:9), they could assume that title for themselves (as in referencing the pope as “Holy Father.”).

Priests signified their specialness by even dressing differently from other Christians – with the pope assuming all the trappings of the Roman Emperor.  Eventually, ecclesiastical life revolved entirely around the “clergy.” They alone were allowed to preach and even touch the sacred elements.

In all of this, the “faithful” were reduced to the role of spectators at priestly cultic events. All such rituals centered on the “Host” consecrated at Mass, and afterwards taking on a life of its own in its “tabernacle,” or displayed for “benediction” in a monstrance, which was sometimes carried ceremoniously in Eucharistic processions.

All of that changed with the Second Vatican Council (1962-’65), when the Church of Rome finally caught up with the Protestant Reformation. The Council recognized the “priesthood of the faithful” that Martin Luther had celebrated. Vatican II also described the Eucharist as a “sacred meal,” rather than simply as a “holy sacrifice.” The altar became a “table” and was turned around and moved closer to the people. More and more frequently, liturgical periti (experts) at the Council described the priest as a “presider.” Lay people were allowed to touch and distribute the sacred elements. Council fathers recognized Jesus’ “real presence” not simply in the Eucharist, but also in Sacred Scripture and in the community they referred to as the “Pilgrim People of God.”

Meanwhile the “search for the historical Jesus” that had begun in earnest with the work of Albert Schweitzer in 1906 took a giant leap forward with the emergence of liberation theology and its adoption by CELAM (the Latin American Bishops’ Conference). Liberation theology was reflection on the following of Christ from the viewpoint of the poor and oppressed, especially in the former colonial world.  It recognized Jesus as a poor peasant like his Third World counterparts. He was seen as thoroughly Jewish and as a resister to Roman Imperialism.

Far from being a priest himself, he was a foe of priests and all they stood for.

Such developments – Vatican II, its theological and liturgical reforms, new insights about the historical Jesus, and re-evaluations of the priesthood itself –  brought priests down from their pedestals; their office became déclassé. With their own baptismal priesthood affirmed, the faithful felt empowered. They spontaneously stopped “going to confession.” Priests everywhere experienced identity crises. Mandatory celibacy entered full debate. As a result, thousands of priests worldwide left the priesthood to marry.

In response, the hierarchical church tried to backpedal. While recognizing the teaching of Vatican II as its own official teaching, the long reign of Pope John Paul II (1978-2005) followed by that of Benedict XVI (2006-2013) gave Vatican II Catholics the feeling that the hierarchy’s honoring of the Council was mostly lip-service.

John Paul II and Benedict systematically replaced cardinals and bishops who had taken to heart the Second Vatican Council’s reforms. The reactionary popes also packed the College of Cardinals (who would elect future popes) with conservatives, made it more difficult for priests to “return to the lay state,” suppressed liberation theology, silenced and removed creative theologians from teaching posts, returned Latinisms to the Eucharistic liturgy, cooperated with neoliberal political regimes, and were generally backward-looking.

Perhaps most importantly, formation programs in Catholic seminaries took a sharp turn to the right. The priests who emerged from them showed little sympathy for conciliar reforms. They displayed ignorance of modern scripture scholarship or awareness of ecumenical theology, as well as any inclination to connect the Gospel with contemporary issues other than abortion or gay marriage.

Such rightward drift came to a sudden and unexpected halt with the election of Pope Francis, an Argentinian, and the first Global South pope in the history of the church. Ordained in 1969, Francis is a product of the Second Vatican Council and inevitably influenced by liberation theology, which was largely a product of Latin America.

His Apostolic Exhortation, “The Joy of the Gospel” (JG, 2013) was seen as his manifesto announcing an acceleration of Vatican II reforms. It called for a “new chapter” in the history of the Catholic Church and for the church to embark on a “new path” on which things could not be left unchanged (JG 25). Preaching had to improve, he said (135-159). The roles of women needed expansion (103-4). Outreach was necessary to Christians of other denominations who share unity with Catholics on many fronts (246). And the struggle for social justice and participation in political life was an inescapable “moral obligation” (220,258).

As for priests, Francis’ Exhortation continued the clerical downgrading implied in Vatican II reforms. The priesthood, the pope taught, represents simply a church function. It is a service not necessarily distinguished in dignity, holiness, or superiority from those rendered by other baptized Christians (204).

And there’s more. Recently, Leonardo Boff (a Brazilian liberation theologian silenced under John Paul II, but reinstated by Pope Francis) spoke glowingly of the current pope. “He is one of us,” Boff said – presumably referring to liberationist Catholics. In any case, Boff went on to speculate that Francis is about to address the Brazilian priest shortage by making possible the reinstatement of the country’s thousands of laicized priests. Boff also conjectured that the pope might be on the brink of allowing women to become deacons. Both changes would represent giant steps towards eliminating mandatory celibacy for priests and towards ordination of women.

CONCLUSION

But is any of those measures sufficient for resolving the priest shortage – or for addressing the irrelevance of the church noted at the beginning of this series of four essays? I doubt it.

That’s because the very bases of priestly powers are in practice no longer believable. I’m referring to the quasi-magic ability to turn bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ, and the authority to forgive sins in the sacrament of Penance. On these two functions, hangs all priestly authority and the entire special identity of the Catholic clergy.

And like the Protestant Reformers before them, many adult, thinking Catholics can no longer accept either. As we have seen, scripture scholars have shown that neither power enjoys biblical endorsement. They are inheritances from post-first century fundamentalists who lacked sensitivity to the rich symbolism of the words attributed to Jesus in the Christian Testament.

As explained earlier, that rich symbolism finds in a loaf of bread a wonderful image of the human condition. Its single reality summarizes it all. Bread is the product of seed, earth, sun, rain, and human labor. When shared it miraculously creates and sustains human community. Wine is similar. Throughout his life, Jesus celebrated the community that such simple elements manifest. His teachings reinforced that basic insight. He was a prophet, a spiritual master, and a religious reformer who preferred rough illiterate fishermen over pretentious, exclusive priests. That was a radical and liberating message.

The Protestant reformers saw all of that quite clearly. And so they did away with priests who insisted on being separate and special, while being honored with titles Jesus forbade.

All of this means that the reforms of Vatican II didn’t go nearly far enough. Pope Francis is correct. To survive, the church must embark on that “new path” he called for.  There nothing can be left unchanged (JG 25). The roles of women need expansion (103-4). Ecumenical cooperation with other denominations and religions must be centralized as well as the struggle for social justice (220, 258). Until all Christians in close cooperation with Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, New Agers, and atheists cooperate to attack injustice, the survival of the world itself is in doubt.

Evidently, Pope Francis himself has not perceived the implications of his brave words. Certainly, church leaders have not. It remains for the rest of us to take the lead.

Taking that lead was the thought behind my initial “Hell yeah!” to the idea of house church.