Bill Maher is on the heretics list, and the inquisitors are robing up. His heresy? Maher believes Islam has fundamental differences with Christianity. Wrong answer. The only acceptable answer is that all religions are the same, regardless of what their doctrines actually say. Maher fell on the wrong side of this dogma, opposing leftist faithful like Charlie Rose and Ben Affleck.
To help clarify the issue, Reza Aslan recently wrote a pre-heresy-trial amicus brief in The New York Times. Evidently Maher and most of us don’t really understand religion, leading us to say and think unenlightened things about it.
Excellent! I love it when sociology professors inform me what’s really going on in my mind.
What’s really going on—what we religionists just don’t understand—is that everything is culture-bound. “[R]eligion is embedded in culture,” Aslan says, and “far more a matter of identity than it is a matter of beliefs and practices.”
Scripture Is Just Words, Words, Words
Neither a jihadist nor I derive what we believe from any formal scriptural teaching. Rather, we interpret into the scriptures what we want, and what we want is rooted in our respective cultures. No objective doctrine could be culled from scripture, because “scripture is meaningless without interpretation.”
Let’s underscore that one: scripture is meaningless, as in, when the evangelists wrote their Gospels, whatever meaning they intended got submerged in an avalanche of intervening cultural history, making it incommunicable to me. So all that stuff I think I’m learning as I meditate on the writings of St. Paul isn’t real. It’s just me reading into Paul’s letters my cultural biases. So also for any Muslim as he reads the Koran.
So, if something illiberal happens in a Muslim country, don’t go digging around the Koran. Those passages about beheading exist only because, through the lens of culture, the Islamic State or Saudi Arabia read them into their texts. For different cultural reasons, Indonesia or Turkey don’t read them into their Koran. It all boils down to culture, nothing else. So don’t go blaming Islam.
As Aslan signs off his article, “failing to recognize that religion is embedded in culture – and making a blanket judgment about the world’s second largest religion – is simply bigotry.” Awesome! Maher is a bigot. Islam is off the hook.
Reza Aslan’s Postmodern Gnosticism
Now, let’s apply Aslan’s standards to himself. Can his religious outlook be reduced to his culture? And if so, does he apply the same awareness he expects from others, lack of which deserves the accusation of “bigot”?
Aslan claims to embrace Sufism, which is Islamic Gnosticism. This is significant, because as some commentators—notably Mark Judge, most recently—are beginning to observe, Gnosticism has the effect of ending all debate because it, as George Weigel said, “ignores the very fabric of reality.” In other words, how can you debate what 2 + 2 is when your opponent doesn’t believe there are such things as numerical value? When “wed to a coercive state”—as seems to be increasingly the case (as in gay marriage discussions), this becomes especially disconcerting. It leads precisely to the sort of thought-police antics Maher is now experiencing.
Aslan gives an insider perspective on how the Gnostic thought process works: “I take very seriously the Sufi notion that religion is an external shell that has to be shattered in order for the individual to be able to unite with the divine. The path that you take is irrelevant; the destination is what’s important. That affects not only my scholarship and my writing about religion, but my own spirituality as well.”
Gnosticism and Sufism, of a species with postmodernism, believe that, while most people dwell under that “external shell” of cultural elements that obscure pure knowledge—cultural elements like rituals, dogmas, mores, names, gender roles, familial relationships, even language itself—an elite few like Aslan can rise above culture and have a truer, transcendent, non-culture-bound religiosity, like Sufism. From his rarefied heights, like Giordano Bruno sticking his head outside the cosmic dome and seeing everything sub specie aeternitatis, Aslan has the luxury of being able to see all other religions but his own as altogether ignorant. From his heights everything blurs. What are doctrinal differences? What do they matter? Christianity and Islam? Same thing. It’s all culture-bound.
Apply Your Own Yardstick
But if all religion is culture-bound, and everything we think or believe is formulated through the lens of, in his words, our “own cultural, ethnic, nationalistic and even political perspectives,” is this not also true for Aslan and his Sufism?
Aslan’s dogmatic multiculturalism is akin to the liar’s paradox: “A Cretan says all Cretans are liars.” That statement cannot answer whether Cretans indeed are liars. Similar is Aslan’s claim that all thought is culture-bound. So, is the thought saying all thought is culture-bound itself culture-bound? The only way to break out of the paradox is to grant that a few people, like Aslan, are enlightened beyond others and able to see pure truth. They can essentially say, “Your thought is culture-bound, but not mine. I’m the one Cretan who tells the truth.” This is one of the classic features of Gnosticism: adherents can just claim they’re one of the elite few who really “get it.”
Yet, the irony is that, where Aslan might think he’s broken free from the external shell and sees everything sub specie aeternitatis—tossing out objective declarations from his perch atop the ivy towers of his sociology department—his story is as culture-bound as they come, a cookie-cutter spiritual product of current American culture, a coming-to-another-Jesus conversion story as mass-produced and culturally-bound, spiritually-speaking, as the Big Mac or Coke.
The Typical Progressive Conversion Story
In an interview last year, Aslan recounted the pilgrimage leading him to the perspective he took in his latest book, “Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth,” where he claims to get to the “real” historical Jesus. At fifteen he had “accepted Jesus into [his] heart.” But in college he learned from a professor the correct way to read Scripture, opening up for him the “wide chasm between the Jesus of history and the Jesus [he] learned about in church.” Around that time he “became an even more fervent follower of Jesus of Nazareth,” meaning that he lived his life “according to the social teachings preached by Jesus two thousand years ago.” Finally he became a Sufi.
In other words, big, fricking, eye-rolling yawn. His story is yet another Gnostic manifesto—a veritable postmodern creed—coming straight from the heart of trendy pop culture. To wit, please rise as we confess together: “I believe the faith I was raised in is by its very nature inauthentic for the simple reason it wasn’t chosen by me after my coming-of-age but imposed on me by those tyrants society calls ‘parents.’ When as a teen I gave my heart to Jesus at the local mega-church, I was almost there; the scales started to fall off my eyes. I began to understand faith as some sort of wispy love affair with some spirit being I called ‘Jesus’ at the time, something conjured up while rockin’ to the latest K-Love classic. But only at college did the clear-eyed, detached, objective reasoning of my professors guide me to the truth. And now I’m ___ (fill in blank with some Gnostic variant).”
How is this any different than every other closet Hegelian spawning from the soils of current American culture? Nineteenth century philosopher G. F. W. Hegel is one of the canonized apostles of our cultural Gnosticism, and he has all but re-written Christian doctrine for our day and age. All but a few stragglers got the memo. Aslan certainly got it. Hegel believed the big thing about Christianity wasn’t its formal doctrines, sacraments, and ecclesiastical order, but the social teachings of Jesus. Over time, these teachings will become so absorbed in our cultural DNA that we’ll no longer need a Church with its patriarchal, constricting, suppressing, suffocating choke-hold on the human soul—all its doctrines, sacraments, rituals n’ all. Instead, Christ’s teachings will become rarefied from these old “paradigms” and reconstituted through political movement, Hegel’s God-State.
Then We Get to Religious Bigotry
Hegelianism is one of the roots of the Social Gospel, which in turn became progressivism, which has evolved into modern liberal dogma. Hegel is why an atheist like Maher can lambaste Christianity while holding to liberal values which are essentially Christian ethical teaching abstracted from Christian dogma. Hegel also explains the narrative arc of Aslan’s enlightenment…his and just about every other college-educated American, which is to go to college, stop going to church, and claim a more “authentic” Christianity though mission trips and volunteer stints at the local soup kitchen (bonus points if you can get that resume-bait picture with poor brown people posing around you).
Like Gnosticism, Hegelianism also claims to transcend that external shell and see things as they really are. In his defining work, “The Phenomenology of Spirit” (1807)—the one that set progressivism and Aslan’s sociology on its course—Hegel was so bold as to proclaim, “To help bring philosophy closer to the form of Science, to the goal where it can lay aside the title of ‘love of knowing’ and be actual knowledge—that is what I have set before me.”
You all just love knowledge. I shall gain actual knowledge. OK.
This is the sort of paradox and ultimate bigotry political philosopher Leo Strauss identified in all the social sciences. Beginning with the non sequitur that human nature can be reduced to simple laws in the same way physical nature can, social scientists do the sorts of things Aslan did to me and all religionists. They claim what amounts to a gnosis (a secret knowledge available only to the privileged) about what’s really going on in the world and masquerade it as science, reducing our beliefs to simplistic, scientific-sounding shorthand like “religion is all culture-bound” and through that lens glossing over and dismissing real, doctrinal differences that actually do shape us, and for that matter, effect the course of history.
Because of his bigotry, Aslan has no self-awareness to contemplate he’s no different than the very religionists he washes over with the culture brush. We read culture into our scriptures; so does he in his latest book on Jesus. We embrace our religions because of our cultures; he claims Sufism because in post-sixties America joining exotic New-Age religions was the culturally trendy thing to do.
But again, in Aslan’s self-perception, he’s different. He’s special. He doesn’t get caught up in the weeds that are my (or a Muslim’s, or a Jew’s, or a Budhhist’s) heartfelt beliefs. All these beliefs, in his mind, are held for mysterious, sociological reasons we don’t really “understand.”
Is this not a unique sort of bigotry, a religious bigotry at that?
Differences Provoke Important Conversations
To say nothing of the fact that taking such a position allows for huge blind spots in one’s thinking. The liberal feels so broad-minded and tolerant as he catches the updraft of his rarefied pretensions and soars with his broad, liberal wings over all us religionists quibbling about silly rituals and dogmas. “They’re all the same,” he comfortably tells himself from heights where everything blurs.
But some of that quibbling is over rather important things. Some of that quibbling is over things like, how his wings are designed. Maher may be the first liberal aboard Air Icarus to contemplate that Christians actually designed the wings and issued a warning about the sun’s heat.
When, for example, Maher claimed to Charlie Rose that Islam often goes hand-in-hand with illiberality, Rose was quick to add that Christianity also goes with illiberality. It’s easy to say such moronic things from the rarefied heights of PBS. But Maher didn’t accept it, citing statistics and stuff our eyes tell us every day: Christians bombing abortion clinics is an aberration; Muslims being terrorists is not. Christianity led to Western liberal values; Islam didn’t. Or try this one, go check out the Wikipedia article entitled “Abolition of Slavery Timeline” and see who’s at the top and bottom of that list. This isn’t rocket science!
It was a wonderful moment, signaling that perhaps liberals will come down from their rarefied heights and grapple with real doctrinal issues that actually do divide the different religions, not along cultural lines but doctrinal ones. Let’s talk about the Christian doctrine of two kingdoms versus the Islam doctrine of jihad. Let’s discuss alternate theologies of the body or the problem of evil. Let’s get into, yes, creation theology. Let’s hear the different schools of thought. Let’s hear what authorities they claim. Aslan suggests that Jesus the zealot told his disciples to take up the sword too, just as the Koran does. Well, let’s take a look at times Christians took up the sword and see what theology drove them to do so. (Hint: Progressives might not want to turn over that rock.)
I don’t know all the answers to these questions, but let’s at least have a discussion, and not treat religionists like children who don’t “understand” why they believe what they believe. To do so, as Aslan has done, is a truly offensive and ignorant form of bigotry.
Peter M. Burfeind, a campus pastor at the University of Toledo, is author of Gnostic America: A Reading of Contemporary American Culture & Religion according to Christianity’s Oldest Heresy.