Friday, 13 February 2015

Islam and Christianity: spot the difference

US President Barack Obama is often easy to understand. He speaks clearly and precisely with a good grasp of most topics. Then he goes and compares the crusades with the militant group Islamic State (IS) and leaves many wondering if he understands this at all.

“Unless,” said Mr Obama at a recent speech, “we get on our high horse and think this is unique to some other place, remember that during the crusades and the inquisition, people committed terrible deeds in the name of Christ.”

Both Islam and Christianity do share a common ancestry, but their differences are profound. They are also impossible to notice if Mr Obama continues to insist on playing “who’s the worst killer?”.

The path each religion took diverged in early and important ways. There is a reason why Christianity is associated with the dominant system and Islam is not. That reason is reason. Christianity gained it, while Islam did not travel north. Let me explain.

Why do we still talk about Christianity today, fully 2000 years after it began? It is not because Christianity is objectively true, rather it was Christianity’s phenomenal ability to subsume the existing Greco-Roman system that made it so successful.

There were three successful ‘Desert Religions’: Judaism, Islam and Christianity. Despite being older, Judaism could not influence the Roman system because its structure does not compel adherents to proselytise. To become a Jew is difficult unless one is born into the religion. Conversion was never an overriding priority.

By the time Western civilisation developed, Judaism was a marginal religion spread across the known world in small, isolated societies keeping mostly to themselves. It has remained largely that way ever since. However, both Christianity and Islam focused on conversion to thrive.

Each used the concept as central to its existence, instructing its followers to proselytise to the entirety of humanity. Those instructions spurred believers to experiment with the two religions, trying to fit them into the wider Greco-Roman culture. Christianity wasn't the best, but it went the right way.

Because more important than conversion was Christianity’s historical direction. It spread north into the Roman Empire by, crucially, stopping just long enough in Greece. In Greek culture, the concepts of rationalism and logic had already become part of the larger Roman system.

Greek logic was heavily influential on early Christianity with the writings of St Paul in the New Testament who repackaged the religion from an abstract mythology of pure spirituality and hero worship into a religion that could operate with the existing Roman system, rather than against it.

Paul argued for Christianity’s veracity, a simple process not repeated with Islam and Judaism. He knew how to speak the hegemonic language of the Roman and Greek cultures and how to manipulate those cultures to spread this new idea. Without Paul and his application of rationalism, Christianity could have floundered in its infancy. But there is a parallel to Christianity’s success.

Emperor Flavius Constantine was renowned for his superstition, experimenting with an allegiance to various gods in attempts to bring good fortune to his armies. His bouncing process of elimination is itself an artifact of the influence of Greek logic and rationalism on the dominant Roman system.

Constantine became emperor of Rome by defeating competitors Maxentius and Licinius in 324 AD. The crucial moment for Christianity was when the emperor expediently adopted the religion after the battle of Milvian Bridge where he fought rival emperor Maxentius’ much larger army.

Before the battle, Roman historian Eusebius describes Constantine’s hallucinatory vision, where, while marching at midday, "[he] saw with his own eyes in the heavens a trophy of the cross arising from the light of the sun, carrying the message, In Hoc Signo Vinces, or ‘with this sign, you will conquer’ ”.

The battle was brief. Constantine’s army broke Maxentius’ forces and the rival emperor drowned in the waters of the Tiber while attempting to flee. Following the battle, the new emperor of both the western and eastern Roman empires attributed his victory to his coincident belief in Christianity and began amalgamating the religion into the state.

At the time Constantine chose the symbols of Christianity, the small religion was a growing political force in Rome. As an already heavily superstitious emperor he fixated on a comforting and familiar idea. Milvian Bridge offered confirmation bias and, coupled with the stress of controlling a temporarily united empire, Constantine needed a popular idea. Christianity ticked the boxes.

It was malleable and impressively complementary to the existing system and most importantly it did not threaten the emperor’s rule. St Paul’s early insistence that Christians follow Jesus’ instruction to “render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and render unto God the things that are God’s” gave Christianity powerfully adaptive attributes for inclusion in a much stronger system.

Had the religion retained its early concept of forcible change in society (Jesus once said, “I come to bring a sword”), the idea may never had taken root.

Other religions which did preach forcible changes had been considered enemies of the state by the Romans which constantly suppressed them. Christianity, with its connection to logic and rationalism and an explicit command to be conciliatory to the existing system eventually led an emperor to include it in the dominant society as a tool of his power.

Christianity’s success is in its adaptability to whatever existing societal structure it enters and its finely-tuned framework of separating church and state by maintaining the distance between those in power from those without.

Islam, however, did not travel north. It traveled south.

Part 2 here


Anonymous said...

Unfortunately Mr Obama’s speech was ill-advised. Maybe he should try such a speech in Saudi Arabia and talk about the ‘high horse’ of Islam. I doubt he would make it out alive. Making these comments in the ‘Christian’ west was a contrast of major extremes. He was able to freely say those comments and freely leave with his head intact.

The argument that Christianity changed considerably because of Greek and Roman influence shows a misunderstanding of the Christian message and its spread. The message of Christianity is one of freedom from sin; freely given and freely received. The early Christians related this message in a way that attempted to fit the cultural milieu around them. Paul was a master at this. He went to Greece and preached the gospel and was successful, but the gospel didn’t become unchangeably Greek. It became relatable to by the Greeks as a consequence of Paul’s teachings. Just as Christian missionaries now go to diverse cultures worldwide and contextualise the message. This doesn’t make that message different. Just understandable by the audience. Christianity is more about the message than geographical location. Paul encouraged the listener to understand the message in his/her own context first in order to point them to something greater beyond. Moreover, Christianity flourished under persecution before Constantine. It was already established.

The argument that says Christianity is an equal religion to Islam because it developed in a desert and was monotheistic, is too simplistic historically. Muhammad was a troubled man, rejected (wrongly) by Christians and who had a dubious dream from an angel. This began a monotheistic religion spread via the sword. Christianity was begun by a man, purporting to be God incarnate (and arguably so) who gave of himself freely for the chance that men might freely decide to reconcile to God. Enforcement of this forgiveness of sin by the sword or by intimidation of any kind was not Jesus’ message. If that happened, those people were not followers of Christ.

These two Gods may be monotheistic, but they are not the same person in concept or person by comparison.

Moreover, the worldviews of Islam and Christianity differ widely. For Muslims, God is a person that demands his followers to obey to an extent that breeds a type of fatalism. One that subjugates events and actions to the Muslim God. No matter what a Muslim does, it’s what Allah wills. The Muslim must be subservient to any command. An argument from the Old Testament occurrences of God’s so called ‘genocidal commands’ is made to show Christianity endorse similar practices is mistaken on a number of counts.

Following this is the assertion that because Christianity went North and caught a whiff of Greek thought, it flourished and if it had gone South, like Islam, it would have developed differently. However, I think this simple dichotomy of the North/South argument fails to hold water. Take the history of science for example. Science was able to flourish in Western thought and practise because Christianity held that God was the God of the ‘whole show’ and therefore made the material universe intelligible and able to be reasoned with and discovered. Newton et al began the modern scientific enterprise based on this worldview. If Christianity had spread to the South, maybe parts of the Middle-East or Africa would have been the powerhouses of scientific reasoning over history.

As for Christ’s message to his disciples in Luke 22:36 where it is stated “He said to them, … and if you don't have a sword, sell your cloak and buy one.” In contrast to this requirement though is the 6th commandment which forbids murder, ‘thou shalt not kill…” Also, Matthew 26:52-53, “Put your sword back in its place”. So what are we to make of Jesus sayings? Was he incorrect to command the disciples to be ready to kill and confused and forgetful of his own earlier words? Or was something else was going on. This is where we need to be careful in interpreting scripture out of context for other motives.

Anonymous said...

The OP's basic point is true: Islam in practice urges people more strongly to effect change in society. However, I would note that Muslims had extensive contact with rationalism and produced lots of commentary on philosophical works and to what extent they are compatible with Islam. The existence of apologetic Christian literature seems like a strange thing to credit with its popularity, though. My impression is that the "arguments" came much later historically.

But actually none of this has anything to do with Obama's point: that historically people have committed atrocities in the name of Christianity as well.