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Rick PlastererAugust 3, 2012
Is questioning and reason important for God, and what happens in a culture that sets these things aside as impious? That was the issue considered in an early August discussion by the Westminster Institute, in which Ant Greenham of Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary discussed his new book, “The Questioning God: an Inquiry for Muslims, Jews, and Christians.”
The Westminster Institute has an office in the Washington, D.C. area and often hosts events exploring Islam. Southeastern Seminary is based in Wake Forest, North Carolina and is one of the largest seminaries for the Southern Baptist Convention. Greenham is Assistant Professor of Missions and Islamic Studies.
A former South African diplomat who served in Israel and Jordan, Greenham maintains that the Biblical God teaches by questioning. Human beings as created in the image of God naturally reflect this, and we have an interminable desire to know more and to question what we have been told. Jesus often taught by questioning those who came to him, rather than by giving his listeners a didactic sermon presenting a complete doctrine. The same questioning approach can be seen throughout the Bible, Greenham claimed. The parable of the soils was given as an example of a teaching the meaning of which is not immediately obvious, but which yielded meaning to questioning.
Questioning is essential to personal relations, Greenham maintained, as well as being essential for rationality. The science and technology that developed in western, Christian culture depends critically on belief in cause and effect relations, questioning what we already know, and learning more by testing and personal communication between researchers. The method of the Wright brothers at the beginning of the twentieth century in achieving true flight by propulsion was given as striking example of learning by questioning and personal interaction. If we are presented with a reality we cannot question, our ability to understand it is severely limited, and thus our ability to engage it is severely limited. This in turn leads to a cultural tendency to deny personal responsibility, since we are not responsible for what we cannot understand and engage.
Greenham held that such an unquestioning culture has been the bane of Islam from its inception. He noted that the word “Quran” or “Koran” literally means recitation, and denotes the revelations Mohammed believed he received from the angel Gabriel, beginning with the first in a cave. These revelations cannot be questioned, only recited, and thus in a significant measure, they cannot be understood. This dogmatic approach to the Koran did not go unchallenged in Islam’s early centuries; there were Islamic rationalists, the Mutzallites, who endeavored to introduce reason into the understanding of the Koran. Their opponents, the Ash’arites, who held the Koran to be uncreated and impenetrable to human reason, prevailed in Islam by A.D. 1111 Greenham claimed that among the more important Ash’arite doctrines is “atomistic occasionalism,” which holds that God specifically wills each event that happens in the world, with no real cause and effect relations between them. This in turn means that there is no good ability to predict the future based on the past. He noted a recent claim by Nigerian Muslim leaders that it is irrational to claim that evaporation and condensation causes rain. Loss of the ability to rationally understand the world in terms of cause and effect in turn leads to a loss of personal responsibility, since God, not man, causes what happens in the world. Because God commonly works in the same way, it is not completely impossible to predict the future, but God can always change his mind. The commonly used term “Inshallah” (if God wills) expresses this, and is often a justification for neglecting one’s responsibilities. Negligence in discharging duties in projects, noted in particular by the American military in the Middle East, is one observed example of this. Failure to respect traffic regulations is another. Thus the very passion that Muslims have to fidelity, or submission, undermines both their ability to understand what they are being faithful to, and rationality in understanding the world. He called this dogmatic approach to truth “answerism.”
While Muslim apologists often point to the preservation and advance of knowledge in early Islamic culture, Greenham pointed out that many of the scholars in this culture were in fact Christians or Jews. But he also claimed that contemporary North American Christians have their own problem with “answerism,” in tending to prefer short, comprehensive answers to problems. In addition to being a revelation that allows Christians to engage God and the world rationally, the Bible also has a doctrine of original sin, strongly denied by Islam, that allows Christians to guard against their own dogmatism. A more Biblically faithful approach to God seeks to inquire into the meaning of God’s revelation in the Bible based on an awareness of sin, the personal and social realities that we actually find in the world, and a personal, ongoing, relationship with God.
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