Thursday, November 11, 2010

Faith Works 11-13

Faith Works 11-13-10

Jeff Gill


Doctrinal Teaching and Reasoned Responses



Anwar al-Awlaki doesn't like you.


Well, maybe not "you," but if you are an American, a pretty safe generalization for these parts.


American-born, this Islamic clergyman has said some pretty awful things from the safety of Yemen, arguing that killing Americans requires no extra theological justification as Islam normally requires of its adherents when considering defense or warfare.


It's us or them, says al-Awlaki about us, of whom he once was, and says that we, which I gather he isn't one of anymore, are devils.


Let's just establish right off the top that Islamic teachers and interpreters, often known as "Imams" (roughly equivalent to calling clergy Reverends), have said around the world that this fellow is wrong. He represents Islam about as well as Fred Phelps represents Baptists (let alone Christians).


Now, we've all heard the saying "one and God make a majority," first said by Frederick Douglass when the abolitionist movement, before 150 years ago, knew they didn't have the votes but were certain they were right.


Some ask if al-Awlaki might actually be representing Islam more accurately than the large numbers of imams who say he's an angry man in error. I suppose it's a fair question to ask, but there's an answer in what's generally known as doctrine.


Islamic doctrine is not hard to find and research, and tells even a casual reader that the weight of Islamic teaching is towards self-mastery and submission to the Muslim understanding of God's will. Is there a history of conquest and imperial expansion tied up in that? Sure, and we Christians have the Crusades and Manifest Destiny to account for, but it doesn't overwhelm the clear teaching from Christ in the Gospels down through the mainstream of the church against violence and killing.


Doctrine is very much out of vogue in mainstream American society today, and most US faith communities have tended to follow that fashion. Doctrine is kept in the background, de-emphasized, and often mentioned only to say "oh, but you really can make up your own mind about that."


One very immediate problem with the "downsizing" of doctrine is that it makes it much harder to argue against your own radical dissenters. When a Fred Phelps says "I'm a Christian," is there any coherent argument, other than a passionate and emotional one, that you can quickly deploy to make the case that he's not who he says he is?


And for a Muslim, it really helps to have a consistent, sensible body of teachings to which one can appeal to show that an al-Awlaki is not only outside of the heart of your tradition, but actually not telling the truth about it by arguing that you can commit terrorist acts as a legitimate struggle against "devils."


Less dramatically, but I'd say almost as significantly, the loss of doctrine makes it hard to enter into dialogue with a different group. I'd assert that one of the big challenges for the modern Christian ecumenical movement is that for most worshipers, it's hard to figure out what we even have to discuss, since we all pretty much believe the same thing, right?


I'd want to say, cheerfully and non-anxiously, no, that's not true. Most of the religious traditions active in Licking County today have some central, dare I say doctrinal propositions that are not the same as the church down the street. Discussing these teachings, these doctrines, help us understand what we believe versus what we just prefer, or want, or like. Faith is a superstructure that stays put, even as the shingles and siding get swapped out over the decades and centuries.


Does doctrine build barriers, or does it help us figure out where we can put doors and windows? I think it's very useful to do just that, and sometimes, it helps us put a wall where one belongs.


A wall which lets folks like Phelps and al-Awlaki know exactly where they stand, which is outside in the cold.


Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and supply preacher around central Ohio; contact him at or follow Knapsack @Twitter.