John Shelby Spong is one of my favorite theologians. All of his works have stuffed my private library, including my favorite, Why Christianity Must Change of Die. Irrespective of the fact that the message contained in the book is directed toward Christians, but it speaks very well to the very problem faced by Muslim nowadays.
If we swap the word “Christianity” in the above title with “Islam”, the message of the book is still relevant. Yes, both Islam and Christianity are faced with the same problem, i.e. the problem of literalistic reading of the Scripture. Sharing Spong in what he said in this book, there are myriad doctrines both in Islam and Christianity that we who live in twenty first century can no longer believe in without being subject to reinterpretation.
For instance, I can no longer believe in the doctrine that Islam is the sole path toward salvation, that Islam is the only religion that embodies the Divine Truth. The exclusivist claim such as that is widely found in any religion, particularly among the family of Semitic religions.
Paul Knitter calls this phenomenon as a “claim of uniqueness”. Almost all religions pride itself to be the unique path toward the truth, rendering other faiths or religions as a spurious or less capable of guiding people to the salvation.
Divine truth, as one mystic aptly describes it, is like a broken mirror with its pieces spread here and there. Each religion is like one piece that mirrors small part of the Truth. He or she who is out to seek the Whole Truth has to put hold on all pieces—an undertaking that is hardly capable of being accomplished by a single person. Divine Truth is beyond the reach of us the mortal human beings.
To think that one piece of broken mirror is the whole mirror is tantamount to arrogance, or takabbur.
Spong can no longer uphold such arrogant belief. He describes himself as a man who is strolling along the path of quest, seeking the truth. All believers are fellow seekers. Seeking is a process with no foreseeable end. I share Spong this vision of religion as a process of seeking truth without end.
Spong also describes himself as a “believer in exile”.
In the journey toward the truth, people tend to take the easy tack. The easiest way is to treat religion as an heirloom inherited from our ancient predecessors; to treat religion as a set of doctrines that have clear-cut boundaries or, more precisely, boundary (in a singular form). The easiest way to be in the way of being “religionist” is to follow the well-trodden path of the predecessors without daring to ask or challenge. To question what has been laid down as doctrines by our pious predecessors is tantamount to an act of heresy.
People like Spong is of different breed. He refutes to believe the way ordinary people who are content with well-defined doctrines believe. He chooses the harder way: to embark on an un-ending process of quest.
That is why he describes himself as the believer in exile. He breaks the rank with his fellow Christians who prefer the easiest way of being Christian. He is still a believing man, yet he is exiled and banished from his home of “birth”.
This is what I would like to call “liberal faith”, a faith that liberates us from the shackle of inherited set of doctrines believed to be a lasting truth for every time and place. The truth that many religionists try to bury deep beneath the carpet is there is a wide hiatus between what is claimed to be a religious doctrine and teaching and the real situation lived by its believers.
All thinking person would understand by the simplest common sense that many claimed to be divine teaching is closely correlated with a concrete situation lived by people of the yore.
Take for instance the ruling claimed by many Muslims to be an eternal truth because it is revealed by All-Knowing God, i.e. the teaching related to how women should dress in front of men. This is what is called hijab or jilbab in popular Muslim parlance.
According to many Muslim scholars, women are obliged to cover their whole body except their face and arm. Some other scholars even go further as to say that the face of women is also un-exposable; therefore it has to be entirely covered. Hence the practice called burqa, a woman’s outfit that covers her entire body including her face such as we see practiced widely in Afghanistan.
It is true that in Quran, there are verses that indicate toward that effect. Or precisely speaking, women are required by Quran to let their dress hanging loosely as to cover their bosom (or cleavage?) so that they are not subject to harassment—a practice that Quran indicated to be rampant among Arab society during the life of the Prophet.
I do not believe that covering the entire women’s body is a rule Muslim has to adhere to in all situations, and in all times. First of all, the divine rule that exhorts women to have their bosom covered is correlated with the context in which women are subject to men’s harassment in the Arab society of Prophet’s time. Secondly, the essence of Islamic teaching on dress is not how women practically should cover their body, but rather how they dress themselves decently so that they are not subject to social harassment.
Hijab or jilbab is just a practical example of how women during the life of Prophet should dress in a way that is commensurate with their dignity as human being. Dressing is a cultural practice that is always changing over time along the development of human civilization. The concept of decency is not a monolithic and fixed notion that applies in all societies.
Therefore, I do not believe that Islamic rule on jilbab is meant to be an eternal rule that is applicable permanently. There are many other things in religion, including Islam, which needs to be refreshed and read with a “new eye”.
To lock religion up in an antique vessel and shield it away from change and revisiting is, to me, an act of suicide. There are only two options for any religion as Spong rightly asserts: either to change, or die!
Let me end by quoting some lines from Spong as follow:
Institutional Christianity seems fearful of inquiry, fearful of freedom, fearful of knowledge—indeed, fearful of anything except its own repetitious propaganda, which has its own origins in a world that none of us any longer inhabits.
Please, don’t be misled by the word “Christianity” in the above citation. You can put “Islam” in its place, and the whole sentence still makes a full sense.