Theology As “Intellectual Foam”

Millman, Dreher and I have been debating the importance of certain violent passages in the Koran. Razib Khan has a long, fascinating addition to the debate. Read the whole thing, but this is the gist:

Theology and texts have far less power over shaping a religion’s lived experience than intellectuals would like to credit… On many specific issues I agree with Rod Dreher a great deal when it comes to Islam. I do think too many Muslims and their liberal fellow travelers attempt to squelch justified critique of the religion by making accusations of bigotry (I’m on the receiving end regularly). Obviously I disagree with that. But, where I part with Rod is his “theory of religion.”

As a religious believer with a deep intellectual predisposition I doubt Rod Dreher and I will be able to agree on the primal point at issue. Not only do I believe that the theologies of all religion are false, but I believe that they’re predominantly just intellectual foam generated from the churning of broader social and historical forces. Some segments of the priestly class will always find institutional politics exhausting, mystical experience out of their character, and legal commentaries excessively mundane. These will be drawn to philosophical dimension of religious phenomena. Which is fine as far as it goes, but too often there is an unfortunate tendency toward reducing religion to just this narrow dimension. But I have minimal confidence that most people will accept that the Christianity church has little to do with Jesus and that Islam has little to do with Muhammad. And yet I think that’s the truth of it….

I wonder if Tamerlan Tsarnaev or Richard Reid believed that Muhammed has little to do with Islam. I’m not talking about an intellectual grasp of theological nuances. I’m talking about a text that, unlike the Gospels, is asserted to have been directly given by God through Muhammed with no human intervention or error. And I’m talking about a religious genius who wielded temporal power from the get-go. Jesus accepted powerlessness in the face of Roman imperialism. Muhammed? As Khan notes,

Muhammad was his own Constantine. That is, he was not simply a spiritual teacher, but also a temporal ruler. More broadly, while Christianity became an imperial religion, Islam was born an imperial religion.

And it seems strange to me that that early, critical fact has not had an impact on Christianity’s eventual ability to disentangle itself from worldly territorial power and on Islam’s inability to do so. Jesus allowed himself to be crucified by power. Muhammed was an expansionist conqueror, who waged war for territory. I do not believe, as Khan does, that those two facts are irrelevant to the manifestations of Christianity and Islam today – especially in their compatibility with secular government.