The appearance yesterday of another tape of Usama bin Laden should make us rethink, for a moment, our stance on theology.
You probably remember it was always considered an easy “A” — a GPA booster par excellence. We knew there was no fudging in chemistry class; the table of elements loomed large. Accounting I, II, and III fit together like a giant jigsaw puzzle — miss a lesson or two and things just wouldn’t add up. History class had a little more wiggle room, but the best professors always asked for short answers — dates, names, and places — just to make sure.
But “theology?” The study of God? We doubted any professor could tell us for sure when we got it wrong. Yes, an easy “A!”
And yet some people still fail. When Usama calls all Muslims to go to Sudan and fight United Nations’ peacekeepers, as he did yesterday, he has failed. When he points his finger at the West and calls for indiscriminate violence, he has failed. When he promises heavenly rewards for the killing of the innocent, he has failed.
And sadly, Islam is failing with him.
The problem? Believe it or not, it’s a theological one.
To study God, we must first distinguish him from other beings. Animals may be smart, but they do not reason. They may be affectionate, but they do not love. Human beings reason and love, but they do both poorly. God does both perfectly. That’s what makes him God. He is perfect.
Muslim leaders like bin Laden have attached imperfect qualities to God. By doing so, they and their followers have become incapable of differentiating his perfection from man’s own misery. Their object of worship is not the perfect being that calls us to become more like our creator, but a grandiose image of their self-serving ego that values vice, not virtue.
Religion has a way of turning theology inside out. History is full of bad Catholics, Jews, Lutherans, Muslims, Hindus, and Evangelicals. Religion turns bad when we get in the way of God, when we attribute to him and his will our own good and bad wishes. Getting in the way of God is bad theology and it’s dangerous.
What’s even more dangerous is a religion that refuses to correct itself when some of its members error. Islam as a religion is failing alongside its most outspoken spokesmen, because nobody from within dares to wrestle with the idea of bad theology.
The Muslim tradition leaves no room for interpretation or theological development. The Koran is what it is. Those who dare to interpret are considered untrue Muslims, or Westerners in disguise. This tradition of cemented theology can almost work if all play by the rules. But they don’t. The radical imams of the ilk of bin Laden have a monopoly on theological interpretation. And their grip is tightening, on Islam and on the world.
Theological problems don’t vanish with good public relations, political dialogue, or military force. They are resolved with good theology. Healthy Muslim clerics, who love God and love their religion, have a choice to make — either remain quiet and prepare to witness a clash of civilizations of epic proportion, or be willing to wrestle with the bad theology of their boisterous spokesmen. Can you provide to your fellow Muslims a convincing interpretation of a peaceful and loving Koran? We hope you can.
Our prayers are with you.
God bless, Father Jonathan
Write to Father Jonathan at firstname.lastname@example.org.