Comparative Religions

Article by Don Cupitt in the Guardian "Face to Faith" series, Saturday 27 October 2001.

Here is a pretty little heresy. On a tomb-chest in the parish church at Lowick, Northamptonshire, Sir Ralph Greene and his lady lie side by side in Derbyshire alabaster. The contract of 1415 specified that they were to be depicted holding hands, and so they are, with open eyes.

This is technically heretical, for orthodox doctrine declares that marriage ends at death. Thereafter, the couple go to judgment separately, and so are normally depicted separately. The Greenes' break with tradition is one of those small, and very English, late-medieval gestures of defiance that affirms the value of the lay, secular sphere of life. They want to say that ordinary human love is, in the end, all we have to show for ourselves.

There has been much discussion lately about why Islam and our own north-European version of Latin Christianity are so profoundly at odds. How can this be? The two faiths are so intimately related that, for the first century or two, they scarcely saw each other as different religions at all. How have they grown so far apart?

One reason is given by Sir Ralph and Lady Greene: our Christianity reeks of humanism, whereas Islam is totally without it. In Islam, they do not commemorate the dead or permit any human image in a place of worship. A man may kiss and hold the hand of another man in public, but husband and wife walk separately. She is veiled. Our humanitarian ethic is entirely religious in its inspiration; Islam lacks any such tradition.

Another factor, equally important, is that we are products of the Reformation. The crucial point is that it has been shown that religion can be criticised and reformed; and, if that is so, then anything else can be criticised and reformed. For us, the individual may be right contra mundum, against the world. Nothing is sacrosanct. Tradition is dead. As Marx commented, the criticism of religion is the basis for all criticism; once the legitimacy of critical thinking had been demonstrated, the project of modernity was launched. In the west, that is. Not in Islam.

Before about AD1550, Christianity had been, for more than a millennium, a whole civilisation. "Christendom" was a great, objective and compulsory cultural fact. In the Muslim heartlands, Islam is still seen as an entity of that kind, whereas after the Reformation in the west, Christianity, both Catholic and Protestant, had become something quite different—a personal faith, a kind of internal guidance system by which an individual could shape a religious life in an increasingly secular world.

Islam has never undergone such a change. It has never reconciled itself to critical thinking, or to the idea that the individual thinker may be right against the world. It cannot accept the idea that religion needs continual self-criticism and reform in order to develop aright. It does not accept the idea of an autonomous, secular sphere of life that can and should function independently of religious control.

Inside Islam, attempts at modernisation began in the early 19th century, and have continued with figures like Ataturk and Nasser. But they have all failed because they did not tackle the underlying question: how can something analogous to the Protestant Reformation come about within Islam?

Perhaps it cannot. Even in the west, doctrine remains unreformed and religious thinking is not yet free. Protestantism has largely decayed into fundamentalism. If we are still not able fully to accept our own principles, we can scarcely expect Islam to embrace them. Perhaps none of us yet understands the magnitude of the religious and cultural revolution the world now needs.

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