Religious Polemics?

by Paul L. Heck

It was quite normal in the past for believers of different religions to view one another through the lens of polemics. Scholars of one religion would compose refutations of other religions, and scholars of those religions would, in turn, compose refutations of the refutations of their religions, and then the scholars of the first religion would compose refutations of the refutations of their refutations of other religions … and so on and on and on. We are all committed to our beliefs. We see them as truths. But how do we view the beliefs of other communities? Do we see them as a threat?

At the same time, if we are honest, we acknowledge that there are good people in other communities whose beliefs are different from ours. What are we to conclude from this? Do we say they are good despite their false beliefs? They would say that it is their beliefs that make them good. And so we are forced to reconsider the entire question of true beliefs. Does any community have a monopoly over true beliefs?

This question is for all regardless of affiliation (religious or secular). We all live by beliefs, which we hold to be true. We cannot prove them in a chemistry laboratory, but they are what get us out of bed in the morning. Why do we say they are true?

In this forum, we will look at examples of inter-religious polemics from past centuries. The goal is to acquire perspective for our choices today. What does the past tell us? Does it still shape the way we view one another today? Do we want the past to determine the present? How do we want other peoples to view our beliefs?

Please ponder the various essays on this forum—and send us your reflections. The remainder of this essay takes up the question of the study of other religions in today’s world. None of us are neutral when we study other religions. Our beliefs are always at stake when we consider the beliefs of other people. Why do we study beliefs that we do not hold? Today, in universities across the world, students and scholars are deeply involved in research on beliefs other than their own. Muslims study Judaism and Christianity. Jews study Christianity and Islam. Christians study Judaism and Islam. Those without religious affiliation study religious beliefs. Those with religious beliefs study non-religious beliefs. What is the goal of all this study?

If we study a religion other than our own with fairness, we see its goodness. We see that it orients the hearts of its followers to the face of God. What are we to conclude from this? There is goodness in my religion and goodness in other religions. Where does truth lie? Confusion. The point of studying other religions cannot be a relativism that locks all religions into a single definition. It is impossible to overlook the differences of belief and practice between religions. Also, in terms of methodology, it makes no sense to pursue a body of knowledge in a way that only results in confusion. In other words, the goal of knowledge acquisition, whatever the field, cannot be ignorance of the knowledge that one seeks to acquire. That would make the pursuit of knowledge absurd. After all, the point of seeking knowledge is to grow in comprehension, understanding, wisdom, and insight—not confusion and ignorance of the very knowledge one set out to seek.

This point features in the writings of a great littérateur by the name of Abu Hayyan al-Tawhidi who lived in the eleventh century and attended the scholarly meetings that took place at the courts of various emirs and viziers of the Abbasid Caliphate. In his celebrated work, The Book of Conviviality and Intimacy, he records the conversations he had with a vizier over the course of forty nights. In one of them, he speaks of a fellow whose immersion in the study of religions only increased his confusion. Al-Tawhidi relates the fellow’s own explanation for his confusion: “I saw that there are three ways to establish the truth of a religion. The first is prophecy and miracles, but I have never personally witnessed such things and so cannot believe in the creeds that are based on them. The second is by persuasion and debate. But when I participate in disputes, I am the victor one day, but the next I am defeated. I sometimes find the arguments of others more compelling and so make them my own. But this means that what I formerly held to be false becomes true in my mind, and what I held to be true becomes false. I therefore saw that this method of argumentation is not useful in judging something true or false. The third alleged way to confirm a religion is through historical reports in books. I did not find one community better than another in that respect. They are all the same in their claims, arguments, and apologetics.”

At this point in the story, al-Tawhidi says that the fellow was asked why he continues to follow his own religion. He responds: “Because it has a sanctity that other religions do not. I was born in it and grew up in it. I imbibed its sweetness and grew fond of the customs of its followers. I was like a man who enters a caravanserai to seek shade for part of a day when the sky is bright. The owner of the caravanserai puts him in one of the chambers without his having any knowledge of it in advance. In the meanwhile, a cloud appears, and it begins to pour. When his chamber starts to leak, he looks out at the other chambers in the inn. All of them leak no less than his, and the inn’s courtyard has turned to mud. He therefore decides to remain in his place and not move to another chamber in the hope of finding tranquility since he would only muddy his legs in the muck in the courtyard. He thus chooses to abide patiently in the chamber assigned to him. He is like me. I was born without comprehension. Then my parents introduced me into this religion without my knowledge. When I examined it, I found it to be like other religions, and I saw that it was dearer to me to patiently abide in it than to leave it. I would only put it aside and turn to another for a compelling reason that led me to prefer it over my own, but I have not found a convincing argument for one religion without finding the same for other religions.”

It is worth noting that al-Tawhidi did not share the position of this confused fellow. Quite the opposite: He narrates the story to warn scholars against taking up fine points of theologies without a clear methodology and goal. One will only end up confused and aimless like the fellow in the story. This is the point: Why pursue the study of something when it only ends in confusion and ignorance. There has to be another reason to undertake the study of religions other than one’s own. Indeed, it is not logical to seek knowledge in a way that only produces ignorance, that is, the very opposite of what one set out to seek. If ignorance were to be the goal, there would be no benefit in undertaking to seek knowledge in the hopes of growth in wisdom and insight.

The question still stands: Why do we seek knowledge of a religion other than our own? Do we study other religions to show them to be wrong and so defeat them? This would be to pursue knowledge of other religions only in order to justify ourselves in the illusion that we have the truth while others do not. Many have studied the beliefs of others for this purpose, but it is not a sound method since it is unable to yield true knowledge of the other. There is always a block to true knowledge of others if it is motivated by something other than love. There is a saying in Arabic that you hate what you do not know. The opposite could also be said: You are always going to be ignorant of something if you have no love for it. The idea that love is a necessary condition for acquiring knowledge is something that can be difficult to grasp: The Christian cannot actually acquire knowledge of Islam if he has no love for it. The Muslim cannot acquire knowledge of Christianity if he has no love for it. Those who have no religious affiliation can only acquire knowledge of religions if they have no hatred of them in their hearts. And so on. Is it logical to say that I really know someone whom I have not befriended, companioned, and come to love in some sense? It is the same thing for the study of religions. Even a smidgeon of hatred keeps us from knowing what others really believe, cutting us off from the very thing we set out to seek in the first place, namely, knowledge of other religions. This is not to say that we are to accept the beliefs of others. The point rather is to draw attention to the need for a clear purpose in the study of other religions today.

Why do we study the beliefs of others? There is a great need today for a method for studying the beliefs of others that acknowledges the essential role of companionship with those whose beliefs we study. The Christian who studies Islam must be in active relation—companionship—with the people of Islam in order to obtain real knowledge of their beliefs. Similarly, the Muslim who studies Christianity must enter into companionship with the people of Christianity. And so on. Of course, companionship is not about formalities. It is friendship in the full sense of the word. It is about familiarity, trust, and love. Only then will one be allowed into the life of others to see how they really understand their own beliefs rather than viewing them from a distance and trying to surmise what they think and believe. This is nothing but mutual knowledge between peoples. Such a method yields true knowledge of what others believe instead of illusions about other religions that now prevail in many circles, East and West, including scholarly and non-scholarly circles alike.

The point of studying other religions cannot be to say that they are all the same. Rather, the study of other religions only yields fruit when pursued in a scholarly framework of friendship. One can only know the other by companioning the other; and by companioning the other, one’s knowledge of the other increases. Only in this way can peoples of different beliefs come to know one another. Only through love for the other can we hope to acquire knowledge of them. Why, after all, do we have beliefs? Do beliefs exist to separate us or to unite us? Do we not pursue the study of other religions to grow in wisdom and insight—to the benefit of all? When we study a religion other than our own in companionship with its followers, we discover many things. The result is not fear for our own beliefs. In the end, we see there is no threat. Rather, we discover that every human being is striving to understand the truth within his or her own circumstances. We see in this sense that all seek to be oriented to the face of God in some fashion. Indeed, when this becomes the manner in which we seek knowledge of other religions, we will never fall into confusion. Quite the opposite: We will not only acquire true knowledge of the beliefs of others. The beliefs of others will also offer us a mirror to consider who we are. It is by studying other religions in this fashion that we can come to a deeper understanding of our own beliefs. In other words, the study of other religions can work to renew our sense of being oriented to the face of God in all that we do in our daily lives. It is in this way that the study of other religions has much beneficial knowledge to yield.

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