Sunday, May 28, 2017

What Reza Aslan really thinks of Christianity

In various interviews Reza Aslan will represent himself as someone who deftly navigates between religious frameworks as easily as a polyglot switches between languages, and in others he seems to communicate what a bitter disappointment Christianity ended up being for him since he discovered through his studies at a Jesuit school that the entire New Testament was a bunch of made-up stories with little connection to the Jewish scriptures and religion. 

I think the most telling moment is when he is in like-minded anti-conservative company at Loonwatch and attempts to convey what is "brilliant and profoundly moving" about the Christian narrative
LW: How was that, what was that experience like when you were an Evangelical?
It’s magical! The thing about Evangelical Christianity and why I think it is so appealing, particularly to young people is that I mean it is just such a brilliant and profoundly moving story. There is a reason why it is called the greatest story ever told, right?  That God had this physical son, like His little baby boy you know that came down to earth, and because you yourself are such an awful human being, because of all the terrible things you do, God decided to have His son tortured and murdered in order to save you from yourself, and that if you don’t accept that story, not only are you spitting in God’s face but, oh yeah, you are also going to burn in hell for all eternity.
It’s an amazing story, that’s why it is so appealing. Now the important thing to understand is that is what it precisely is: a story. I am not by any means discounting it or criticizing it.
Not by any means discounting it... Aslan seems unaware here of how his characterization of the "gospel" or New Testament story comes across.  This summation sounds as patronizing and goofy as what would typically be heard from "New Atheists" and secular humanists.  It is at the exact moment he is asked to explain why Christianity is appealing that his veneer of scholarly objectivism unravels and he can't help putting it in a particularly unappealing light-- and then he tries to recover by complimenting his own strawman version of Christianity as "amazing."  (I challenge the reader to find any comparable summary of Islam by Aslan.)   
Aslan having a moment at about t=19:40
In his 'Inside the Scholar's Studio' interview at Harvard, about 19 minutes into the Youtube video, Aslan appears to have a similar moment sharing a laugh with the audience about the absurdity of a human being somehow being God and also being capable of real human moments:
... when you try to think about him [Jesus] as struggling or suffering, as anxious or scared, when you try to think about the humanity of him, it's very difficult to do so, because, you knooow ... he's also God.  
and then switching back to his objective voice, having already evaded criticism by acknowledging first that the simultaneous humanity and divinity of Jesus is a Christian mystery.  This mystery that he seems to be trying to find a scholarly way to ridicule is something that he talks about as being "the heart of orthodox Christianity."  He separates what he calls the "God Jesus" from the human Jesus as though the divine element (along with nearly the entire New Testament narrative, if you read his book Zealot) must be somehow removed entirely before we understand who Jesus is and what he stands for.  What Reza means by "God Jesus" is "the detached, unearthly being I had been introduced to in church" or "a celestial detached spirit with no interest in the world" (similar language is used in his book Zealot).

Now Reza Aslan talks a lot about how his Muslim outlook does not shape his academic beliefs--his personal notion of the Islamic belief of "radical unity" is unorthodox--but his rejection of Christianity seems very much in line with a traditional Islamic interpretation of "radical unity" as he explains:
I always talk about how I had an emotional conversion to Christianity but a rational conversion to Islam. Reading about the way Islam talks about the divine and the relationship between human beings and God and conceptions of the universe and ideas of the transcendent, these made a hell of a lot more sense to me cosmologically speaking than some old man in the sky impregnated a virgin and His son came out [of her] and died for us.
As he goes on to explain in the Loonwatch interview, Islam has very little creed and instead has a lot of rules that are not driven by Islamic theology per se, and so there is not a lot of weird stuff in Islam that is hard to reconcile with rational thought as in Christianity where "some old man in the sky impregnated a virgin and His son came out and died for us."  There's no weird stuff like "God Jesus" and real human Jesus somehow being the same person.  Islam instead, in its inception and scripture, has an ordinary flesh-and-blood prophet slaughtering real people with real swords because they don't accept the prophet's revelations (what Aslan refers to obliquely as a "chilling new reality").  No weird theological mumbo-jumbo like an old man in the sky impregnating a virgin so that He can torture His divine baby boy, as Aslan summarizes Christianity.

When you hear Reza Aslan disclaiming that different religions are basically the same except for using different metaphors to describe the same spiritual reality, consider whether the differences Aslan sees really go deeper than employing this or that metaphor.  If Aslan does not think Christianity is stupid, he is clearly bad at communicating the respect he has for those beliefs (which seems odd for someone who considers communication part of his particular expertise).   I believe it makes more sense to think that Aslan sometimes has trouble hiding his contempt for his personal (and poorly informed) concept of Christianity

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