By Joyous Agnos, New Age Islam
14 Jan 2013
Every major religion, without exception, is wracked by internal sectarian differences of varying intensity. In some cases, these can take extremely bloody forms. Just as every religion claims to be the sole or the highest embodiment of truth, and explicitly or implicitly denies the same status to other religions, within every religious tradition each sect makes precisely the same sort of truth-claim and behaves in exactly the same way with other, rival sects. This leaves us grappling with the question not just of what ultimate truth is and where it is to be found (perennial questions that really have no answers that everyone will agree on) but also of whether it is at all possible to speak about the ‘real’ or ‘authentic’ form of any religion at all—given that all we have are multiple voices that claim to speak in its name.
The more I have pondered on this point the more convinced I seem to be thatit is simply impossible for an impartial observer to identify one or more among the varying interpretations or versions of a particular religion as representing ‘the authentic’ one. The very act of doing so means that one has relinquished one’s impartiality or objectivity by taking sides in a highly-charged theological conflict, which is shaped by belief, more than anything else. To label one or the other version of a particular religion as ‘the authentic’ one is to make a faith statement, rather than a scholarly one.
This seemingly trite academic argument can have important consequences for how we understand religion. It clearly indicates, at least to me, that a religion simply doesn’t exist outside, and other than in the form of, the multiple, varying and conflicting interpretations of it—which are obviously human constructions that are articulated by human beings. There appears to be no such thing as a pure form of religion existing beyond, and untouched by, human interpretations of it.
The diverse interpretations or versions of one’s religion are indelibly shaped by one’s sectarian affiliations or leanings. A host of other factors also influence the ways in which people interpret and understand their faith, choosing or constructing versions of it that they regard as appropriate and ‘authentic’. These include gender, nationality, ethnicity, caste, class, education, and political perspective. They also include such crucial variables as parental influence, the sort of friends we have, the significant, emotionally-powerful life-turning experiences we may have undergone, and our deeply-held values and notions of morality, which we may develop independently of religion. Generally, all these impel people to choose particular interpretations of their faith which accord with their deeply-held values and promote their own interests, although they may not consciously recognize it. What we believe to be ‘the true’ interpretation or version of our religion, then, is often simply the one we like best because it reinforces our particular likes and dislikes, supports our particular ways of viewing the world and legitimizes projects and plans that we have for ourselves. Whether we recognize or agree to admit it or not, our choice of one interpretation among many of our religion is often heavily influenced by our mundane and entirely extra-spiritual concerns.
A host of sociological variables, as we have indicated, often unconsciously determine the ways in which people interpret their religions. Since mostpeople are generally not aware that their understandings of their religion are heavily obliged to these factors, they come to think that what they believe in is not simply a human interpretation, among many, of their religion, but, rather, their religion itself, in its supposedly ‘pure’ or ‘authentic’ form that is, so they imagine, utterly beyond human interpretations of it. To admit that what they believe in is simply an interpretation of their religion that is mediated by human beings, rather than their religion as such, would undermine the sense of security and confidence that their belief system provides them. And so, you won’t often find people saying that they believe not in religion X as such, but, rather, in ‘a particular interpretation of it’. If at all they admit that they believe in the latter, they would hasten to add that they also believe that this latter truly represents and embodies religion X, rather than being simply a humanly-constructed interpretation or version of it.
Let me illustrate this argument with the help of some examples. A man who thinks that women are made to serve men is likely, if he is the religious sort, to choose a misogynist interpretation or version of his faith in order to justify his gender prejudices, and will doggedly insist that the suppression of women is ordained by his religion. His innate and irrepressible desire to suppress women instinctively leads him, without him being aware of it, to champion a misogynist interpretation of his religion and to argue that this interpretation is ‘the authentic’ one. This interpretation, he will claim, is not a humanly-produced understanding of his religion, but, rather, is precisely his religion as such. If he is offered an alternate, gender-just understanding of his religion, he is likely to dismiss it straight away as ‘deviant’ and ‘false’ because it doesn’t accord with his sense of what the ‘proper’ relations between the genders should be.
Suppose, on the other hand, that there is woman who thinks that the subordination of women, including herself, is simply intolerable and who belongs to the same religious community as this misogynist man. She will beunlikely to share the man’s version of their religion. If she has access to a rival interpretation of their religion that insists that women and men are equal, she is likely to champion it as ‘authentic’—openly, if possible, or at least deep inside her heart if she dare not express her views. She is attracted to this version of her faith not because she has made an in-depth study of it but simply because it justifies her sense of gender justice. That is why she regards it as ‘authentic’. Her choosing this version of her faith may not be a conscious decision—she feels impelled to defend it as ‘authentic’ simply because it accords with her inner-most feelings and emotions. She will roundly condemn the version of their faith that the man defends as ‘deviant’ on precisely the same basis as the man condemns her version of their faith as ‘false’. Like the man, she will insist that hers is not simply one interpretation, among many, of her faith but, rather, her religion as such.
In both cases, their gender, moral values and political inclinations (with regard to the relations between the sexes) powerfully determine what these two individuals regard as the ‘authentic’ understanding of their faith, which drive them to contradictory faith positions and claims about their supposedly shared religion. In reality, then, each is instinctively attracted by the particular version of their faith that best suits their interests and accords with their deeply-held values. Each thinks that he or she is defending and championing their faith as such, and accuses the other of promoting a ‘false’ interpretation of it. But in both cases taken together, all that we really have are multiple versions of or claims about a supposedly single religion, articulated and contested by human agents.
In short, therefore, there seems to be nothing as a pure embodiment of a particular religion that is above, beyond and inseparable from the multiple, often conflicting, human interpretations of it which can somehow be accessed by us mortals—although this is of course not how many religionists understand their faith. Here, as elsewhere in life, too, reality doesn’t quite correspond to our conventional and simplistic understandings of it.