But for me, it’s not even about the beliefs versus the institutions. It’s about the metaphors offered by a faith—the symbols with which religions speak about God. You know, you’re either a person of faith, or you’re not. You either believe that there’s something beyond the material world that you can commune with, or you don’t. If you do believe it, then it helps to have a language to help you express that ineffable experience—to yourself, and to other people. And that is all that religion is—that language.
I’m a Muslim not because I believe Islam is more correct than other religions, or that it’s more “true.” On the contrary! I’m a Muslim because the symbols and metaphors that Islam uses to talk about God and humanity, the relationship between creator and creation, are the symbols and metaphors that work best for me. That makes sense to me. They are not more valid, or more true, than the symbols of Judaism, or Christianity, say, but they just make more sense to me.
For example: There are important differences between Islam and Christianity in the metaphor for God. In Christianity, it’s the trinity. God in three forms: Father, Son, Holy Spirit. The metaphor for God in Islam is tawhid, which means divine unity. The notion is that God is fundamentally indivisible. That God is, by definition, oneness. Form and substance: oneness. And as a result of that, God must be understood as inseparable from his creation. Meaning that there is no difference, there is no distance. In a sense, everything that exists only exists because it shares in the existence of God. That makes more sense to me than the metaphor of the triune God.
One of the things that’s fascinating about Jesus is that he refused to recognize the power of the Jewish authorities to define the Jewish religion for him. In this time, the priests had a monopoly on the Jewish cult. They decided who can enter the presence of God, and who could not. Which means of course that the lame, the sick, the marginalized, the outcasts, the “sinners,” were divorced from communing with God. And Jesus’ ministry was founded upon not just rejecting that idea, but claiming the absolute reverse: That the kingdom of god that he envisions is one in which the priests, the aristocracy, the wealthy, the powerful, would be removed. And in their place would be the weak, the powerless, the marginalized, and the dispossessed. This was a reversal of the social order. In other words, it’s not just about the meek inheriting the earth. It’s about the powerful disinheriting the earth.
I think that, obviously, is an enormous threat to the power-holders whose authority came from—precisely as Dostoevsky says—from their ability to appease a man’s conscience. Pay us your dues, your tithes, bring us your sacrifices, submit to our authority, and in return, we will give you salvation. And Jesus’ challenge to that idea was based on the notion that the power for salvation does not rest in any outsider’s hand: that it rests within the individual. I think that’s an idea that a lot of Christians need to remember. Those who state that salvation comes solely through the Church or belief in a set of doctrines that a bunch of men wrote many years ago are forgetting what Jesus himself said: that salvation is purely an internal matter. That you are the only one qualified to define what God is for you. No one else is qualified to make that decision for you.