Islam places great emphasis on knowledge, which I’ve always found comforting and satisfying in comparison with Christianity’s emphasis on the more subjective “voice” of God. Islamic theology is simple and holds up well in an argument, which is probably why Christians revert to the subjective to verify their theology every time.
In most religions, a degree of knowledge at least is necessary. You can’t believe in a religion if you don’t know about it. But how do we authenticate our knowledge?
I was thinking last night about how completely different religious knowledge is from scientific knowledge, because there is no broad consensus. In science, there is enormous consensus on matters that are well established, because enough observations have been made to prove them beyond reasonable doubt. Religion is not like that. Religious claims cannot be verified by running more experiments or gathering more data.
In the absence of a living prophet, the source of knowledge about a religion is always in historical texts. (In fact for most of us, our knowledge is second-hand because we are not able to go directly to the historical texts.) And so the gathering of knowledge in religion – did this really happen, was this really said – is more akin to the discipline of history than that of science.
(Of course there is more to deciding about the truth of religion than just establishing what is historically authentic. A decision about truth in terms of divine inspiration goes beyond knowledge. But knowledge is what I am concentrating on here.)
The religious texts are so old that historical research methodologies are naturally going to struggle to bring about consensus. For example, Christians believe that the gospel documents authentically demonstrate that Jesus fulfilled Jewish messianic prophecies. But if that were proveable beyond reasonable doubt, there would be no Jews today who reject Jesus as messiah. How can a lay person possibly decide?
And this is where I start to wonder… if God wanted the world to know things, why is it so difficult? Why would God tie necessary knowledge to history, whereby the fallible human processes of transmission and replication make it impossible to be sure of it, and whereby lay people are rendered utterly dependent on fallible scholars to extract the truth? What of people like my mother-in-law who is illiterate – where is she to get knowledge from? What of people living in remote parts of the world with no connection to any prophetic tradition? Are we meant to ensure that everyone gets access to truth by equipping everyone to read and analyse the sources of knowledge? Even if that were achieved… does truth stand out clearly from error?
Maybe there is another type of knowledge that is written in our hearts… an understanding of right and wrong… a natural cause-and-effect where that which is bad leads us to ruin, and that which is good brings us contentment and peace.
In that case, did God really need to send prophets and messengers? If God did, is the message detailed and specific, or is it simple and general? I feel that I have to go with simple and general, complementary to our natural knowledge. The details, which differ from one religious tradition to another, are difficult to choose between in a rational way. Perhaps they just existed to make people feel secure. Perhaps they were never meant to be universal.
I find it hard to believe that my mother-in-law’s prayer would be greatly enhanced by a detailed knowledge of the fiqh of prayer.
Where does that leave me… I guess, looking for inspiration in scriptures. Looking for truth beyond knowledge.