The 2000-year-old Christian faith is actually an entrenched belief system in the teachings of a preacher from “coastal” Galilee (in modern day Israel) fuelled by the messianic zeal of the followers of a Jewish miracle worker, preacher and spiritualist Jesus Christ —a bunch of villagers, poor workers and farmers who believed in Christ’s divine powers to build a religious edifice that is based on the supernatural powers ascribed to the itinerant godman – rather than the real life and the abilities of the man himself, argues Iran-born writer and scholar of religion Reza Aslan, a resident of Los Angeles.
The argument may sound “radical” and “plausible” to large swathe of the non-Christian world, but the young writer, who is a born again Muslim after converting to Christianity as a teenager, has whipped up storms in the “Christian media” and among the conservatives, revivalists and Bible belt “die-hards” who believe that the “Christian messiah” has been lowered in esteem by Aslan’s arguments about the canons of Christ. As a faith, Christianity still remains one of the most “popular” and according to theologians the easiest “evangelical spiritual code to interpret and adopt”.
The writer of the acclaimed “Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth”, who was in India recently to take part a literary festival, said “he had been obsessed with Jesus for the last two decades”. As a young man, he was drawn by the Christian gospel in a youth camp. “I was fascinated by the evangelical spirit of the Christian camp and the Bible pumping. I spent four years preaching the gospel to everybody and began to study the New Testament. Much of what I learnt about was that Jesus was an iconoclast. The Jesus of history was the Christ of faith,” Aslan told this writer in a candid conversation about faith, Jesus and Islamic extremism.
“I left Christianity, but continued my study about the historical Jesus. He was a poor pious Jewish peasant, who formed this incredible moment in the world religion – with his unshakeable faith in god, the cause of the Holy land, stories about his miraculous feats and healing powers. He was a real man – but not much is known about his real life. Christ was the one His followers made him,” Aslan explained.
The writer, who has been to Israel many times, says “most of the work that Jesus seems to have done as a preacher was in the first century Palestine. The Romans occupied Palestine in the era in which Jesus lived. It was an apocalyptic world where people feared doom because of the frequent wars, plunder and arson between the local groups of inhabitants, the rebels fighting for the freedom of the land and the Roman army,” Aslan said. Most of the preachers, like Jesus, whose voices reached above the “occupation” were arrested and executed.
The notion of Christianity was malleable, Aslan said. “The millions of people who worship Christ invoke the messiah of the faith. Jesus of history is frozen in time and is largely a product of the world,” the “radical” writer pointed out.
‘The Christ of faith can be anything you want him to be- anything for his people. He can be a Latin American for the South American and faithful of the Hispanic origin, he can be blonde, he can be blue-eyed and in African, he can be black. Those are all the avatars of ‘Christ’ for the Christians to understand. There is a distance — between the deified and the man. A deity becomes a deity because no matter who you are. God becomes a part of you. On the premise of this argument, Jesus becomes a reflection of you,” Aslan said, exploring the sociological relevance of the “idea” of Jesus Christ, the saviour.
It is a complex history, Aslan contended. “The simplest way to look at the perpetuation of the gospel of Christ is that after his death followers offered a definition to justify his greatness (amid by contentions by several other preachers) — that Jesus was not the messiah, but was the defendant of king David – one of his bloodline who had come to earth to recreate the kingdom of David on earth – whom many people claimed to be the messiah. The people of Jesus changed the definition of messiah – not only to the fellow Jews but to the Romans as well when Christianity was born. And to spread the message of Christ to the non-Jews. The biggest Icon was Paul who was responsible for what have been known as Christianity,” the theologian said.
Aslan said “it was true of all religions”. “We have this mistaken notion that prophets create religions – but the prophet’s followers created Christianity. It is the same in Quran, which was compiled by the prophet’s followers, Buddhism, whose gospel was carried across the globe by the monks and Hinduism – whose followers take the words and deeds of the propjets (and deities).”
In Christianity, Judaism, Hinduism and Islam alike — “if you believe in the principles of good and evil, it is likely that good and evil play themselves out in the deeds of the gods and endows the actors with cosmic significance”, Aslan said.
The root of all conflicts is in the opposing qualities of good and evil, Aslan said. “This war between good and evil is not debates over politics but identities – that is what I mean by cosmic. The earthly conflicts take on cosmic dimensions,” Aslan observed, connecting the idea of religious terrorism and faith.
In the words of Aslan — faith and interpretations contour the physical topography of societies and their complex functioning ranging from popular perceptions, convictions, lifestyles and the “jihads” across the world.
On shades of terror
“The most important thing to learn about Islamic terrorism is that an “Islamist is a nationalist, who wants to live in a Muslim nation”, Aslan said. “The idea of a state is what I want Pakistan to be, Syria to be. A jihadist is an anti-nationalist who believes that the concept of a nation state is sin – isolates the Umma- the pan Islamic community worldwide in the age of globalization. The Mulsim Brotherhood is an Islamist organization while the al-Quaida is a jihadist organization. The western governments, however, treat the two the same way. The same response to the two creates a great deal of confusion and suffering,” the writer said. Aslan addresses these debates and issues in his book, “No God but God: The Origin, Evolution and Future of Islam”.
“We can deal with Islamic terror because the Islamists want something – the Islamists is Turkey have done a good stable job, the Islamists of Tunisia are now doing a good job (post Arab Spring) but the Islamists in Egypt have done a terrible job. How Islam expresses itself can be dealt with because there is room for dialogue. The Jihadists want something impossible- they are fighting a cosmic war – where there is no room for negotiation,” Aslan pointed out.
“My argument is two-fold: to help the Islamist away from becoming a jihadist, you need to allow Islamists have a political voice… With jihadists, you have to try to deal with the underlying grievance that dominates their cosmic ideology – take away the grievance, the cosmic ideology will collapsed. You have to understand that jihadist terrorism is different from Islamic terrorism. Islamic terrorism stems from lack of socio-political advantages. Like for a member of Hamas living on a garbage heap with no hope, terrorism becomes a tool. A jihadist is probably a man with a PhD degree – who is globally conscious, does not lack socio-economic opportunities but has a larger vision of the world,” Aslan said.
The set of challenge is “to bring the cosmic paddle down to earth,” “There has been a profound disappointment in people of all countries and religion in the promise of a secular nationalism,” Aslan said.
madhusree chatterjee can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org
(Reza Aslan spoke to the writer at the Jaipur Literature Festival)