I heard Reza Aslan interviewed on Krista Tippet’s On Being this week. I’ve seen him before on videos that people post on social media. Normally, it is an exchange that goes like this:
Reporter: But, (insert religion) teaches that (insert thing)
Aslan: Actually, (insert scholarly perspective that’s 100 years old)
Reporter: But, (insert religion) believes that (insert thing)
Aslan: Actually, (insert specific example that contradicts reporter)
So, I didn’t think much of it or him — except that it might be cool to be named Aslan. I think that’s a talking Jesus-lion in a C.S. Lewis book that I’ve never read.
I’ve seen it happen a million times when kids come to University. If they arrive freshly cut from a pretty conservative religious background, their first exposure to higher criticism can be traumatic and difficult. I had a very tender-hearted teacher who brought me gently through the process.
So, Aslan was kind of a non-story to me. He was just smugly giving the scholarly perspective. I was actually more interested in why the corporate media was interested in him, but since I assiduously avoid info-tainment shows, I wasn’t that interested.
This morning, however, he said something that disturbed me a bit. He was talking about the incredible diversity within Islam and the problems with using phrases like “the Muslim world” in order to cover such a diverse group of people and beliefs. Then he said something like, “As a scholar, I’m actually uncomfortable with the word ‘Islam’. I would rather use the word ‘Islams’.”
What a intellectually packed statement that is! It shows the difference (in the Kierkegaardian sense) between the religious scholar (where “religious” is an adjective) and the religious (where “religious” is a noun in the old sense).
People who are in love can’t speak about their love objectively without sounding like assholes. People who aren’t in love can sit back an analyze it. Those that are in love say, “But, reality is over here.” Those who aren’t say, “You are biased. If you could see it from the outside, you would know it more objectively.” Those who are on the inside say, “But, we would have to leave the inside in order to see the outside, and we would lose something infinite in the process.”
So, all that is fine. If Aslan is just trying to clarify language use, no big deal. The question is, if you go down that road, where is the bottom. Walt Whitman — and I’m admittedly not a fan — could say, “Do I contradict myself? Very well then, I contradict myself.” That’s because there was some consistent “self” that remained despite the contradictions. In other words, if we go down this way of thinking, don’t we also wind up saying, “As a scholar, I’m actually uncomfortable with ‘Reza Aslan’. I would rather use ‘Reza Aslans’.”
The whole bit put me in mind of a certain passage from Chesterton when he was dealing with some Darwinists. He was not dealing with the theory of evolution as a descriptor of how something happened. He was attacking a problem that we still face today. Scientists with no background in philosophy use Darwinism and the scientific method to self-generate epistemology and ontology. It doesn’t really make much sense from a philosophical perspective, but that’s not a big concern. (See here the spectacular downfall of Neil DeGrasse Tyson’s reputation amongst academics in the humanities!)
Here is the Chesterton passage:
I’m not sure what Aslan’s motivations are, or what he is really like. I have a feeling though, that we wouldn’t be able to have a good argument because we wouldn’t be able to pick a term and agree on what it actually meant without him saying, “I prefer the term ‘terms’.”