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:
"IF evolution simply means that a positive thing called an ape turned very slowly into a positive thing called a man, then it is stingless for the most orthodox; for a personal God might just as well do things slowly as quickly, especially if, like the Christian God, he were outside time. But if it means anything more, it means that there is no such thing as an ape to change, and no such thing as a man for him to change into. It means that there is no such thing as a thing. At best, there is only one thing, and that is a flux of everything and anything. This is an attack not upon the faith, but upon the mind; you cannot think if there are no things to think about."
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'."
It is a hard problem though. When you look at anything under the microscope of objectivity, it's miraculous multifoliate properties come to the fore. When you look at it from the inside, you can sometimes catch a glimpse of all the tendons holding seemingly disparate hands, and eyeballs, and tender napes of necks together.