There are many angles to look at recent events, but the perspective that is never mentioned is the psychology of religion.
Muslims (and many Christians and Jews, too) look at their Scriptures literally, believing that the Koran is the actual word of God (Allah is the Arabic word for God). Similarly, Christian fundamentalists look at the Bible and argue that it is literally true, and literally God's word, from beginning to end.
Muslims, however, make their claim for the Koran with an important exception. For Muslims, the Koran cannot be translated, so only the Arabic is God's literal word.
Few Christians read the Bible in Aramaic, Hebrew and Greek, so American Christians argue that God speaks to us in English.
There is a deep psychological need that believers bring to their Scriptures, and even more so for those who read these Scriptures literally. Fundamentalists, or literalists (a more accurate term), fear that if science and the academic study of these Scriptures show the contradictions, errors and cultural-bound nature of many of the claims in these texts, the authority of Scripture will fall down like a house of cards. This is not true, but remains a phobia.
Thus, people bring to their reading of Scriptures deep-seated needs, needs for security, for example, or needs to combat anxiety. The fear of death also intensifies our reading of texts, not to speak of our hope of consolation when we have lost a loved one. Put simply, the Scriptures of the great world religions act as a keel of our ship as we try to navigate through the storms stirred up by life.
The problem with all religions arises if their Scriptures are not read critically — using all the tools of science, history and the academic methods for studying texts, such as form criticism (which means looking, for instance, at the genre of a text; is it a story, history or a liturgical text, etc.). We can find consolation, guidance and truths in our Scriptures without having to read these texts literally. But that takes effort and critical thinking!
One of the great benefits of the Reformation in the Christian religion was the translation of the Bible into native languages, and then the study of those texts with eyes wide open instead of being closed shut. Islam never had such a Reformation, so the academic and scientific study of the Koran has not taken place. To question the literalism of the Koran for a Muslim puts him or her in great danger.
I find it a very dangerous situation in our world that many millions of people read ancient Scriptures literally. These texts were written exclusively by men who were part of cultures very different from ours. A person can use the Bible, for instance, to justify holy war, just as a Muslim can use the Koran to make a similar claim. Look how people have used Scriptures to slam homosexuals, or to criticize people who have gone through the pain of a divorce.
All people in all religions must bring the power of reason to bear upon their Scriptures. No Scriptures are literally God speaking to us like a TV talking head.
I do believe that God's Spirit inspired the writers of Scripture in a mysterious way, but not as if the men writing down the words in ancient languages were merely God's secretaries. The writers brought to the writing of these ancient texts their own personalities — not to speak of cultural influences, even prejudices. For instance, the Bible never questions slavery, which was accepted in biblical times. No Christian today advocates slavery, and most eat pork and wear clothes with blended fibers. We don't stone kids who talk back to us parents, as much as we might be tempted to at times.
My only hope in combating fundamentalists in all religions is education. We must learn to approach Scripture critically, and then sift its claims through the filters of reason, experience and our traditions.
Jesus said we must love God with our minds as well as our hearts. Powerful psychological and social forces work against that task. Many clergy and the institutions that they represent are threatened by the loss of their power if men and women exercise their powers of reason in approaching Scripture and religion in general.
I would argue, with the theologian Paul Tillich, that there is more faith in honest doubt than there is in blind faith — especially blind faith in the literal reading of Scripture.
— By the Rev. Henry Idema, Tribune religion columnist