Fear and Failures of Interpretation
By Kyle Cupp
In his post on Islamic terminology, Ned Resnikoff observed:
Whereas Talmudic scholars disagree with one another of the interpretation of their holy text, there’s vast disagreement within Islam about what constitutes the text itself. There’s a reason why you’ll never find a single volume or collection of volumes everyone can agree makes up the whole of Sharia.
Precisely. I’m less than a step away from total ignorance about Islam, having never read the Koran or any of its other major religious writings, but as a Roman Catholic, I’m familiar with this difference Ned notes between disagreements over interpretation and disagreements over what constitutes the text being interpreted. Christians are hardly foreign to both these sorts of disagreements. Catholics and Protestants disagree about biblical interpretation, of course, but we also differ in what books we say belong in the biblical canon. Catholics, furthermore, hold as sacred and divinely-inspired a number of texts outside the Bible, obviously in conflict with Protestant proponents of sola scriptura.
Even within the Catholic world, with its Canon Law, handy catechism, papal encyclicals and council documents, and with Catholics taught to interpret the development of doctrine using a hermeneutic of continuality, there remain and will always remain fundamental disagreements over theology, liturgy, religious symbolism, human nature, and the conceptions of good and evil.
I would like to think that Christians even semi-literate about their own divergent faith traditions would be inclined to recognize such fundamental diversity in the religions of others, and yet, at least in respect to Islam, this hasn’t proved to be the case. How long did it take for the words “Sunni” and “Shia” to enter the lexicon of amateur commentators opining on Islam or alleged experts amplifying their fears about the alleged threat of Muslims to this allegedly Christian nation?
I don’t have a worked out theory explaining this failure to see or acknowledge diversity in Islam, and my gut seems silent on the matter, but I have an ever-so-slight inkling that this failure is partially due to the religion, its practices and its people remaining largely unknown, deeply mysterious and somewhat frightening to us non-Muslims in the States, whose pre-9/11 exposure to Muslims generally expanded little beyond Hollywood characterizations and other caricatures. One mysterious unknown is easier to grapple with than multiple mysterious unknowns, especially when the unknown seems to threaten safety, social makeup, or core national identity. If fear causes us to see potential threats coming from every direction, we find comfort in conceptualizing what we fear in ways that makes our fears manageable.
In other, more technical words, fear has hermeneutic consequences—consequences for how we frame and interpret the world. The drive to escape our fears leads us to simplify what we interpret, and we simplify not only that which we fear, but ourselves as well. We conceptualize the world in clear-cut terms, assigning, for example, the adjectives “good” and “evil” neatly, simplistically and with absolute certainty. It’s us versus them. Against the perceived threats of Islam (or secularism or whatever), we insist on calling ourselves a Christian nation as if “Christian” had a singular meaning, as if Christians in the United States didn’t strongly disagree both about the meaning of the word and about who qualifies as a Christian.
To be clear, I’m not saying that fear is always what motivates people to assign labels simplistically or otherwise. Nor am I saying that the world presents us nothing worthy of fear. Undoubtedly there are terrors we should fear and that demand our fortitude: terrorists and other violent criminals, catastrophic changes to the environment, a resurgence of Rainbow Bright. Whatever the dangers, however, we cannot have a sane conception of the world when our understanding of it is framed and fueled by fear.