I've been reading Reza Aslan's history of Islam, No god but God, and I was interested to read his comments about what happened in the development of that religion after the death of Muhammed. Aslan points out:
...[T]here can be no doubt that Islam was still in the process of defining itself when Muhammed died. By 632, the Quran had neither been written down nor collected, let alone canonized. The religious ideals that would become the foundation of Islamic theology existed only in the most rudimentary form. The questions of proper ritual activity or correct legal and moral behavior were, at this point, barely regulated; they did not have to be. Whatever questions one had--whatever issue was raised either through internal conflict or as a result of foreign contact--any confusion whatsoever could simply be brought before the Prophet for a solution. But without Muhammed around to elucidate the will of God, the Ummah was left with the nearly impossible task of figuring out what the Prophet would have said about an issue or a problem.I believe his passage reveals some of the problems that arise within any religious community.
The point that Islam was still in the process of evolution after the death of its founder relates very much to the fact that Christianity also underwent evolution--considerable evolution--after the death of Jesus. The Christian community had no canon for several generations after the death of Jesus, and in fact there wasn't just one Christianity, but several--including but not limited to the Ebionites, Marcionites, and Gnostics, and, of course, the version of Christianity that won out over all the others when the dust settled and got to call itself "orthodox". Even the New Testament itself shows some of this evolution in Christianity, from the earliest Gospel of Mark, in all its bare simplicity, to the elaborate Christology of the Gospel of John. Through all of this, Christianity had to work out for itself what became its normative standards of theology and practice. Islam, as we can see, also had to do the same thing.
The battles between competing factions in an emerging religion may have involved all sorts of agendas--personal, political, as well as theological. Who ended up the winners and losers may have had less to do with God's will than with the politics of the time. And, of course, the big question posed in the last sentence of the passage that I quoted above is one that all religions have to face--how to discern the will of God?
It is not an easy question to answer. To me, the history of the world's great religions exposes humanity's struggle to discern the will of God. The great prophets of the world initiated, either willingly or not, some kind of paradigm shift among their followers. But it was then up to the followers to try to make sense of the new paradigm. I say "willingly or not" because while Muhammed was self-consciously a prophetic voice of a new religion, the same was not necessarily true of Jesus. Jesus was a devout Jew, who did not in his life time found a new religion per se; I believe, and I think that serious (that is to say, non-fundamentalist) scholars also believe, that in the case of Christianity, the new religion that emerged after his death went much farther than what he himself preached, and it made statements about his nature and role that he himself did not make. So in a sense, Christianity went much further on an evolutionary path after the death of its founder than Islam did. Yet, regardless of that difference, the point remains that both religions were faced with the difficulties of sustaining a new movement after its founder died.
Perhaps, for the times and places and cultures that these two religions emerged, what happened was inevitable. The codification of dogmas surrounding practice and belief may have been the only possible directions that these religions could take. But in the modern era, the question that I have is whether it is possible for a liberal religion to steer a middle way between dogma on the one hand and a lack of any kind of faith commonality on the other. Going back to the example of Unitarian Univeralism (an example I go back to because it is the prime example of modern religious liberalism as it is most commonly practiced in the US), was it perhaps inevitable that, once creeds were stripped from it, that it would move in the direction that it did, where such an amazing diversity of theologies and beliefs fell under its broad umbrella of practice?
There are other creedless denominations besides Unitarian Univeralism. Quakers, the other faith I know the most about, have traditionally eschewed creeds; what has held Quakerism together has been, perhaps, a commitment to its traditions. Quakers also span a broad spectrum of belief, and not all Quakers are Christians, although most are. Quakers have also split into several groupings, ranging from the conservative quasi-Protestant fundamentalist Evangelical Friends International to the (generally) very liberal Friends General Conference, with the Friends United Meeting being somewhere in between. The tension between these different strands within Quakerism have indeed been the source of conflict over the years. But, for the most part, it has been possible for Quakers of various stripes to hold to their traditions while maintaining a creedless stance.
The reality is that within any denomination, you are going to find at least some disagreement. This is healthy. It makes no sense for a religious liberal to expect other religious liberals to share a kind of theological conformity. But this question of whether you can have a balance between these two tendencies--religious liberalism, while still maintaining some kind of broad commonality of outlook and faith--is a big one for me. Religion as the flawed product of flawed human beings trying in their flawed way to understand God will inevitably produce false starts, disagreements, conflicts. Religious endeavors, like so many human enterprises, have a funny way of taking on their own momentum. And if a religion believes, as I do, in the principle of continuous relevation, then it must by definition evolve over time as the community struggles with new developments, new theologies, new circumstances--and new revelations.
So what keeps people together within a denomination? What makes a religious community? What is the glue that keeps the community members from sticking together despite whatever differences they might have?
Does it make any sense to speculate about the existence of some hypothetical "dream religion"? If I were able to wave my magic wand and create a new religious community of people who were drawn together by the ideas of Spong, Borg, and others, what would come of such a community? Would it measure up to my expectations? Would I find, against my wishes, that it would evolve in certain directions that I disagreed with? Would I be just as dissatisfied with the results of such an endeavor as I have been with those religious communities that already exist?