Well, welcome, everyone.
I want to thank you all for coming
to join us today for the first, and what will hopefully
be a long and successful series of events, entitled
"Inside the Scholar's Studio," in which we'll be inviting
various authors to come to campus and talk
about their work today.
And I want to thank especially the HBS alumni
relations and Andover Harvard Theological Library
for sponsoring this event today.
So I want to start off by introducing our speaker, who
probably needs no introduction.
But I'm going to do it anyway.
Reza Aslan is an internationally acclaimed writer and scholar
in the history of religions, serving currently
as associate professor of creative writing
and cooperating faculty in the Department of Religion
at the University of California Riverside.
He holds a bachelor's degree in religious studies
from Santa Clara University, a master of theological studies
from Harvard Divinity School--
I thought that might get some applause.
And a PhD in the sociology of religions
from the University of California Santa Barbara,
as well as a master of fine arts from the University of Iowa,
where he was named Truman Capote Fellow in Fiction.
He's the founder of aslanmedia.com,
an online journal for news and entertainment
about the Middle East and the world,
and co-founder and chief creative officer
of BoomGen Studios, the premiere entertainment
brand for creative content from and about the greater Middle
He serves on the board of directors for many non-profits
and NGOs working around the world.
He is also a member of the inaugural cohort
of the recipients of the Peter Gomes Memorial Honors,
given by the HDS Alumni/Alumnae Council in April of 2013.
Reza's first book is the international bestseller No God
But God: The Origins, Evolution, and Future
of Islam, which has been translated into 13 languages
and named one of the 100 most important books
of the last decade.
He is also the author of How to Win a Cosmic War, published
in paperback as Beyond Fundamentalism, Confronting
Religious Extremism in a Globalized Age,
and is the editor of two volumes-- Tablet and Pen:
Literary Landscapes from the Modern Middle East
and Muslims and Jews in America: Commonalities, Contentions,
Most recently, he is the author of number one New York Times
bestseller Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth,
and he's here today to talk with us about this book.
So welcome, Reza.
Thank you, Jason.
Thank you, everyone.
Thank you for having me.
Let me just say that this room looks so much cooler than it
did when I was a student here, which I was thinking about
on the way here.
I woke up this morning, and I thought,
this is so awkward that I'm going
to be talking to students.
I mean, I just graduated from here.
And it turns out no, I didn't just graduate from here.
That was 14 years ago.
I'll tell you how long ago it was.
I used to sleep in Div Hall.
That tells you how long ago that was.
Well, thank you so much for joining us today, Reza.
We're so happy to have you.
I think what I want to start with today is-- although many
of us here will have read the book,
or at least read about the book and have thought about it
a lot, I just want to give us a sense here of,
what first got you interested in this topic?
I wonder if you might speak a little
about the creation of the book.
How did you first become interested
in the life of Jesus?
What interested you and inspired you to take up
a book-length project about the topic,
for those who haven't yet had the chance to read it?
Well, I would say that I probably
had a similar experience to a lot of people in this room.
I mean, I often say that if you decide that you're
going to dedicate your life to the study of religion,
either you're crazy or you decided to do so originally
from a place of faith, and then very quickly
that faith was sucked out of you violently.
But that same thing happened to me.
I grew up in Iran, a very secular family.
I mean, we were Muslim in the sense
that it was part of our identity.
But when we came to the United States
after the Iranian Revolution, which
if you remember the '80s, and some of you do,
wasn't the best time to be Iranian or Muslim in the United
And a lot has changed apparently in 30-something years.
And I really did everything that I could to kind of distance
myself from the religion of my forefathers
and the culture and heritage of Iran.
In fact, as I often say, I spent a good part
of the early '80s pretending to be Mexican.
And so for me, I had always been deeply interested
in religion and spirituality, despite the fact
that I didn't have any kind of spiritual education
or religious experience.
I think part of it had to do with the childhood
images of revolutionary Iran that had really burned
themselves in my consciousness.
The power that religion has to transform a society for good
and for bad is something that I've never been able to shake.
But I never had an opportunity to express
that in any kind of deep meaningful, intellectual,
or spiritual way.
Until when I was in high school, when
I went to an evangelical youth camp and heard the gospel story
for the first time.
This sort of transformative experience
of the converting to a particularly conservative brand
of evangelical Christianity gave me my first opportunity
to really express that deep longing
for spiritual connection that I had had most of my childhood.
I went to Santa Clara University, a nice Jesuit
Catholic University in the Bay Area.
And there I began the formal study of the New Testament.
And I had, again, that experience
that I think a lot of people in my situation have,
where all of a sudden you realize, oh, most of what
I was told was not right-- that there is so much more, so
much deeper that you can delve into the historical Jesus
and the world in which he lived.
And although eventually I did separate from Christianity
and then ultimately did revert back
to Islam many, many years later-- again,
encouraged by my Catholic priests.
So this is something that the Pope should not
be aware of, is the Jesuits are turning people away
from Christianity and toward Islam.
This is something that Glenn Beck
would have a field day with.
I continued delving into the New Testament.
And I suppose the only way that I
can put it is that the Jesus that I was discovering,
this man who lived 2,000 years ago
and the world in which he lived, became more real to me,
became more interesting, more appealing.
To put it in Christian terms, I wanted
to have a personal relationship with this man in a way
that I never could really get with the Christ
that I had been introduced to in church.
And so truly, if you're asking what
was the impetus of this book, that was the moment.
I wanted to let other people in on this experience that I had,
this experience of being confronted
with the historical Jesus.
Well, that's a great segue into the book.
And I think I wanted to sort of get
at what the heart of this book is about.
You highlight, actually, throughout the book
the importance of the crucifixion of Jesus
as crucial for understanding his place within the Roman
But you do it in a slightly different way from the way
many other people interpret.
You say, "If one knew nothing else about Jesus of Nazareth,
save that he was crucified by Rome,
one would know practically all that
was needed to uncover who he was, what he was,
and why he ended up on a cross."
Now, I'm wondering, can you tell us a little bit more
about the role that this crucifixion
played in your argument and sort of the wider
scope of your book?
Why is it so significant for understanding
the historical Jesus?
And what role does it play in sort
of spinning out the central argument you're trying to make?
Well, I mean, for the simple reason
that crucifixion in this era was a punishment
that Rome reserved almost exclusively for crimes
against the state.
So you have to start with this notion
that Jesus was crucified as a state criminal,
that he was crucified for sedition,
for rebellion, insurrection.
These are the crimes that crucifixion is used for.
Crucifixion, of course, is not even really
a form of capital punishment.
I think that's an incorrect way to think about it.
Rome would often kill you first and then crucify you.
The purpose of crucifixion was primarily
to act as a deterrent against rebellion,
And so right away, that should at the very least
begin to put a dent in this modern perception of Jesus
as a kind of pacifistic preacher of good works
with no interest in the cares of this world whose kingdom was
not of this world but in heaven.
I think that to be blunt, that Jesus would have probably gone
unnoticed by Rome.
I think it's so interesting how you sort of spin this out.
And you really take us through a lot
of historical textual materials, including the four gospels.
And something you say in your book that really interested
me was, you say, "The only means the modern reader has at
his or her disposal to try and retrieve
some semblance of the historical accuracy
in the passion narratives is to slowly strip away
the theological overlay imposed by the evangelists on Jesus'
final days and return to the most primitive version
of the story that can be excavated."
And so, I'm reading this.
And I think, yeah, I'm fully on board with that.
That sounds great.
How do you do this?
How do you look at something like the Gospel of Mark
and the Gospel of John with their in some ways similar
but in some ways very divergent portrayals of Jesus
and begin to formulate a method and process for thinking about,
OK, they say this happened.
Do we think that's true?
Maybe, maybe not.
How do you go about, when you start
studying these materials-- what's
your process for interpreting?
Well, as many people in this room are familiar with,
the methodological tools that are at our disposal
to try as much as possible to figure out what in the Gospels
is more likely historical and what is less likely historical
have been in place for some two centuries.
And they involve a whole host of different processes.
I mean, I guess to put it in its simplest way possible,
it's just simply a matter of taking
the claims of the Gospels and analyzing them
in light of what we know about the history of the time
in which the Gospels were written
and the time in which the Gospels are describing.
But I think there's more to it than that.
And I think it begins with an understanding of how
to read the Gospels, or for that matter
sacred history, in any form.
And I think it requires us to recognize
that there is a difference between truth and fact
in the ancient mind, and particularly
when dealing with sacred history--
that they are not the same thing.
They are the same thing for us.
We think that that which is true is that which
can be empirically verified.
That's our very definition of history,
indeed-- that history is an accumulation
of empirically verifiable facts.
But that definition of history, as we are mostly aware,
is quite a new idea.
It's a product of the modern world.
For the Gospel writers, the notion of history
was not about uncovering facts.
It was about revealing truths.
And so I think starting with that principle,
knowing how to read the Gospels is the first step to figuring
out how to then extract history out
of them, because of course these are not
historical documents in the way that we think about them.
The Gospel writers are not writing about Jesus the way
that a historian writes about Napoleon.
These are testimonies of faith written
by communities of faith.
The Gospel writers, in other words,
they'd already decided who Jesus was.
They made a judgment about his identity,
that he was either the Messiah or the Son of God,
or indeed God himself.
And then they wrote their gospels to prove that belief.
So I guess to put it in the simplest way,
these are not so much historical accounts of a man
named Jesus of Nazareth.
They are a theological argument about something
called the Christ.
Does that make sense?
So then the question then becomes,
are these just sort of theological arguments and we
have to take them sort of at that level?
Or is there something sort of underneath,
sort of a hidden series of events that we can then
trace from these narratives?
And I'm wondering how you see yourself
as going about looking at what's underneath that theological
Well, I think that some would say that there isn't.
There are a number of scholars of religion,
of the New Testament, who have more or less abandoned
the entire project altogether.
The historical Jesus is inaccessible to us.
This is all myth and legend.
And you should only read the Gospels
for its theological truths and just give up
on trying to kind of extract a historical kernel out of them.
I do believe that there are methods
to give us at least some sense of confidence
in parts of the story.
It involves, of course, trying to get as close
to the events as possible.
I mean, that's a big part about it.
And it's also important to kind of
try to not so much extract history but to be aware
So in other words, it's much easier to read the Gospels
and point out the Christological aspects of it.
They're out there.
The difficult part is to then sort of sweep the Christology
apart and say what's left.
And then from what's left, it's about mining it.
It's about figuring out what fits the history.
Because as I say, while it is true
that we know very, very little about the historical Jesus,
we know a great deal about the world in which he lived.
And if you begin with the assumption--
and it is an assumption-- that whatever else Jesus was,
he was a product of his world, that his views about the nature
of God, the relationship between creator and creation,
the concept of Jewish history and theology,
his understanding of the Hebrew scriptures
were more or less in line with the general assumptions
about these things, then you can place him firmly
in that assumption and allow his world, his time
to kind of define him.
If on the other hand you believe that Jesus was utterly unique,
that his conception of God, his conception of the Messiah,
his reading, his interpretation of the scriptures,
were innovative and unprecedented,
then that doesn't work, because then it
doesn't do you much good to see him in this context.
So that's an admission that I think all scholars have
to make, is that you have to begin with the assumption
that Jesus was extraordinary, remarkable, but not unique.
And once you begin with that assumption,
then you can use his world to define him.
Yeah, that's great.
You make this distinction throughout your book
between the Jesus Christ and Jesus of Nazareth.
In other words, the Jesus of faith and the Jesus of history.
And so much of what the work you're trying to do
is to uncover that Jesus of history.
And I'm curious about what you see is at stake for us today,
both as scholars, as people who consider ourselves Christians,
as people who just admire Jesus but may not be Christian.
What is at stake for you if we just
accept the Jesus of faith that's so often presented to us
and leave that Jesus of history that you
try to get at in this book-- if we leave that part of his life
unattended and unexamined?
What do you see?
That's a very good question.
Well, I think that the heart of Orthodox Christianity,
of course, is that Jesus was both fully God and fully man.
I have to tell you that even when I was a Christian,
I had an incredibly difficult time making
sense of that mystery.
And I get it that it's a mystery.
I get it.
It's not supposed to be easy to understand.
I understand that.
But let me tell you what I mean by this.
Well, first of all, to be honest,
usually the Jesus that you hear about is the God Jesus.
When you go to church, you hear about the God Jesus.
When you think about Jesus, when you
look at even the credal formulas around Jesus,
they are all about who he is, not what he did or said,
what his teachings are about.
And even when you try as a Christian to think
about the man part of Jesus, if you will,
when you try to think about him as struggling or suffering,
as anxious or scared, when you try
to think about the humanity of him,
it's very difficult to do so, because you know,
he's also God.
I often compare it to watching a tight rope walker
with a net underneath him.
It's just not that interesting.
It's not that interesting.
So he falls.
I guess what I wanted to do is take away the net
and to say to a believing audience
that if you are serious about this belief
that Jesus was also a man, then you need to suspend
that belief for a moment to truly absorb
the consequences of it, to recognize that he was
a product of his world, that his teachings were addressed
to specific social ills, that his actions were
in confrontation to specific political and religious powers,
and that the man that arises from that understanding
may not look like the man you expect.
For non-believers, what I really wanted to do
was provide a window into why this man is still important.
I mean, I truly, truly believe-- I mean,
I'm no longer a Christian, but I truly think of myself
as a follower of Jesus.
I mean, I really believe that I have fashioned my life,
the way that I confront powers, the way that I
think about social justice, is deeply influenced by Jesus.
And I wanted to make that argument to non-believers,
to say that you can be a follower of this man
without being a Christian.
And why is that important?
Because there is probably no more significant individual
in the world, certainly in the Western world, than Jesus.
And he is an infinitely malleable thing.
He can mean anything to anyone, which
is what theology is about.
But the Jesus of history is frozen in place.
And while there are of course enormous debates
about who he was and what he meant,
those debates are firmly stuck within a time and place.
And so whether you are a believer or not,
you must be familiar with that time and place
if you want to know anything about Jesus.
I want to turn now to this Fox News interview that I think--
I'm sorry, which Fox News interview?
There were a couple, right?
So of course, that's all over YouTube.
So you can find that anywhere if you
want to watch the rest of it.
But I think certainly this interview has captivated me
and my colleagues here at Harvard Divinity School.
It was all over my Facebook news feed when it first came out.
People were horrified and shocked by this.
And so I think one of the things people are wondering about
is what's going through your head
when you're giving this interview
and she's asking you these questions?
Was this something you expected going into the interview?
And if not, what's running through your mind as this
is sort of spiraling out of control in this way?
I watch Fox News.
I know what Fox News is about.
And so I would be lying if I said that I didn't
expect that this would come up.
And when it was the first question,
I thought, oh OK, well, I'll just go ahead and answer
And then the second question, and the third question-- and we
stopped it there, but as you can imagine, it just keeps going.
And really, it wasn't until about five minutes
into the interview that it occurred to me
that, oh, this is happening.
This is what we're going to talk about
for the entire 10 minutes.
So I mean, honestly, I was more confused than anything else.
I mean, I didn't think twice about this.
I mean, I have to just be honest with you,
the interview was over, and I thought, that was weird.
And I just forgot about it until it
became this kind of phenomenon which,
as I was telling you before, very quickly stopped
being about me.
I mean, this was about me for about 24 hours,
and then it became about these very important discussions
about media and journalistic bias, religion and society,
the role of academia in public life
and in popular discourse, which was delightful to me.
I mean, these are the conversations
that we all have amongst each other all the time
and that nobody else listens to.
And to I have these discussions all of a sudden being had,
not just in the media but on social media
and the popular realm, was exhilarating.
So much of the critique, the criticism that certainly
comes out in this interview but is also
present in what else has been written about the book,
the heart of it seems to be why would a Muslim want
to write a book about Jesus?
And as you say in your book, you outline on the second page
where your own religious affiliation and identity lies.
But I think this is a question that certainly many of us
in this room grapple with, is sort
of this tension between the religious life that we
may or may not have, the faith and spirituality on one side,
and then the academics, scholarly side that we're all
here trying to cultivate.
And so I think the question is, how do you
see those two spheres of our life intersecting?
Do you think that you could have just as well written this book
and not explicitly come out and said, I am a Muslim,
but I'm a scholar in the history of religion
writing about Jesus?
Do you think it's important to sort of acknowledge
our own backgrounds?
Or do you see that as a really different dimension
from the scholarly one?
How do you see those worlds interacting?
Jason, that's a really, really good question,
because there are two things happening in this video.
And there's what everyone picks up on, which
is this kind of clear anti-Muslim bias of Fox News
that they have managed to spin into ratings
gold for the last decade or so.
And good for them.
They've managed to become very successful
by trying to convince people that Muslims
are going to sneak into their homes at night
and eat their children.
But there's something else going on here,
and it's something that I think we in this room pick up.
And that is her inability, an inability that I think
is shared by the vast majority of Americans,
to even understand the concept of religion
as an academic enterprise.
I mean, I think for her, what do you mean?
How could you possibly write about religion
from an objective-- and by objective,
we mean as objective as we can be-- an objective position?
The very concept makes no sense to her at all.
And I have to say, not only do I think that most Americans would
agree with that statement-- I mean, you're all in div school.
Just be honest with me.
How often do you sit on a plane and tell someone
that you're at div school, and they're like, oh,
did I just cuss?
Oh, I'm so sorry.
Are you a priest?
Are you being a priest?
Is that what you're doing?
Because again, this idea that, no, I'm
actually studying an academic discipline
in a scientific environment is a completely foreign concept
to a lot of Americans.
And I have to be honest with you.
That's our fault.
It's because we do such a poor job of communicating
our skills, our scholarship, our research, our theories,
to a popular audience.
On the contrary, when we try to do so,
we are immediately attacked by our colleagues
and our superiors as unserious.
Of course we have fostered this sense of distrust
among the people over what we do and what our goals are.
Of course, I mean, there are Buddhists
in this room who write about Christianity,
there are Christians in this room who write about Hinduism,
there are Hindus in this room that write about Islam.
And for us, it just makes perfect sense
that we separate our faith, whatever that may be,
from our academic research.
But until we figure out how to communicate better
with the outside world-- the outside world like we're
on some sort of island, but we are kind of on an island--
until we figure out a way to actually do that, and not
just do it but encourage it-- I mean, look,
if you're brave enough to say that you're going to ignore
the criticisms that you're going to get from your colleagues,
because you are going to get criticized, in fact, it
can be detrimental to your academic career
to write a popular book, as you all very well know.
Unless you're willing to just deal with that, to face that
and continue to do so, this is what is in store for all of us.
I think that gets to the heart of one of the things that's
so interesting about this book and why I love this book,
is because you can really just-- it's an accessible writing
style that you use.
As we've talked about here a little bit,
and as you say in the book more, the arguments
that you're really advancing are not particularly new.
People have thought in this way about Jesus before.
But what you've done is given it an accessibility,
such that not only the scholar of religion
can pick up this book and understand it,
but sort of the lay person who's never
taken a course in religious studies in their life
can pick it up, understand the arguments you're making,
and follow it from beginning to end.
And so I'm curious for those of us
who want to go into this academic field
and are thinking about how do we write, how do we
talk about things, if you could just give us
some practical advice in terms of what your own writing
strategies are, what's your approach
to sort of presenting history in this really accessible way.
Well, first of all, learn how to embed your research,
learn how to take the methodology, because what
we do here is 90% methodology, oh yeah,
and I have a thesis too.
Flip it around.
Take the methodology and hide it.
Put it all the way in the back, because the world doesn't care.
The world will just take your expertise at face value,
and it doesn't care how you came up with these ideas.
Put that in the back.
Put it in the notes section.
So that's, I think, the first and most important thing to do.
And I know that, again, this is where
the criticism comes from a lot.
And I get a lot of criticism from colleagues
who say, oh, this is such a simplistic version of this.
Yeah, that's right.
It's a simplistic version of it.
That's the point of it.
Simplify, simplify, simplify.
Again, that doesn't mean that you
need to simplify your research.
There's a place for your research.
Yeah, that's in the back.
Put it in the back.
But your grandmother doesn't care about your methodology
or your research.
She just wants to get to your conclusion.
And then, I would say, finally, and this sounds easy to say,
but learn how to write.
We have such a specialized writing style in academia
with our own secret language that no one can decipher
and that only we ourselves understand.
It's like the secret code that we talk to each other about.
You have to get past that.
You have to get over that.
As you were saying, when I finished Harvard,
I had already gotten into a PhD program,
and I made a conscious decision to defer entry and instead go
and get an MFA in writing and to learn how to write,
because I always knew that that's what I wanted to do.
I wanted to communicate these incredibly
fascinating and consequential ideas that we all sit around
in our classrooms talking about-- which
you wouldn't be here if you didn't think
that they were cool, right?
I mean, that's why you're here.
I wanted to communicate that to people who aren't here.
And I needed to know how to write in order to do that.
But I got punished for that.
I got into the program at Berkeley,
and they gave me this very wonderful fellowship.
And I said to them, I'd like to defer for two years.
They said, why?
I said, because I want to go get an MFA.
And they said, what, what?
I said, well, I want to go get a writing degree.
They couldn't understand.
What do you mean?
Why would you want to do that?
And ultimately they punished me for it.
They said, OK, well, we'll hold your seat but not
But you know, you won it once.
I'm sure you'll win it a second time.
And they didn't give it to me the second time.
And so in other words, their argument
was you are now a weaker candidate because
of this other degree, not a stronger candidate.
That's got to change.
That has to change.
And that, I think, is the ethos of academia.
It has to change.
But this is the last thing that I want to say,
is that I think it's already changing.
I think that when I speak to university students
and graduate students, what I'm confronted
with is a different kind of scholar
than I remember when I was a student, a scholar that
is much more engaged in popular media
and in popular discourse, a scholar that's
not afraid to break through the ivy walls.
And I think that-- so it may take a generation or two more,
but I think it's happening, and it can only
be good for our society.
Well, I want to turn now to the question and answer
part of the event, because I'm sure this has raised
many questions for you all.
And I want to give you a chance to speak
with Reza a little bit.
And so we have runners on each side
who are going to be going up and down
the aisles with microphones.
And so if you could just raise your hand
if you have a question that you'd like to ask.
One of the runners will come and give it to you.
And we ask that you do speak into the microphone
so that it can go on the recording
and we can hear it for all of eternity.
So yeah, so I'll turn it over to you all.
Just raise your hand if you have a question.
Thank you for coming, by the way.
Loved the Fox News interview.
That was great.
My question, actually to your point, the popularizing
of theory, basically, and what we do here,
how do you reconcile that with the sciences,
with popular science?
I mean, popular science gets kind of the same backlash.
But when we try to speak to other scientists, when
we take the study of religion scientifically
and academically, when we speak to them,
they don't understand what we're doing either.
And I am referencing your debate with Sam Harris
here, which I want to talk to you about that.
So how do you reconcile those two things is basically
Yeah, it's funny.
We were actually joking about this earlier,
about how the problem with religion
is that everyone thinks that they're an expert in it.
And Sam Harris and the whole new atheist movement
is a perfect example of this.
These are people who have the most unsophisticated
understanding of religion, who in my view
read scriptures more literally than any literalist
I've ever met, and who then speak
from this position of faux expertise, which
should drive some of us nuts.
As I said to Sam, I said myself, I said, you know,
I don't write books about neuroscience.
Do you know why?
Because I'm not a neuroscientist.
That's not what I do.
But if you can read the Bible, you're an expert in religion.
It's a difficult situation.
I will say that the one thing that a lot
of other academic scholars have that religion doesn't is
they are immediately seen as experts
as a result of their degrees.
So in other words, if we're having a conversation
about the climate, we would assume
that we would have that-- maybe not Fox News.
But let's just say you're CNN, and you want
to talk about global warming.
Very likely, you're going to bring on a climate scientist
to talk about that.
If you want to talk about religion
you bring on some activist or some religious leader,
not an expert on religion.
So I think that that's really the kind of idea
that I'm talking about that we have to change.
But that responsibility rests on us.
If you're waiting for the media to change,
you're wasting your time.
Thank you so much.
Question on this side?
Go for it.
Thank you for coming.
So like other people here after watching the Fox News
interview, I found myself watching other interviews,
because YouTube's a downward spiral in that way.
And I saw your interview on Morning Joe
with Joe Scarborough.
And I saw him struggling with this idea
that there's a difference between myth and fiction.
And he was struggling as a faithful Christian
to accept what you were saying and almost seemed hurt.
And so at that point, I was wondering,
like Jason asked you, what you expected
or what you hoped faithful Christians would get out
of your book.
And I really liked the tight rope example that you gave,
and reminding us that Jesus is fully God and fully human.
But something that wasn't discussed in the Fox News
interview is that Jesus is very much a part of Islam
also, a very real human in Islam.
And he is not God also in Islam.
So how would you present this book
to a faithful Muslim who has a hard time accepting,
for example, that the crucifixion did
Well, first of all, I am not proud of the Morning Joe
interview, because I think I lost my cool just a little bit
in that one, because I was being harangued by Joe Scarborough.
I would get, like, three words in,
and he would say, oh, so you're saying it's a lie.
It's all a lie, huh?
It's all a lie?
And it's like, no, it's myth.
Oh, so it's a fiction.
I was like, no, myth doesn't mean fiction.
Myth means stories about gods and goddesses.
That's what myth means.
And I found myself trying to explain academic terms
to someone who was having a deep emotional reaction rather than
simply recognising it, slowing down,
and doing what we need to do, which is to respond to someone
where they are at.
But to this kind of larger issue about how
to deal with faith as a scholar of religions,
I think that's a really important question.
And it's one I take to heart, because I write about Islam,
I write about Judaism, I write about Christianity.
And I, unlike many of my colleagues,
actually take faith seriously.
I mean, come on, let's face it.
A lot of us, a lot of our professors,
look at faith the way that a biologist looks at a microbe.
You know, it's this thing to be studied.
Look at these strange people and their believing in God.
I mean, I remember the first week of my doctoral program,
we were in this small seminar, having this deep conversation
about the problems of essentializing the sacred.
And halfway through, I realized, oh, you mean believing in God.
OK, you know why people hate us?
Because we use phrases like essentializing the sacred.
That's why they hate us.
So I take faith seriously.
I am not interested in attacking faith.
I am not interested in contradicting faith.
I'm not interested in converting faith.
So what I try to do is, even as I talk about religion
from a historical or cultural or literary
scientific perspective, I never lose sight of the fact
that what I am talking about is deeply
a part of someone's identity.
And you can very quickly get to the point
where they feel as though their very sense of self
is under attack by what you are doing.
And so I sort of lay out the ground rules.
I make sure that everybody understands that faith is not
religion, that they are two completely different things,
that every story that I analyze can be understood in two
different ways, two modes of knowing,
that you can talk about what is possible--
is it possible that Jesus thought he was a God?
Yeah, it's possible.
Is it likely?
No, it's not likely.
And my job is to tell you what's likely.
Your job is to think about what's possible.
And those two things don't need to be in conflict
with each other.
When there is a conflict, between scripture and history,
in the case of the Qu'ran's statement that Jesus was not
crucified, which of course is a very old story--
you can find it in gospels that were written in the second
century, the gospel of Philip, gospel of Thomas--
and one can very easily trace the historical progression
whereby those ideas were filtered into the Arabian
Peninsula and were picked up by the prophet Muhammad and became
part of the Qu'ran.
But again, it's important to then just sort of constantly
make a differentiation between the historian's
job and the person of faith's job,
these two modalities and how, while they
are different perspectives, they're not necessarily
in conflict with each other.
From a spiritual perspective, let me just
say one more thing, because I am a person of faith,
and I take my faith very seriously.
But my faith is not in any religion.
I am not a Muslim because I think Islam is right
or that Islam is true, whereas other religions are not.
All religions are merely languages made up
of symbols and metaphors that help us to describe what is
inexpressible, which is faith.
And a language is a language.
A language is a language-- I mean,
it's like French or Spanish.
I mean, I speak Arabic, I speak Spanish and French and Persian,
but I think in English.
So I speak Christianity, Judaism, Hinduism,
and Buddhism, but I feel in Islam.
That's the only difference for me.
So if I find a conflict between history and scripture,
it's history that's right, not scripture.
My faith isn't in the scripture.
In fact, to be honest with you, I am always baffled by people
who say things like I believe in the Bible,
or I believe in the Qu'ran.
I don't understand what you're talking about.
You believe it exists?
So do I.
These are not things to believe in.
They are, to use a Sufi phrase, signposts to God.
They are not the end in and of themselves.
They are a means to an end.
If your faith is in a text, you're doing it wrong.
Thank you for your question.
Let's take one from this side.
My question is, how do you take complex ideas
and simplify them without perpetuating ignorance?
And so a kind of background of that
is, like, we talked about new atheists, which
let's assume for a second comes out of ignorance.
There will be very intelligent, very
nuanced secular humanist scholars who
will write popular books which will get picked up.
And basically, the simplicity of the ideas
is what will be communicated by people.
And you might come up against those people
and be frustrated at their ignorance
and how they're simplifying everything
and they're not willing to engage because they have just
taken the idea.
So seeing that on the other side,
you've got to believe that it's going to be true on your side.
So how do you make sure your distilling
of complex ideas into simple ideas
does not just perpetuate more ignorance?
That's very good.
Well, specifically speaking, I would
say that there is a difference between an evolutionary
biologist who writes a book about why religion
is stupid and evil-- right.
I wouldn't say that that's simplifying it.
I would say that that's just simply
not having any conception of what religion is,
where religion comes from, and how religion is understood.
It is the easiest thing in the world
to scour the scriptures for bits of savagery
and then make general assumptions about it.
There's nothing intelligent about that process.
But to your larger question of how
do those who are an expert in it-- so in the case of Dawkins,
when he writes a popular book about evolutionary biology,
I'm sure evolutionary biologists say, oh my god, this
is a really simplistic version of this argument, that's
a better way of thinking about it.
Or if a scholar of religion writes a book about religion,
and I don't know if I have the answer to that, but at the very
least, what I have tried to do is ameliorate that criticism
by writing my books in such a way
that they offer something to both audiences.
So if you look at this book, at the very beginning
of this book, it says, this is actually two books.
The main narrative is just a really good story,
that if you just trust me, and if you're not
interested in the scholarship behind this,
and you're just going to follow my argument,
you're going to enjoy.
And I would say 90% of the people who read this book just
read that first part of it.
But then I say, but if you are not
one of those people, if you actually
want to know the two century long argument
and debate over how I got to this narrative,
and all the people who disagree with me about it,
there's this second part of the book.
And rather than do sort of simple end notes
or simple footnotes, what I've done is taken my notes
and put them into narrative form as well.
So if you read the last 90 pages of this book,
it actually reads like a book.
It actually reads like a parallel book.
And that's what I really wanted it to do,
so that for those who say, yeah, but how do you know,
or where do you get that, there is an answer for that.
But it's separate, it's different, it's set apart.
I wish more people would read that, to be honest with you.
I mean, I remember this one-- I think
it was a Nation reviewer who was a scholar at Barnard, who
in the review literally said, because the book didn't
come with traditional footnotes, it
became very difficult to read the notes,
and so I abandoned doing so.
And then went on to criticize me for making
It's like, they're not unsubstantiated.
They're in the notes that you just said you did not read.
So I guess that's the thing, is that understand your audience
and try to satisfy them both, but not at the same time.
We have time for one more question.
So we'll take from this side.
I read your first book a few years ago,
and I read your most recent book a couple months ago.
And I enjoyed them both, and I thank you for your scholarship.
They were simplistic, of course, but I enjoyed them very much.
And it occurred to me, were you a Christian
when you wrote the book about Muhammad?
So my real question is, you were a Christian for a while--
and I don't know if disillusioned or skeptical
or whatever the right word is, but why didn't you just become
a Unitarian like most of us?
What a question to end on.
Yeah, I like that.
I like that.
Let's go back to what I was saying about what religion
is, a set of symbols and metaphors that provide
a language to describe and to express faith
to yourself and to other people.
Those symbols and metaphors are what truly matter.
And I suppose the best way to answer
that question is the primary symbol for God in Islam,
as opposed to Christianity, was what made the difference.
The primary symbol for God in Christianity is man.
That's the primary metaphor.
And by the way, that makes perfect sense.
I mean, truly if you want to think
about the long view of the history of religions,
you can really make an argument that it has all
been about this attempt to bridge the gap between creator
And that bridge is what religion is.
It's a way of bridging that gap, bringing man, the humanity,
and the divine together.
Part of the reason why Christianity, in my view,
has been so enormously successful-- it is the largest
religion in the world-- is because it figured out
a way to remove the gap.
The answer for Christianity is that there is no gap,
that God and man are one.
And so if you want a central metaphor
to think about the other, the sort of divine transcendence,
that which is by definition beyond and that is, in a sense,
that the human mind is incapable of grasping,
the metaphor to grasp it is a man.
I'm a human being.
I know what it means to be a human being.
And so therefore I start to endow that transcendent present
with human attributes.
God is good.
God is love.
These are human attributes.
They do not apply to God.
But they help you make sense of what God is.
So do you see what I'm saying?
So the central metaphor in Christianity is man.
God is a man.
That's how you think about him.
The central metaphor for God in Islam is quite different.
It's called tawhid.
It's embedded in the notion of the Shahada,
that there is no God but God, which
is often misunderstood as being a statement of monotheism.
That statement doesn't mean that there is only one god.
It means that God is in and of himself
oneness, that God is divine unity, that his definition is
one, that therefore he is utterly indivisible.
Yes, but Unitarians still take the Jesus part.
Maybe I'm thinking of the UCC.
That's what I'm doing.
And of course there's a consequence to that belief.
There's a consequence to the notion
of tawhid, which means that there
can be no division between creator and creation,
that if anything that exists exists only insofar
as it shares in the existence of God,
because God is the only thing that exists.
So perhaps what I should do is-- I simplified it.
I'm going to make it a little bit more complex.
It's not that I don't believe that Jesus was God.
I just don't believe that Jesus was exclusively God.
I think that my central metaphor for God
requires everyone and everything to be God.
And it just makes more sense to me.
And that's it.
There's no other reason why I have chosen
Islam over anything else.
The Buddha once famously said that you want to draw water,
you don't dig six one-foot wells.
You dig one six-foot well.
Well, I want to draw water, and so Islam is my six-foot well.
But I also understand that the water that I am drawing from
is the water that everybody else around me is drawing from.
I want to thank you, Reza, for joining us so much.