Samir Selmanovic, It’s Really All About God: Reflections of a Muslim Atheist Jewish Christian (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2009). $24.95, 320 pages.
The older I get, the more I find myself using the phrases, “on the one hand” and “on the other hand.” Age, experience, and continued education have taught me that there is more than one way to see and do things.
These things have not made me agnostic about finding truth, however, as if contradictory hands canceled each other out. Rather, they have had the effect of winnowing my beliefs and behaviors, of distinguishing between what is peripheral and core to my way of life.
As I age, then, I find myself worrying less and less about the periphery and more and more about the core, especially when it comes to my religion, which unifies who I am with what I believe and how I behave. Not to beat about the bush, I am a Christian, and this shapes my identity.
For others, their religion—or lack of it—similarly shapes their identities. For every person who, like me, is a Christian, there is another who is a Jew or a Muslim or an atheist. Our religions, or in the case of atheists—our ideologies, shape who we are, including who we are in the presence of one another.
Typically, Jews, Christians, Muslims, and atheists have viewed their religious and ideological stances in zero-sum terms. If Judaism is true, atheism is not; for how can God be One if God does not even exist? Or if Christianity is true, Islam is not; for how can Jesus Christ be God’s Son if God has no companions?
On top of this typically exclusivist stance, historically speaking, religions and ideologies that have had a monopoly or even a majority of power have tended to privilege themselves at the expense of the others. Israel displaced the Canaanites. Christendom persecuted Jews and Muslims. Islam reduced Jews and Christians to dhimmi status. Atheist states persecuted the faithful of all religions.
It is the conjunction of exclusivism and power that worries many, including Samir Selmanovic, author of It’s Really All About God. Selmanovic was born into a conventionally Muslim Croat family; educated by the atheist Yugoslav state and conscripted by its army; and converted into a Seventh-Day Adventist faith, with that denomination’s unique blend of Christian beliefs and Jewish practices. Hence the subtitle of his book: Reflections of a Muslim Atheist Jewish Christian.
The subtitle is not merely autobiographical, however—outlining the stages of Selmanovic’s spiritual evolution. Rather, it describes the thesis of his book: Religions have become “God management systems” that hinder rather than promote life and love, so we must rid ourselves of exclusivism and “find God in the other.”
The Wesleyan Quadrilateral is a form of Christian theological reasoning that takes Scripture, tradition, reason, and experience as its norms. For Christians, Scripture is the “norming norm,” the ultimate authority, while tradition, reason, and experience are “normed norms,” real but nonetheless subordinate authorities. From my vantage point, something similar to the Quadrilateral is at work in the interplay between Tanakh and Talmud in Judaism and Koran and Hadith in Islam.
Selmanovic is a Christian, but it seems to me that he displaces Scripture with experience as the norming norm, and not merely in Christianity but also in Judaism and Islam. Like some Mystics in all three religions, Selmanovic sees life and love as the experiential kernel of all religions, around which contradictory scriptures and religious traditions are merely husks. When Jews use Tanakh and Talmud, Christians the New Testament and the ecumenical councils, or Muslims the Koran and Hadith to override this concern for life and love, they have become “God management systems” that must be opposed.
As a Christian, I have a measure of sympathy for this argument. Formally speaking, it is similar to the argument Jesus made against the Pharisees, who emphasized the niggling details of the Law at the expense of practicing its weightier concerns, namely, justice and mercy. Materially speaking, however, I cannot agree with Selmanovic for the simple reason that to do so would be to cease being a Christian (or Jew, Muslim, or atheist) in any meaningful sense.
What do I mean? Selmanovic is insistent that we must find God in the other. By that, he means—if you are Christian—the Jew, the Muslim, and the atheist. No religion has a monopoly of truth on God, in his estimation. Therefore, God can be found in these other religions or ideologies and their practitioners.
But if you look at the scriptures and traditions of these religions and ideologies, you find that they contradict one another. Judaism, Christianity, and Islam teach that God exists; atheism denies it. Judaism and Islam are Unitarian; Christianity is Trinitarian. Christianity teaches that Jesus is the eternally divine Son of God; Judaism and Islam deny it.
Selmanovic doesn’t deal with these contradictory beliefs, which go to the core doctrines of the respective faiths. Instead, he assigns them to the peripheral and therefore expendable. The mystical experience of God, the practical commitment to life and love, render these doctrinal differences a distraction in Selmanovic’s account.
All of which means, paradoxically, that Selmanovic has failed to find God in the other because he has failed to treat the religions as truly other. This is a common failing of both mystical theology and pluralism, both of which treat doctrinal differences as disputes about words that mask deeper experiential unities. But what if those doctrinal differences are enduring because they reflect and generate different experiential realities? What is life and love have different meanings in Judaism, Christianity, Islam, and atheism because their respective belief systems and authoritative narratives interpret those words in fundamentally exclusive ways?
Not only has Selmanovic failed to treat the religions as truly other, it seems to me that he has failed to treat God as Truly Other. Selmanovic seems to assign the scriptures of the various religions to their humanly generated God management systems. In other words, to speak as a Christian, it seems to me that Selmanovic denies the possibility that the Bible is a genuine revelation by God to us whose narratives, teachings, and law are authoritative. (Although I am a Christian, I think the same point of critique could be made by a Jew or Muslim.) If exclusivistic doctrines arise from humanly generated God management systems, they can be put down by humans too. But what if exclusivistic doctrines arise from authentic self-revelation by God? Wouldn’t Selmanovic need to change his thesis accordingly?
This critique isn’t to say that Selmanovic doesn’t score a good many points by way of critique in this book. At numerous points, I found myself nodding my head at his critiques of my pride, my desire for power and bigness, and my failure to listen to those who do not share my faith. Not only that, I agreed with his strong emphasis on religion as a way of life. Finally, one of the most challenging parts of the book was where Selmanovic simply contrasted what Jesus offered the masses with what we seeker-sensitive preachers promise them. If Selmanovic prompts other to get right with Jesus in these regards, his book will have served a useful purpose.
Other than that, however, I can’t recommend the book. I find the displacement of core Christian doctrine both to be heterodox and, ironically enough, to fall short of Selmanovic’s goal of finding God in the other.