When we speak about orthodoxy and heterodoxy in relation to a particular faith, it is not to point out the subjective responsibility of those who failed to accept the objective truth of a religion, or to denigrate those who have objectively broken a certain tradition with good intention.
Indeed God knows what is in everybody’s heart and “what his soul whispers to him” (Qur’an 50:16). Similarly, when religious and intellectual criticism have been directed towards certain cultural or popular rituals, the aim is not to offend those who want to practise them in good faith while not being aware of the theological deficiencies in such rites.
It has always been a difficult task for scholars to translate the lofty meanings of religions for the common folk. Such meanings are often filtered by people’s hearts and that is why popular expressions of religious devotion are often mixed with cultural and even folkloristic elements.
As a matter of fact, cultural and popular religious practices represent understandings and manifestations of specific geographical areas that, although not necessarily in contrast with the religion, should not be confused with the religious tradition itself. ‘Tradition’ is derived from the Latin term ‘tradere’ meaning ‘to transmit, to convey’.
Only when religious facts and their realities in their purest form are fully transmitted can we call them religious traditions, otherwise they would be cultural traditions or popular customs.
That is because the religious tradition, inclusive of immutable truths beyond time and space, has been preserved by the teachings and the continuation of rightful imams, undistorted, altered or affected by personal inclinations. On the contrary cultural traditions are a type of ‘secular thinking’ (from the Latin seculum indicating worldly and temporal) in the sense that they are ‘added into history’.
Apart from cultural tendencies, sometimes theology itself has also been subjected to popular expressions. As religious truths need to be conveyed to the people, they also need to be presented in a language that is understandable to them. This is the origin of the pastoral care engaged by scholars trying to guide their congregations to the right path.
Pastoral care implies morally supporting the people in their daily activities, filling the gap between their worldly and divine affairs and guiding them towards goodness from the state they find themselves in. In other terms pastoral care enables people to have access to the complex theological truths that otherwise would remain limited to scholarly circles or exceptionally pious individuals.
Here, a problem arises when the constancy of the religious tradition in pastoral care is affirmed but not proven de facto. Words and advice given during pastoral care are not truths in themselves and may not correspond to truths at all. In some cases, there can be a significant gap between ‘what is said’ and ‘what is’. If we take the definition of truth as; ‘what conforms thought to reality’ and falsehood as ‘what does not conform thoughts (and the words expressing it) to facts’, the theory of continuity cannot necessarily be claimed. It is important therefore to conform our intellect to reality because the truth is what it is and not what we like.
Throughout history, many religious scholars place an emphasis on the duty of translating the content of revealed truths into a language closer to the contemporary mentality, just like the duty of preservation and transmission of the holy truth. This implies dynamically adapting theology to cultural situations with the pastoral aim of ‘understand people and make them understand’.
Pastoral theology consists of applying the religious principles to practical cases especially in relation to the members of a community. Some scholars committed to this practice try to apply universal principles of religion according to the needs of modernity. The risk of doing so is the introduction of a subjective language and relativistic ideas, paving the way for the influence of a secular approach towards religion.
What needs to be understood is that, religious principles are considered absolute certainties and therefore infallible in their essence, and this is something that cannot be claimed by ordinary pastoral teachings.
Therefore, what we define as pastoral teachings do not stand as religious tenets and cannot be passed as part of the creed.
It is the prophetic message as expressed in the Qur’an and the established prophetic traditions, unanimously accepted, that should form the basis for any pastoral, cultural or popular praxis.
In applying religious theology to pastoral care, we should not deny the objectivity of faith. Such objectivity has been preserved in the religious tradition by God’s will and it is universal. No one should interpret the divine revelation according to personal whims or personal conjectures but rather it should be preserved objectively. It means that the interpretation of the revelation is bound by its preservation. While we all interact with the revelation, by studying it and preserving it, it must be understood that we should distinguish between subjective and objective truth.
Prophets and holy imams do not subjectify the revelation, as their task is not to reveal a new doctrine but to serve, assist and preserve it. It wouldn’t be correct to impose a subjectivity to the revelation by making principles out of pastoral care or cultural practices. As the full relevance of the principles is established, pastoral care and cultural practices should conform to the religious truths. This was the case with the holy Imams who lived in the past. Reflecting their lives in our lives is, therefore, a means of protecting our faith both in our hearts and in our daily routines.