Thursday, December 24, 2015

People of the Book

A Wheaton College politics professor who wore a hijab over Advent in solidarity with Muslims was suspended last week for asserting that Muslims and Christians worship the same God. She argued that the Church had affirmed this belief for centuries, including most recently by Pope Francis, nevertheless the strongly evangelical authorities at the College felt she had strayed too far from the orthodoxy required from tenured staff. Having lived in the Middle East in predominantly Muslim countries for a number of years, I found myself reviewing whether or not I agreed. It is all too easy to intellectually sweep under the carpet any misgivings that one might have, and fuzzily labeling us all as ‘people of the Book’, thus if we don’t agree on a few things, it doesn’t really matter very much since, by God’s grace, we’re all headed in more or less the same direction.
The praxis, however, may tell a rather different story.
Both Christians and Muslims ask similar questions, most basically, “who, or what, is God” and frequently we both may find ourselves first looking for differences rather than similarities. The concept of God in Islam differs in important ways from classical Christian theology, most obviously by a rejection of the concept of the Trinity. Many allegedly Christian denominations, such as Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses do as well. The Qu’ran, however, goes further and teaches that Jesus is not divine but is “…a messenger of Allah.” Iranian Islamic scholar and perennialist Seyyed Hossein Nasr writes, “The Qu’ran continuously emphasises the Unity and the Oneness of God, and it can be said that the very raison d’ĂȘtre of Islam is to assert in a final and categorical manner the Oneness of God and the nothingness of all before the Majesty of that One.” Islamic emphasis on the oneness of God suggests that it is closer to the pantheism of Spinoza-everything that exists is (a) God - than to Christianity.
Consequently, the Islamic concept of divinity contains little reference to personhood. Only within a relationship can God express interpersonal attributes such as love, sympathy, intimacy, self-giving, and communication. Furthermore, the Islamic understanding of God’s character doesn’t include his command to love, which is central to the Christian view. Only between distinct individuals can there be reciprocities such as give and take, initiating and responding, sharing and self-revelation, union and communion.
For God to be fully personal, then, capable of love and community, plurality of attribute is within the divine being itself, which is a foundational belief in Christian theology. C S Lewis wrote: “All sorts of people are fond of repeating the Christian statement that ‘God is love, but they seem not to notice that the words ‘God is love’ have no real meaning unless God contains at least two persons - a lover and the one in receipt of love. Love is something that one person has for another person. If God was a single person, then before the world was made, He was not love.”  The inference is that there was no ‘one’ to love. Only a God of love is fully personal. Thus the Trinity is crucial for maintaining a fully personal concept of God. As Presbyterian pastor and theologian Robert Letham writes, “Only a God who is triune can be personal. A solitary monad cannot love and, since it cannot love, neither can it be a person.” Therefore it “has no way to explain or even to maintain human personhood.”
Arabic and classic Islamic philosophy does not have a concept of the person in the sense that Western philosophy interprets the idea, appearing to lend weight to the importance of the specifically Christian origins of the term. If it’s true that Islam lacks even a clear concept of the person, this would explain why it tends to be fatalistic, emphasising submission without necessarily understanding the will of Allah. This also explains why a great deal of Muslim worship consists of near-mechanical rituals; worshippers recite the Qu'ran (its meaning is ‘that which is recited’), in unison, word for word, often by feat of memory, in the original Arabic. Muslims are not required to understand what they recite, indeed, most are not Arabic speakers. Two Muslim authors write: “It is not uncommon to meet people who know a great deal of the text by heart but have not the slightest understanding of the world view that permeates it.” But this is acceptable, the authors say, because in Islam “understanding is secondary” to recitation and ritual. Furthermore, for some, the lack of worth placed upon the individuality of human life and dignity makes the call to martyrdom very much more logical.
In summary, it could be argued that Islam is reductionist in that a lower view of God leads to a lower view of the value, status, and dignity of man.
But this does not finally answer our initial question. The Qu’ran openly states many times that Allah is the 'best deceiver' in contrast to the Christian belief that the ‘father of lies’ or ‘deceiver’ is Satan. The root Arabic used in these verses is makr, meaning deception, and is almost always used disparagingly. However, even this may not be enough, until we find the following: “And their saying: Surely we have killed the Messiah, Isa son of Marium, the messenger of Allah; and they did not kill him nor did they crucify him, but it appeared to them so (like Isa) and most surely those who differ therein are only in a doubt about it; they have no knowledge respecting it, but only follow a conjecture, and they killed him not for sure. Nay! Allah took him up to Himself; and Allah is Mighty, Wise.” Qu’ran 4:157-158. This looks like a rather clumsy orally inspired refutation of the Resurrection by someone having had access to the Gospels. Nevertheless, in conclusion, we might return to Pope Francis, whose view is supported by Catholic orthodoxy and whose remarks were probably made pastorally rather than theologically, as a worthy attempt to build interfaith bridges. It seems that the subjective intention of Muslims is to worship one God - moreover, the one God from the line of Abrahamic revelation. Whether or not their version of that revelation is tainted, authentic or correct, that’s what they “profess to hold to". Furthermore, some of the attributes of the God to whom they address their worship are comparable to the Christian God’s: He is one, merciful, omnipotent, and the judge of the world. Just as clearly, though, we cannot say that the God in whom Muslims profess to believe is theologically very similar to the Christian God. Most obviously, their God is a “lonely God,” as Chesterton put it, whereas ours is a Trinity of of one with three attributes. Beyond that, in the divine economy, our Gods are different: most pointedly in that ours took human nature to himself and lived among us, whereas the Muslim God remains purely transcendent. To Muslims the idea of an incarnation is blasphemy. 
Whether indeed such differences are valuable or relevant in the polarizing debate in Europe and the US, remains for the reader to decide. 
I am grateful to Nancy Pearcey's 'Finding Truth' from which a number of excerpts were taken.

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