Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Further Thoughts on Christians Asking Muslims for Forgiveness

The piece I posted yesterday has received a number of comments on the Stand Firm website. I want to make it clear that my piece was not intended to dismiss or denigrate either A Common Word Between Us and You (the Muslim document) or Loving God and Our Neighbor Together: A Christian Response to 'A Common Word Between Us and You' in their entirety. I merely said "this whole affair raises at least six questions in my mind." My concerns fall into two groups: (1) while attempting to draw on Judeo-Christian teaching regarding love of one's neighbor in "A Common Word," the Muslim authors fail to acknowledge any of the ways in which Muslims have failed egregiously in loving their Christian neighbors or even fellow Muslims (Sunnis vs. Shiites) for centuries and the many atrocities that still occur in any country where Islam is dominant. That is to say, this statement fails to take into account the realities of the religion it purports to represent.

(2) The signatories of Christian response seem (a) to have a case of amnesia with regard to this same history and (b) are insufficiently attentive (to put it mildly) to the real distinctiveness of the Christian Gospel. The list of signatories includes some of the most respected Christian leaders of our time, liberal as well as conservative. However, my contention is that many Christian scholars, in their eagerness to promote peace with Muslims, have paid inadequate attention to the question of whether the deity of Islam is someone whom a Christian can acknowledge as God.

As I said in my original article, when A Common Word cites the two testimonies of faith or Shahadahsi: "There is no god but God, and Muhammad is the messenger of God" Christians need to realize that, to a Muslim, this statement of the unity of the Allah of Islam absolutely precludes any notion that God could have a Son or that God could consist of a Trinity of Persons.

Similarly, the Shema of Judaism, "Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one! You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength" Deuteronomy (6:4-5), as traditionally understood by Jews, also precludes the idea that God could have a Son or exist in a Trinity of Persons. Without trying to cover the whole subject of the nature of Jewish expectations regarding the Messiah, it is sufficient to say that the Christian understanding that Jesus is the Messiah, and that the Messiah was not simply a messenger from God, but was God Incarnate—and that the Holy Spirit also exists as a third Person in the Godhead—was not a part of Jewish understanding, even though the Apostolic writers repeatedly used the Old Testament (Hebrew Bible) to proclaim the good news concerning Jesus (see the Book of Acts).

So, then, while Jews may disagree with the Christian interpretation of the Hebrew Scriptures, Christians understand the God of the Old Testament to be the same God who is the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.

But what about the deity who is represented in the Koran? Is this the God of Judaism and Christianity? Consider the article written by Jon D. Levenson, professor of Jewish studies at Harvard University, entitled, "Do Christians and Muslims worship the same God?" The article is enlightening in several respects. Among the points Levinson makes is the following: "Although the Qur'an speaks respectfully and appreciatively of Jesus (and Mary as well), it insists that he is only a man, and not God or the son of God: "They are unbelievers who say, 'God is the Messiah, Mary's son.'"

Judaism, Christianity, and Islam are all monotheistic religions. But does it necessarily follow that that the singular gods of all monotheistic religions are the same god? Levinson comments on this and goes on to conclude:
To the extent that God is characterized by attributes such as uniqueness, omnipotence, foreknowledge, justice, mercy and the revelation of his will in prophecy and scripture, then Jews, Christians and Muslims can easily detect the selfsame God in the LORD of Judaism, in the triune God of the church, and in Allah (which is simply the word for "God" used by Arabic speakers in all three traditions). There is a problem with such reliance on attributes, however, for it actually describes a Supreme Being who is closer to the God of the philosophers than to the God of Abraham, Ishmael, Isaac and Jacob. To state the point differently, to the extent that the one God of the universe is rendered through narratives such as those in the scriptures and not through abstract attributes, the claim that Christians and Muslims worship the same God cannot but appear, if not false, then certainly simplistic and one-sided.

Just as Christianity sees itself in many ways to be the completion of Judaism, Islam considers itself to be the completion of Christianity. But is it?

Although Islam claims roots going back to Abraham, historically, as a religion, it comes after Christianity. It makes use of much of the same data as Christianity in that it refers to Old Testament personages such as Abraham, and New Testament personages such as Jesus and Mary. However, as mentioned briefly above, it comes to radically different conclusions concerning, in particular, Jesus, his nature and his relation to deity. So did Marcionism. So did most of the expressions of Gnosticism, to cite only a couple of movements identified as Christian heresies.

The Roman Catholic writer, Hilaire Belloc, wrote a book entitled, The Great Heresies, chapter four of which is entitled, "The Great and Enduring Heresy of Mohammed." Belloc cited the many common points of reference that Islam shares with Christianity and goes on to identify it as a heresy, in that it makes use of the material and personages of Christianity (as any heresy does) but decisively diverges from Christianity in rejecting the God and Christ taught by Christianity.

Those of us who have grown up in the modern and postmodern West have, for so long, used the term "God" to refer to that which is the highest and best we can conceive, that we believe that the term may be applied to the highest and best that others can conceive, and that our differences are only a matter of perspective.

We often hear the analogy of the blind men, standing under an elephant, feeling the legs and calling them trees, feeling the trunk and thinking they have found a snake—but really it is all the same elephant. So we think we really all believe in the same god, we just perceive differently.

But, if we are going to get a handle on the crux of this issue, we must first realize that "God" is not simply a human construct for the "ultimate Being," however one may conceive of that Being. The God of the Bible, the God of Christianity, is the God Who IS—self-defining and self-revelatory, not merely a human construct or projection. That God has revealed himself in the Holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testament as having a precise nature and character and, in the New Testament, is fully revealed as the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. Further, it is only on the basis of our being "in Christ" that we truly know God, and that his Father becomes our Father. (See my piece on "The Fatherhood of God.")

There is much that is commendable in interfaith dialogue. But if it is to have any real significance for Christian believers, those who engage in it must start with what Scripture teaches regarding the essential nature of the Gospel. Many of those who claim to represent Christianity in interfaith dialogue have already succumbed to a relativism that lacks such a foundation. And, increasingly, Christian respondents are so eager to find common ground, in light of the terrors that have occurred and fears regarding the future, that they are taking the course of appeasement in the face of Islam, eager to find "Peace for our time"—peace at any cost. It will not serve Christians well if they underestimate the true distinctiveness of the Gospel. And it will not serve anyone well if we underestimate the challenges that the world faces from the religion known as Islam.


Kathryn said...

Thank you, Dean Munday. Your thoughtful, articulate summation will prove helpful in the task fallen to me of explaining to the administrators at my son's public school, why it is inaccurate (not to mention inappropriate) to teach that "Muslims, Jews, and Christians all worship the same God."


Unknown said...

Thank you Dean Munday, I really appreciate this follow-up post tremendously. I think it will provide a lot of excellent food for thought, discussion and prayer for me and a number of colleagues, including some who signed on to the response to A Common Word.