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. When I myself consider the problem, it is not convergence that first and most immediately springs to mind; quite the reverse. Furthermore, I ask myself whether my instinct to seek divergence springs from my own prejudice or from a desire for logical consistency. The concept of God in Islam differs in several important ways from classical Christian theology. 86% of the Qu’ran and associated writings specifically refer to Mohammed alone, the remainder referencing Allah, yet Muslims claim allegiance to one God, reject the concept of the Trinity and are scandalised if Mohammed is elevated to godlike status.
Many allegedly Christian denominations, such as Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses sign up happily to the doctrine of a trinitarian unity. 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’être 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. Furthermore, in light of the emphasis on the person of Mohammed, it is time to return to the old-fashioned nomenclature and stop calling followers of Islam Muslims, but Mohammedans since at heart it is really nothing more than a cult surrounding the actions of one man. Allah is viewed as through the lens of a delusional tribal warlord with access to Jewish and Christian writings, with a warped and destructive comprehension of obedience.
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. Reciprocation can only take place between two individuals; give and take, initiation and response, 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 which I have always regarded as nothing more than ideological enslavement. 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 early Christian writings. 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. 
Finally, if faith in Jesus as Messiah requires a repudiation of Allah as evil, this poses a barrier to consideration of the truth and goodness of the gospel. Clearly, this is a missiologically problematic message to send. 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.


Fairy Tales

This week marked the opening of a film about Stephen Hawking, premiered at the Cambridge Film Festival. It’s a journey through his remarkable life and a testament to what can be achieved in the face of handicaps so profound that most would have collapsed under the weight of them.
I did rather wonder where the swearing-in-church questions were, which were conspicuously absent, according to one reviewer. Hawking’s status as a scientist is often spoken of in oracular terms, like Einstein’s and Isaac Newton’s but one rather wonders if his scientific achievements have been somewhat inflated because of his disability. Others do cosmology equally well – not very many, it has to be said, since the mathematics are impenetrably dense and I have to confess is as far away to me as the edge of the Universe. The idea of n-dimensional spaces with fancifully named abstractions such as M-Theory – the M stands for ‘membrane’, ‘mystery’, ‘magic’- even ‘mother’ since it attempts to unite five different string theory proposals, is known to few and understood by even fewer.

A Calabi-Yau membrane. Is this what the Universe looks like?

Some suggest that if completed, the Holy Grail of physics, a theory of everything might emerge with a formula small enough to fit on a T-shirt. Hawking’s astonishing achievements lie in the fact that he has the ability to hold phenomenally complex ideas in his short term memory for extended periods since it takes him anything up to half an hour to ‘write down’ a couple of sentences.

Eight million people bought “A Brief History Of Time”. Probably a couple of hundred got further than page twenty-six and almost everybody read the last sentence…
“However, if we discover a complete theory, it should in time be understandable by everyone, not just by a few scientists. Then we shall all, philosophers, scientists and just ordinary people, be able to take part in the discussion of the question of why it is that we and the universe exist. If we find the answer to that, it would be the ultimate triumph of human reason – for then we should know the mind of God.”
Which, of course, is the saving grace of the whole book. We all want to know the mind of God. This from Isaiah 40, 12-15:
Who has measured the waters in the hollow of his hand, or with the breadth of his hand marked off the heavens?
 Who has held the dust of the earth in a basket, or weighed the mountains on the scales and the hills in a balance?
Who can fathom the Spirit of the Lord, or instruct the Lord as his counsellor?
Whom did the Lord consult to enlighten him, and who taught him the right way?
 Who was it that taught him knowledge, or showed him the path of understanding?
The “who” is rabbinical rhetoric, almost ironic, since the answer is enshrouded in the unknown, the “mind of God”.
“I’ll be back.”

What else, therefore, do we, like the citizens of Nineveh, not know as we do not know our right hand from our left? We do not know about the afterlife, the Hereafter, the journey across the Styx, the tunnels of light, the shouts of welcome on Jordan’s further bank as the processor shuts down like the winking, blinking red light of the Terminator’s eye as it fades and darkens, and without power, fails to reboot.

A land far away

Most cultures have developed a mythology of continuance after bodily functions cease. Some suggest that it is a fear of oblivion, the darkness and the cold that causes mankind to construct elaborate fantasies, delusional states, predisposed and woven into the fabric of consciousness and reinforced by religious adherence and indoctrination. Others have a sense of transience. It is here that one waits, perhaps. Here is C S Lewis’ bus station in a forgotten, rainy, ‘grey town’, the train terminus or the airport lounge. Later, the arrival of ‘here’ is somewhere or somewhen else. Perhaps Vladimir Nabokov’s  suggestion that ‘our existence is but a brief crack of light between two eternities of darkness’ should be stood on its head. Here is the dark, the light was before it and will be after it. I am therefore guilty of the heresy of not believing that my brain deludes itself into believing instead in the eternality of its owner.

Professor Hawking concluded his biopic with a Q and A, making remark about the afterlife which misses the point, rather:
“It’s theoretically possible to copy a brain on to a computer to provide a form of life after death. However, this is way beyond our present capabilities. I think the afterlife is a fairytale for people who are afraid of the dark.”

Perhaps he might consider that life in the here and now is a fairytale for those afraid of the light.