We continue from Part 29 our look at issues arising with Christian writer, Robert F. Shedinger, in his book, Was Jesus a Muslim? Questioning Categories in the Study of Religion (2009) Fortress Press: Minneapolis.
In Part 29 we saw how Christianity has been ‘religion-ized’ in the West in keeping with the separation of Church and State. However, it was suggested that interfaith cooperation in feeding the hungry or working towards social justice are areas where Christians share values with Muslims and thus such joint ventures are a good opportunity to build trust amongst our two communities. But what about interfaith dialogue–exploring and comparing the essentials of each faith, does that work? What guidelines can be offered?
Inter-Religious Dialogue, Does It Work?
The short answer: Yes, if properly structured.
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Individuals can be educated and our communities can be harmonized to work together—but not if our conversation with Christians focuses on push-button doctrinal issues such as the ‘Incarnation’ of Jesus (= God manifesting as man) or the ‘Trinity’ (= God in three ‘persons:’ God-the-Father, God-the-Son and God-the-Holy Spirit).
Yes, it is good for Christians and Muslims to know each others’ belief systems and these can be presented for informational purposes in mixed faith gatherings for the purpose of understanding each other’s core beliefs.
What Not to Discuss
In our presentations to Christians, personally, I would avoid going into depth on the two negative points, Incarnation and Trinity, beyond a positive discussion of the meaning of prophethood, of monotheism and divine essence: With Christians, this discussion can be done in the context of the fourth-century Church’s own controversy over the ‘divinity’ of Jesus–and the positions taken by both ‘winning’ (Western) and “losing’(Eastern) parties. (See Parts 8-21 of this series.) The losing parties took a position akin to an Islamic understanding. In fact, this largely explains why Christians in the East readily converted to the Dîn of Islam when Muslim armies passed through their homelands, in effect, filling the power vacuum left by previous Christian internal wars for political control.
Understanding the Christian’s Concept of ‘Divinity’
For us, Jesus (AS) was ‘godly’; he was neither God in any sense, nor did he carry within himself ‘divinity.’ For us, Jesus rather belongs to the amazing, chosen-by-God, elite category of ‘prophet.’ So then, let not our joint sessions be side-tracked with convoluted metaphysical arguments, with Christians lined up and repeating their best collection of philosophically adept arguments in favor of the doctrine of ‘Trinity’ on one side and on the other with Muslims pleading unencumbered simplicity. It would be better for all concerned —for the sake of mutual understanding and for peaceful co-existence and cooperation— for us to focus on the meaning of ‘divinity’ in respect of God, in conjunction with a vivid picture of the kind of person a prophet of God is, using the example of Jesus (AS) to begin with and adding other major prophets as pictured in the Quran.
When we paint a picture of ‘divinity’ with the high bar found in the Quran and Sunnah, one can leave it to the Christian to rethink who God is, focusing on the simple and positive requirements of simple monotheism as voiced by Jesus (AS) . A follower of Jesus should give primary importance to the words of Jesus, and s/he can be asked to re-consider the authority traditionally invested in Paul since historically he has redefined the nature and message of Jesus (AS).
Understanding the Christian’s ‘Forgiveness’
In regard to the Christian’s concept of God’s forgiveness of sin as coming in conjunction with what they believe as the ‘Crucifixion’ of a sinless [divine] ‘Christ,’ again, one could explore the Christian’s belief solely in terms of Jesus’ own clear statements concerning forgiveness. Jesus began his ministry as a follower of John the Baptist —whose preaching was an urgent call for a straightforward, community-wide repentance to God for their forsaking of God’s ways. This differs from the ’Substitutionary Atonement’ doctrine as worked up by Paul and further polished into respectable philosophical terms by Church Council/ Synod.
In Paul’s doctrine of God’s forgiveness, sinful man becomes absolved of his sins (‘atonement’) through faith. ‘Faith’ means belief in [Paul’s teaching of a divine] ‘Christ,’ who, in the person of the perfect man Jesus, paid what is claimed to be a divinely-imposed penalty of death, said to be deserved by man for Adam’s sin (and therefore for each person’s own sin) against God. This absolution is said to be effected in the Christian believer’s soul through the merit of the Crucifixion of the divine man —in mortal man’s place. Paul claims that the dead-and-brought-back-to-life, spiritualized Christ did for sinful human beings what they could not do for themselves. Through accepting this logic, through this belief according to Paul, man is relieved of the guilt of his sin and is set up for the gift of Heaven.
Such a belief system is apt to collapse as meaningless when Jesus is no longer justifiably considered to be ‘begotten-of-God’ and thus ‘divine’ in his essence; this kind of thinking is removed from association with Jesus, especially when one understands the previously existing pagan parallels to the Pauline teachng of divinity as resident in ‘Christ.’ The notion that someone else can bear the guilt of one’s own wrongdoing, or that someone else can pay the penalty for one’s wrongdoing in one’s place, is counterintuitive and strikes one as unjust, even if it works in one’s favor! But this is a highly emotionally-charged concept for Christians, indicating for them God’s love for mankind. It was Paul who laid out such a belief system in his writings (See Paul’s Letter to the Romans 3:21-26), and it was the centuries’ later institution of the Church which thrashed out a polished version of these doctrines.
The meaning of terms like ‘faith’ have one meaning for Jesus (trust in/ dependence upon God) and another for Paul (acceptance of a belief system). ‘Forgiveness [for sin]’ similarly have a different connotation and a different remedy for a Christian than it does for a Muslim or Jew.
I would again impress upon the reader that the crucial issue of Paul’s presumed authority to interpret Jesus (AS), according to the established Church, is the kingpin in Christianity’s departure from the teaching of Jesus himself. What is needed in this regard for successful interfaith partners is a knowledgeable awareness of Jesus in terms of the coded term ‘Son of God,’ meaning a godly person, in this case a ‘prophet’—prominent in Jesus’ own teaching within the first century Roman political and Jewish social contexts. The correct meaning of this key phrase–as it applied in Jesus’ social context— is necessary for understanding the corruptive intrusion of Paul and the pagan Greek philosophical tradition that the Church allowed to overlay the original teaching and story of Jesus (AS).
What to Discuss
The only two issues I would discuss with Christians as interfaith topics regarding belief are the positive themes of 1) pure monotheism, as opposed to the diluted concept of ‘divine partnership’ (shirk), which of course does have implications for the common Christian concepts of ‘Divinity’ and ‘Incarnation’ regarding Jesus, and, 2) Jesus’ teaching about himself taken exclusively on its own merits and ‘in his own words,’ so to speak, which of course implies suspending allegiance to belief in Paul’s authority to interpret Jesus (AS). Even these two basic concepts can be touchy, so must be presented accurately and respectfully. The goal is to establish common ground for amicable relations. Regardless of the way in which the dialogue participant is traditionally used to seeing Jesus, whether as a noble prophet or as an ‘incarnation’ of Deity, he must let the words of Jesus speak within their own context —not in the theologized context of the later Church.
Both of these ‘Jesus’ topics can be approached from Christian scripture alone; furthermore, they can be shown to be in harmony with the Islamic scripture’s position of straightforward monotheism, meaning ‘One God,’ pure and simple, without embellishment. It is even better if the Muslim speaker feels free to add Quranic verses to support the plain and simple Jewish teaching of Jesus —as registered in the Gospel books of the New Testament. This would be confirmation that Jesus’ teaching is in harmony with Islam’s purely monotheistic view. It also serves to confirm that Jesus saw himself as a ‘prophet’ in agreement with the Islamic sense. The main goal is to show that the words of Jesus regarding the ‘One God’ of his people match the ‘One God’ of Islam.
The receptiveness of the audience and the genuine interest among the interlocutors will determine one’s approach. Discussion, not debate, is more likely to open minds to new insight regarding ‘the other.’ On our part, we can begin by acknowledging Christians as intending to be ‘monotheists,’ even if we see their understanding of the One God as corrupted. Intention is the beginning of pleasing God. May Allah guide us all.
What Works – Why Not to Go beyond Basics
If we venture beyond basics, we are likely to find ourselves in a hornet’s nest of accusations that Muslims and Christians do not worship the same God—when all that can objectively be said is that we all intend to worship the One God alone, but that we have come to do this with different understandings.
From our point of view, the pertinent questions then become: Shouldn’t Christians stick to the ways that Jesus himself taught? Doesn’t the concept of shirk make sense to Christians since the Scripture of Jesus was the Hebrew Bible, which he expounded and upheld. How could the singular, absolute, unique, transcendent Deity have a partner or ‘right-hand-man’?
For adherents of Christianity, Jesus (AS) is believed to be ‘divine’ as well as human, and for them Muħammad (ﷺ) is no more than a mere human. And if for them Muħammad (ﷺ) is correctly to be called a ‘prophet’ at all, then —according to the traditional Christian position— Muħammad (ﷺ) would have to be a false one [May Allah forgive them]. Or, at most, the more generous among the investigative of them typically would say that Muħammad (ﷺ) had been God’s prophet, but for the benighted Arabs alone!
How to Proceed
Thus, our daCi should include from the beginning of his presentation the information that the Revelation to Muħammad was pitched, in Quranic terminology and statements, as for all mankind and that this Revelation was a continuation of the Guidance sent to Moses (AS) and Jesus (AS), in a long line of other prophets.
And even if Muhammad (ﷺ) were to be recognized by Christians as possibly a true ‘prophet’ based upon investigating his Sirah, that still might not be of interest to traditional adherents of Christianity as long as Jesus Christ is believed to be exclusively the ‘divine’ ‘Son-of-God,’ or ‘God-the-Son.’ For, according to Church teaching, no human being can outrank the unique ‘Son-of-God.’
Recall —contrary to common Christian understanding— that in Jesus’ time, in the Jewish context, the phrase ‘son of God’ meant a ‘person who did what God requires,’ that is, a ‘godly’ person in our terminology. In Jesus’ time, ‘son of God’ was used also as a metaphorical code term for an expected Jewish prophet. Only later did the phrase ‘son of God’ take on a literal pagan Greek sense of begotten-from-Deity.
While it is essential for the fully-equipped Muslim daCi to understand the intricate history of doctrine about Jesus (AS), it is really not useful to stray into those details in public presentations unless necessary to fill out a historical point. Both the daCi and his Christian interlocutor(s) should both be well-equipped, if entering into a public discussion, to take in the philosophical-social-political history of the development of Christian theological concepts.
To be continued, inshaAllah, in Part 31…