Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Jesus and Islam, Part 2

In my last post, I talked about how Western Christians might think about Arab Muslims, focusing on the socio-political issues. Today I want to address another question that keeps coming up in discussions of Christian-Muslim relations: Are Christians and Muslims spiritual brothers-sisters, or enemies?

This is a very complicated question, which I can't really even start to answer in one blog posting. There here have been libraries-full of books written on the topic, by people who know theology and Islamic history and Christian history and other related topics much better than me. Two books that come to mind immediately are: Building Bridges, by Fouad Accad, written from a Christian perspective, and The Muslim Jesus, by Tarif Khalidi, from a more Muslim perspective. Both are Lebanese authors, but a bit more accessible than some of the really technical-academic books I've had to read!

It does generally seem that the more knowledgeable a person becomes on the subject from an academic perspective, usually s/he is increasingly inclined to see commonalities and promote reconciliation. Many well-versed and respected Christian theologians who have worked with Muslims have gone to great pains to explain our shared spiritual heritage and explore ways to build a relationship based on that. Many respected Muslim scholars have promoted interfaith dialogue and argued that the true Islam is in fact little more than “an improvement” on Christianity. Perhaps because knowledge promotes tolerance, or perhaps it's just because it's politically correct... but those religious leaders, of both religions, who speak about a "clash" or who focus on our differences are generally seen by “true” scholars as bigoted, close-minded, and ignorant.

The parallels are pretty amazing. For example, Muslims are often fascinated and thrilled by stories of Jesus, the son of a virgin, who performed amazing miracles. Christians are often interested to learn that Muslims believe in the virgin birth and a sinless Jesus, in most of the same Old Testament figures, and in fact celebrate Abraham's willingness to sacrifice his son (although to Muslims it was Ishmael and to Christians it was Isaac) as the biggest holiday of the year.

I must admit that, the more I have studied Christian-Muslim relations, the more I see the commonalities and less the differences. I am concluding that to stay faithful to my Christian faith I need to give Islam a lot of credit, because our differences are less in doctrine than they are in a sense of ultimate spiritual reality – something far less tangible than political-religious dialogue can express.

But I have spent a lot of time with people, and reading about people, who have rejected one faith for the other. It is the accounts of people who have rejected a religion that reminds me that those seemingly bigoted religious leaders are in touch with a reality that us scholars may have forgotten about in our ivory towers. Religious converts are usually well-read, analytical people. If they found the differences significant enough to switch faiths, then they shouldn't be shrugged off! They see those differences as partially theological/doctrinal/structural. But I think many converts change faith on the basis of something deeper and more encompassing than that. For example, in accounts of conversion from Islam to Christianity, I found that one of the most common reasons for people to choose to change allegiance was that they found a Jesus who loved them, and that they had a supernatural sense of a relationship with Jesus. The thing that was hardest for them to accept but most appealing once they did, was the understanding that the Jesus who was touching them personally is more than just a prophet; he's God. That's surely one of the most significant doctrinal differences, but it reflects on a deeper soul-touching reality.

So how do I approach Muslim-Christian faith-based dialogue? I find that the similarities are astounding and exciting, and something we should be able to build on to form relationships and dialogue with people of another religion. However, we shouldn't let “interfaith dialogue” water down our beliefs; instead, I think it should help separate what is essential about my faith with the things that are good, but normal enough to be just like another faith! I have found that acknowledging the similarities has helped me to love my Jesus more, not less, and has helped me to be more passionate about explaining my faith to Muslims.

No comments:

Post a Comment