Make everything as simple as possible,|
but not simpler. -- Albert Einstein
Quite a number of Muslims argue that the Islamic concept of God is true [and the Christian faith wrong] *because* the concept of God in Islam is "simpler".
Let me illustrate with an example from geography why I find this argument very unsatisfactory.
Most maps of certain areas of our world are very accurate because they are only representing a very small part of this earth's surface, like maps of a city or maps of just one country. Since the earth's surface is ‘locally’ more or less flat, it is possible to represent even relatively big surface patches of the earth quite accurately on flat paper. And even the mountains of Mount Everest size don't interfere much with that, those are just small hills if you think that they stick out at most 8 km from the surface while the radius of the earth is over 6000 km. Making a ‘flat map’ is hence about 1/1000 of a relative error, less than anything we would demand in usually careful experiments in physics.
But, although the earth is indeed ‘locally’ flat, it is NOT flat at all if taken in its entirety. And in fact it is impossible to make a flat map of the total earth without huge distortions in some areas. We can decide which part of a "whole earth" map we want to represent faithfully and where we want to put the distortions and it is interesting to compare the maps which are sold in different countries, i.e. which part is placed ‘in the middle’ and which parts at the edges and in the distortion areas.
In any case, all of you will agree that only a globe, i.e. a 3-dimensional representation of the earth can faithfully represent what the proportions of different countries are in the relationship to each other. No ONE flat map containing all of the earths surface can do that. [Don't try, it is mathematically proven that you cannot do that].
But this does not at all distract from the immense usefulness of flat maps for ‘local concerns’ like for my shopping trip to the next town, a vacation travel to the neighboring countries or for my holiday hiking going up some mountain. The flat maps are ‘true’ and nobody would debate that. We can trust them and we reach our destination (hopefully).
But if I - based on my good experience with flat local maps - believe that my flat map of the whole earth will be just as trustworthy and for example fill my aeroplane with fuel according to the distance I read off from a distorted piece of my earth map, I might be badly surprised that I suddenly run out of fuel in the middle over some ocean, am taking a dive and will never reach my destination. If I survive at all, that for sure should be the end of my faith in flat earth maps.
What has all that to do with our dialog between Islam and Christianity?
This illustration came to my mind when so many reacted to my explanation of the Trinity with the argument: The concept of God in Islam is simpler and that is as it should be.
Well, for centuries most of the world's population believed in a flat earth based on their experience that the earth is flat around them and sort of flat as far as they have ever gone. So, based on this lifelong experience, the theory of a flat earth was for sure the obvious truth and certainly simpler than the thought of a round ball. After all, what is going to happen when you go to far on a round ball? After some time, your feet would point sideways and you would look down and hang over some nothing? This is just ridiculous.
Well, time has proven that this ridiculous theory is the truth and most every Muslim just as most every non-Muslim believes today that the earth is quite accurately a ball and that a globe is a good model of it. And they believe that either because people whom they trust have told them so, or because they have read a good scientific book about it, or for some other reason. But nobody, if you are not an astronaut and have the privilege that other people pay millions so that you can go into outer space, can really verify that for himself. The TV world is good in creating illusions. We all know that. So, we don't trust them in everything and why should we trust them in this "round earth" thing?
Back from our analogy towards theology. I try to express in a way that makes sense what I feel about many Muslim arguments against Christian doctrine. These paragraphs are not intended to offend, though I fear that they invariably will since many Muslims are so proud that Islam is so much more rational than Christianity. Try to stay calm and read it with your rational and not with your emotional side.
I obviously present a Christian view point and you are free to utterly disagree. Just try to sympathize with how much scorn Christians are labeled ‘stupid’ by Muslims on a regular basis for believing "this trinity non-sense" etc. Maybe that will help you to not become angry.
Staying in the language of my above analogy, I have the impression from Muslim arguments, that they are arguing a ‘flat’ theory of God and a ‘flat’ theory of mankind, while I pretty unsuccessfully try to introduce to you the improved "round version" of the understanding of God and mankind.
Because the thought of a round ‘Trinitarian model’ of God sounds ridiculous, you dismiss it and rather stick to your time honored ‘flat’ model of God.
I admit that even many Christians have problems to really comprehend the doctrine of the Trinity and it will definitely remain a mystery and there is nothing we can do against it, nor should we. God is so much bigger than our little intellect can fathom. It would be actually a reason against the truth of a certain model of God, if the model is ‘simple’ because then it is in great danger of simplifying God to the point that "in order to make it humanly easy" it was made *simplistic* rather than *simple* and becomes false BECAUSE of the urge to make it simple. Just as the people who prefer flat maps to round globes will have to be very aware that they have huge distortions on their flat maps.
My impression is, that the Qur'an is like this flat map of the whole earth. I agree, Islam is a religion that encompasses all of life just as every other religion does. But is it a "realistic" or "true" guide for ALL of life? Or does it have areas of huge distortions which might indicate that maybe the whole model isn't really fitting reality?
Muslims seem to be saying because our map of God is flat therefore our God is flat. But not only about God, also about many areas of reality, including the nature of man and how a society should be organized according to the will of God, I have the impression that the Islamic approach is a flat map approach and then, when you try to live according to this flat map you wonder why it doesn't work. Just like in my illustration of this aeroplane I mentioned earlier which took a nose dive because the pilot relied on flat maps.
And maybe, as long as you stay "local", this flat map works just fine, but if you take all of reality into account, it just doesn't fit anymore. Islam and Christianity has many agreements, just as the local flat map has many agreements with the globe. It is many of the issues discussed in this series which give me the impression that there is a distortion around the edges and this in an indication that even though the model is a good approximation for many (local) aspects of life it is not a truly accurate (global) model after all.
Although the countries of Europe and North-America are by now also pretty corrupt in many respects, but they nevertheless have a history of Judeo-Christian i.e. Biblical values and that is still an important backbone of the way the society is organized.
Many millions of Muslims leave their ‘Muslim lands’ having many reasons for not wanting to live there any longer. But then they come to the countries which are of more or less "Christian orientation" and where many things still work much better [freedom from much oppression for one and a working market economy providing jobs] and have the desire to introduce here also a "flat theory of society and mankind" after it already doesn't work over there. [At least not in this modern world - please do not come with golden history, this is only ONE example in a whole range of things of Islamic world view which seems simplistic to me in so many respects. But I am learning and am willing to learn more and more. This is an intermediate evaluation of my observations so far of some realities of the "Islamic world"].
I know you will utterly hate this comparison. It will be extremely offensive, but that is NOT my goal with telling you this. I have been trying to point out inconsistencies in many areas over the last few years of my involvment with this group. For many of my questions I never got any real satisfactory answers. And the ‘harder’ the questions I posed, the reaction was usually not ‘the better and the more thoughtful the answer’ but ‘the more angry the response’.
Let me stress, I did get some good answers and I appreciate everyone who really put some hard thinking into this. The above evaluation is not an evaluation of ALL reactions but more of the ‘average’ reaction. But it is still the case, many hard questions never got any real answer. And in sum total, observing much of the discussions, many in which I am not even taking part, where you Muslims fight over solutions of this and that, I can't help to have he impression that the Islamic approach is often too simplistic in many aspects and does no justice to the complexity of the problems in our world. If anything goes wrong, it is just the fault of the Western World, the fault of the evil Christians, even the problems in Muslim nations are just the result of Western powerplay and for sure have no reason in evil hearts of Muslims themselves. Even the Saudi religious police is lead by the USA [seriously, I read that on the alt.religion.islam newsgroup and was wondering that the USA was now the cause that the Saudi police is executing those who become Christians in Saudi Arabia] and if only all people were Muslims, then it would be Paradies on earth ... Okay, the last few sentences are quite a bit polemic. But, yes, I really think that the ‘general’ game of ‘shift the blame to the Christians’ used among many Muslims is ridiculous. I agree, that much Western politics is not good. But MOST of the problems in Muslim countries are completely home made. And if you don't acknowledge that, then there will never change anything. Only if people stop this simplistic approach of ‘it's the others' fault’ then there might be a chance of a cure. [Same in the West, I think all human beings love shifting blame, but it is certainly as pervasive among Muslims as it is anywhere else.] I am not rejecting Islam because many Muslims are simplistic, but this was just one illustration of the simplistic answers that are given by many Muslims on a regular basis.
Let me give you two examples where I think the theology of Islam is simplistic. The first one is connected directly with our earthly realities the second one is more philosophical.
Let me just mention one reason why I think the Islamic theory of "man" is flat. Islam is not able to deal with or even understand the evil in this world because Islam [just as communists did] believes that human beings are basically good. But the problem is, as the Bible says, that we are utterly corrupted by sin. And looking at our world, who can seriously believe that man is basically good? I think the Biblical understanding gives us the explanation that is nearer to the (observable) truth (of our reality) AND also gives us the only way out. But that must be part of another article.
Since I said above that I feel the Islamic understanding of God to be "flat" I think I have to give at least a small glimpse of the issues and questions pertinent to it. So, the second example is the issue of unitarian or trinitarian monotheism.
Muslims often argue for the unity of God from the viewpoint that more than one God would bring chaos and fighting between the gods.
There is some truth to it if we think of many separate and powerhungry gods, but Christians only believe in ONE God, not many gods and the character of God is not powerhungry but he is a loving and even a humble God. As such this whole scenario wouldn't even apply. In any case there is only one God. But we believe that there is more "inner structure" to the Godhead that a unitary one.
The following explanation is actually a very classical one used by St. Augustine in his book "On the Trinity" [De Trinitate] in the 5th century.
We read in the Word of God, in 1 John 4:8 that "God is Love".
What are the necessary conditions that this can be a true statement?
For any event of "love" we do need the *subject* who loves, we need a *counterpart* (object) who is loved, and we need an expression of this love in some way, i.e. an interaction between the first two. These are necessary conditions. If any of the three is missing then it cannot be love.
I cannot love when I am "just by myself". Focussing only on myself is egotism, not love.
Now, how can God *BE* Love if he was solitary in "unitary aloneness" from eternity past? None of the attributes of God can be dependent on his creation. If God could only start loving after he had created us then his attribute of love would be dependent on us. He would not be self-sufficient in his attributes. He would be deficient in himself. But if he is unitary as Muslims believe, then love necessarily cannot be an attribute of his [nor can justice or mercy or any other relational attribute] because he is not in any relationship for eternity before he creates.
Would Muslims say that God only acts loving or merciful etc at some times but it is only how we perceive his action one time or the other, or would you affirm that those are attributes of his nature? But how can they are attributes of his (eternal) nature how can God have attributes he is unable to excercise apart from his creation?
But if God is not relational, how would he come to the idea to create anything ? How would he come to the desire to have an extension of his relationality beyond the Godhead if relationality is not part of his nature/attributes?
Muslims and Christians both believe that God created mankind and that he communicates with his creation. God is a communicator. And the Bible goes further: God is love. But this can only be if he is love from eternity and hence there must be some r elationality and expression and exchange of love within God himself. If you don't like the word love, then take the word justice and mercy, which are more part of the Muslim vocabulary but which also are relational terms, and it is impossible to talk of God as merciful as long as nothing is created and he is all by himself.
That is where the trinity [or some kind of internal plurality] becomes philosophically necessary for God. Yes, there is only one God but this God is love and he is relational. And hence there needs to be "interaction of giving and receiving within the Godhead". That is why we need something like the Trinity.
Augustine then says that Father and Son are eternally in love with each other, giving and receiving, and that the Spirit is something like the personalization of this ‘dynamic relationship’, the transporting the love of the one to the other. The "act" of God in love. And that is what Christians understand the Holy Spirit to be, the dynamic action and guidance of God in our life with is personal.
Note: This is a model, an analogy. No analogy is perfect. But think about it, and let me know how you think God can have relational attributes if he was a solitary unity from eternity past. And the second question would be what would prompt God to create anything? I think Islam has little explanation for the "why" of creation itself.
These are some of the reasons why I think that the Trinitarian monotheism is a "round" model over against the flat unitarian monotheism of Islam. I agree that my thoughts in the last part are still extremely sketchy and I myself will have to think a lot more about it but I have the impression this issue will be a fruiful area for discussing and digging deeper.
Copyright © 1997 Jochen Katz. All rights reserved.
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