This article hopes to further a deeper understanding of the dynamics in the Muslim/Christian dialog. I will be most grateful for feedback on these preliminary thoughts.
This is the Book;
in it is guidance sure, without doubt,
To those who fear Allah.
-- Sura 2:2
Maybe there are other verses in the Qur'an which make it even clearer, but I have heard the opinion several times already, that I must read the Qur'an with the "right attitude" in order to understand it. At least some Muslims are convinced that a certain "faith", openess or acceptance is required beforehand when I really want to understand the Qur'an and see its beauty. This might be surprising to some of you, but I do not object to that attitude.
The Bible does have several similar statements about prerequisites that are necessary to understand the deeper things of God. Let me just quote one.
We have not received the spirit of the world
but the Spirit who is from God,
that we may understand what God has freely given us.
This is what we speak,
not in words taught us by human wisdom
but in words taught by the Spirit,
expressing spiritual truths in spiritual words.
The man without the Spirit
does not accept the things that come from the Spirit of God,
for they are foolishness to him,
and he cannot understand them,
because they are spiritually discerned.
-- 1 Corinthians 2:12-14
The Apostle Paul states clearly that there are many things in God's revelation which will not be comprehensible to the normal "unregenerated" human mind. We need to receive also the divine gift of the decoding capacity. The same spirit who was behind the writing of the the revelation is also needed on the part of the recipient to understand it.
In comparsion, if I want to write a book in Chinese I will need to know the Chinese language. If somebody else wants to read that Chinese book, he also needs to know the Chinese language. Possessing the "knowledge of Chinese" is the quality that is needed both on the part of the sender of the message and the receiver of the message. However, if the book is written by a really proficient, native speaker on a high level of linguistic sophistication, then the reader does not only need a "technical" knowledge of the language, but he also needs an understanding of colloquialisms to be able to really follow and grasp all that is communicated with these more subtle means of language. One needs to be an "insider" in some sense to get the full benefit and being able to understand it in all its complexity.
I hope this example can serve as an illustration of this Biblical teaching. There is more to the Bible/God's word than just the "actual words" of human language. It has a spiritual dimension or quality which only those who also have this spirit (of understanding) given to them by God can comprehend.
In Christianity and Islam [and probably in every religion] there are many things which we have to accept by faith. Statements about the nature of God, the way God will judge at the last day, the existence of heaven and hell, etc. cannot be verified or "tested" by us while still living in this world. Whether we have believed correctly we will find out after we have died. (Or we won't find out anything at all if the atheists are right who believe that it is just "over" with death and nothing to come afterwards.)
A number of Muslims have expressed either on the newsgroupa or in private conversations with me that many of the Christian doctrines "do not make sense" to them. These include the Trinity, original sin, substitutionary atonement, and others. I can understand that, these doctrines are not "simple". Maybe the following thoughts can help to focus our energies in these debates a bit better and also to see clearer what is a topic suitable for debate in the first place.
The nature of God is a matter which we cannot resolve by logical reasoning. We are completely dependent on God that he reveals it to us. I think both Muslims and Christians would agree with this assumption.
Islamic "Tawhid" and Christian "Trinity" are both valid possibilities [philosophically], and we have no way to subject God to an experiment to test these two hypotheses and find out which one is true. The nature of God is one of these things we can "know" (about) only by revelation and through accepting this revelation by faith.
So it is with many of the doctrines in Islam and Christianity which are of a "transcendent" nature. There is no way to test them for truth (correctness). They might make more or less sense to us, but our capacity to understand is no limitation on what is possible in God's reality. It is in principle impossible for the finite (our mind) to fully comprehend the infinite (God). So, we should not be too surprised if some things are difficult to understand. Simplicity or complexity in themselves are no indication for truth.
Much of what we can or cannot accept depends on what we have been exposed to and the attitude of other people about it. We learn what is right and wrong through our families and the society we live in. Even such trivial things like what sort of food we love and what we don't like is very much conditioned by how society views these things. The French are of the opinion that snails are a great starter for a meal. Germans have very divided feelings over such a thought. Chinese eat snakes and dogs and think it is great. Most Europeans think this is strange (snakes) or detestable (dogs). (I assume that Muslims would in general side with the Europeans in this and refuse to eat dog meat, though probably for different reasons.)
I think that many of our reactions to some theological doctrines are really questions of taste. That doesn't mean they are as unimportant as our likes and dislikes for certain foods, far from it! I do not say that the doctrines compare to food and some like these and some like others and it doesn't matter really what you eat and how you get your nutrition. It obviously matters a lot whether there will be a Judgment Day (like the Jews, Christians and Muslims believe) or not (as the atheists hope). But I have the impression that our way of reaction to certain doctrines and what we find acceptable in matters of religion and what we do not find acceptable is similarly conditioned like our cultural behaviors and (dis)likes for food.
I have grown up in a true Christian family where my parents have lived out what they believe and the trinitarian understanding of God was "natural" for me. People who grow up in a Muslim family and maybe even in a Muslim country have heard from early childhood, over and over again, what an abomination and horrible sin it is to consider Jesus to be God. They will "naturally" have a strong (emotional) reaction to this when they meet a Christian, just as I would be quite emotionally uneasy when offered a meal of dog meat, which is very much against the values I have grown up with. However, to a (pagan) Chinese person, there is nothing self-evidently wrong with eating dogs. Our cultural or religious conditioning may make us find such an idea abhorrent, but he doesn't have that and what would be a reason for him to acknowledge the correctness of our views?
Why do I talk about all this? What is the relevance of this for the dialog between Muslims and Christians?
I think that we argue a lot about (extremely important) topics like the Trinity, the sinfulness of man etc, on which we will never reach a conclusion. It is like arguing about tastes. We have no standard for right or wrong to measure these things against. By that I mean that we have no such standard which we BOTH can agree on.
As long as I insist that German culture is the only correct one, there is no point for me to debate about dog meat with a Chinese. We will never get anywhere in such a debate. On the other hand, I might decide to lay aside my preconceived notions of right and wrong and try to really listen and make an effort to understand the other side without debating against it. I might in the end still not eat dog meat but I will have learned a lot and might be able to appreciate the other world view and opinions.
Now, we as "people of faith" also base our taste on the clear teachings of the Bible or the Qur'an. Our taste is not only a matter of personal opinion, nor just cultural conditioning (although that does play a role), culture is also formed from our books. Muslims wouldn't eat dogs not just because they don't like them, but because they are considered unclean for religious reasons. Muslims may have grown up not eating dog meat, but the cultural taste is also based on the book you believe in.
There is much that Muslims find very reprehensible in the Christian faith and on the other hand I do have a number of issues I find "emotionally" very difficult to accept in Islam. However, if these things are topics of revelation which we cannot test for their truth by our human capabilities, I think it is best to not debate about them with the goal to prove my own case or disprove the other side. We will never be able to as long as we both try to do so while we still insist that our view of things is correct. In these "transcendent" topics, I think it is very important that we try to learn and understand the view of the other side. I am happy to answer questions about anything in Christianity, but many of these doctrines I can only back up with the Bible, and not prove their truth by logic. I can explain them and point out why I believe them, but these reasons are basically rooted in the faith that the Bible in its entirety is God's true revelation. Since you don't accept the Bible, that particular kind of evidence will prove nothing to you. I am usually not even trying to prove that (for example), "the Trinity" is true, but instead I hope to show that my faith is indeed based on the book I consider the revelation of God (because many Muslims insist that the Trinity is not even in the Bible).
As long as I argue on the basis of the Bible and you on the basis of the Qur'an we will never come to conclusions together, but we both have the chance to decide to listen and really try to understand the other side without immediately trying to attack and disprove. Let us just give up on that. We will never succeed anyway. However, if we listen and learn we will all gain greatly.
Many of these issues are in this above sense "matters of taste" and we should approach them as such, but please do not conclude that they are not important. They are indeed extremely important.
Where then does this leave us in our quest for truth? The main question is still: Which of the claimed "revelations from God" is after all the TRUE one? Truth is absolute and not depending on our taste. Some things which are true we might like and others we might dislike, but it doesn't change their truth.
Many things in religion are like taste, we have nothing we can measure it against. We have no way to determine its truth. How then can we know that one religion is true? How can we test the different claims?
I have been asking many times over: WHY do you believe the Qur'an is the word of God? Just because the Qur'an says so doesn't make it so. In my opinion the question of utmost importance and which every serious believer of any religion has to answer is:
WHY do I believe my faith is based on truth? What is the "objective" evidence for it? A kind of evidence that is not dependent on "cultural taste" or "religious conditioning" from our parents.
The testing of the claims for truth is mainly the issue of authentication of revelation. Only to a very limited extent can we test the revelation itself since by nature much of religion is concerned with these "transcendent issues" which are just not "testable". And because we might find something "detestable" or "good/logical" doesn't make it false or true.
I think that "doctrines" should be a matter of dialogs for better understanding, but not topics for debates. They are just not suitable for that. God gave revelation SO THAT WE CAN KNOW the truth, AND I believe God also gave evidence WHY we should believe his revelation. I believe that God knew that there would be many who claim to offer true revelation and I also believe that God made sure that we can test these claims and come to a confidence why we believe a certain revelation is indeed from God and not cooked up by some imposter [or several of them].
The topic of authentication of revelation, the issue of the basis for our faith, indeed is and should be a topic for debate. Again, by its very nature "authentication" has to be testable and to be part of our world. We can apply methods like screening the witnesses for their reliability and trustworthiness as we would do it in any other court case. We can apply the methods of different scientific disciplines as they relate to the revelation whether in regard to the content of revelation or in regard to the way of transmission. We can apply the rigorous historical and archeological research to see how the supposed revelation matches up with what we know from factual evidence. Also we can use logic for our thinking about the inner consistency of a revelation or religion (at least if the religion itself claims to originate in a rational god -- testing "mystery" religions for rationality would be missing their very nature).
Most religions do not only contain teachings on transcendent issues but also statements about this world which are in the realm of science [!?] or history [!!]. These parts can be tested for accuracy and credibility. If the test of these "earthly" statements gives good results, then I will have more confidence in the statements about the "heavenly" things contained in this revelation. Equally, if the "testable" part gives bad results, then this does not inspire confidence that the "transcendent" issues are presented with divine authority.
Most of all, what is it that the "revelation itself" presents as its authentication? Forcing modern science on statements that were not meant to be scientific in the first place [as many Christians and Muslims do with their respective books to give them more authority] is not very helpful. We have to take serious that the revelation was given at a certain point in time and what it would have been understood to mean by its first hearers.
What is it that according to Muhammad was authenticating his message? And does THAT pass the test? I don't think he was putting forth scientific statements for that. We have to test what was intended as authentication. The same holds for Christianity and the message the Apostles preached.
Let us be in DIALOG with the goal to get a deeper understanding and appreciation of the other faith. Let us dialog about all these issues that are at the core of our respective faith but which cannot be proven to those outside. We can only fully understand them if we already believe, but we can nevertheless explain their meaning and communicate about it in a good measure to those who do not (yet) believe.
Let us DEBATE about the FOUNDATION of our faith. Our eternal destiny depends on finding the truth and following it. Truth has to be our highest goal, not the justification of our taste. Therefore we have to test both our own faith and the faith of the others. We need to be respectful and polite in this. (I realize that I have to ask for your forgiveness in this regard. I know that I have offended some of you at times. This has never been my intention.) But if truth is really our highest priority, then nothing can be exempted from being scrutinized for its validity. Not even the things we hold most sacred and like to "take for granted".
But let us test the things that are indeed meant to be tested. Let us discuss the authentication for our faith. According to your opinion, what has God done in order to give evidence that your religion is indeed from God? I do not believe that God expects blind faith from us. I believe God gave us enough solid evidence to discern and recognize the truth.
After applying all the necessary tests, and then hopefully submitting to that revelation that has stood the test of its authentication, then I am convinced when we "decide to believe" and as we grow in understanding, our taste will accomodate itself to the truth. This is the reason I started out with the quotes on "reading the revelation with the right attitude". If we believe in Jesus, we are promised that God will give us his Spirit who will lead us into all truth. Should it be on the other hand that Islam is true, then we can expect that our right attitude will also be honored by God and we will understand the Qur'an better and better as we diligently study it.
Let us apply the right tests to the authentication of the message. Let us NOT apply our TASTE to decide about truth. And when you/I have found confidence in one of the revelations ON THE BASIS OF TESTING IT, then I am convinced that you/I will also aquire the taste for this faith and will grow to love it and appreciate it more and more. I believe that in both the Bible and the Qur'an we can find much beauty and depth. Otherwise they wouldn't have survived hundreds of years. However, we have to keep in mind, that ultimately it is not beauty we are after, but truth, and maybe our quest for truth will lead us to redefine what we will learn to consider beautiful.
Therefore, my plea: Let us debate on
* WHY do you believe the Qur'an to be true?
(apart from the claims it makes about itself)
* WHAT is it that qualifies (or disqualifies) Muhammad as a messenger from the true God?
And Christians have to answer the same questions about their book and Apostles.
All eternity depends on "hanging onto the correct absolute".
May God give us a burning desire for truth, and may he guide us as we seek for it.
Any feedback is welcome, please let me know what you think by sending me an email.
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