A friend asked me a bit ago whether my day job (trying to understand the Middle East, including Islam and Muslims) wasn’t counterproductive for me as a Bible-believing Christian, or whether it was an attempt to “know the enemy.” In truth, it is neither. Of course, I believe that Christians should explore all fields of knowledge to understand the world in the light of God’s revelation. But I also do not think of Muslims as “the enemy.” Since this latter point is apparently highly contentious at the present among conservative Christians, I thought it might be useful for me to explain my reasoning. (more…)
My last post suggested that part of the difficulty in adjudicating the debate whether or not Muslims and Christians worship the same God is that we mean so many different things when we say “worship.” But there is another problem: how do we know what someone worships? In grammatical terms, “worship” is a transitive verb; it takes a direct object. But how do we know what the actual direct object is of any particular act of worship? The first answer would seem to be that someone is worshiping whom or what they claim to be worshiping. And in cases of frank idolatry, that is undoubtedly sufficient. When an ancient Greek claimed to be worshiping Aphrodite, or a modern Vaishnava Hindu worships Vishnu, there is no reason to doubt them. The greater difficulty is determining the object of worship when people of different religions claim to be worshiping simply “God,” or even “the God.” This question takes us to the center of some tricky problems about meaning and language, especially the meaning of language describing non-physical realities. (more…)
Recent events at Wheaton College have once again raised the question whether Christians and Muslims worship the same God. This is a question which I have faced with some regularity, given that I have a small amount of theological training and that I study the mixed society (including Muslims and Christians) of the medieval Middle East. With due regard to Biblical authority and the many learned people who have weighed in on the question, I find the issue to be rather more ambiguous than anyone likes to admit, and dependent upon certain non-obvious answers to tricky questions regarding the nature of worship and the relationship between sense and referent when speaking about spiritual beings, including God. In other words, contrary to what everyone would like to be the case, the answer is not obvious either way.
The US Supreme Court has announced it will finally decide the question of gay marriage for the whole country. This promises to be a landmark case as significant, and as controversial, as the 1973 decision Roe v. Wade. Both liberals and conservatives reportedly cheered the decision, and are readying their best arguments. Some might call me a cynic, but I’d be a whole lot happier if I thought any of the arguments on either side might be anything other than fallacious preaching to the choir, and each of the justices already knows where they sing. (If the justices on the Supreme Court are supposed to be non-partisan, why do they almost always divide the same way along the same partisan issues?) Here I present a couple common arguments on both sides, and why they don’t work. (more…)
This last week the Christian population was driven out of Mosul, or rather, was given the options to convert to Islam (and not just any variety of Islam, but the extremist Sunni variety practiced by Mosul’s new ISIS masters), or to pay an exorbitant extra tax, or to leave with only the clothes on their backs, or to die. All or almost all have chosen to leave. As Chaldean Catholic Patriarch Louis Sako put it, “For the first time in the history of Iraq, Mosul is now empty of Christians.” (more…)
Peddling stereotypes is intellectually irresponsible, usually offensive, and occasionally funny. Along those lines, here is a list of parking lot layouts for various religious groups, in no particular order: (N.B. outside of America, “parking lot” is usually pronounced “car park.”) (more…)
(First, a note to the reader: after today this blog will be Out to Lunch, probably for the next couple weeks, as I take care of some physical world tasks that need doing, and I will be without internet access for part of that duration and with very little free time for even more of it. Some readers may feel that the posts have been out to lunch for a while now, but this is not an admission of doctrinal error…)
I particularly appreciated Dr. DeVille’s points #5 and #7 (with honorable mention to #6). Top-level ecumenical contact may often elicit a “who cares?” from the people in the pew. After all, what could such contact possibly accomplish? At this stage, perhaps the best it can accomplish is to provide a model for friendship and cooperation to all Christians. The biggest obstacle to ecumenism is not what so-and-so did to such-and-such back in the X century (whether that’s 431 or 538 or 1054 or 1204), nor even disagreements about ideas and practices (though such disagreements are real). The single biggest obstacle to real church unity is a nebulous congregational sense that those people over there are not like us. I have been asked, in all sincerity, whether Catholics and Evangelicals worship the same God (and the person was very reassured when I gave a positive answer). And the best way to allay misconceptions is to get to know people. (This works equally well for allaying misconceptions about anything, for example racial differences, Islam or other religions, and political partisan differences.) Such conversations can (and perhaps should) start off away from the topic at issue and just involve getting to know another human being. And after you discover that the other person does beautiful handicrafts, or likes the same sports team you do, or has a funny sense of humor, or has excellent taste in wine (or books or music), in other words, after you discover that the other person is a human being, then you can approach the topic at issue with the curiosity to discover how is it that your new friend thinks differently than you. Dr. DeVille gives other very easy suggestions in his piece, so you should go read it.
But Dr. DeVille’s most important point point is #7. Ecumenism is not optional. In addition to our Lord’s prayer in John 17 which he cited, my mainstay is the only command which Jesus added to the Law: “34 A new command I give you: that you love one another, so that just as I have loved you you may love one another. 35 By this all people will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:34-35). Dr. DeVille makes the point that church division hinders Christian witness, because God is one, so why aren’t we? This was exactly my experience. Before I became a Christian (over a decade ago now), I had a ready answer to any Christian friend who asked why I was not Christian: “Those Christians are so divided they don’t even know what they think about anything, so why should I join them and add to the muddle?” But God had grace and mercy on me in my blindness, and he dragged me to himself; only after I was there did I see that there is a deeper unity among all true Christians which transcends denominational structures and differences of dogma (which is not to say that either structure or dogma are inherently unimportant!). I am grateful for God’s grace, and I continue to pray for my family members and friends from that period to find, or rather be found by, the grace that I have. But I also wish to take practical steps to make it harder for people like me to use visible Christian divisions as an easy excuse not to believe. Christians are already one, in the one Holy Spirit of God, but we need to live visibly in light of this fact. Ecumenism is obligatory, not only for pope and patriarch, but for all people.