Middle Eastern Christianity

“Same God” for Muslims and Christians? False Starts

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.
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Having Come Lately

I tend to think that I came to the question of divisions among Christians rather late in the day.  We all have.  Most of the divisions among Christians which exist now already existed before any of us were born.  The division between European Christians and most varieties of Middle Eastern and African Christians happened fifteen centuries ago; the division between Eastern Orthodox and the Latin West is almost a millennium old.  The Protestant Reformation is approaching half a millennium old, and even the Methodists are a quarter of a millennium old at this point.  Many of the Pentecostal denominations are older than a century, as is the Fundamentalist-Modernist controversy which sprouted new denominations.  All of these divisions occurred before we were born.  So the question facing us is what to do about those divisions now, given the history that has already transpired.

There are many ways one might answer that question.  Some people regard it as an intellectual challenge, to discern which denomination is the True Church and join it.  Others regard the divisions among Christians as evidence for falsity and abandon the religion, or refuse to join it.  Some people think the correct response is to convince everyone else to join their own group; others prefer  to pretend there are no divisions among the groups.  Perhaps the vast majority of Christians just ignore the issue, staying in the church where they are and ignoring other denominations as irrelevant to them.  None of these is my response, although the reason why will require some background narrative of my own experience. (more…)

The Syriac Side of Things

Marginalia Review of Books just published an interview with Sebastian Brock, who was one of the main architects for the “rediscovery” of Syriac Christianity in Anglophone scholarship since the late 1960s.  His interviewer, T. Michael Law, is himself an Oxford-trained expert in the Septuagint (the Greek translation of the Old Testament), just as Dr. Brock himself started his academic career fifty years ago.  Although in places the discussion turns to in-house matters among academics, many parts of the interview will intrigue those interested in Middle Eastern Christianity, such as the differences in the canon of the New Testament between Syriac and Greek or Latin Christians.  The interview may be listened to here (unfortunately, I cannot find a transcript for those who prefer their media read rather than heard).

Readers interested in late antiquity and the rise of Christianity may also be interested in the interview with Peter Brown on the same site, in which he discusses his recent book, Through the Eye of a Needle (part 1, part 2).  In the process he has some characteristically provocative suggestions regarding the shape of Christianity in a period of flux.