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Monday, February 07, 2005

Islam, Orthodoxy and Protestants

Roughly half of America dislike everything George Bush says, but that doesn’t mean he isn’t the President of the United States. This is a point too few people keep in mind. Take, for instance, the example of Stas, a very nice Orthodox man, who read my recent piece on concerning the Muslim reporter who implicitly threatened to kill me and nuke America. He thought the piece excellent except for my statement that the Pope was the head of Christianity: “As for the Pope, 1 billion various protestants and 300 million Orthodox don't follow his words and that's half of Christianity.” To keep things honest, a Mormon and a Protestant also voiced essentially this disagreement.

I could have pointed out, as I do here, that his statement proves nothing about either the Pope or the President, but I demurred. Instead, I merely pointed out that there are no major theological differences between Orthodoxy and Catholicism, apart from a minor theological point concerning the generation of the Holy Spirit and his aforementioned quibble concerning the Pope. He insisted I was wrong, and in attempting to demonstrate his case, he inadvertently made a connection between Orthodoxy and Islam that I had read about, but never really seen in action before.

He sent a lengthy quote from an Orthodox text that said in part, “The East developed a mystical approach to theology: God cannot be known intellectually but only experientially. This approach to theology, known as the negative way, affirms that God is above human language and reason. "The negative way of the knowledge of God is an ascendant undertaking of the mind that progressively eliminates all positive attributes of the object it wishes to attain, in order to culminate finally in a kind of apprehension by supreme ignorance of Him who cannot be an object of knowledge."

In other words, God is a mystery. This means that He is beyond our intellectual comprehension. He is totally and "wholly other," not only invisible but inconceivable. Pseudo-Dionysius (c. late fifth, early sixth centuries), the father of the negative way, explains it by pointing to Moses' ascent on the mountain in order to meet God.

Orthodox theology distinguishes three aspects of God's being: (1) the indescribable and inaccessible divine essence (ousia); (2) the three divine Persons (hypostases); and (3) the uncreated energies (energeiai) inseparable from God's essence (as are the rays of the sun from the sun itself) in which He manifests, communicates, and gives Himself.”

Now, the “negative way” is a perfectly valid approach to God that has long been used in both Western and Eastern mystical theology. However, as the quote indicates, Eastern theology relies on the concept to an enormously greater extent than does Western theology. One might ask how the East knows to distinguish ousia, hypostates, and energeiai if God is “inconceivable,” but this is a picayune debating point and not the real point of this essay. What we should pay attention to today is the close connection this has to a very important aspect of Muslim theology.

Muslims insist that God is completely other. He is not knowable, He is not a family or communion of Persons. His fatherhood is not like our fatherhood, His love is not like our love, His transcendence places Him beyond anything we can understand. In this heavy emphasis on God’s otherness, Islamic theology bears a marked resemblance to Orthodoxy.

Why does this matter? Because it is perhaps the single most serious impediment to evangelizing a Muslim. Since the Orthodox accept the Trinity, their over-emphasis on transcendence is not a serious problem. But when Christians talk about Christianity between themselves or with the members of other faith traditions, the appeal to a shared experience of love is compelling. “You know how well (or badly) your father treated you? If your father treated you well, then he showed a small example of God the Father’s love for you. If he treated you badly, you know that his mistreatment of you was an injustice precisely because you already have some experience of the justice and mercy of God the Father’s love for you – the comparison between your human father and your divine Father is built into your heart and soul.”

That kind of discussion always takes place fairly early in the evangelization process, and most people of other traditions, whether Jew, Hindu, Buddhist, pagan or something else, understand the analogy. With Moslems, this approach doesn’t work because their theology explicitly denies it from the beginning.

“God’s love is not like my father’s love. God is not a family of persons. Human families have nothing in common with God. The relationship between God and man is the relationship between master and slave. He loves us as a master loves his slave, cares for us as a master cares for his slave, we owe him obedience as a slave owes his master, not as a son owes his father.” This is the reply of the Muslim to that particular Christian evangelistic approach.

This is, perhaps, why the Muslim world is so hard to evangelize. When faced with this reply, the Orthodox Christian is rather stumped for an answer. He can’t very well disagree with the emphasis on transcendence – he has the same emphasis himself. But he also knows there is something absolutely wrong with the argument, and since the Orthodox emphasize experiential knowledge over intellectual investigation, he can’t put his finger on what that might be nor can he explain it to his Moslem opposite.

Since Orthodoxy has been the flavor of Christianity closest to Islam for most of its existence, the Muslims have, in a certain sense, been inoculated against Christianity. When we receive a vaccine, we get enough of the virus to promote a systemic physical defense against it, but not enough to make us sick. Similarly, the Orthodox provide Islam with just enough Christian doctrine to know how to refute Joe Christian, but not enough to be converted by that doctrine. Indeed, strong historical arguments have been made to suggest Mohammed got most of his theology from a really bad mix of Jewish, Orthodox and heretical Christian theology.

So, how do we evangelize Muslims? That’s an open question. Very few Christians have really done it successfully. I suspect, however, that success relies strongly on studying Islam and trying to find points of correspondence between Islamic and Christian theology.

For instance, I was recently asked by a Muslim why Catholics pray to saints – they aren’t divine. Why not approach God directly? Does God need an intermediary?

I nearly laughed out loud when I saw the question, if only because this is precisely the kind of thing Protestants constantly ask. I pointed out to him that Mohammed received his vision from an angel. Why didn’t he receive communication for the composition of the Quran directly from God? Abraham dealt directly with God. Moses dealt directly with God. Mohammed didn’t. Why not?

So, why does God allow intermediaries? Because once God creates us, we need to praise and glorify Him. God didn’t need to create us, but once we are created, we only reach our fulfillment in glory by properly acknowledging Him. We do this by acting as intermediaries, bringing others closer to Him, asking Him for things because by these requests we acknowledge Him as the source of all things. Asking other people to intercede for us is a way of acknowledging that they, too, were made by Him, it assists them in fulfilling their need to glorify God. God doesn't need intermediaries, but we need to be intermediaries and have intermediaries in order to properly glorify His creation of us, so God - in His infinite mercy - permits it.

When we realize that Islam sees Mohammed as the prophet of whom Moses spoke, when we understand that part of Islam’s apologetic against Christianity is built on showing how dissimilar Jesus is to Moses while showing how similar Mohammed is to Moses, we realize a weakness in their theology. Any discordance that exists between Mohammed and Moses is a demonstration that Islam is false because it demonstrates the prophet - the intermediary - may be false. Muslims know this. Any concordance that can be shown between Christianity and Islam is proof that Christianity is true, at least to the extent the concordance exists. Muslims know this too. So, by breaking apart the ties between Moses and Mohammed, by emphasizing the ties between Christianity and Islam, it is possible that converts can be made.

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