Adrian Pabst: Real Debate on Christianity and Islam?
A scholar of religion and politics at the University of Nottingham, Adrian Pabst (who also holds a position as research fellow at the Luxembourg Institute for European and International Studies), has written an interesting column for the November 13th edition (2007) of the online International Herald Tribune (IHT):
Last month, 138 Muslim scholars addressed an open letter to Pope Benedict XVI and other Christian leaders in which they call for a new dialogue between Christianity and Islam based on sacred texts.The letter was a response to Pope Benedict's remarks about Islam in his talk at Regensberg, Germany about one year ago:
Entitled "A Common Word Between Us and You," the document claims that the shared Muslim and Christian principles of love of the One God and love of the neighbor provide the sort of common ground between the two faiths that is necessary for respect, tolerance and mutual understanding.
The publication of this letter coincided with the anniversary of a previous open letter in response to the pope's controversial Regensburg address on Sept. 12, 2006, when he appeared to link violence in religion to the absolute transcendence of God in Islam. His point was that according to Muslim teaching, God's will is utterly inscrutable and therefore unknowable to human reason -- with the implication that divine injunctions cannot be fully understood and must be blindly obeyed.Pabst thinks that this suggestion in based on some mistaken assumptions:
Against this background, the latest initiative by Muslim scholars marks an attempt to move interfaith dialogue away from debates about reason and revelation towards scriptural reading. Christian-Muslim relations, so their argument goes, are best served by engaging in textual interpretations that highlight shared commandments and common beliefs.
But to suggest, as the authors of "A Common Word" do, that Muslims and Christians are united by the same two commandments which are most essential to their respective faith and practice -- love of God and love of the neighbor -- is theologically dubious and politically dangerous.Interesting. Does the New Testament speak so clearly in this way? A generous reading of Pabst's remark would parse his statement to mean that "the New Testament and early Christian writings" taken together -- and "early" taken to include the first several centuries -- "speak of God as a single Godhead with three equally divine persons." Joseph Cyr (of Tucson, Arizona), in a letter to the IHT editor, does not read him quite so generously:
Theologically, this glosses over elementary differences between the Christian God and the Muslim God. The Christian God is a relational and incarnate God. Moreover, the New Testament and early Christian writings speak of God as a single Godhead with three equally divine persons -- Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
Careful analysis of the New Testament, though, shows that the idea of a triune God does not exist in its pages. In fact, it was not until the fourth century that the doctrine of a Trinity was firmly established as Church dogma . . . . Rather than state, as a matter of fact, that scripture supports a Triune God, Pabst would do well to say that it is a result of tradition and church dogma. That would be a piece of truth to throw into the debate about God and holy writings.I agree that the New Testament does not refer to a "Triune God" or to a "Trinity," and I wish that Pabst had been more clear (though he doesn't actually use the terms "Triune" or "Trinity"), but I'll continue to read him generously so as not to miss his point, which is:
This is not merely a doctrinal point, but one that has significant political and social implications. The equality of the three divine persons is the basis for equality among mankind -- each and everyone is created in the image and likeness of the triune God.This latter statement will certainly generate some debate. Already, a letter to the IHT editor has taken issue with Pabst's remark about Christians and Muslims not worshipping the same God. Bianca Schlesinger, of Tel Aviv, demurs:
As a result, Christianity calls for a radically egalitarian society beyond any divisions of race or class. The promise of universal equality and justice that is encapsulated in this conception of God thus provides Christians with a way to question and transform not only the norms of the prevailing political order but also the (frequently perverted) social practices of the Church.
By contrast, the Muslim God is disembodied and absolutely one: there is no god but God, He has no associate. This God is revealed exclusively to Muhammed, the messenger (or prophet), via the archangel Gabriel. As such, the Koran is the literal word of God and the final divine revelation first announced to the Hebrews and later to the Christians.
Again, this account of God has important consequences for politics and social relations. Islam does not simply posit absolute divisions between those who submit to its central creed and those who deny it; it also contains divine injunctions against apostates and unbelievers (though protecting the Jewish and Christian faithful).
Moreover, Islam's radical monotheism tends to fuse the religious and the political sphere: It privileges absolute unitary authority over intermediary institutions and also puts a premium on territorial conquest and control, under the direct rule of God.
These (and other) differences imply that Christians and Muslims do not worship or believe in the same God; in consequence, across the two faiths, love of God and love of the neighbor invariably differ.
Pabst writes "These (and other) differences imply that Christians and Muslims do not worship or believe in the same God." How can they believe in different Gods if there is only one? If there is only one God, as declared by the monotheistic religions, than they all worship the same God; they only conceive of Him differently.Schlesinger has responded as Pabst might wish, i.e., theologically, and thereby raised a crucial point. Do Muslims worship the same God as Jews and Christians. Schlesinger -- who is, I take it, Jewish -- argues that Muslims do so, based on the theological position that there can be only one God. The argument might need some refining, however, for by a similar intellectual move, I could argue that polytheists also worship the same God as Jews and Christians because there can only be one God, and the polytheists "only conceive of Him differently" -- radically differently, of course, but they nevertheless recognize the divine and treat the divine as an object of reverence. Yet, polytheism and monotheism can only worship the same 'God' at a very general, very abstract level (if at all). As Pabst himself says:
By ignoring these fundamental divergences, the authors of the open letter perpetuate myths about Christians and Muslims praying differently to the same God. Worse, they exhibit a simplistic theology of absolute, unmediated monotheism.Anyway, go read the entire article and see what you think about Pabst's theological, political, and ethical points.