Saturday, November 17, 2007

Adrian Pabst: Real Debate on Christianity and Islam?

Adrian Pabst
Stirring the pot...
(Image: Dept. of Theol/Relig Stds,

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):
"Christianity and Islam: We need a real debate, not more dialogue"
A provocative title . . . though not the sort to provoke violence, I hope. Pabst was responding to a Muslim letter to the pope:
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.

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 letter was a response to Pope Benedict's remarks about Islam in his talk at Regensberg, Germany about one year ago:
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.

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.
Pabst thinks that this suggestion in based on some mistaken assumptions:
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.

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.
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:
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.

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.
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:
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.

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At 8:30 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi Jeffery,
That beardless boy may be right. Both the Catholics and Muslims believe that they are correct. If the Muslim wants to understand or know what the Catholic believes he can buy a Catechism or a book of apologetics. If a Catholic needs to know what Muslims believe he faces the difficulty of different schools without a central orthodoxy. Christians after their bloody history have at last come to accept that there must be separation of Church and State and that there must be respect for minorities. This notion of the hegemony of a National Church or an Established Church lasted up until modern times. The Act of Catholic Emancipation was passed in 1829. Sharing space is something that Muslims have yet to learn to do. Both religions are proslytyzing but there is that wonderful device which is colloquially called 'the Mormon lock' ie. the sliding bolt. I don't want to know habibi but go in peace, I'm happy with what I have.

Islam and the religion of the O.T. share a similar monotheism with a good deal of smiting, Amalekhite rules of engagement and M.A.D. Jews for the most part have left out the smiting and the stoning but there is a significant minority of Muslims who hanker for that old time religion, if it was good enough for Mohammed then it's good enough for me.

At 8:39 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Thanks, Michael Reidy, for the comment.

I think that Christianity was able to accept the separation of religion and state more easily than Islam will find this, for Christianity had to live under the Roman authority for 300 years and also had the authority of Jesus on a distinction between the spiritual and political realms.

Islam has Muhammad, a leader who combined religious, political, and even military roles -- and who serves as a 'moral exemplar' for pious Muslims.

Thus, change, like peace, will come "dropping slow," first heard "in the deep heart's core" before it becomes a cultural reality.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 9:39 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

This is slightly off-topic here, but since it's about something both the pope and the 38 replying scholars mentioned, I'll introduce it nontheless. It's also about the question of God being grounded in reason.

Here it goes: While browsing through the papers of last month's congress of German Orientalists in Freiburg, I came across an interpretation I've never heard, or even thought of. It's about how the Mu'tazilites (who were the pro-reason camp against Ghazali solved the contradiction between the "no compulsion in religion" verse, and those verses that call for killing pagans and apostates, and forcing people to convert.

The Mu'tazili disliked the abrogation concept, championed a reasonable God, and accepted free will (as opposted to predestiation), so they came up with this answer:

Since there is no compulsion in religion, as far as God is concerned, it is not only not forbidden for man to use force and coercion, but actually mandatory to do so: the absence of coercion on God's side necessitates its use by man against his fellow man. Forcing people to convert is actually a good thing, because sooner or later they or their children would acquire genuine faith: so you would have saved them from eternal hellfire.

This is a troubling stance for a school, or sect, which is often implicitly lauded for its gereral outlook as far as reason and free will are concerned, isn't it?

At 10:53 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think the idea that Muslims and Christians have monolithic concepts of God is very naive. With all their talk of the greater and lesser jihads or crusades, Bernard of Clairvaux and the Ayatollah Khomeini had more in common with each other than with the more "moderate" members of their own religions today. Similarly, I think Rumi and Archbishop Tutu would have seen very much eye to eye if they had been permitted to live at the same time and be contemporaries.

If each religion in question hardly has a monolithic concept of God that prevails amongst its members, then one should be very careful of saying anything about what they have in common.

Nevertheless, perhaps in today's world statements of agreement and even brotherhood would be welcome --I just don't think such statements can be considered to be that true.

At 12:09 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Erdal, that's very interesting. I didn't know that the Mu'tazilites favored forced conversions.

It's troubling, for certain, but I suppose that there's some logic to it if a religion is explicitly political and requires submission to its authority. Those who submit still have their inner freedom to believe or disbelieve, and Allah will be left to judge that, I suppose.

But it's definitely troubling, for it's an example of how belief in a rational God does not necessarily preclude violence. We might need to ask the Pope's opinion on this one, but he might argue that one has to distinguish between instrumental and substantive reason...

Jeffery Hodges

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At 12:14 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Nathan, I think that one could confidently speak of an orthodox conception of God among Catholics, for the Catholic Church has an office devoted to precisely that sort of thing.

Protestants are a different story. One can't speak as confidently about a typical Protestant theological conception of God, I think. However, I suspect that the Pope was correct in identifying a tendency in Protestantism toward a voluntarist God.

And, largely speaking, Islam seems to have this tendency WRIT LARGE. See my posts of several days ago on this issue.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 3:13 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi Gypsy Jeff,

Shocking stuff. "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". Yup, as the particular type of xtian he is, he interprets his NT as articulating the trinity in all its divine equalities. It doesn't, of course. Some early christian writings do. Not really sure what he hoped to achieve with the article other than cling to his own Christian belief as the only right way. I must have skimmed the article too fast and misunderstood it but right now I'm down under feeling relieved I've escaped from the rest of the world for a while...

At 3:20 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Steph, good to see you here again. I'm just on my way out, but I agree in part with your point.

At the very least, Dr. Pabst was careless, and he mixed some noteworthy points with some debatable ones.

I suppose that this is confirmation of his point that there needs to be a debate.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 8:22 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Aha - but I'm a gypsy groupie, always loitering in the shadows.... how did you know it was me anyway? I'm trying to hide. I stand by my shocking and add naive for Adrian. According to him, committed Christian, he worships the only true God and therefore Muslims don't. Hugh Goddard is far more learned in this area - no comparison really.

At 8:56 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

How did I know that it was you? Well ... the "Steph" was a dead giveaway.

As for "Spider," "Dolphin," and "Elf," I know you not. Depart from me, ye workers of iniquity! I am Der Gute Gott von Manhattan, come to judge you all!

Jeffery Hodges

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At 2:38 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...


Pabst's distinction between "debate" and "dialogue" escapes me. There can be no debate without there first being some sort of common language. Were Trinitarian expression taken as nothing but an ontological claim, then there would clearly be insufficient common language for a debate with Muslims who reject such an ontology. Even if Trinitarian expression is regarded as not necessarily a matter of ontology - or not only a matter of ontology - then there is still the problem that Trinitarian expression is effectively anathema to Muslims. Trinitarians, on the other hand, are not so limited. Particularly in light of the Athanasian Creed, Christians should be largely capable of expressing themselves quite readily simply in terms of "God".

Even with regards to the Incarnation, when it comes to both debate and dialogue, Christians will have their own epistemological "problem". How do Christians today know that Jesus was somehow God incarnate, but that, too, would turn out not to be much of a problem were the Christian emphasis put in terms of what Pabst refers to as a "God [who] is relational".

God "is relational" even to those Muslims who believe "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." Such Muslims clearly have their own epistemological "problem", one which is magnified by the predominant acceptance that even the "blind" implementation of submission to God is subject to human interpretation.

Whenever interpretation is either necessary or allowed, rationality will be present to some extent, and given that neither Christians nor Muslims believe that God or God's will are fully understood, it is the relationship with God -- not the ontology -- which is the proper focus. So, we come not to the "essence" of God but to the issue of proper relationships in the nature of justice which both Christians and Muslims associate ultimately with God, and this gets addressed by dialogue with the hope of establishing a common language and by debate to improve understanding.

Pabst's approach seems to be one which effectively seeks to limit debate by unnecessarily limiting language even before there is the dialogue. This is a common (and cheap) debating technique, but it tends toward the presumption that truths are expressible in only one manner. The Muslims whom Pabst appears to have in mind are also guilty of attempting to limit discourse in similar fashion, and Pabst objects to their attempt at so defining the debate ahead of time. Hence, Pabst does not seem to offer anything to further either dialogue or debate.


At 4:19 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Michael Pearl, thanks for the comment.

On the distinction between "dialogue" and "debate," Pabst isn't especially clear.

From what he does say, I inferred that he views dialogue as ecumenical language intended to be 'nice' and thus often used to smooth over differences. Thus, "love of God" -- to take one of his examples -- might not mean the same thing for Muslims and Christians.

Debate, by contrast, would sharpen the differences, expressing the distinctions hidden by use of the same words -- or so I took Pabst to mean.

But "debate" is a loaded term, and in its usual practice, one finds a sort of institutionalized mutual hostility between debaters, who are expected to stake out opposing positions and argue vehemently for their own and against their opponents'. In such a debate, truth is often lost.

There's also the issue of deciding who stands for "the Muslim position" and who stands for "the Christian position." The Catholic Church can speak for itself but not for all Christians, the remainder of whom are even more divided than Muslims, perhaps.

I would suggest that we need civil debate, but the challenge of finding debaters who are both competent and representative would not be easy.

As for the specific points that you raise, they would be debatable points, I suppose.

Jeffery Hodges

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