Posts Tagged ‘Christian-Islam’

Of Whom I am First: on the death of Osama Bin Laden

Tuesday, July 26th, 2011

By Ágúst Symeon Magnússon

A news stand in Boston: covers of news magazines in mid-May 2011 (photo: Jim Forest)

At the time of this writing most of the world’s newspapers and television channels are reporting on the death of al-Qaeda leader Osama Bin Laden at the hands of a special-operations Navy Seal Team. After ten years on the run following his involvement in the terrorist attacks on the Twin Towers on September 11, 2001, Bin Laden was finally found in a high-security compound in Pakistan. Bin Laden had become a potent symbol for militant Islamic extremism and countless terrorist groups throughout the world. The news of his death met with mixed reaction in the Middle East. Al-Qaeda operatives threatened retaliation and vengeance, Hamas condemned the killing, calling it a “continuation of the United States policy of destruction,” while the reaction of other governments in the area ranged from hesitant to jubilant.

In the West, especially in the United States, the news was met with nothing less than festal enthusiasm. Great crowds took to the streets of many cities, especially Washington D.C. and New York – both targets of the horrors of September 11 – cheering and waving flags, chanting “U.S.A.! U.S.A.! U.S.A.!” as if at a sports event. Both President Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton commented that “Justice has been done,” and newspapers reported on Bin Laden’s death with a range of journalistic flair, from the relatively understated “U.S. Forces Kill Osama Bin Laden” of The Wall Street Journal to the more robust “GOT HIM! Vengeance at last! U.S. nails the bastard!” in The New York Post and the words “ROT IN HELL!” superimposed over a picture of Bin Laden in The Daily News.

All of these reactions are perfectly understandable. Bin Laden was generally seen as leader of an organization whose terrorist activities have cost the lives of thousands of men, women and children in the past decade. The bombing of the USS Cole in 2000 and the attacks on New York and Washington in 2001 killed almost three thousand. The bombings on the public transit systems of London and Madrid, in 2005 and 2004 respectively, resulted in 247 deaths. Aside from these attacks on European and American soil, al-Qaeda has terrorized and murdered countless Muslim men, women and children in the past decade all throughout the Middle East, denying people their basic human rights and dignity in order to promulgate a philosophy of hatred, religious fundamentalism and death.

Understandable as the jubilant reaction to Bin Laden’s death may be, it is nonetheless not a Christian one. Christianity demands of us an orientation towards a reality that is both supremely difficult and strange, a reality of mercy and love. This reality is the Life of God, the shared love of the Holy Trinity, and it stands in direct opposition to any worldly ideas we may have about justice, vengeance or retribution. We are told by the great seventh-century poet St. Isaac the Syrian that all the sins of the world are like a few grains of sand cast into the ocean of God’s infinite mercy. In the Lord’s Prayer we pray that we may be assimilated to this mystical reality, entering into it by forgiving each other our sins so that we may fully be able to experience the mystery of God’s forgiveness. And in the sixth chapter of the gospel of Luke, Christ tells us to love our enemies and to neither judge nor condemn but rather to forgive absolutely and unconditionally.

What then would a proper Christian response to Bin Laden’s death be? Do we forget the horrors he inspired? Is our God not a God of justice as well as mercy? In thinking about such questions and exploring the mystery that lies behind them, perhaps we will come to better understand the mystical reality of God’s mercy. If nothing else, this event may be a catalyst for examining what lies at the center of these mysteries of forgiveness, repentance and communion. To enter into such a questioning is to take up the challenge given to us by Christ in the gospels to reconsider our relationship to one another and our understanding of good and evil.

To begin with we must be absolutely clear on the fact that the teachings of the Fathers and Mothers of the Church unequivocally state that evil is very real and that it permeates the very fabric of our existence due to the consequences of the Fall. The only way to reorient our lives towards God and to accept the salvation that He so freely offers us in and through his Son, the divine Logos who became incarnate as Jesus Christ. God does not force his mercy upon anyone. If he did, his mercy would no longer be love. This means that the salvation of our souls is in fact dependent upon our own free will and to what extent we choose to orient our lives towards the Good. And this is exactly why it is more 1 than likely that someone like Osama Bin Laden would find himself in a place that is the metaphysical realization of the life he lived on this earth, a life that was defined by suffering and pain and the inability to love one’s fellow human beings, irrespective of their religion, nationality or past sins. Yet in accepting the reality of evil, we, as Christians, also believe in its ultimate defeat. Christ frees us from violence, hatred and death, opening a door towards a way of life (a Tao/Logos) that we can appropriate and assimilate ourselves to through the grace of God that He so mercifully grants to us. The question then becomes how we enter upon this path and become conduits for God’s love and mercy instead of proliferating yet more suffering for both ourselves and our brothers and sisters. The answer, mysterious and indefinable as it must be, seems to always center on the mystery of repentance.   Repentance is among the most difficult and complex spiritual and philosophical realities in the entire Christian tradition. It is the beginning of the spiritual life, the first commandment of both John the Baptist and Christ in the gospels, our entrance into the Kingdom that is “at hand” (i.e. among us – present in the here and now). To begin our treatment of this difficult subject we might examine a prayer that is both beautiful and bizarre in its implications. It is a prayer said by Eastern Orthodox Christians moments before they receive the body and blood of Christ in the mystery of Holy Communion in the Divine Liturgy:

I believe O Lord and I confess, that you are truly the Christ, the living God who came into the world to save sinners of whom I am first. Moreover I believe that this is truly your most pure body and that this is truly your own precious blood.

“To save sinners of whom I am first.” What astoundingly strange words. Surely there have been worse people than I – murderers, rapists, dictators and despots. People like Osama Bin Laden. Even though I fully acknowledge that I am sinful and that I struggle with a great many passions in deed, word and thought, I nonetheless have a hard time thinking of myself as the chief of sinners, as the worst of the worst. Is this perhaps a kind of psychological flagellation, a “woe is me a sinner” attitude so that we may feel our unworthiness in the face of the holy sacraments?

Nothing could be further from the truth. In order to begin to understand these strange words, we need to break down our preconceived notions regarding repentance and communion. In the Eastern Orthodox Church, repentance, confession and sin were never thought of in legalistic terms, nor was juridical language ever applied to these realities, which was a tendency that sometimes tended to dominate Latin thinking on these matters. Rather, these spiritual realities were – and still are – understood in terms of a kind of spiritual anthropology, a language grounded in the language of medicine and healing as opposed to rules and regulations. Sin is understood as a spiritual sickness from which all of us suffer, a metaphysical condition that permeates the entire cosmos and from which God in his infinite mercy has freed us through the loving grace of his only begotten Son and his Holy Spirit. Repentance, in turn, becomes not a matter of psychological guilt, nor of feeling as if one is unworthy or tainted. Rather, it is a matter of a spiritual reorientation. The Greek word is metanoia, literally a “change of mind” or a “turning around” of the soul. As Metropolitan Kallistos writes in The Orthodox Way:

Correctly understood, repentance is not negative but positive. It means not self-pity or remorse but conversion, the re-centering of our whole life upon the Trinity. It is to look not backward with regret but forward with hope – not downwards at our own shortcomings but upwards at God’s love. It is to see, not what we have failed to be, but what by divine grace we can now become; and it is to act upon what we see. To repent is to open our eyes to the light.

When Plato in the Cave Allegory in the Republic describes the freeing of the prisoner in the cave who then turns away from illusion and suffering towards the light of truth and beauty he uses this very word metanoia. There is a turning around of the soul from the realm of shadows towards the divine. Such is repentance of the Christian who now sees him or herself in the light of the Resurrection and the mercy of God. This opening of the spiritual eyes, the cleansing of the nous – as it was known to both the Greek philosophers and Church Fathers – lies at the center of the mystery of repentance. It not only changes our perception of ourselves but of every living thing, the entire cosmos, but primarily it affects how we view our brothers and sisters. No longer are we subject to the individualism and egotism that ensconce us ever deeper in the mires of sin where we constantly measure ourselves against each other, whether materially or spiritually. Instead, our eyes are opened to the love that is the very being of God, a reality where humility, sacrifice and compassion direct the course of our lives rather than our desires and passions.

What is paradoxical about this reorientation is that in opening our eyes to the beauty and goodness of God that permeate this world we also become ever more aware of the reality of suffering and pain and all the repercussions of the Fall. In repenting of our own sins, especially through the sacrament of confession, we become ever more cognizant of the spiritual sickness that permeates the very fabric of our world, the alienation, separation, violence, disease, hunger and pain.

Repentance is a softening of the heart and an opening up of the human being, a path that makes us more sensitive and humane, more aware of the suffering of our brothers and sisters. Through this mystery we break down the illusion of individualism where we view ourselves as separate atoms, each pursuing our individual gain apart from one another. Instead we enter into the life of God where love and communion become the very essence of our life, just as they do for the persons of the Trinity. To repent is to begin to understand our very being as communion, to borrow a phrase from the Orthodox philosopher and theologian John Zizioulas.

Through repentance we begin to experience God’s mercy, the healing salve that cures the world of violence and hate. (The Greek word eleos, usually translated in English as “mercy,” has the same root as the word for olive oil, one of the most common medicinal balms of the ancient Greek world.) Hatred, in fact, makes true repentance impossible. It turns us away from the reality of God’s love towards a reality that is entirely our own construct, a reality characterized by discord and separation. This is why we are told not to approach the Holy Eucharist unless we have purged our hearts of hate. The reality made manifest in the Gifts is entirely antithetical to hatred and to being controlled by fear, for it is primarily through fear that we begin to hate.

The response to Bin Laden’s death is one that is primarily characterized by fear. In many ways it is a justifiable fear, one based on the immense pain and suffering that this man had wrought upon the world. Yet fear, in all its forms, is a passion, something that separates us from God. If left unchecked, like all passions, it can lead towards an ever-deepening cycle of suffering, both for ourselves and those around us. Hatred begets only hate. Violence begets more violence. It is a cycle as old as humanity itself. Al-Qaeda has already promised revenge for the slaying of Bin Laden. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan rage on. The jubilant response to Bin Laden’s death, even though it is understandable to an extent, is nonetheless primarily symbolic of the anger and hatred that feeds this cycle of violence and despair.

Repentance is the way out of this cycle. Repentance is to not only look at our individual sins and shortcomings, but to open ourselves up to the mercy of God. It is then up to us to extend that mercy to others. By telling us to love our enemies, Christ obviously did not mean for us to “like” them nor did He mean we should overlook the evil they have done. Rather, in loving them we are to manifest the Kingdom of God where our primary concern is not retribution or “justice,” but rather mercy as healing.

In realizing our own sins, our own entanglement in the web of suffering and pain, we free ourselves of the bonds of our sins through God’s mercy and in turn become more sensitive to the suffering of those around us. It is only at that point that we can begin to extend the healing of God to others, first and last through prayer but also through direct involvement and actions.

It is then that we can begin to address the injustice of this world, the innocent victims of terrorists such as Bin Laden as well as those who suffer because of the political machinations of foreign powers. Bin Laden’s death, instead of being an opportunity for revelry and glee, could have been one of quiet contemplation and prayer and a call to action for Christians that we do everything in our power to help those who suffer and to put an end to war, violence and economic oppression.

Among the revelry following news of Bin Laden’s death, there were also images of a very different kind – photos of people who came together to pray for the victims of Bin Laden and al-Qaeda. Perhaps some were also praying for Bin Laden himself. Images of people at peace, of candles being lit, heads bowed, orienting their minds towards God and their brothers and sisters, mindful of their suffering and the healing that is so desperately needed in this world. In the faces of people at prayer and in the silence that surrounded them one could see an alternative path to that of fear and hate– a Way given to us by the God of mercy and love.

Ágúst Symeon Magnússon is a philosopher, teacher, writer, husband and father who currently resides in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, where he works and studies at Marquette University. A native of Reykjavik, Iceland, he joined the Orthodox Church in 2005. His favorite pastimes are reading, drinking coffee and playing on the floor with his son Jóakim.

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1. The details surrounding the theological debate on universal salvation and to what extent the Orthodox Church has advocated such a position (at least as favoring a certain kind of theologoumenon) falls outside the boundaries of this text. There are various scholarly expositions on the matter, but Orthodox works of the catechetical sort usually address the issue in a succinct and intelligent manner. In The Orthodox Church, Metropolitan Kallistos Ware writes: “Hell exists as a final possibility, but several of the Fathers have nonetheless believed that in the end all will be reconciled to God…. We must not despair of anyone’s salvation, but must long and pray for the reconciliation of all without exception. No one must be excluded from our loving intercession. ‘What is a merciful heart?’ asked Isaac the Syrian. ‘It is a heart that burns with love for the whole of creation, for humans, for birds, for the beasts, for the demons, for all creatures.’ Gregory of Nyssa said that Christians may legitimately hope even for the redemption of the devil.” (The Orthodox Church, new edition., p. 262).

❖ IN COMMUNION / issue 61 / July 2011

Orthodox-Muslim Relations: The Search for Truth

Saturday, August 2nd, 2008

by Hilary Kilpatrick

The Way, the Truth and the Life”: if we believe that Christ is all these things, we must seek to avoid falsehoods, in personal but also in public life. To lie about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq was not just politically misguided or un-ethical, it was un-Christian.

Many of the antagonisms which lead to war in our world feed on lies or half-truths about “the other.” This is especially true when two communities have a history both of coexistence and conflict. It is easy then to find justifications for fearing, hating and even attacking “the other.”

Thanks to geography, Orthodox Christians and Muslims have had a shared history since the rise of Islam in the seventh century. Sometimes Muslims dominated Orthodox, as in the various Near Eastern Muslim states and the Ottoman Empire, sometimes Orthodox dominated Muslims, as in Tsarist Russia. Any community living under the domination of others suffers injustice, and both Orthodox and Muslims can point to wrongs they have endured as minorities ruled by adherents of the other faith.

Since before modern times the two communities identified themselves first and foremost by religion. They remembered wrongs – even when they had nothing to do with religion – as inflicted by Muslims on Orthodox (or the reverse), rather than as, for instance, by tax-collectors against peasants or soldiers against civilians.

As time passed, these memories became simplified, creating a picture of oppression remaining at a constant level over four or five centuries. In some cases the oppressor was then held responsible for everything that had gone wrong, although quite other factors might have been involved. Unscrupulous politicians could, and can, easily turn such a sense of injustice suffered into a desire for revenge, as the break-up of Yugoslavia has shown.

If we leave aside our collective memories and what we imagine the past to have been and look instead at contemporary records, we find a much more complicated picture. This corresponds to our own experience of life. Few situations we encounter are entirely black or white.

To take a concrete example: the book of memoirs and advice written by Synadinos, a priest who lived in the town of Serres in Macedonia in the first half of the 17th century, mentions violent attacks by Turkish (Muslim) fellow-citizens on the (Greek) Christians but also recognizes the just decisions handed down by high Turkish officials. He describes a combined attack by inhabitants of the town from all the different communities on a Muslim merchant who was selling grain abroad during a famine. And he feels loyalty towards the Ottoman Sultan, for whom he uses the Byzantine title “basileus,” rejoicing sincerely at the victories in Iraq of Sultan Murad IV, whom he admires for his good governance.

Judging by the space they take up in his memoirs, Synadinos suffered most of all from the conflicts and envy of members of his own community; these outweigh both oppression by the Turks and his grief at losing six of his children in early childhood. And indeed some of the worst Turkish outrages, such as their desecration of a church and turning it into a mosque, came about because quarreling Christians appealed to them to intervene.

What Synadinos writes about 17th century Serres does not necessarily hold good for the town a hundred years later or for elsewhere in the Ottoman Empire in the same century. The assumption that the same conditions obtained everywhere in this vast area is mistaken. For instance, the devshirme (the levying of Christian boys for the Janissaries) inflicted on Balkan Christians, was seldom carried out in Anatolia and never in the Arab provinces after they were conquered in 1516-1570.

Another example is the contrast between the Patriarchates of Constantinople and Antioch in the Ottoman period. Until the mid-18th century the Patriarchate of Antioch was independent of Constantinople, with Patriarchs residing in Damascus. As is well known, Patriarchs of Constantinople were frequently deposed and re-elected; very few of them remained in office continuously for more than ten years. The 16th and 17th centuries saw 40 clerics occupy the throne of Constantinople following some 70 elections or re-elections. During the same period there were seventeen Patriarchs of Antioch, a figure which includes rival claimants for the office, and no re-elections.

This last contrast raises the question: why was the turnover of Patriarchs of Constantinople so much quicker than that of their brothers of Antioch? Since in both cases the authorities were Muslims, causes other than a generalized oppression of Christians must be found.

One was the tremendous competition for office among the higher Greek clergy in the capital, with rival claimants buying the support of viziers and other officials. At times, too, Western European envoys intervened for or against a candidate. The Arabs, by contrast, often presented a united front, and European diplomats were not active in Damascus as they were in Constantinople. Moreover, there was less at stake, the Patriarch of Antioch’s sphere of influence being much more limited. No doubt other reasons exist too, waiting for researchers to uncover them.

One of the focuses of myth-making which has led to much bloodshed and misery recently is Kosovo. During the long years of the Ottoman occupation of Serbia, the battle of Kosovo in 1389 came to be represented in folk epics as a mythical struggle between good and evil, Christianity and Islam, freedom and slavery. The Serbian leader, Prince Lazar, is regarded as a martyr who sacrificed himself for his faith and his people. The Serbs, characterized by the spirit of heroism and self-sacrifice, were a people in bondage, like the Israelites in Babylon, to whom God would one day give back their freedom. These folk epics were well known both among Serbs and among some other Balkan peoples, notably the Bulgarians.

Serious historians tell us a different story. The army led by Lazar in 1389 contained contingents of different origins, including Albanians; some Serbs fought on the Ottoman side. After the defeat Serbian vassal princes took part in Ottoman campaigns in Anatolia. Only in the mid-15th century were the Serbian vassal princedoms gradually eliminated; Belgrade was not captured till 1521.

The next three centuries saw a series of wars between the Ottoman and Austrian empires, often in lands populated by Serbs. The population shift from Serbs to Albanians in Kosovo set in at the end of the 17th century in this context. The Habsburg armies which had conquered Belgrade and entered Kosovo were forced to withdraw after the Ottomans reoccupied the area, and the Ottomans took reprisals against the local Christians, who had given support to the Habsburgs. To avoid Ottoman atrocities, Christians from Kosovo and surrounding areas, led by the Patriarch of Pec, followed the retreating Habsburgs and settled in what is now Voivodina. Similar emigrations followed in the early 18th century. Kosovo, now deserted, was appropriated by Albanian stock breeders who settled there permanently. This was a spontaneous movement, not government policy; the Ottomans mistrusted Albanians as undisciplined mercenaries and irregulars who committed outrages against the local population.

When in the 19th century intellectuals began to elaborate nationalist ideologies for the Serbian and other peoples of what was to become Yugoslavia, they first considered a shared language, Serbo-Croat, as the foundation of a country of liberated south Slavs. The myth of Kosovo, while alive in the folk memory, was not a source of inspiration then or for many years. The Kingdom of Yugoslavia established after the First World War, by its name implicitly excluded Albanians and other non-Slavs, and the government of Belgrade pursued a policy of settling Orthodox Serb peasants in Kosovo and forcing Albanians to emigrate or assimilate; the Serbs, moreover, received privileged treatment.

During the Second World War the Albanians reacted by collaborating with the Italian occupiers, killing and expelling Serbs and Montenegrins. After the war, to ensure Serbian support, Tito retained Kosovo within Serbia as an autonomous region, and Serbian dominance was strong until the late 1960s and 1970s, when constitutional changes enabled an Albanian leadership to emerge, enjoying many of the powers of a republic in the federal system. As a poor region Kosovo had the highest rate of unemployment in Yugoslavia, and emigration was widespread, especially among the Serbs, who were destabilized by their loss of dominance and sometimes subjected to Albanian violence.

After Tito’s death Yugoslavia entered a period of profound political, social and economic crisis, with the dominance of the Communist party being questioned and religion becoming a vital part of resurgent nationalism in all the Yugoslav nations. Milosevic’s speech at Kosovo Polje on the 600th anniversary of the battle with the Ottomans skillfully exploited the myth of Kosovo to save the party (and his own position as its leader) by reconverting it into a Serbian nationalist movement. It also heralded the imposition of direct rule by Belgrade, followed by years of killings, destruction and expulsions perpetrated by both Serbs and Albanians.

Had the history of Kosovo, as distinct from the myths about it, been widely known to its people, the real problems of the region – social and economic backwardness and the absence of the rule of law, as well as relations between the Albanian majority and the minorities of Rom, Turks and above all Serbs, many of whose finest mediaeval monuments are in Kosovo – might have been recognized and addressed and the subsequent bloodshed and misery avoided.

Can any historically valid generalizations be made, then, about the Orthodox experience under the Ottomans? I would tentatively suggest three points – though any generalization is unsatisfactory.

First, Muslims usually regarded Christians as inferior and did not hide the fact. Second, Christians were taxed more heavily than Muslims.

Against these two negative points there is a positive one: since Christians had a recognized, if inferior, place in the Islamic political system, they were not subjected to systematic attempts at conversion.

Some Serbs who migrated from Ottoman territory to Habsburg lands later moved back to escape Catholic missionary campaigns. And when Paul of Aleppo, traveling through the Ukraine in the mid-17th century, sees the Polish Catholic drive to convert Orthodox, he is thankful that such things do not happen in the Ottoman Empire.

How different is the history of Orthodox under the Ottomans from the history of Tatars and Caucasian and Central Asian Muslims in Tsarist Russia? Comparative study of these two subjects might show similarities, bringing out parallels in relations between religious majority and minority communities which are independent of the specific religions concerned.

A commitment to discovering historical truth also allows justice to be done to individuals who go against the dominant opinion in their community and act with wisdom or according to principles of common humanity. For instance, if the Turkish authorities were to recognize the Armenian genocide, they would not only help to heal the trauma of its survivors and their descendants, but they would also be able to celebrate the courage and humanity of the handful of Turkish officials who refused to carry out the policy and even cooperated with foreign institutions to save Armenians.

In the shared history of Orthodox and Muslims such individuals exist, too. One example is the Algerian emir Abd al-Kader, an exile in Damascus after the French crushed his resistance to their colonization of Algeria; he was instrumental in saving many Syrian Christians from death in the riots of 1860.

On the Orthodox side, a memorable role has been played recently by Archbishop Anastasios of Albania, welcoming all refugees from former Yugoslavia, whatever their religion.

In the search for truth and in Christ’s service, we need to be open to these individual acts of humanity and to admit that they may come from quarters we do not expect. For in the end, it is people created in the image of God with whom we deal. There is a temptation to forget this and to see only faceless masses whom it is easy to demonize in situations of tension or conflict. By trying to discover the truth about their history, we can give them back their faces and start to recognize them as our brothers and sisters in Christ.

Hilary Kilpatrick, a longtime member of the Orthodox Peace Fellowship, is an independent scholar in Lausanne (Switzerland). Her current research is on Arabic literature of the Ottoman period.

A Brief Guide for Christian-Muslim Dialogue

Saturday, August 2nd, 2008

by Fr. Theodore Pulcini

Christianity and Islam share much common ground. Both trace their roots to Abraham. Both believe in prophecy, God’s messengers (apostles), revelation, scripture, the resurrection of dead, and the centrality of religious community. Despite these similarities, however, these two religions have significant differences which we need to be aware of, as true dialogue can be built only on nuanced understanding.

The Understanding of God: Muslims and Christians worship the same God (Allah, the Arabic word for God, is also used by Arab Christians). The basic testimony of Islam states “There is no god but God,” a statement Christians can also affirm. But how Christians and Muslims conceptualize God in their respective theologies is quite different. The emphasis in the Islamic theology of God is on “absolute unity” (tawhiid). Muslims insist that there is no distinction within the Godhead. God is sublimely one. Thus the Islamic polemic against Christianity has centered on the doctrine of the Trinity. Muslims have caricatured Christians as “tri-theists.” As the Qur’an states: “They do blaspheme who say: God is one of three in a trinity, for there is no God except One God.” (S. 5:76)

The doctrine of the Trinity cannot be adequately expressed within the limitations of human reason. It is an ineffable truth, ultimately not graspable by the human mind. How many heresies in Christian history have arisen because people attempted to detract from the ineffability of the Trinity, to devise doctrines that were more easily “digested” by the human mind. In all humility, we can only say this: God has revealed himself as Father, Son and Holy Spirit. We do not rationally deduce this; we submit to him as Trinity even if we do not completely understand how he can be Trinity, considering it blasphemy to “reduce” God to something we can understand. The purpose of theology is not to “cut God down” to the size of human reason but to elevate human reason to the contemplation of the Divine Mystery, the Mystery which teaches us that the One God exists in three Persons. We render our submission (islaam) to the God beyond understanding.

One way to enable Muslim friends to understand why we believe that God must be a Trinity is to emphasize Christianity’s fundamental teaching that God is love (1 John 4:8). Love can never be exercised in isolation; it is manifested in relationship, and for that reason the God who is Love exists as a “community within himself,” that is, a community of three Persons. The mutual love of these Persons is so perfect that they, though three, are perfectly One.

It is from this same perspective – that God is perfect love – that we should also explain how Jesus can be the Son of God. Such a statement is blasphemous to Muslims; they believe that God is “far above” having a son. On the contrary, Christians see the Sonship of Jesus as a testimony to the divine love, which is so intense that God was content not just to bless his creation from the outside but to sanctify it by humbling himself and becoming part of it through the Incarnation of his Son, Jesus Christ. By becoming part of the created order, by taking on a full and a complete human nature, God sanctified humanity “from within.” Both Islam and Christianity say that God is totally other and beyond human comprehension, completely beyond the ability of humans to grasp, yet Christians add something completely different: that God so loved the world that he was willing “to come down from his throne” to became part of it, all the while remaining God “on his throne”! In this wonderful assertion, Christianity stands apart from Islam and Judaism in saying that the transcendent God actually became one of us, like us in all things but sin (cf. Hebrews 4:15).

Yet, although we are Trinitarian, we affirm that there is only one God. In fact, the Orthodox Christians in the Middle East always say in Arabic: “In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, the One God.”

The Understanding of Revelation: Christianity believes that God revealed himself and assumed human nature in order to redeem and save us, that is, to impart to us the fullness of life, freed from the destructive effects of sin, both in this age and in the age to come. According to Islam, on the other hand, the purpose of revelation was not to provide redemption but guidance – to provide a straight path through this life, leading to reward in the life to come.

In both Christianity and Islam, the message of revelation is enshrined in sacred scriptures. Christians affirm that the Bible is the Word of God but not that God mechanically transmitted it through people who simply served as passive conduits. Christians hold that the Bible was written by human beings under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. Revelation was thus “filtered” through a human lens and written in human words and within human history. Thus our scriptures refer to historical circumstances but chronicle God’s definitive intervention in human history. In Islam the Qur’an is considered the unmediated word of God. Islam stresses that in receiving his revelation Muhammad was illiterate and hence completely passive. Thus the words of the Qur’an are not his words. He simply recited what was put into his mouth without any input of his own. Muhammad was simply the agent of revelation.

But according to linguistic theory, all communication is mediated. As soon as a thought is put into words, it is a mediated, human construction. The very fact that a thought is put into words means that it is “processed” through a human lens. Most Christians recognize this, aware that God’s thoughts are infinitely above ours. Thus Christians would call the Islamic view of “unmediated revelation” into question on both linguistic and theological grounds.

Islam is much more book-centered than Christianity. The Qur’an is not to Muslims what the New Testament (or the entire Bible) is to Christians. What the Qur’an is to the Muslim, Christ himself is to the Christian. We have a Person-centered – that is, Christ-centered – faith. Christianity proclaims that Jesus Christ himself is God’s Word to humanity. For Islam, God has spoken in a Book: for Christianity, He has spoken in a Person. In Islam, the written Arabic Book is the marvel while, in Christianity, the Person of Christ is the ineffable wonder.

The Understanding of Sin and Salvation: Sin and salvation are central categories in Christian theology and spirituality. Christianity teaches that the effects of original sin have corrupted the world and the human beings who exist in it. In Islam, however, there is no such a thing as original sin. The Qur’an does indeed state that Adam and Eve sinned, but according to Islamic belief, they repented and were fully forgiven so that their sin had no repercussions for the rest of the human race.

I believe the Islamic rejection of original sin is really the rejection of a specific understanding (what I would consider to be a narrow understanding) of original sin. Islam rejects the notion that all human beings inherited the guilt of the sin of Adam and Eve. This seems unfair to the Muslim: Why should we have to accept guilt for someone else’s disobedience?

To respond to such a question, we Christians must move beyond the understanding of original sin espoused by St. Augustine (+430) and those who followed his thought, according to which “in Adam’s fall we sinned all.” The Calvinists later carried this view to an extreme, saying that the result of Adam’s sin is total human depravity – that is, that original sin has made human beings completely incapable of doing anything good without the assistance of divine grace. Such a notion is thoroughly incomprehensible to Muslims.

Eastern Christianity, however, understands original sin in this way: No sin that is committed is without its effect. Every sin disrupts the entire cosmos. Your sin has an effect not only on you but also on everyone and everything else. Any sin that you and I commit has a reverberation throughout the world, just as every puff that one takes on a cigarette pollutes the air that everyone else breathes. So when the Old Testament claims that the sin of the father will be visited upon the children, it is simply describing reality. Sin has a “snowball effect”: it accumulates throughout human history, impacting upon all who are born into the world. What started this off was the sin of Adam and Eve – the first, or original, sin. For the Eastern Christians to say that all suffer the effects of original sin is not to say that all are “born guilty” but rather that all have to deal with the powerful force of sin that has accumulated from the sin of our first parents until the present day.

Salvation means breaking loose from the bonds of sin that have grown stronger through the ages. With sin’s effects everywhere around us, we have an undeniable proclivity to sin. Because Islam has understandably reacted against the narrow understanding of original sin as inherited guilt, it has tended not to be receptive to this more realistic understanding of the pervasive effects of sin on all human beings and thus sees no need for salvation; it cannot understand how Christ’s death and resurrection brings salvation. “Salvation from what?” they ask. Just as it is unthinkable to Muslims that one person should have to shoulder the guilt for another person’s sin, it is unthinkable that another person (in this case, Christ) would be able to pay the penalty for another person’s sins.

Furthermore, because Muslims believe that prophets are sinless (`ima), it seems a blasphemy to them to say that Christ died the shameful death of a sinner on the cross. They therefore deny that it was Jesus that was crucified. (Some maintain that it was Judas, whom God made to look like Jesus so that he would suffer his rightful penalty for his treachery). In making this claim, Muslims see themselves as protecting the prophetic integrity of Jesus. In general, Muslims affirm that Jesus ascended to heaven but deny that he died on the cross.

Because Muslims do not recognize the universal and corruptive power of sin, unleashed as a result of original sin, they see no need for salvation in the Christian sense. What you should do, according to the Islamic view, is simply live a good life, pleasing God in all that you do. Submit to God and follow his directives. Religion, to the Muslim, does not mean salvation from sin; it means following the right path, or the sharii`a, mapped out by Islamic law. While Christianity is a faith concerned primarily with “orthodoxy,” or “right belief,” Islam is a faith concerned primarily with “orthopraxy,” or right practice. It is a religion of law, and it sees Christianity’s rejection of the Law (as taught by St. Paul in his writings, especially Romans and Galatians) as a serious deficiency. This, of course, does not mean that Islam is not concerned with right doctrine or that Christianity is not concerned with right practice. It simply means that the emphasis is different.

That difference in emphasis is very important. If one recognizes the pervasive power of sin, salvation is not just an option; it is a necessity. Christians lament the fact that an incomplete understanding of original sin led early Islam to “throw out the baby with the bath water” with regard to their understanding of sin. By reacting against an “inherited guilt” view of original sin, as described above, they have missed what Christians consider to be the central truth of human existence: that no matter how hard we try to conform to “right practice,” we will fall short of the goal. We cannot live the kind of life that God wants by our own power. And that is why salvation is necessary.

The understanding of religious community: The theme of religious community reverberates in the hearts of both Muslims and Christians. What the Church is to Christians, the umma is to Muslims. Christians and Muslims both consider themselves accountable to a community of faith. It is not enough to believe in isolation; we must link our lives to brothers and sisters in the faith.

Nevertheless, there are noteworthy differences between the Christian and Muslim visions of religious community. There is no ordained ministry or hierarchy in the Islamic umma. Also, in the umma there is more stress on homogeneity, on common pattern of life throughout the Islamic world, regulated by the sharii`a, than in the Christian Church at large. Christians have attempted to “incarnate” Christianity as much as possible in local culture. For example, the Bible, hymns, and liturgical texts are translated into the local language and adjusted to the local culture.

But to be a good Muslim one must learn Arabic as the Qur’an is considered to be untranslatable. Any translation into other languages is regarded only as an interpretation.

Moreover, Muslims and Christians have different understandings of worship. When discussing these differences, we should also note that Muslims are very attentive not just to the interior aspects of worship but to the external aspects as well. In this regard, Muslims have more in common with Eastern Christianity than with Western Christianity, especially Protestantism. Like Eastern Christians, Muslims use their whole body in prayer. Both groups, for instance, make prostrations in their worship. In much of Western Christian worship, what one does with the body seems unimportant. Not so in Islam. The submission of the spirit is symbolized by the submissive gestures of the body, made according to a ritualized pattern. Muslims have a much easier time, therefore, understanding the spirit behind the highly developed liturgical worship of Eastern Christianity.

On Presenting Christianity to Muslims: Let me conclude with just a few observations on how a Christian can best witness to Muslims.

Avoid polemic and argument and never give answers to questions that have not been asked. If you are questioned, “always be prepared,” as the First Epistle of Peter says, “to make a defense to any one who calls you to account for the hope that is in you, yet do it with gentleness and reverence” (3:15).

Second, the best way to make people want to know more about Christianity is to attract them to our shared way of life. The first step in witnessing is to build community! What will most impress non-Christians is a vibrant community where faith is strong and people live transformed and full lives. If they do not see that kind of community, why should they even be interested in Christianity? We must manifest a bond and a love among us that will make them wonder why we are different from others in the world. Recall the reaction of the pagans who encountered the first Christians. They marveled, saying, “See how they love one another!”

Keep in mind that for us Christians, the primary law is the Law of Love. Our emphasis on the primacy of love is perplexing to many Muslims. They do not understand it. It seems unjust to them. They feel Christians over-emphasize love, that Christianity’s teaching on love is “lop-sided,” unrealistic, impractical. Yes, Muslims too believe that God is a loving God, but love does not form the “heart” of their understanding of God. To them, above all, God is just; therefore their religious law has some harsh requirements. To them Christianity seems weak.

Love overcomes. It is stronger than any other force on earth. What may seem like weakness is really an unparalleled strength. Therefore the best way to witness to Muslims or any other non-Christian is to love them, to serve them.

Other-Appreciation and Self-Affirmation: Now more than ever, Christians have an obligation to develop an objective, nuanced knowledge of Islam not only for the sake of understanding this important “other” in our midst but also for the sake of better understanding the unique genius of the Christian view of God and humanity and of the relationship between them.

Make no mistake about it: despite areas of common ground, there is a wide theological chasm between Islam and Christianity. It was largely in reaction to an often distorted presentation of Christian doctrine that Islam formed its own doctrinal heritage. Islamic doctrine challenges us to embrace anew those facets of Christian theology which differentiate us from Muslims, especially the mystery of the Trinity and the divine Sonship of Christ, and then to find new and ever more insightful ways of articulating these dogmas. Simple repetition of traditional formulas usually will not suffice to foster greater understanding of Christianity among Muslims (or among Christians, for that matter). In questioning the central Christian doctrines, Islam serves us well: it requires us to focus on those distinctive beliefs that are constitutive of our view of God and the world and to find more effective ways of proclaiming and explaining them.

All the while we must be realistic in our interactions with Muslims; these should always be characterized by consistent reciprocity and genuine partnership, not by triumphalism, ignorance, caricature, or manipulation on either side. We must call each other to consistent integrity and accountability. This kind of relationship is not possible in many other parts of the world. It is possible in the West. We should not neglect the opportunity for re-shaping Christian-Muslim relations. In doing so, we might just be able to provide new models of co-existence and cooperation for the rest of the world to emulate.

Fr. Theodore Pulcini, a priest of the Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese of North America, is Associate Professor of Religion at Dickinson College in Pennsylvania. This is an abbreviated extract from Face to Face: a Guide for Christians Encountering Muslims, published by Light & Life: www.light-n-life.com.

Summer 2008 issue of In Communion / IC 50