Monday, February 29, 2016

Quote of the Week

"Glory be to you, O Lord, in the two worlds which you have created, one for our growth and one for our delight."

- Isaac of Nineveh (7th-cent. bishop and ascetic theologian)

Friday, February 26, 2016

Do Christians and Muslims Worship the Same God?

 (Photo: Interior view of Hagia Sophia in Istanbul--originally a Christian church, later a Muslim mosque, and now a museum. A Byzantine icon of Mary and the Christ child can be seen above the windows, flanked by medallions with Islamic calligraphy. The large disk on the right bears the name of Allah. For photo credits, see the bottom of the post.)

Do Christians and Muslims worship the same God? This question has been the source of controversial public debate for quite some time, and broke out prominently into the news cycle last year with the revelation that a professor at Wheaton College (a highly-regarded evangelical bastion) had made remarks to the affirmative--that yes, Christians and Muslims worship the same God. This created a firestorm because, within American Christianity, there's a group of people--often liberal or "mainline" Christians--who would answer the question "Yes, Christians and Muslims both render worship to the God who revealed himself to Abraham, so clearly it's the same God," and there's another group of people--usually evangelicals and fundamentalists--who would say, "No, it's evident on a close inspection of the Qur'an and Islamic tradition that Allah has certain attributes, does certain things, and says certain things that could not possibly be attributed to the God revealed in Jesus Christ, so it is clearly not the same God." And to many American evangelicals, the scandal of having a fellow evangelical take up a theologically "liberal" line is unsettling. The truth is, there's merit to both of the arguments above, but the main thrust of my contention here will be that the question itself is very poorly worded, to the point of being misleading, at least where it addresses evangelical concerns.

It's a poorly-worded question, because each side of the debate can read its own definitions into the terms of the question--particularly into the word "same." Let me use an example: as a sports fan, one of my favorite sports to watch is American football (NFL). There are variants of this particular sport out there, though, the most prominent being Canadian football (CFL). Now, what if I were to ask, "Are American football and Canadian football the same sport?" If one favored a broad definition of "same," it would be easy to say, "Yes! They derived from a common origin and are, broadly speaking, played the same way." But to someone who has carefully watched both leagues in action, the answer might lean towards: "No--the NFL and CFL have different sets of rules, changing even the basics of the game, such as field size, number of downs, and ways of scoring." The question "Do Christians and Muslims worship the same God?" can likewise be properly answered with either a yes or a no, depending on how one is using "same"--broadly speaking, Christianity and Islam claim a common origin (Abrahamic monotheism) and both direct their worship to the one, all-powerful, holy, creator God. But when one looks at the specifics with a more practiced eye, it's clear that the two religions' concepts of God are not exactly the same, particularly when it comes to crucial matters of character, nature, and divine actions in salvation history.

So why, if the question can reasonably be answered in two different ways, do evangelical Christians get so worked up if someone leans toward a "yes" answer? The reason is because evangelicals recognize that all of this is really a front for a much more pressing set of questions: If the Christian God and Allah are one and the same, then is Muslim worship acceptable to God? Are we implying that it's perfectly fine to be a Muslim, theologically speaking, and that Muslims stand in no need of the grace offered through the atoning sacrifice of Jesus and through inclusion in the Body of Christ? The evangelical answer to those questions has always been, "No--we cannot affirm Islam as a religion that grants salvation and ultimate peace with God, because that is only found in Jesus Christ." I know that to modern ears, trained in the niceties of tolerance, that may sound harsh, even bigoted. But the question really ought not to be whether it sounds harsh, but whether it happens to be true. So whatever is meant by the question of the identity of God/Allah, the all-sufficiency and uniqueness of Christ is the firm bottom line that evangelicals are trying to express in these debates.
So, my fellow evangelicals, don't get too worked up about the title question. The truth is, both Christians and Muslims aspire to the worship of the same God--the one true God, the Creator, all-powerful, all-merciful, all-wise, who revealed himself to Abraham. The real question is, Which set of theology understands that God better (inasmuch as he can be understood)? Which religion embraces the true historical tradition of that God's revelation to humanity? Did the one true God become incarnate in Jesus Christ, or not? Those are the important questions, the ones that really differentiate Christianity and Islam. Whether or not "Allah" is the same as "God" is a misleading question that directs attention away from deeper issues. The fact of the matter is, "Allah" has always been the name for "God" in Arabic, and has always been used as such, not only by Muslims, but by Arabic-speaking Christians (who have been around as long or longer than Muslims). If the mere association of the linguistic term "Allah" with a less-than-complete view of God is the problem, then we Western Christians need to stop calling God "God," because that's the old pagan Germanic word for deity, and was originally probably a lot farther from the mark of identifying the one true God than the term "Allah" is now. (We would also need to rewrite the New Testament so that the apostles stop using the old pagan Greek term for divinity, Theos, as their go-to name for God.)

So let me come back around to the real question. If Islam and Christianity are different religions (and they clearly are), and if they have different perceptions of what God is like, yet Islam still aspires to the worship of the one true God, is that worship acceptable in God's sight? (This question assumes that Christianity is true, since I write this as a Christian, although one that has lived with and befriended many Muslims.) There's a few different biblical answers to this question. On the one hand, one could look at the story of Cain and Abel (Gen. 4), in which Cain offers a sacrifice to God (thus, like Muslims, directing worship toward the one true God), but does it in a displeasing way, perhaps through lack of proper understanding or through improper motives. In this case, God does not accept his worship (but, it's important to note, God remains in relationship with him nonetheless). 

On the other hand, one could point to the Magi--the "wise men" of the Christmas story (Matt. 2)--who appear to be outside the bounds of God's covenant-people (perhaps even pagan astrologers associated with the Persian court), and yet they recognize the work of the one true God and come to offer him homage, and their worship is accepted. Similarly, the Apostle Paul states in Acts 17:23 that the pagan Athenians have been worshiping God, though without really knowing him, and he gives no implication that this worship was displeasing to God or rejected by him (further, he says that God has "overlooked their ignorance"). Based on this evidence, I tend to lean towards an interpretation in which God would not necessarily be displeased with Muslim worship--they are, after all, directing prayers of adoration to the Creator God, the all-merciful, even though, as with the Athenians and the Magi, they don't know him or his plan in its entirety. However, it's clear from the stories of both the Magi and the Athenians that God wants them to come to a greater knowledge of him. The Magi are there not only there to worship God, but God-incarnate-in-Jesus, and Christian tradition tells us that they became true Christ-followers for the remainder of their lives. The Athenians, though directing some unspecified worship towards God, clearly need to be told by Paul who that God is and what he has done through Christ Jesus, and they are expected to respond to the message of Christ with acceptance and repentance (Acts 17:23-31). 

The same, I think, is true of Islam.  There is, in fact, quite a lot to respect and admire about the spirituality of Islam. Anyone who says otherwise hasn't really studied or experienced it in all its depth and richness. There are, of course, also elements with which Christianity disagrees, and in which Islam falls short of the full knowledge of God that has been revealed through Christ Jesus. So I think it's possible to say, "Yes, Christians and Muslims worship the same God," but to say with the same breath, "That isn't enough--Muslims need to know this God they worship, and the only way to truly know him is through Christ Jesus the Lord."

(Images -  Photo, top: "Interior of Hagia Sophia," by Altay Ozcan, 8/9/2009, licensed under the GNU Free Documentation license and multiple Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike licenses; Painting, top left: "Ancient of Days," by William Blake, 1794; Painting, middle right: "Evening Prayer," by Rudolf Ernst, 1854-1932; Painting, bottom left: "Saint Paul Preaching in Athens," by Raphael, 1515; Photo, bottom right: "Thavaf," by Wikipedia user Bluemangoa2z, 12/23/2007, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.5 Generic license. The use of these images does not necessarily reflect the painter/photographer's agreement with the positions taken in this blog article.)

Thursday, February 25, 2016

A Flame in the Night, Chapter 25

 © Matthew Burden, 2001
                                                               (See sidebar menu for links to all previous chapters)


Where is he?” the Count demanded, rising groggily from his slumbers.
“He ran into the woods and disappeared, sir!” Oswald explained again, pulling the Templar up.
“Disappeared?” the knight shot a quizzical glance at him.
Oswald sighed, running a hand through his short brown hair.  “He was chasing after the brigand who joined us, sir.  I saw him enter a grove, and saw at least one other man with him, but when I arrived only a few moments later, there was no trace of anyone.”
“A grove?” the Count repeated as he strapped his sword-belt on, kicking one of the other knights to awaken him.  “Was it an oak grove?”
“Yes, yes!” he said urgently, practically pulling him along.  “It was an oak grove, with a ring of stones inside it!  Come, we haven’t much time!”
“Wait, my young friend!” the Templar shook his head.  “I’m afraid it will do no good.  I can go look at the site myself, but it sounds as though your friend has met the Druids that were following us from York.”
Oswald shook his head.  “But they are men, even as we are, sir!  They can't vanish into the air as they please.  Come, they are still out there!  We can find them!”
The Count looked at him sympathetically.  “Oh, be assured that they are still out there.  But as to finding them—that is a different matter, a different matter altogether.”  
“Please, sir, come help me search.  It may do no good, but Sir Malcolm is my friend and my leader.  I cannot leave him out there.”
The Count’s eyes narrowed.  “Do you know why he was pursuing the brigand?”
Oswald nodded, but remained silent for a long moment, uncertain of how much to reveal.  Drawing a deep breath, he spoke at last.  “There was something stolen from our camp…something of great value.”
The Count nodded, the corners of his mouth turning up into a slight smile for an instant before turning to his companions, who all nodded, knowing what the order was before it was given.   
“Well, we tend to leave the Druidae alone for the most part,” he sighed, “and they do not cause too much trouble.  But I am an avowed defender of the Church, and these are its enemies.  We will combat them, fear not.”
Oswald nodded slowly, hoping he could trust the knights. “Come, then,” the Scot prodded.  “Let's go searching.”
“It’s no use now, my friend. The Druidae can move swiftly at night.  They are at home in the forests, and the woods will shield them.  It's best to wait until morning.  There are only so many havens they have in these parts.”
By this time, Edward had risen and was standing near the dying fire, listening intently to the conversation.  He had already seen the torn saddlebag and the absence of his brother, and had realized in an instant what had happened.
“But will Malcolm be safe?” Oswald asked.
The Count shrugged, settling himself back onto the ground.  “It is said that in ancient times, the Druidae would sacrifice men, but I do not think they still do such things.  If he cooperates with them, whatever their purpose, I am certain he will survive at least long enough for us to find him.  You Scots are hardy men, bred strong.”  He smiled whimsically.  “Hard to kill off, I would imagine.  We will pursue them in the morning.”
Oswald shook his head and strode quickly back toward the main camp, where Edward stood ready.  “Are you up for searching tonight?” the Scot growled.
Edward nodded his silent assent.  Hannah was awake, and she began clearing the mess from the saddlebag, not willing to let her fear to show to the two men.
“Follow me,” said Oswald, retrieving his torch and marching back toward the trees.
“Be cautious, friends!” the Count called out behind them.  “The Druidae have a cloak of darkness!  They will be watching you!”
The two men did not reply, but continued their march until they vanished into the blackness of the forest.
~ ~ ~
The trees rose like specters from the mossy ground, their gnarled roots stretching out like the withered hands of an ancient giant.  There was no wind, no breath of air to stir the leaves as they marched under canopy of foliage.  They had not taken more than thirty strides into the darkened wood before they saw a bright set of white teeth flash a brilliant smile before them, and a clear voice greeting them.   
“Welcome, gentlemen!”
Oswald’s sword rang out in an instant.  “Who goes there?”
A laugh greeted their ears.  “Cedric!  And you?”
“I am Oswald of Melrose.  What do you want with us?”
A low whistle sounded from before them.  “Are the Scots invading the land?” the stranger chuckled.  “I have heard so little from the news of the world since last week, who knows what could have happened?”
“Please, sir! Are you...are you one of the Druidae? Where did you take my friend?"
They heard him laugh again. "A Druid? Are there Druids in these woods? Sweet mother of our blessed Lord, I must be more careful!"
"Did you not see someone pass by here a few minutes ago?
“Of course,” laughed the voice.  “I see everything.  Yes, yes, including even your friend and the horridly ghoulish gentlemen who abducted him. I know them, of course. I know they like to play at their old pagan rituals. It's an amusing pretension. But it makes for quite a bit of action for a lonely night in the woods."
He stepped forward so that the light of Oswald’s torch fell on his face.
Edward studied the man's expression. The bright, carefree smile seemed out of place in the dark forests.  He was a thin man, clad in a light suit of brown cloth, with naught but a dagger under his belt to serve as a weapon.  His eyes were dark, but they glinted with a strange fire in the torchlight.  His face had deep lines of wisdom, but without a touch of worry.  He ran a hand over his short black beard, which gave his face an angular impression and served to make him appear terribly gaunt.  His hair was black, but only for a certain length.  Nearer to the roots it was showing a definite blond, which made Edward wonder if the man had gone to great lengths to try to color his hair.
“Yes,” he said in a low voice that carried undertones of deep, sonorous quality.  “Four of them, I counted, not including the two poor fellows they apprehended.”
“Do you know where they went?” Edward asked, shuddering suddenly against the chill of the night.
“Oh, certainly. They fled westward.”
“Can you help us?” Oswald pressed.  “We must search for them.”
Cedric, the lighthearted stranger, paused, looking at the two men for a while without speaking.  Then drawing a deep breath, he shrugged.  “Best to go after them in the morning. I know where to find them.”
“They will be about a day’s journey west of here, and they shall remain there for some time.  It's one of their ancient holy places, and a figurehead noble of theirs owns a manor nearby.  Your friend will be with them.”
Edward sighed.  “Will you guide us in the morning, Sir Cedric?  This country is not familiar to us.”
Cedric flashed his bright grin once again and bowed at the waist.  “I would be honored to."
~ ~ ~
Alfred sat motionless, his eyes fixed ahead.  The hall he had been placed in was of ample size and comfort, full of the most lavish decorations.  It rose a good thirty feet over his head in a grand dome held up by beams of lacquered timber.  At the opposite end of the hall, a fire burned brightly, shedding warmth and light over the entire room.  Hanging from one wall was a large tapestry bearing the mark of the house: two white bulls and an oak tree, set on a field of green.
Before him was a long wooden table, set with four goblets of rich wine, one for each of the four men who had taken him captive.  He sat stiffly in the chair, his wrists bound behind the tall wooden back.   
He cursed himself inwardly for his lack of perception the night before.  Four men, small men, had been able to take him away, and none of them were a match for him physically.  Accursed magicians, he thought to himself, staring darkly at them.  He had felt their power in an unspeakable sense of dread the night before, but that day, as they sat together in the well-lit manor, he could see they were only men.
The young one spoke, after a nod from an older man with an iron-gray beard.  “What is your name?”
Alfred glared back at him, his mouth shut.  The robe he had stolen was safely hidden away under his cloak, and he felt much safer knowing that they did not have it in their possession.
“Come now, sir,” the youth prodded, his eyes sharp.  “We have ways of learning what we need to know.”
“And tactful discussion will not be one of them,” Alfred smirked.
The youth gazed at him for a moment, then asked again: “Name?”
“Richard Plantagenet. Coeur-de-Lion. King of England.”
“I can see as well as anyone that you are Saxon, sir,” the youth arched his eyebrows.  “Come now, give us your name.”
Alfred shook his head.
Sighing, the youth stood up from his seat at the table to see Alfred more clearly.  “I am Michael,” he said.  “You will speak only to me.  Do you understand?”
Alfred turned instantly to the man with the gray beard.  “I’m not certain I understand what he’s trying to say.”
Michael rolled his eyes and drew attention back by slamming his fist against the table.  “Do you know anyone by the name of Justin of York?”
“Justin of York? Yes, I recall such a man,” he said, and his four interrogators sat up stiffly.  “I met him…two weeks ago, I believe.”
“Where?” Michael asked, his voice hoarse.
“Paris,” Alfred replied.  “I was there to do business, you see.  I’m a merchant of sorts, shipping goods back and forth with a distributor among the Franks.  I was there to fulfill a contract on one particular shipment of vellum sheets when I met him.”
Michael’s eyes narrowed.  “What was he doing in Paris?”
“He was making his way to the Holy Land, or so he said.  I’m afraid he will make it no further than the Seine.”
“Why do you say that?”
Alfred flashed a slight smile.  “It’s quite a lengthy tale.”
“We have plenty of time.”
Alfred nodded.  “Now, naturally, I've never learned much of the French speech, so I had brought along my assistant, Warren, who knows both French and Latin.  I've never been good at learning new tongues, you understand. Now Warren had gone down to the docks on the river to oversee the unloading of the shipment, so I made my way to a small tavern and managed to order a drink.  As I was sitting there, I saw a man beside me, fitted out like a warrior.  Seeing I was Saxon, he greeted me in my own tongue, and we fell into a conversation.”   
Alfred smiled inwardly, savoring his jest.  All four men were leaning forward in their seats, eager to catch every word.
“Well,” he continued, huffing for emphasis, “it turned out that he was not in a wonderful temperament, for he immediately began slandering my people, the Saxons. Now you must understand, I have never favored Normans, especially ones who think too highly of themselves.  If any of you are Normans,” he smiled at them, “I would be happy to slander your people as much as I can.  In any case, his remarks drove me to the point of anger.  And when I am angry, nothing can stand in my way.”   
Alfred accentuated his point by frowning grimly, a crazed, frenetic gleam appearing in his eyes.  
“I challenged him to a duel, and he began speaking of horses and lances and such, but I stopped him short.  I told him we would duel as Saxons dueled.  Two men, two swords.  We both departed from the tavern in a rage and left the town toward a field further from the river.  Well, he was not as good a fighter as he boasted, or so it seemed to me, for after only ten strokes he was dead.  I suppose they buried him, but I’m not certain.  I left the city that afternoon and returned to England.”
Michael nodded, leaning down for a quick conversation with the leader.  He straightened and looked Alfred in the eyes.  “How tall was he?”
“Before or after I chopped off his head?"
Michael frowned. “Before, of course.”
Alfred fought for an answer, hoping he could keep the lie turning in their minds.  “He was nearly as tall as I am.”
Michael pursed his lips and nodded thoughtfully.
“What color was his hair?”
“I couldn’t see it.  It had been cropped short, and he wore a leather cap.”
Michael shrugged and glanced at the leader, who nodded slowly.  Alfred tried to discern the meaning of the nod, but hoped it was favorable.  Surely they wouldn’t kill him for having a little fun.
“Did he mention a robe, even once?”
Alfred hid his surprise well. “Now that you say it, I believe he did.”
“Can you tell us what he said?”
Alfred frowned.  “He spoke of it as if it were a holy relic.  He was drunk, or else I doubt he would have discussed it with me, but it seemed to be weighing heavily on his mind.  He told me that he wished he could have it, but he didn’t tell me why he couldn’t simply go back and retrieve it himself.  He said it had been sent to Newcastle.”
“Newcastle?  On the Tyne?” 
Alfred nodded, then stopped.  “He said that’s where it was sent, but he seemed to believe it was no longer there.”
“Did he say where he thought it was?”
Alfred nodded vigorously.  “Northampton.  He said it was at Northampton, at the house of a nobleman named David.”
Michael smiled. “Very good, sir.  Thank you.  Your help may be invaluable.”
Alfred couldn't resist a slight smile as the four men clustered in a huddle beneath the tapestry of the two bulls.  He was surprised they had believed him. Now there was the chance that all of this could turn to his own fortune in a few days.  Especially if they went to Northampton.  They would pay for taking him a prisoner.  Yes, they would pay in blood.