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A Brief Guide for Christian-Muslim Dialogue

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

Living on the Wrong Side of the Wall

by Maria C. Khoury

The other side of a 27-foot wall is not a place I imagined I would be when I started my middle class family in Boston. In those days, we were going to hockey games to make sure we were keeping up with the Americans and Greek School to keep up with the Greeks – all the politically correct activities to fit into a society never meant for me. Having been married to a Palestinian Orthodox Christian, fate had a different life awaiting me.

When, in 1993, the Oslo Peace Agreement brought hope to Israelis and Palestinians, we were one of the first families living in the US to arrive, invest and live in Palestine. We wanted to help boost the economy.

After seven years of severe and awful conditions and the total failure of the Oslo Peace Agreement to deliver a just peace for all people, we were one of the few families willing and able to survive the harsh conditions that had developed. We refused to leave.

Even what we had considered “normal life” under the military occupation of the Palestinian Territories stopped September 28, 2000. Normal life ceased to exist.

September 28 was the day Ariel Sharon, accompanied by a small army of soldiers, visited the area surrounding the Dome of the Rock, the principal Islamic holy site in Jerusalem. Sharon’s message was “Jerusalem is Jewish.”

In fact, Jerusalem is a city holy to the people of three great religions – not only to Jews, but to Muslims and Christians.

Muslims comprise 98 percent of the Palestinian population of the West Bank and Gaza. Many of them responded to Sharon’s provocative action with protest. Young Palestinians were willing to protest at checkpoints and risk injury or even death in order to bear witness to their faith, to defend its holy sites, and to uphold the idea that Jerusalem is sacred to three religions, not just one.

In the terrible conflict which began with the creation of Israel in 1948, so many have perished. For those displaced by the event, the establishment of the State of Israel meant the Catastrophe of Palestine, with over five hundred Palestinians villages and towns destroyed and over four million Palestinians made refugees, pushed into a stateless limbo where they remain to this day. Just in the past seven years, more than 30,000 people have been injured and 6,800 have lost their lives – 5,600 Palestinians and 1,200 Israelis. Christ, have mercy!

Those of us who believe in nonviolent methods of struggle were stunned when Palestinians began to blow themselves and others up in the middle of Tel Aviv, Jerusalem and other places. The “Apartheid Wall” was the Israeli response to such extreme actions. The Wall not only isolates Palestinians and Israelis from each other, but it also makes life on the Palestinian side even harder than it was.

Among the many problems with the Wall (paid for by American taxpayers) was that it did not follow any recognized, internationally accepted border or even the 1967 Green Line referred to in UN Security Council Resolution 242; rather, it enlarged Israeli territory still farther and suffocated an entire population in retaliation for the violent actions of a small minority. Truly, it is making us lose our minds.

The Wall, erected entirely at the discretion of Israel, was a prison wall for the Palestinian people. Impeding or altogether stopping everything that makes life normal, it cut them off from their schools, work, hospitals, and grandparents. Even contacts with relatives in another town became difficult or impossible.

Some may joke that being cut off from your mother-in-law might not be such a bad idea, but in reality such intra-family barriers are a tragedy.

The simple things made possible by freedom of movement – the easy access that other people take for granted – are things that Palestinians now need military permits to accomplish. To go to Jerusalem, to the airport, to a seaport – all such simple, ordinary tasks require hard-to-obtain permits.

The actions of the Israeli army seem to be designed to clear the land of any remaining Palestinians and, in the process, to prevent the ever-shrinking Christian community from existing in the land where Christianity began 2,000 years ago.

Since the building of the Wall, life on the ground is pure misery. The conditions of our enclosure are dreadful and devastating. We find ourselves captives within an open prison.

Over the past fourteen years of living in the Holy Land, I have often felt I was psychologically and emotionally incarcerated; but in the last few years, the Israeli army has created an actual physical prison, complete with its towering concrete wall. The Wall is 450 miles (720 kilometers) long.

The result is psychological torture.

Hoping someone might want to boost the Palestinian economy by buying some of my books, I traveled to an Israeli post office to send four boxes in time for Christmas delivery. (Palestinian mail delivery takes three months.) After dropping them off at the post office, I tried to enter Ramallah for a World Vision gathering only to discover the gate I had used in the past has now been locked.

Looking for the next entrance to get to the other side, I began driving along the Wall. How frustrating a search it was to drive mile after mile and get lost in a maze of small zigzag roads! I felt I was in a labyrinth without an exit.

It’s a day-to-day torment just to move around for the most simple, everyday things. Each day I am faced by every panel of the Wall with its seeming message: “Wouldn’t you be happier in some other part of the world? Why stay here? We Jews will make good use of your land, your homes, your olive trees. The sooner you leave, the better.”

In a time and age where we should be building bridges of greater understanding and celebrating and appreciating our diversity, the Israeli government has succeeded in locking us up and imposing still greater suffering on all of us who live on the “other side” of the Wall; in destroying what is left of our fragile existence and reducing us to abject despair.

Even so, we Christians in Palestine continue to place our hope in Christ our Savior. We try to continue our witness.

We continue to hope and pray for walls to fall and bridges to appear.

May the light of Christ shine through us in a land of so much darkness.

“I am the light of the world. He who follows Me shall not walk in darkness, but have the light of life.” (John 8:12)

May Christians, Jews and Muslims together share in the work of reconnection and healing.

Maria Khoury is Greek American married to a Palestinian Orthodox Christian who now serves as mayor of the town where they live, Taybeh, near Ramallah, in the West Bank. She is the author of Witness in the Holy Land and eight children’s books, including Christina Goes to the Holy Land and Coloring with Christina, a new coloring book about the holy sites in Palestine.

Note: Steve Leicester has produced a timely video on the Wall, especially the section that encloses Bethlehem. Here is a YouTube link www.youtube.com/profile?user=SteveLeicesterUK. A link can also be found on Steve’s website: www.amostrust.org.

From the Winter 2008 issue of In Communion / IC 48

A Christian perspective on Islam

Not much time has passed since Europe was last in danger of being overrun by Islam. In 1453, Constantinople, the Eastern bulwark of Christianity, was captured by the Ottomans. In1529 and again in 1683 the Turks stood at the gates of Vienna. The struggle to free Belgrade lasted almost 200 years, and it was only a short time before the First World War that the last Balkan countries were able to free themselves from the Ottoman rule. It is naive, however, to assume that Islam and Christianity were wrestling with each other in that region for six hundred years. The fact is that empires are not built on any religion but on economic and military powers. Christianity and Islam both became servants of empire, the first of the Roman Empire and the second of the Ottoman Empire.

Many Christians have forgotten that Syria and North Africa were once the heartland of the Christian world, but were overrun and fell under Arab control during the first Islamic invasions between 632 and 732 AD. Arab armies swept into Europe and stood within 200 kilometers south of Paris, and near Geneva, too. If Charles Martel had not stood firm, we might all be Muslims today.

Again many Christians are pondering the questions: What is Islam? Who is Allah? What relationship does Allah have to Jesus Christ and his Church?

Allah in the Thought and Lives of Muslims

A Muslim’s relationship to Allah can be seen in the five daily prayers, which belong to the five pillars of Islam. “Islam” means surrender, submission or subjugation.

If it were possible to watch from space, we could see the prayer ritual of Islam sweeping across our globe like a mighty wave five times a day, as millions of Muslims bow to the ground in worship. At dawn, as soon as one can distinguish between a white and a black thread, the prayer of the Muslim begins in the Philippines. The first wave of worship surges over Indonesia, Malaysia, Bangladesh, India, then Iran and Turkey. Finally it reaches Europe, at which time the second wave of worship begins at noon for the Muslims in China. This new wave will have reached India and the forty-five million Muslims in Central Asia just as a third wave will have started at 3 p.m. for afternoon prayers in the Far East. These three waves of worship follow each other successively, molding and determining life under the Islamic culture. Then, as dawn is breaking on the East Coast of America with its Morning Prayer, Muslims in the Nile Valley are bowing down in the heat of noon prayer and in Pakistan men are gathering in their mosques for afternoon prayer. When the final wave of the Muslim night prayer begins in the Far East two hours after sunset, the rays of the setting sun touch the worshipers in the Ganges Delta, while pilgrims in Mecca bow down for afternoon prayer before the black stone in the Ka’ba. At that moment the second prayer wave has already reached faithful Muslims in the high Atlas Mountains in Morocco, while the first wave breaks with the early morning dawn in the Rocky Mountains of America.

These five waves of prayer unite millions of Muslims in worship. Many Muslims pray earnestly, disciplining themselves by repeating their prayers 17 times a day. Early in the morning, the Muezzins call from the minarets: “Arise to prayer! Arise to success! Prayer is better then sleep!” Everyone who serves Allah hopes to receive a reward from him. Muslims thank Allah because he has already granted faith, which leads them to pray and keep the law in order to have the goodwill of Allah bestowed upon them.

Islam, then, is a religion based on keeping the Law of God. Prayer is an obligation. In Saudi Arabia a visitor may observe policemen forcing passers-by into mosques during the prayer times, so that the wrath of Allah may not descend on the country because of neglected prayer.

There is also in Islam a deep longing for purity. Before each prayer time, every Muslim performs a compulsory ablution — the washing of hands, arms, feet, mouth, face and hair. Those who know something of Judaism will see the parallel with the Pharisaic ablutions. Everyone must be clean before entering Allah’s presence to pray.

A sentence from the al-Fatiha in the main prayer for all Muslims reads, “Guide us in the straight path, the path of those whom thou hast blessed, not of those against whom thou art wrathful, nor of those who are astray,” a cry expressing the desire for guidance and a total dependence on Allah. A Christian cannot deny the faithful intent of Muslims to serve God. On the contrary, their discipline, sincerity and consistency in praying can be an example to us. Without a doubt, every true Muslim desires to serve God with all his heart. He calls on Allah in his prayers; he wants to honor him; he fights for him and submits his entire being to him.

The Beautiful Names of Allah

“Allah” is the Semitic name of God which comes originally from El, Eloh and Elohem. What is the Muslim concept of Allah? Whom do they worship? In his struggle against polytheism, Muhammad waged a merciless campaign against all gods, idols and images. His outcry was: “Allah is One! All other gods are nothing!” He had accepted the basic monotheistic faith of the Jews who were living in the Arabian Peninsula after being exiled from their homeland by the Romans. Influenced by them, Muhammad freed the Arab world from idolatry. The first half of the Islamic creed makes a sharp distinction between the Oneness of God and the claims of religions and magical cults which teach that other gods exist. Millions of Muslims confess daily, “There is no god save Allah!” as the core of the Islamic faith. Any theological assertion that contradicts this is rejected without question.

Muhammad not only testified to Allah’s uniqueness, but described him with many names:. Islamic theologians have systematized all his statements into “the 99 most beautiful names of Allah”. Sorting through these names of Allah according to their significance and frequency, moves us closer to the heart of Islam. Allah is the Omniscient One with infinite wisdom who hears all and sees all, understands all and encompasses everything. He both builds up and destroys. He is the exalted one above everything, great and immeasurable, magnificent and almighty, without equal. He is the living one, ever-existing, unending, everlasting, the first and the last, the one and the only one, the incomparably beautiful one. He is praiseworthy and excellent, the holy one, light and peace. He is the true reality and the foundation of everything, who created everything out of nothing by the strength of his word. He brought everything into being, and to him we shall all return. He creates life and causes death (Sura al-A`raf 7:44; note that Eastern Christianity does not accept that God created death). He will raise the dead and unite the universe. Allah is the sovereign lord and king to whom the universe belongs. He saves whom he wills and condemns whom he wishes. Above all, Allah is called the compassionate and merciful one, and yet he is also the avenger. He has recorded everything and will be the incorruptible and indisputable witness on the day of judgement.

The authority of Allah may open the door to success or lock it. Nothing takes place without his will. He has no need of any mediator. Everything depends directly on him. He is also benevolent and patient, faithful and kind to Muslims, the giver of all gifts. From him alone comes provision for all mankind. He who possesses everything makes people wealthy and protects all who glorify him. He is guardian over all who worship him. Allah acknowledges those who repent, and forgives because he is the forgiving one. He is gracious toward Muslims.

Often, the names of Allah are ascribed to him in a spirit of wishful thinking rather than confident faith. The more oppressive attributes create fear and drive people to do everything possible to keep the law. Poverty and illness are regarded as signs of Allah’s wrath for secret sins. By the same token, riches, success and esteem in Muslim society are taken as indications of favor. Some Muslims say, “Because we have remained faithful to Allah for 1300 years, he has rewarded us with the oil.”

The wealth of the divine names of God can be discovered only in Sufism. Ordinary Muslims accept that Allah cannot be proved to exist, or described. One can only sense him through experience. A pious Muslim confirms his faith that God is beyond our understanding by the common words, “Allahu akbar! God is great!” This statement, repeated millions of times each day, is an abridged form of the Islamic creed. With this testimony Khomeini’s revolutionary guards ran blindly into mine fields knowing they would be torn to shreds. Yet it is not a complete sentence. Its literal meaning is “Allah is greater!” Every listener should complete the thought: Allah is wiser than all philosophers, more beautiful than the most fascinating view, stronger than all atomic and hydrogen bombs together, and greater than anything we know. Allah is the unique, and inexplicable one — the remote, vast and unknown God. Everything we may think about him is incomplete, if not wrong. Allah cannot be comprehended. He comprehends us. We are slaves who have only the privilege to worship him in fear.

Islam stands for renunciation of the rationalism that prevails in Europe and America. For a long time it was the characteristic of Islamic theology that Allah could not be described philosophically. Understanding this brings us to a crucial statement expressed by the Islamic theologian al-Ghazali, who meditated at length on the ninety-nine excellent names of God. He wrote that these names can mean everything and yet nothing. One name of Allah can negate another and the content of one may be included in the next. No one can understand Allah, so devout believers can only worship this unknown God and live before him in fear and reverence, observing all his laws in strict obedience.

Islam — a theocentric culture

What are the practical consequences of such an understanding for the daily life of a Muslim? The image of a great, all-embracing Lord has conditioned the home, education, work and politics. “Show me your God and I will explain to you why you live as you do.” Similarly Genesis tells us, “God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him.” (1:27 ) This means that the concept of God is the pattern and measure of the culture associated with it.

In Islam, the father of the family is not an equal partner with his wife, but the patriarch of the house, holding all rights and authority. The children belong to him alone. He supplies provisions and grants no insight into his financial situation. His wife is not necessarily a life-time companion with equal rights, but often just a means of satisfying his physical desires, sometimes merely a baby factory. There are exceptions, of course, where noble and sensitive Arabs open themselves to the influence of world-wide humanism or where some resolute wives exert influence over their husbands. Christendom has also influenced Arab customs to some extent. In general, however, Islam is a man’s world where women must stay in the background, not seen in mosques, coffee bars, or public life. Khomeini in particular used the resurgence of Islam to reduce women to medieval subjection.

In schools, too, until a few years ago, the teacher gave instruction like a patriarch, ruling over his pupils and forcing the lessons down their throats. Any pupil who could not fully repeat the subject matter was punished. The main goals of education in many Islamic schools are not understanding, individual thinking and development of character, but acceptance and conformity. This is closely associated with the concept of thought in the Islamic religion, since a Muslim is forbidden to think critically about the Qur’an. He must accept it and memorize it. Being thus filled with the spirit of Islam, he walks in accordance with Allah’s law in his daily life. (How many Christians know even one of the Gospels by heart? Yet many Muslims have mastered the whole of the Qur’an.)

The forms of educational instruction and thought in Islam are based upon the picture of Allah given by Muhammad. A person is not guided to become active and responsible, but to submit himself passively to his fate. This is why Muslim emotions often flare up uncontrollably, for their entire education amounts to a submission of will and integration into an Allah-centered society. Again, in politics, democracy does not appear as the best model for social organization. Rather Allah, the king and lord over all, is the unconscious pattern for many sultans and dictators. The strong man who swept away corruption with an iron hand, who brought renown to Islam, has always been admired. (In Arab schools one can find children with such unusual first names as Bismarck, Stalin, de Gaulle and Nasser, because the parents wish and hope that there will be a glorious future for their offspring in the spirit of such historic personalities.) Complaisance and compromise mean weakness and incompetence.

It is not surprising, then, that Nasser and Khomeini were the dominating figures in the Near East. While Nasser attempted to combine an Arab socialism with Islam in order to meet the attack of atheistic communism, Khomeini trod a still more radical path by attempting to establish the kingdom of Allah on earth in Shi’ite countries. The ultimate aim of Khomeini’s revolution was not merely the removal of the shah or the elimination of Christian, capitalistic or communistic principles from among his people, but the reinstatement of an Islamic theocracy in which Allah prevailed in every area of life. This brought a “mullah state” into existence, where more people were killed in a few years in the name of Allah and Islam than during the long reign of the shah. Enemies of the Islamic revolution were no longer even regarded as people. Khomeini himself declared, “In Persia no people have been killed so far — only beasts!”

As the Islamic spirit cannot tolerate any other gods beside Allah, Islam will find no rest until all people have become Muslims. This mission-consciousness is based on the Islamic confession of faith which states that “there is no God except Allah.” Thus there can be no real peace on earth except through Islam.

We must confess, however, that Christians Crusaders who came to the Near East left behind them a trail of blood, engraving on the consciousness of Muslims the image of Christians as aggressive militants. Yet all “holy wars” are in direct conflict with the teaching of Jesus, who said, “Do not resist evil! Put your sword away! Love your enemies!” Christ never commanded his followers to fight in religious wars; rather, he forbade them any demonstration of violence. Muhammad, on the other hand, repeatedly fought in person alongside his fighters until they conquered Mecca and the whole of the Arabian Peninsula. The spread of Islam is based on the sword, holy war being considered a direct command of Allah. This is why there is still in Islam the potential for holy war. (Sura al-Baqara 2:245). In Islam, there is no separation between throne and altar, between politics and religion. Mosques are often the starting point for political upheaval. Friday sermons are not confined to the fostering of faith and spiritual life, but may stir up the people for political conflict in the name of Allah.

According to the Islamic portrayal of Allah, nothing exists outside the province of his omnipotence, and anyone not surrendering voluntarily must be brought into subjection either by cunning strategy, economic persuasion or revolutionary force. Islam demands surrender of all areas of life to Allah’s spirit and the Qur’an’s control over all thought and conduct. Bedouin tribes once said to Muhammad, “We believe in Allah ” But he replied, “You have not believed until you say, ‘We have submitted ‘”

Islam cannot compromise with any “isms” for any period of time. As its history unfolded, strong impulses repeatedly flowed out of the Qur’an, which overcame ideas and concepts that had penetrated the Islamic culture from Europe, Persia and India, resulting in an all-pervading legalistic religion. The ultimate aim was nothing less than the establishment of Allah’s kingdom on our earth.

Allah in the Light of the Christian Faith

Islam has recovered much ground and expanded in the last ten years, making a substantial thrust into the cultures of Christianity, Hinduism, communism and the African cults. When we as Christians meet Muslims and try to understand them, we should not forget that many of them are genuine worshipers who serve their God with dedication. We Christians should never despise their deep aspirations, but should love and respect every Muslim who sincerely worships Allah.

This, however, does not absolve us from the obligation to seek the truth about Islam. Our respect for Muslims leads us to compare the Qur’an and the New Testament, which for us is the only standard of truth. If one compares the 99 names of Allah in Islam with the names of God in the Bible, one must acknowledge that the Allah of the Muslims is not in harmony with our God. If someone says, “Your God and Islam’s God are the same,” he does not understand who Allah and Christ really are, or glosses over the deeply rooted differences.

Allah — No Trinity

In the Arabic language, the name Allah can be understood as a sentence: al-el-hu. ‘El’ is an old Semitic name for God meaning ‘the strong and mighty’. The Islamic name, Allah, corresponds to the Hebrew name Elohim. Although the Hebrew name contains the possibility of a plural (hum), the name of Allah (hu) can only be singular. Thus, Allah in Islam is always only one and never a unity of three. It is unthinkable for a Muslim to believe in the existence of God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit in the New Testament sense. Consequently, the Islamic confession of faith not only declares the uniqueness of Allah but at the same time firmly rejects the divinity of Christ and the Holy Spirit.

Allah — No Father

The name ‘Father’, the revelation of God’s innermost reality, is an indispensable element of the Christian faith. God has bound himself to us as our eternal Father. “How great is the love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called children of God.” (1 John 3:1) In dialogue with Muslims and Jews, we must scrutinize anew statements of Jesus in the New Testament concerning the name “Father” for God. This name is mentioned at least 164 times in the Gospels. Christ did not preach about a distant God whom no one can know or comprehend, nor did he teach us to approach him with a trembling fear as the unapproachable holy Judge. Instead he gently moved the veil from before the God of the Old Testament and revealed him to us as the Father. He did not teach us to pray to Elohim, Yahweh, or the holy Trinity, but placed on our lips the loving name — “our Father.” Christ thus shared his own privilege with us, the unworthy ones. Through him we have become children of God, a relationship which Muhammad emphatically rejects (Sura al-Ma’ida 5:18).

If we compare the occasions when Christ used the name “God” with the occasions when he used the name “Father,” we are in for a surprise. Speaking to outsiders, demons or his enemies, Jesus spoke of the hidden God, the great and powerful Lord. But when he prayed or talked in the intimate circle of his followers, he revealed the innermost secret of God — his Fatherhood. For this claim Jesus was convicted of blasphemy when the high priest Caiaphas asked him, “I adjure you by the living God, that you tell us if you are the Christ, the Son of God.” (Mt 26:63) For Caiaphas to refer to God as “Father” would have been scandalous to the Jews, so he asked Jesus if he considered himself the “Son of God,” implying God’s Fatherhood. Christ confirmed his confession. His first words on the cross were, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.” But as the Father veiled his face the Son cried out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Yet the crucified One held on to the reality of God’s Fatherhood in the midst of his suffering and died with the words: “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.”

The author, a member of the Orthodox Peace Fellowship living in Britain, prefers to remain anonymous. His homeland is a country with a Muslim majority.

Letters Spring 2002

Attitudes to Islam

I found the last In Communion rich and thought-provoking, in particular Jessica Rose’s article, but the unsigned essay, “A Christian Perspective on Islam,” requires a rejoinder.

Some of the author’s statements correspond to what I have observed in visiting Muslim countries in the eastern Arab world. The author’s experience of living among Muslims rings true, for instance, in his description of the image of the Muslim community at prayer throughout the world. It reminds me of Egyptian Muslim friends explaining their sense of being part of a world-wide community during Ramadan, where as darkness falls across the globe the faithful break their fast.

But I could not agree with much of what the author said. In the first place, he appears to believe that “Allah” is an exclusively Muslim name for God. In fact “Allah” is the Arabic word for God, used by Muslims and Christians alike; the phrase “Bism illah” (In the name of God) may be followed by “al-Rahman al-Rahim” (the Compassionate, the Merciful) but also by “al-Ab wa-l-Ibn wa-l-Ruh al-Quddus” (the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit). The names of God, and the language which Islam has developed to talk about God, are far less remote from Christian theology than the author states. While the concept of the Trinity is indeed alien to Islam, Christians and Muslims share much thinking about the attributes of God.

This was brought home to me clearly last summer at a conference on Middle Eastern Christianity from 750 to 1100 AD. One of the speakers discussed the style and language of a section from a treatise in Arabic by a Christian theologian of the 11th century. It was the section on God, where the writer uses many terms and expressions which can also be found in the Quran and in Muslim texts about God. At the end of the paper the chairman of the session, a Muslim, said to the speaker, a Christian: “I wish your paper could have gone on longer. It was so beautiful to hear God being talked about like that.”

Like Christianity, Islam is spread over different regions of the world and consequently takes on very diverse forms. Senegalese, Omanis, Indonesians, Iranians, Muslims settled in the US and Tatars do not live their Islam in the same way, and the differences may be compounded if one takes account of whether the people concerned are villagers or city-dwellers. It is just as hard to generalize about Islam if one looks at how it is lived in these different countries as it is to generalize about Christianity if one looks at it in, say, Scandinavia, Nigeria, Brazil, South Korea and Kerala.

An easy way to realize this is to look at aspects of society, such as political participation of women. In Saudi Arabia they are completely excluded from political activity, in Iran they can be members of parliament, in Egypt they can be government ministers, in Pakistan and Bangladesh they are, or have been, heads of government. Yet all these countries describe themselves as Muslim. I do not doubt the author’s good faith, but statements like “Islam is a man’s world where women must stay in the background, not seen in mosques, coffee bars, or public life” have to be set against facts like this, and also against shots of streets in Cairo or Jakarta on TV news films.

This is not to say that women do not suffer restrictions on their freedom in Muslim countries, depending on the country concerned, the woman’s social position and so on. But one cannot generalize about this matter, nor can one claim that it is something specific to Islam. A few decades ago, how many women did one see in Greek cafes or Greek public life?

Some of the features which the author ascribes to Islam belong more to what is often called a traditional society than to a specifically Muslim one. When he describes traditional Muslim education, his remarks remind me of accounts of the early school experience of some Arab Muslim writers — but also some Arab Christian ones, where it was the local priest, not the imam, who was the teacher. The Lebanese Orthodox journalist, historian and novelist Jurji Zaidan paints a bitter picture of his first school in Beirut in the second half of the 19th century, run by an ignorant and authoritarian priest. (Instead of the Quran, the Psalms were the text the pupils had to learn).

The Palestinian poet, painter and critic Jabra Ibrahim Jabra, who grew up in the Syrian Orthodox community of Bethlehem in the 1920s, came off better in church schools, for the teachers were not authoritarian. But only when he went to the state school did he really start to develop intellectually. His teachers there, some of whom were Christians, others Muslims, were committed to preparing their pupils for building a modern democratic state after the end of the Mandate. And if it were true that the “forms of educational instruction and thought in Islam” do not guide Muslims “to become active and responsible, but to submit … passively to [their] fate”, how could one explain the intellectual achievements of medieval Muslim civilization, the movements of resistance in different Muslim countries to British, French, Russian, Dutch or Italian colonization, or the success of a project like the Grameen Bank in Bangladesh, which has provided credit for small-scale projects to hundreds of thousands of people, mostly women, whom ordinary banks will not consider lending to?

The author does not allow for a diversity of opinions within Muslim societies, yet diversity exists. Fr. Stephen Headley gives examples from Indonesia. Elsewhere one can note that Khomeini’s ideas have always been controversial in Iran, contested not only by secularly oriented thinkers, but also by sections of the clergy who disapprove of the involvement of the religious establishment in politics. And they have refused to accord his successor, Khamenei, the same authority as he enjoyed. (In any case Khomeini is a reference only for Shiites, about 10 percent of Muslims.)

The Sunni Muslim world, like the Orthodox Christian one, does not have a single central authority, and so debates on ethical issues can, and do, take place, as one can see if one follows the decisions given by the Shaikh of al-Azhar or the Chief Mufti in Cairo, who do not always agree with each other.

Muslims living in Europe and America, facing the challenge of living in a non-Muslim and even an entirely secular society, are developing a variety of responses to the new situation they find themselves in. Some Muslims are very critical of those who claim to represent them. I have a Lebanese friend who refuses to make the Pilgrimage because he considers that the regime in Saudi Arabia makes a farce of Islamic values. Public expression of dissident views such as this is difficult in most Muslim countries but it can be found in all but a few. As in other countries, where freedom of expression is severely limited, literature is often the vehicle of critical reflection. Indeed, one good way to discover something of how Muslims live, of the role their faith plays for them (or does not play — there are nominal Muslims, just as there are nominal Christians), and of how many other factors determine the choices they make in their lives, is to read literature — novels, short stories, poetry — from Muslim countries.

Admittedly, it is not easy to write about another religion, especially if one has suffered at the hands of some of its adherents, as may well be the case with the author. But as followers of Christ, who is the Way, the Truth and the Life, we must be committed to seeking for truth, whether in our own lives or our relations with others, or whether truth in the academic sense is concerned. To make sweeping and sometimes denigrating statements about the beliefs and behavior of millions of people all over the world (“Muslim emotions often flare up uncontrollably”) does not help the cause of truth; rather, it contributes to false images and hostility.

The Gospels give some guidelines about how to approach people of another religion. It may be worth reflecting on those passages where Samaritans are mentioned. In the time of Christ the Jews regarded them as holding wrong beliefs because they had their own temple and did not worship in Jerusalem. But Christ saw Samaritans as persons. He recognized that they could be capable of extraordinary good, as in the parable of the Good Samaritan. When He healed ten lepers, the only one to come back and thank Him was the Samaritan. And when Christ met the Samaritan woman at the well, he approached her not as a faceless adherent of a false religion but as a person deserving of respect, with her own spiritual needs. He did not raise the issue of what the right beliefs were; she did, once they had been talking for some time and she had realized that this was no ordinary meeting.

To combine a commitment to truth with respect for the persons who hold other beliefs — but who may still have been touched by the Holy Spirit — is a starting point for approaching the mystery of the existence of different religions in the world.

Hilary Waardenburg

Pursuing peace

It is important to pursue peace. I think that this is required of us. I join the rest of you in finding peaceful ways to solve problems. I start with my own attitude towards others (the log in my own eye). I think that our individual witness of Christ’s love to those around us is more important than our words. This is not an accusation but a simple statement. I know that many of you are more engaged in this kind of face-to-face witness and service than I am!

It is important to point out that this or that war is “unjust”, but we cannot let it distract us from the harder and greater tasks before us. Are we working toward a Christian world when we denigrate those with whom we disagree? It is one thing when our Church offers an unambiguous answer to a question (“Thou shalt not kill”), it is another when it seems to offer contradictory commands (Don’t kill, but …). Rather than assuming we know more than our betters, why not learn from this? Certain things may at first seem contradictory, but the task of reconciling them might just make us wiser.

I may never be placed in a situation where I am asked to kill another person. Lord help us, few of us have or will. But every day, I am faced with the temptation to hate another person, and I think this is the standard of murder Christ has given us. War and violence are symptoms and indicators — two of many — that I am not the only one tempted to murder others.

Doug Perkins

Just wars?

During the course of this past week public radio aired the comments of a prominent Roman Catholic theologian as he expounded upon the principles of a “just war” as they applied to our present War on Terrorism. Augustine held that wickedness must be restrained, by force if necessary, and that the sword of the civil authorities is divinely commissioned to this end.

Historically speaking, theorizing on just or unjust killing only became a matter for consideration after the Church was no longer at odds with the civil authority about the 4th century. During the period which preceded that, while the Church was still the object of the state’s oppression or outright persecution, no Christian writing left to us condoned Christian participation in war. It was commonly held in the Christian community that all bloodshed, whether as soldiers or executioners, was unlawful according to Christ’s commandments. In order to fully appreciate their position we should recognize that it was not infrequently Christian blood that was being shed!

Hippolytus (c.170-c.260), who compiled a canon of apostolic tradition, maintained that a soldier who wished to join the Church must refuse to kill men even if ordered to do so. The historian Kenneth Scott Latourette says: “So clear was the opposition of the early Christians to bearing arms that Celsus (2nd cent. Pagan philosopher), in his famous attack on them, declared that if all were to do as did the Christians the Empire would fall victim to the wildest and most lawless barbarians.” This remains today the primary argument. The response of the Church was that if all were to become Christians, the barbarians too would also be Christian, and even then, while Christians were in the minority, their love, labor, and prayers were doing more to preserve the Roman Empire than the Roman army.

Nevertheless, when we contemplate what the world might be like if all Orthodox Christians attempted to live faithfully all of the Gospel Commandments like that early Christian community, we are faced with the problem of evil and violence, intolerance and prejudice all around us. St. Augustine attempted to address that problem with his theory of the Just War. St. John Chrysostom, on the other hand, wrote “A Treatise to Prove That No One Can Harm the Man Who Does Not Injure Himself.” In that famous treatise St. John argues that neither sickness, poverty, nor any other injury, nor even death itself can take from man what it is that our Lord has commanded us to store up as treasurers in heaven. Only a man himself can do such terminal injury to himself.

We may never know what the world might have been if Christians throughout every century had sought, even at the cost of their own blood, to live the Gospel Commandments of love like that early Church. As Celsus contended, perhaps the barbarians would have prevailed. But we the faithful of St. Nicholas of South Canaan Orthodox Church do have the present to discover what effect such living might have in our own city. Our Lord Jesus Christ Himself exemplified for us the truly human life and left us His Commandments of unconditional love. At the end of His earthly life He was crucified at the hands of evil, but it is His resurrection, and our own, that we celebrate every Pascha.

Fr. Joseph O’Brien

The Lord of the Rings

I had a letter from a friend who comments that Lord of the Rings is a fantastic work of imagination that somehow taps into something very deep within our collective western psyche but “there is something fundamentally non-Christian about it… The interplay of good and evil is fundamentally different from the gospel of Jesus.”

As I see it, the pivotal idea of Lord of the Rings is that weakness, foolishness, self-giving love and the renunciation of power are at the heart of the life God intends for us. Frodo, and Sam with him, in effect embrace the Cross. They even experience a death and resurrection on the side of Mount Doom after the ring of power’s destruction.

Jim Forest

Tolkien sometimes seems to be going out of his way to avoid a Christian “message” in his book — Middle-earth is devoid not only of Christianity but, to a notable degree, of any religion: no worship, no temples, no priests/shamans/etc. Events are guided by a larger, hard-to-discern purpose, a “doom,” as Tolkien likes to say, using an older sense of the word, but he’s very careful not to suggest more.

Tolkien wants to set his Christian commitment aside in the telling of this story so that, without violating or contradicting it, he can talk about things in another way. As it says in the Silmarillion, “In that hour was put to the proof that which Mithrandir (Gandalf) had spoken, and help came from the hands of the weak when the Wise faltered.” But all the warriors making their stand “beyond hope” (another favorite Tolkien phrase) play an essential part in Frodo and Sam’s work, so it would be a distortion of Tolkien to say that Frodo’s path is held up as the “right” model for dealing with evil in the world — it’s an essential part of a larger picture. The world-view that most strongly informs Lord of the Rings, it seems to me, is that of the Norse mythology that Tolkien knew and loved so well.

Lord of the Rings is a meditation on how evil works in this world: Evil is real. Peace is not a norm. It is a blessing, achieved only rarely, temporarily, and at the cost of great pain, sacrifice and sorrow. There is no way out of dealing with the world’s evil, or with the world’s great events. (This is hardest for me, since I’ve always had a stay-out-of-it attitude toward “politics”). Frodo and Sam (Sam in particular) are people with no interest in glory, desiring only to live quiet lives, who are nonetheless called out to play a part in huge events. They don’t like it or really understand it, but they are faithful.

Faithfulness: I think that if there is one thing that moves us today about Lord of the Rings above all others, it’s the book’s emphasis on faithfulness, loyalty, true friendship, fealty. Faithfulness to friend, master, lady, land, duty, expressed by unwavering commitment to a way of conduct expressing that faithfulness, held to even “beyond hope,” is, I think, something that sets off a great yearning in us; it’s not what our world values, but our hearts long for it.

The book’s treatment of the working of the power in the world is very deep, and I don’t think I’ve really understood it. On the one side, it’s perilous and corrupting… that’s what the imagery of the rings, and the Ring, is all about. On the other hand, the book’s politics, if they can be called that, are monarchist (Tolkien’s were too — see Humphrey Carpenter’s biography of Tolkien): the only chance of good in the world is rule by a noble king, who is hard to find and tragically corruptible.

Those who imagine that Lord of the Rings gives us a black-and-white treatment of evil can be cured by reading the story of Boromir in Fellowship of the Ring: a man corrupted by his desire for good, destroyed because a good end became so important to him that he was willing to use forbidden means to attain it. Perhaps not many in OPF would agree with Tolkien on what “good means” are, but his commitment is clear: no good end will come by bad means, no matter what the threat.

I’d be curious to know how, in your friend’s words, “the interplay of good and evil is fundamentally different from the gospel of Jesus.” Is it because humans (and elves, dwarves and hobbits) seem so completely responsible for whether good or evil triumph in the world, that divine help seems lacking? Is it because violence seems to “work” in combating evil?

As for people being somehow on their own in doing good and fighting evil: some readers have missed the fact that, in Tolkien’s mythology the wizards, including Gandalf, are divine beings — angels — sent to aid the world in its peril. In a letter to a friend, Tolkien wrote “Gandalf is an angel.” From the Silmarillion: “Even as the first shadows were felt in Mirkwood there appeared in the west of Middle-earth the Istari, whom men called the Wizards … afterwards it was said among the Elves that they were messengers sent by the Lords of the West to contest the power of Sauron, if he should arise again, and to move Elves and Men and all living things of good will to valiant deeds.” Perhaps it’s a measure of Tolkien’s view of the corruptibility of all things that even some of the Wizards become corrupt.

Tolkien is describing the world before Christ — he said that Middle-earth is meant to be our own world in an earlier, forgotten age. I believe that, in all he wrote, he was pondering how divine providence works itself out, and sometimes reveals itself, in a world that does not know Christ. We could with as much (and, thank God, as little) justification say that the interplay of good and evil in the Old Testament is “fundamentally different from the Gospel of Jesus.”

All of Tolkien’s work is suffused with a sense of the goodness and rightness of the natural order, to a degree that many will dismiss as “medieval.” Pay attention to how often Sauron and his minions express their evil by twisting or tampering with the natural. A favorite Lord of the Rings quote of mine comes from Gandalf, when he is confronting the corrupted Saruman. He might as well be speaking to the scientists and engineers who define our world: “He who breaks a thing to find out what it is has left the path of wisdom.”

The question was raised: Is Frodo a “Christ figure?” In literature, what we call Christ figures are rarely meant simply to be Christ in disguise. They present some shining of Christ’s nature into the world, usually mixed up with their mortality, fallibility, sinfulness. Frodo might, at least, fit this description, yes? In Orthodox spirituality, Christification is the goal of every believer; in this life, we hope that it can be attained, by grace, in some degree, not that we will become equivalent to Christ, or Christ by nature — a demonic goal.

My son just located one of the key passages in Fellowship of the Ring. Frodo says of Gollum, “He deserves death.” Gandalf replies: “Deserves it! I daresay he does. Many that live deserve death. And some that die deserve life. Can you give it to them? Then do not be too eager to deal out death in judgement. For even the very wise cannot see all ends. I have not much hope that Gollum can be cured before he dies, but there is a chance of it. And he is bound up with the fate of the Ring. My heart tells me that he has some part to play yet, for good or ill, before the end; and when that comes, the pity of Bilbo may rule the fate of many — yours not least.”

John Brady

Gandalf’s wisdom

When we forget that this is a story and try to test out its parallel or lack thereof with the Gospel, we get into trouble. There are many beautiful, teaching moments where Tolkien portrays an aspect of humanity which may/will connect to others’ experience of the God we as Christians know. This combined with the childlike imagination and world of journeys and adventures of fantasy creatures is a fantastic story and a great way to both relax and learn. We must not get totally lost from reality, however, and remember that it is a story. Yes, one that we may love and cherish, one that may help to form our lives; yet to pick it apart in order to understand it or not fear it, well, to quote Gandalf, “And he that breaks a thing to find out what it is has left the path of wisdom.”

Sheri Bunn San Chirico

Not Narnia

Tolkien himself warned pointedly against the interpretation of his work literally or as allegory. This is not Narnia. Events, characters and things in the story aren’t supposed to have a one-to-one relationship with things in our world. And war is a reality — even the nonviolent are engaged in struggle. Take the struggle in Lord of the Rings any way you want to. It could be the good guys against the bad guys, or it could be a monk, or even a faithful Christian, struggling against sin or passions.

Matthew R. Brown

Purity of heart

Let me tell you about the “Purity of Heart” session I led for teen-agers of our parish.

In preparing it, I used the Philokalia, the Orthodox Study Bible, and Jim Forest’s book on the Beatitudes. After defining what a “Gospel” is, we talked about what Matthew the Apostle might have been like. We also talked about how the children how feel about their parents — how badly they would feel if something happened to their mother/father. We discussed their feelings when they told their parents good night and then said their prayers. This was a type of purity of heart since it is totally bound up in love with no thought of gain, anger, jealousy and so forth.

We went around the room in a roundtable discussion with each teen saying what they thought “purity of heart” is. A common answer was that when they sensed purity of heart within themselves when they were most happy and felt that those most inward feelings defined who and what they were; in other words “my heart — in purity — is who I really am.”

We also talked about going to confession, fasting and communion as methods to restoring purity of heart when we felt we had “lost it.”

It was a morning well spent.

Deacon Benedict Mann