The furor over the recent speech made by Pope Benedict in Germany continues and has elicited a response from the Muslim community under an open letter written to respond to the Pope's message.
Not being a Muslim scholar, nor an expert on Islam, I cannot speak to the specific claims made by these Muslim scholars regarding Islamic teaching, but I can speak to some of the theological aspects of this letter with regards to an Orthodox Christian understanding.
The Muslim scholars first discuss the Islamic view of the Transcendence of God and say the Pope's message was an oversimplification. I find this a bit misleading since most Islamic complaints about the Christian doctrine of God is the complexity involved. Islamic scholars regularly claim that an Islamic view of God is much more simple and less nuanced than the Christian doctrine of the Trinity allows.
However, I will forgo this and take the scholars at their word that the simplistic understanding of transcendence in Islam is, in fact, more nuanced than I was lead to believe. If this is so, then this is wonderful news. It means that Islamic thought has the possibility of moving closer to the Christian understanding that God is both Transcendent and Immanent.
This is especially witnessed in the Christian understanding of the Incarnation, which Islam totally rejects. In the Incarnation, God become Immanuel, God with us. Islam has no place for such an understanding of either the Prophet or any other religious leader. They come closest to this incarnational model in their understanding of the Koran, which, in its original Arabic, is said to have been dictated to the Prophet directly from God Himself. So, a printed page can be the immanent Presence of God in Islam.
The scholars go on to speak about Greek philosophy and attempt to equate the Islamic understanding to the use of "logos" in classic Greek philosophy, but, in my opinion, they fail miserably.
The pontiff's speech was about the European loss of an Hellenic mindset and the absolute incompatibility of compulsion with regards to religious conversion. One cannot help but wonder if the Islamic scholars have ever addresses this issue with their fellow Muslims.
The weak historical arguments made in this Islamic response to Pope Benedict cannot pass without comment.
The notion that there were exceptional times when Islam as a "political" expression (an interesting caveat on the part of these scholars) where force was used to convert whole peoples to Islam is a bit hard to square with the historical data. Even given the nominal Christian societies where the armies of Islam conquered lands in the Middle East and in the northern parts of Asia Minor, the claim that forced conversions were the exception is difficult to believe.
These scholars claim that if Islam was indeed commanded to spread by the sword there would be no churches or synagogues left standing, a point well taken, please explain why so many churches and synagogues have been destroyed, and why there are NO existing churches in Saudi Arabia- none! All the while mosques are being built in the West at an alarming rate.
Finally, I am actually encouraged by this open letter from some Islamic scholars. Now perhaps we can get these same scholars to write a similar letter to their fellow Muslims.
I contend the theological challenges that await we Christians demand we begin taking seriously the theological challenges poised by Islam. Our people, ignorant of such deep theology like the doctrine of the Trinity, are ripe for another Islamic wave of "conversions" from nominal Christians, especially in the West where we have all but abandoned classical Christianity.
A recent Op-Ed piece in the New York Times concerning String Theory in physics ends with this profoundly religious comment: "Exploring the unknown requires tolerating uncertainty."
This is exactly the power of humility and also the power of faith.
When we humans, as prideful as we are, become willing to tolerate uncertainty, all kinds of possibilities open up for us. We become open to wonder and awe, both indispensable attitudes when contemplating the invitation by Christ to an intimate relationship with the Uncreated God.
The philosophical notions of the so-called Enlightenment tended to have an undeserved confidence in Human reason to grasp the nature of reality based solely on a naturalistic mentality. Can anyone look at the 20th century and doubt the poverty of that confidence?
But the nature of a faith-inspired understanding of reality offers us a way to hold to confidence in the face of an admitted uncertainty. People of an authentic and historically informed faith can readily admit to not actually "knowing" if this or that dogma is "true" but in the same breath confidently declaring that they "believe" it is true, with no philosophical or epistemological discomfort!
A wise Orthodox Christian father once said that God is beyond both existence and non-existence. How can anyone actually say that unless they have made peace with uncertainty?
The ability to create media is abundant. Recently I read an article which stated that when distributioin of media is plentiful, content is king. Today content is now KING.
From regular media outlets - radio, TV, print - to new distribution methods - podcasting, cell phones, MP3's and MP4's, blogs, YouTube, and others - if somebody wants to get a message out, they can.
Media is continually moving from "broadcasting" to "narrowcasting." It truly is "every man doing what is right in his own eyes."
Now comes the timeless message of Orthodox Christianity. In an age where technology is increasingly either creating isolation or worse yet, a false sense of community where community is reduced to being only linguistic or rational, Orthodox Christianity is challenged once again to make the timeless message of faith accessible to the population.
Media is a tool. It is neither good nor bad in itself. So, now the question is how do we use the tools of media to communicate? Should we use these tools?
As someone very committed to using media for the Church, I confess a certian bias, but I don't think it is an unfounded bias. I am convinced that modern communication methods CAN be used effectively on behalf of the Church.
What I do not believe is that these communication tools can be used EXCLUSIVELY by the Church to accomplish the delicate task of making disciples. We will always need to the one-on-one approach to build maturity into a new believer, but we must use media to both introduce and reinforce the message of the Orhtodox faith to new seekers, lapsed faithful, and regular church goers alike.
Using media well for the Church is hard work, but why should this be different than any other valuable spiritual pursuit. This is a narrow path, but a path nonetheless.
Walk into any Christian bookstore in America and you will discover whole shelves of books about money: how to make money based on biblical principles, how to give money, how to save money, and how to invest money for the future. All these books are answering questions about money from a biblical viewpoint, but are these answers to the right questions? Are they even asking the right questions?
If we focus on the amount of money we have or don’t have, we will miss one of the most significant lessons Jesus wants to teach us. He confronts us with a choice – to serve Him with our money, or to be enslaved by our money. This choice challenges our attitudes about possessions and even the very meaning of life itself. This choice is between faith and doubt, between authentic trust and a lip service to the faith.
In other words, Jesus confronts us with the challenge to convert.
Unfortunately today Christian conversion has been reduced to a once-in-a-lifetime event or, worse yet, to nothing more than “joining” a club.
But authentic Christian conversion, especially as understood in our Orthodox faith, calls us to a difficult task – confronting ourselves. This confrontation is terrifying to most of us because we don’t like looking at ourselves. King David came to this uncomfortable place when he asked, “Search me, O God, and know my heart; Try me, and know my anxieties; And see if there is any wicked way in me, And lead me in the way everlasting.” (Psalm 139:23-24).
Before we can talk about the Christian use of money, we have to be willing to ask if we have really converted to the faith of Christ. Once that question has been dealt with, the mastery of our possessions, our attitude toward our resources, and our use of our possessions as Christian stewards of God’s good gifts will all become clearer to us.
Here are three insights into an Orthodox understanding of conversion that will radically change the way we look not only at our money and how we give, but how we view our entire lives.
First, Conversion begins with Honesty. Remember when you were a kid and you were caught in a lie. My mother always told me I’d feel better once I came clean with the truth, and she was right. Conversion starts that way. It begins when I honestly take spiritual inventory of my life. The great Good News about our faith is that Orthodoxy continually assures us that God will not reject us. Being honest with Him and (sometimes more difficultly) with ourselves is “safe.” We will truly be converted to a more spiritual way of life as we are honest about our own needs.
Second, Conversion leads to Visibility. One of the traps of our modern popular view of religion is that we can simply pay lip service to our belief in Christ and the faith and still call ourselves faithful believers. An old saying comes to mind: “Your actions are so loud, I can’t hear what you are saying.” St. Paul told the Corinthians, "if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; old things have passed away; behold, all things have become new.” (2 Corinthians 5:17) An authentic confrontation with myself and a true conversion to faith shows up in the way I live and the choices I make. An invisible faith may be real, but how can anyone tell?
Finally, Conversion lasts a Lifetime. One thing I have come to love about my Orthodox faith is that I am continually confronted with an invitation to convert. Orthodoxy avoids the notion of a once-for-all event in my life to mark my faithfulness to Christ. No, this wise and timeless theology confronts me with the reality that spiritual growth occurs throughout my life. There are places in my life where I truly live out the principles of my faith and there are places in my life where I do not. A continual conversion is necessary if I am going to honestly confront myself with the need to allow the Holy Spirit to actually change me and my attitudes about my possessions and my life.
Some may say “well, I was born Orthodox” and that is a wonderful thing, that means you have a spiritual head start. But it also means that you have a rich spiritual treasure house to grow in. Just like the steward who wasted the talent the Master gave him, you will give an account for that spiritual head start. With such an awesome gift comes awesome responsibility.
Being converted is not the exclusive domain of the TV preachers. We Orthodox are continually confronted with the challenge to actually put into practice the truths we say we believe each Sunday at Divine Liturgy. We are lovingly invited each day, every moment, to choose to believe not just with our heads but with our lives.
It is only the willingness (or even the desire for the willingness) to a continual conversion that protects anyone's faith from degenerating into nothing more that spiritual window-dressing.
Anyone interested in allowing the bright searchlight of God's love to be turned inward?