Do Muslims Worship the Same God?
If you can answer “yes” or “no” to this question, you’ve got yourself a problem. And that’s exactly where Wheaton College has found itself thanks to the words of one of its professors, Dr. Larycia Alaine Hawkins. In her attempt to love her Muslim neighbors, she affirmed (citing Pope Francis) that Christians worship the same God as Muslims. Obviously the stakes are high here, particularly for an evangelical institution that holds mission work to be central to its calling. So now a beautiful act of solidarity and compassion has been turned into a big problem (funny how often that happens).
In a certain sense, this problem can be easily resolved. In another sense, it can’t. The easy solution is a theological one (Miroslav Volf takes a fiery stab at the difficult problem here). Since it’s still rather early in the morning for me, I will content myself to address the easy one. The trouble is that this whole discussion has gotten of on the wrong foot. To be as blunt as possible (too blunt, in fact!):
Only idolators can compare gods.
The Christian tradition has always held that God is strictly incomprehensible, a consequence of which is that God is “ineffable,” that is, beyond superlative and therefore beyond our ability to speak of as we speak of created realities. This point bears directly on the problem we are examining. The moment that God can be analyzed as a concept and compared to other concepts of God, one has stepped away from the classical Christian tradition. One has, as it were, brought God out of heaven and made God a thing within creation: an idol. Depending on the heart of one’s piety, this may or may not be a problem (see this stunning story by the Muslim mystic, Rumi (thank you Adam!), for what I mean). Even so, idols are dangerous! Once we seemingly have God—the ultimate truth and power—within our conceptual grasp, those we deem as serving another god must be outside the truth of reality. If one happens to be of a compassionate disposition, one will attempt to convert them to one’s own concept of God, if not… well, we’ve seen where that has been going lately.
However, the alternative is not a necessary one. And this is true even in the face of the somewhat misinformed objection that Muslims are monotheists while Christians are trinitarian. Have we just run into some god concepts here? The non-catechized, non-theologian will be forgiven for thinking that we have. But in reality, we have just stumbled into strange linguistic world of theology.
When doing theology, that is, when attempting to think and speak about God, one is engaging in an impossible act. We use words that have their origins within creation to speak of that which is the “source” of creation (scare quotes here to warn the reader not to mistake the word “source” for our creaturely experience of things that have a source, like children and rivers. See the difficulty here?).
To make my point by way of an authority a good bit more vast than my own, consider this remarkable passage from St. Augustine (For those unacquainted, Augustine is perhaps the greatest patriarch of the Christian church in history). After going into some detail attempting to explain the nature of the Trinity, he says the following:
Have we spoken or announced anything worthy of God? Rather I feel that I have done nothing but wish to speak: if I have spoken, I have not said what I wished to say. Whence do I know this, except because God is ineffable? If what I said were ineffable, it would not be said. And for this reason God should not be said to be ineffable, for when this is said something is said. And a contradiction in terms is created, since if that is ineffable which cannot be spoken, then that is not ineffable which can be called ineffable. This contradiction is to be passed over in silence rather than resolved verbally. For God, although nothing worthy may be spoken of Him, has accepted the tribute of the human voice and wished us to take joy in praising Him with our words. (On Christian Teaching)
Likewise, Pope Francis never said that Muslims worship the “same” God (as if God can be compared!). At a celebratory gathering in Rome of fraternal delegates of churches, ecclesial communities and international ecumenical bodies, Pope Francis welcomed the attendants by saying, “I then greet and cordially thank you all, dear friends belonging to other religious traditions; first of all the Muslims, who worship the one God, living and merciful…” For Pope Francis, steeped in the Christian tradition as he his, “The one God” does not designate a god concept, in the same way that the Trinity does not cash out a god concept. These are words and formulas that have as their referent the all-embracing reality, beyond, within, and through our frail creaturely experience. We call that reality God, even while warning that in doing so we, with Augustine, release any conceptual claim and speak, instead, with joy and praise.
Finally, it is worth recognizing that these linguistic maneuvers are patterned after the the life, death, and resurrection of Christ. The divinity of Christ consisted in, not in entering the world as a god to confront all other gods, but rather, manifesting the divine in the act of giving himself away, without limit.
This is what I see Dr. Hawkins attempting to do in identifying with those who are being marginalized and threatened by the dominant culture. And that’s the sense in which this whole problem cannot be easily resolved. The deeper root is not linguistic, but ethical and tightly wrapped within the prevailing power structures. Perhaps Wheaton would retract their suspension if a more nuanced understanding of these words, indeed, these ethics(!), could be appreciated? We can and ought pray for it. May Christ be with them as he is clearly with Dr. Hawkins.
Being a Christian has never been easy for me. There have been numerous seasons where I’ve wanted to simply ditch the whole program. Yet, over the years, I eventually came to see that I had good Christian reasons for my dissatisfaction. This morning I came across a wonderful passage by Thomas Merton that helps illuminate what I mean by that. He suggests that Christianity is tempted with a single basic sin. He says that,
The basic sin, for Christianity, is rejecting others in order to choose oneself, deciding against others and deciding for oneself. (Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander, 172.)
It is a simple statement with powerful depth. With that single sentence Merton essentially captures all the various elements of my religion that made it nearly impossible for me to remain. From the stubborn defense of cherished readings of the Bible against other truth-seeking discourses (such as the empirical sciences) to the exclusivist theology in which only those who believed the right things would attain true humanity and avoid everlasting torment. All of these things amounted to the choosing and defense of oneself and one’s ideas over against the destabilizing possibilities that others represent.
During my own religious crisis, I would often say that what I wanted more than anything was truth. If my religion, and therefore the meaning of my life, was not in fact truth, I wanted to know that. While I was in seminary I encountered some who seemed much more keen on preserving the meaning of their life in the form of their religion. I was always unsettled and aggravated by such encounters. At the time, I interpreted it as a conflict between truth and Christianity, and as such I felt a growing pressure to leave Christianity. It would be some time yet before I came to see the conflict as having much more to do with the sin of self-justification.
Merton drives the point home powerfully:
Why is this sin so basic? Because the idea that you can choose yourself, approve yourself, and then offer yourself (fully “chosen” and “approved”) to God, applies the assertion of yourself over against God. From this root of error comes all the sour leafage and fruitage of a life of self-examination, interminable problems and unending decisions, always making right choices, walking on the razor edge of an impossibly subtle ethic (with an equally subtle psychology to take care of the unconscious). All this implies the frenzied conviction that one can be [one’s] own light and [one’s] own justification, and that God is there for a purpose: to issue the stamp of confirmation upon my own rightness. In such a religion the Cross becomes meaningless except as the (blasphemous) certification that because you suffer, because you are misunderstood, you are justified twice over—you are a martyr. Martyr means witness. You are then a witness? To what? To your own infallible light and your own justice, which you have chosen.
This is the exact opposite of everything Jesus ever did or taught. (Conjectures, 172.)
In contrast to much of what passes as Christianity in our day, Merton helps us see that the true mark of Christian faithfulness lies not in vigorous demonstrations of certainty, or in a zeal to defend the purity of the faith against the contamination of others (be they political, religious, or otherwise). Such are the machinations of self-preservation. True Christianity is just the opposite. True Christianity, like Christ, exposes our self-preserving tendencies. True Christianity cares little about whether or not it is true Christianity, for its eyes are no longer anxiously searching itself for its own justification. In the power of grace, one’s “self” is allowed to pass away, and others cease to be a threat. A posture of defense turns to a posture of hospitality.
This is not a form of Christianity that I have any temptation to leave. It is not open to my critique, but rather I find myself always exposed in its presence. But not only exposed, also accepted, and called by its beauty. It has been a long road, but I am deeply grateful for thinkers like Merton who have helped me see that what seemed like unfaithfulness was in reality the movement of a deeper stirring. I pray that we all might find such light to live by, beyond pretension, defensiveness, and fear.
A Brief Overview
It is often thought that Christianity keeps its adherents in a state of perpetual immaturity. As a sociological fact, this may be hard to argue against. Much that goes by the name Christianity looks quite near to what Ernest Becker described as a fearful “death denying ideology.” In theological terminology, such ways of being amount to self-salvation programs. The terror of death drives us to avoid all forms of death. Yet, at the heart of Christianity stands one who chose his own death and encouraged his followers to take up their own crosses and follow him. Such an act, apparently, has an important role to play in an understanding of Christian salvation. In this thesis, I make use of developmental stages theory to illuminate what that role is. I argue that Christian salvation is founded on a paradoxical death that is best made sense of in light of contemporary developmental stages theory, in particular, at the thresholds of developmental stage transition. To illuminate this claim I trace out the logic across the rational, desirous, and active dimensions of human being. These dimensions are explored, in order, by way of Paul Tillich’s philosophy of religion, Sebastian Moore’s spiritual Christology, and the practice of Centering prayer. Taken together, it is concluded that Christianity has tremendous resources for helping its adherents come to grips with their death denying strategies and therefore enlarge their capacity for psychological and spiritual maturity.
We are familiar with the story. The young person raised in a religious home goes off to college, or perhaps seminary, and loses their faith. For them and for their family back home, it is a painful and bewildering experience. Their minds fill with questions about how they could have gone so wrong. The parents wonder if they should have paid for the private Christian college, or if they did, their guilt is even more intense, and explanations, even harder to come by. Never would it occur to any of them that the maturing young adult might be actually embodying the very death and resurrection of Christ. It might even be the case that the parents’ resistance to facing what has actually affected their child puts them more on the side of the Pharisees than faith. How could this be?
At the center of this study stands the paradox of Christian salvation. Christianity is founded on the image of one who faced, engaged, and befriended the negativities of human existence, even the most radical of them all: death. In doing so, Jesus came to be called Christ the Savior. To follow this Christ, Christians are called to likewise lose their life in order to find it, to take up their cross and follow him. These are a vague and puzzling set of instructions. Perhaps because of this, the enormity of this paradoxical insight, as it pertains to spiritual growth and the way we deal with existential doubt, has hardly begun to be realized.
My aim in this thesis is to shed new light on the way that the paradox of Christian salvation transforms what appears as death, doubt, and faithlessness into new life during the normal course of one’s maturing spiritual life. I claim that developmental stage theories, specifically the work of Robert Kegan, provide us with a powerful tool to analyze and understand the formal dynamics of this spiritual development. I augment Kegan’s theory with the work of Ernest Becker, who focuses on the content of what keeps people and cultures clinging to self-destructive patterns of thought and action. We might think of Becker as providing a sustained analysis of why we are so often in the company of “those who seek to save their lives.” Becker helps us see that the often terrifying experience of psychological and, therefore, spiritual growth stems from an underlying fear of death (especially the death of our “self-esteem”) which lies well beneath the surface of our stated concepts and commitments. After setting up my analytical apparatus, I move to apply it to the rational, passional, and practical dimensions of human being by examining Paul Tillich’s philosophy of religion, Sebastian Moore’s spiritual Christology, and the practice of Centering Prayer.
My aim from this work is twofold. My first goal is to develop a constructive theological proposal that shows how Christian salvation, when understood in its full paradoxical nature, unites the theoretical work of these thinkers with the practice of Centering Prayer. And, secondly, I aim to show how, contrary to our intuitions, a certain kind of death in the realm of our rational, desirous, and practical life (doubt, disaffection, and inaction) can lead through disintegration into a deepening maturity. This thesis will thus be dynamic enough to accommodate all stages of human maturation, while maintaining a focus on the universality of our fear of death as it takes on new forms at different developmental thresholds. By doing this, I hope to illuminate how Christianity possesses the theological resources to transform what is so often thought of as a loss of faith into an actual advance in spiritual maturity.
This post is a continuation of a series in which I make use of the blogosphere to motivate my dissertation free-writing. For context, read the short summary of my work here. There you will also find a table of contents with links to all the posts in this series.
As regular readers may have noticed, the blog posts have been a bit thin as of late. I feel like I owe you and explanation. You see, something unexpected has happened. Out of the handful of reasons I had for deciding to attempt to blog my way through my dissertation, one of the main ones was that it had the curious effect of increasing my productivity. It put me in the right head-space. However, about a month ago, the effectiveness of blogging for productivity was supplanted by a nondescript little feature that was hidden away in my writing application. Allow me to introduce you to Scrivener‘s “Project Targets” panel:
Now, Scrivener is an unbelievable writing tool in general, but this little feature has just done it for my particular psychological makeup. You see, I’m the sort of person who can move heaven and earth if you just give me a little feedback. The moment my wife and I bought a car with a real-time MPG gauge I instantly became a hypermiler. I bought a scale and a calorie counting app and lost 20 lbs (and mostly kept it off… though the latter stages of this dissertation have begun to take their toll!). About a year ago I downloaded Personal Capital’s financial tracking app and have radically boosted our family’s savings as a result.
Each of these scenarios involved a new source of feedback and resulted in dramatic change. Why? Prior to having some real-time feedback, it was just numbers in the void. It didn’t “feel” real. Real-time feedback made these nebulous abstractions an immediate, concrete, measurable, reality. It just so happens that this is just the sort of thing that has the power to motivate me. I still have a bit of a teenage mind, you see. Abstractions that float somewhere off in the future (like “finishing the dissertation!”) don’t hit my brain as being real. Scrivener’s project targets panel has addressed this problem for me.
As any dissertation writing website well tell you, the key to finishing a dissertation is that you don’t sit down to write “your dissertation.” You sit down to write a page or so. Every. Day. “The muse honors the working stiff,” as Steven Pressfield says in The War of Art. The beauty of Scrivener’s project targets panel is that it gives the “working stiff” a sense of a accomplishment and hope.
Its design is elegant and effective. First you set the word count target for your entire project. Next you set the date that you want to complete your project on. From there you select the days of the week that you plan to write, and that’s it! The project targets panel will calculate how many words you must complete every day to meet your total word count goal by the date you have specified.
From the motivational standpoint your daily goal is then simply to make that little red bar move across the screen and turn to a delightful shade of green as it goes! Better yet, if you exceed your daily word goal, every day after that will be calculated to reflect your over-achieving efforts!
So all that’s just to say that I’m now two thirds of the way through chapter 5 of 6, but I haven’t posted in awhile because I’ve been busy “movin’ the progress bar!” I aim to have this whole show wrapped up shortly, at which point I will then get to work posting the rest of my project here.
So if you’re a feedback nut and find yourself searching for the motivation to complete a large writing project, check out Scrivener and get busy movin’ the bar!
In the previous section we outlined Sebastian Moore’s theory of original sin. There he characterized original sin as a self-limitation of life that is necessary for our emergence into self-aware existence, but that gets stuck in exclusively that self-limited way of being. Growth beyond the relative safety of our socially-bound self-limitation is powerfully resisted, based, as it is, upon a fundamental mistrust of life that goes all the way back to the first experiences of being an autonomous reality separate from our mother. As both Becker and Kegan have helped us see, our fearful reliance on coping strategies formed along this developmental journey has the effect of alienating us from each other and from our own potential as life becomes more complex than the original conditions under which they were formed. We noted how these original conditions gave rise to the persistent human habit of attempting to find our identity by always measuring ourselves against others. Such is our “first focus” that we cling to because it is the world in which we first entered as self-aware beings. That being the case, it is understandable that our first focus easily becomes our only focus. However, our desire is unlimited, and for that reason our efforts to attain unlimited significance by measuring ourselves against limited others leads us to eat each other alive, as is amply reflected in the world’s constant war between the sexes, the social divisions that result from economic inequity, the conflict between racial, cultural, and religious others, and even the alienation between coworkers, family members, and friends.
The problem, therefore, consists of two parts. The first is that our true desire has been repressed. We easily settled for much safer forms of desire, and for that reason, we are easily led by the nose, allowing others to tell us what we should do, what we should love, and who we should fear. The second part of the problem is that for those whose deeper desire has begun to break through the surface of life, nothing in the world can satisfy it. Such people are like the Ebola virus, burning themselves up as well as the people around them with little regard for the impracticality of their actions.
Moore articulates the Christian solution as being not so much the creative repression of a genius, as Becker argued for, or the unrepression of the insane, as Becker felt the evangelists of unrepression must end with. Instead, Moore shows how Jesus leads his followers on a two two-step journey that mirrors the two-fold problem of the human condition. Jesus first awoke his disciples to their true desires, but then, as the one who stretched out his life beyond the limits we set upon it, he revealed to them resurrected life. Or as he puts it in another place, “We are to become, first, honest, then cosmic.” (Let this Mind Be in You, 127.)
How does Moore work this out? From what we have seen so far, we can view the story of the emergence of original sin as the story of the loss of the child in us, a foreshortened sense of our desirableness. (Let this Mind Be in You, 117.) In view of this, Moore encourages us to see the story of Jesus as the story of one who retains this child and, for that reason, is without original sin. We must also recall what was said earlier on the two general ways the problem of original sin is solved, namely, by way of indirect and direct awakening.
We are now ready to see the specific way that Moore conceives of Jesus as conquering sin. The basic pattern is that Jesus experienced his own desirability directly (union with the Father), and for that reason was able to bring about the indirect awakening of desire in those around him. Nothing too radical is on display at this point since these are the movements that, to varying degrees, occur between people every day. What makes the Christ event incomparable is its intensity and what occurred in the dramatic death of Jesus.
In terms of intensity, the Christian story is of one who’s experience of his own desirability was off the map of normal human experience. As Moore says, “his influence was the maximum possible within the limits of person-to-person contact. The charm, the magic, the allure of Jesus swept the whole range of human interaction, exhausted the possibilities of mutual awakening.” (Let this Mind Be in You, 117.) It was this spiritual mindset that enabled Jesus to utterly cut against the grain of expected social norms, pouring forth a compassion that had no limit. No fragile ego limited his ability to reach out toward the members of society that represent the elements of the (predominately male) psyche that are repressed during its developmental journey: the opposite sex, cultural “others,” moral transgressors; and, perhaps even more significantly, those who are explicit reminders of death; the poor, the sick, and the political oppressors. This intensity produced a new hope for human existence. It created what Jesus called the “Kingdom of God,” and produced, precariously, heaven on earth. (Let this Mind Be in You, 117.)
However, this new hope collapsed in the arrest and crucifixion of Jesus. Since Jesus awoke those around him to the maximum extent possible within the limits of social arousal, there could be no comparable level of social arousal after Jesus. There could be nothing except for the other awakening: “the direct awakening of the sense of being desirable, by the One by whose desire we exist.” (Let this Mind Be in You, 118.) Moore sees the whole validity of the Christian message to hang on the series of encounters after Jesus’ death that gave rise to this awakening. This transition, so famously bungled earlier by Peter and the request of James and John (Matthew 16:13-23, Mark 10:35-45), was the “ah ha” moment that Jesus had been trying to instill in his disciples throughout his ministry, but it took his removal from the scene of creaturely existence and the disciples subsequent reflection on the nature of his removal for the insight to finally click. The cross effected for them the horizontal explosion of social (indirect) arousal into the vertical dimension of mystical (direct) arousal.
What was the nature of Jesus’ removal, and why does it matter to our discussion? Moore stresses, that the nature of Jesus exit from the scene of creaturely existence was that of one who chose their own sacrifice. This is not suicide, or even the passion of one who runs into a burning building to save another. The gospel memory is of one who “set his face towards Jerusalem,” in the full knowledge that his vocation was leading inexorably to his death. Moore sees the essential quality as being found in Jesus’ initiation of a final act of friendship with the ultimate enemy of human life: death.
For the sinful condition that is ours, death is repressed…, banished, ‘queered’, thrown outside the city. At the same time we know that this rejected status of death is the sign of our…lostness, of an incapacity-to-feel that we cannot deal with. To meet the one who connected with, who befriended, who claimed, this our rejected death, would be to encounter an enormous and incomprehensible love. This love of us in our wretched unconnectedness, shown in the embrace of what we reject in horror, is intellectually nearly impossible to understand, but our deepest and simplest knowing moves out to it. At the heart of the Christian experience down the ages, the uncomprehending sufferer stretches out to the free, willing, understanding sufferer. And thus outstretched, the uncomprehending sufferer can at last received the communication of the incomprehensible inflictor as love, and see this in the fact of the victim raised from the grave. (Let this Mind Be in You, 129-9.)
The significance of this cannot be stressed enough. We have seen that crux of Moore’s concept of original sin was the dynamic of self-limitation of our desirability (and therefore desire) that occurs during the process of psychological birth and growth, combined with our resistance to growing beyond that self-limitation. The result is our separation from each other, our potential, and God. More than that, it is not just “separation,” it is the creation of enmity, disgust, even horror at all dimensions of reality in ourselves and others that press beyond the edges of our self-created membrane. (See Richard Beck’s Excellent book “Unclean:%20Meditations on Purity, Hospitality, and MortalityUnclean” for more on the role of disgust as it pertains to our capacity for offering hospitality) And at the root of it all stands the terror of death, for it is ultimately in response to the terror of death that our our fragile ego has been created. As it stands, humanity is largely arrested at its “Oedipal self-understanding.” We “take it for reality itself” and thus “impose on society and on the universe that distrust of life, that self-repression, which was once appropriate when we were engaged on the business of becoming separate and sexually distinguished selves.” (Let this Mind Be in You, 127.)
In other words, we set our own limit on the meaningfulness of our life in our refusal to grow…. We build an invisible wall round our life. Outside that wall, uncharted by us, is death. For what does it mean to be ready for death? Who is? To be ready for death is to be living life to the full, to its limit—which is death. We don’t live this life to anything like its fullness. And what this means is that we don’t believe in the glorious being that each of us is. Massively we repress the sense of our greatness and our desires, in consequence, are weak.…Thus we create a wall round ourselves, within which we live. And far beyond that wall is God’s limit on us, death, the threshold of his loving embrace. (Let this Mind Be in You, 127.)
It is exactly here that Jesus initiated the final breakthrough for his disciples. Though they remained uncomprehending throughout his life, the final intensification of their relationship with him at the last supper, followed by Jesus’ own self-removal as the object of their devotion, led to the ultimate crisis and transformation. Their awareness of the final enemy, death, had to be transformed, and when this occurred new life flooded back down through all levels of their awareness. Religious, cultural, and economic divisions were radically transformed in the new life that poured forth, as well as those of gender and social relations. Salvation was in this way an in-breaking of a hope that outstripped the disciples’ expectations that were possible under their former awareness. At the same time, their salvation consisted in the experience of a reunion with their own basic goodness. They knew themselves for the first time, as they come from the hand of God, “desirable because desired.” (Let this Mind Be in You, 118.)
This post is a continuation of a series in which I make use of the blogosphere to motivate my dissertation free-writing. For context, read the short summary of my work here. There you will also find a table of contents with links to all the posts in this series.
 These remarks remind me something Becker said. “…[H]uman heroics is a blind drivenness that burns people up; in passionate people, a screaming for glory as uncritical and reflexive as the howling of a dog. In the more passive masses of mediocre men it is disguised as they humbly and complainingly follow out the roles that society provides for their heroics and try to earn their promotions within the system: wearing the standard uniforms—but allowing themselves to stick out, but ever so little and so safely, with a little ribbon or a red boutonniere, but not with head an shoulders.” (The Denial of Death, 6.)
 Given the patriarchal nature of Jesus’ time we might expect that the social norms would mirror the psychological patterns of the male mind.
I thought I would take a moment to let those of you who follow this blog know that I’ve made a couple updates to the site yesterday. I’ve added two new pages that I hope will make this blog a bit more accessible. Firstly, I’ve added a “Top Posts” page (look just to the right under the “Pages” section). There I’ve included a selection of posts that have continued to attract attention over time (as well as a few that just happen to be my favorites). During this long slog through my dissertation, you may enjoy looking back over some of my writings that are not been explicitly tied to this project. If you are feeling especially hardcore or nostalgic I’ve also added a page that has a complete listing of every post I’ve ever written stretching all the way back to 2009!
In addition to these new pages, you may also have noticed that I’ve added links to the various social media platforms that I’m on. I’d love it if you’d take a moment to connect with me there. The Facebook page is specifically set up for this blog, while Twitter will be a mix of things, blog, theology, and photography related.
Thanks to those of you who have been following along, and especially to those of you who have taken the time to comment. These are the kinds of conversations that brought me here in the first place, and I’m delighted to keep that fire burning!