Overlaps in religion

I admit, this is a bit out of date, but I think it’s still worth discussing – early last month, an Islamic group called MyPeace put up billboards in Sydney bearing the phrase ‘Jesus – a prophet of Islam’.  The posters received disparaging comments from several Australian bishops, and not entirely surprisingly, one poster was vandalized within a day of being put up.

The posters latch onto a very interesting aspect of the interaction between religions, which comes up in apologetics and interfaith dialogues, as well – that the more similar two theologies are, the more irritating the two sides find one another.  I always imagine this as acting like musical tones – two distinct tones played together are a harmony, and sound lovely.  Two very similar tones played together are out of tune, and set your teeth on edge.

For Christianity and Islam, by the ninth century or so, their theologies were largely similar – they both held similar creation stories, both of the world and of Man, they understood themselves as worshiping the same God, and both understood Jesus Christ to be the Messiah, who will return at the End to judge mankind.  The major points of difference were their conception of God and their understanding of the nature of Christ – which, incidentally, were also the points of variation between the various sects of Christianity in the Near East at the time.  Islam rejected the Christian conception of the Trinity, and denied the divinity of Christ, as well as Christ’s death on the cross (in Islam, Christ is taken to Heaven just before his death, but the Romans were tricked by God into believing they had killed him).

What’s so fascinating (at least to me!) is that so often apologetics and interfaith dialogues boil down to the author’s annoyance of ‘if only’ – Muslims complaining if only Christians would give up the Trinity and Christians complaining if only Muslims would accept the divinity of Christ.

On the one hand, there’s a rhetorical reason for these preoccupations – much of Christian theology, in particularly in the Late Antique period, focused on the nature of the Trinity and the relationship between the human and divine character of Christ, and so it was natural that Christian writers would focus on these concepts in their interactions with Islam.  In a similar way, Islamic theology focused on its relationship with the larger Abrahamic tradition, and so Islamic thinkers were concerned with deconstructing Christian (and Jewish) tradition.

On the other hand, these ‘conversations’ really never go anywhere, as they’re effectively attempts to eliminate essential aspects of the other side’s religion.  From my point of view, as someone who spends way too much time reading apologetics, how the author attempts to do so is interesting, but in the end, this attempt has to be futile, as the other side really has no reason to agree to the rewriting of their beliefs.

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About askanislamicist

I'm an academic who specializes in early Islamic history and the history of religious interactions, who, in her free time, enjoys shouting into the internet.
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8 Responses to Overlaps in religion

  1. Michael Mock says:

    Were you trying to link to a specific article? Because the link at the top takes me to a google search.

    Also, I loved this line: “The posters latch onto a very interesting aspect of the interaction between religions, which comes up in apologetics and interfaith dialogues, as well – that the more similar two theologies are, the more irritating the two sides find one another.” That’s been my experience, too.

    • No, it was to the google search – I did have a look through and try to find a more-or-less unbiased article on the billboards, but the best I could find was the daily mail, so I figured I would just leave it to you, the readers!

  2. kingschwarz says:

    For the past 16 years, my professional life has been in the interfaith field (and prior to that I studied and taught world religions at university). In all of that time and across countless dialogues, I have only once encountered a Muslim pressing Christians with a critique of Trinitarianism, and I have never heard a Christian importune Muslims about the divinity of Christ. Muslims and Christians in dialogue can get testy with each other about various issues – the status of women, religion and politics, colonialism and post-colonialism etc. – but I think it exceedingly rare for them to contest basic theology. Moreover, I suspect almost no Christian dialoguer – excepting the occasional avid reader of Peter Brown – brings the theological preoccupations of Late Antiquity to the conversation. Muslim counterparts sometimes do, in my experience, focus on their relationship to the larger Abrahamic tradition, but their intent is almost always to find common ground rather than to deconstruct Jewish and Christian beliefs.

  3. dingosaar says:

    Hum… were the eastern Christians really in doubt about Christ’s divinity, or the divinity of the /living/ Christ? From my brief stint into theology (to make the “Faustian” education complete), Romans 1 was taught as an ancient creed:
    3 Concerning his Son Jesus Christ our Lord, which was made of the seed of David according to the flesh;
    4 And declared to be the Son of God with power, according to the spirit of holiness, by the resurrection from the dead:
    Which essentially says, that the man Jesus was annointed and “adopted” by God through his resurrection from the cross. As Romans is a very old source, this had to be on the earliest Christian beliefs.
    Was this modified in “later” eastern theology? (As was in western theology to “preexistence”) Would you care to elaborate on this point? I’m a little confused here, and I don’t know whether the Eastern Christian theology at the time of Islam’s advent is of general interest for your readers; feel free to eMail me if you think it isn’t.

    • No worries – I’m happy to elaborate, as Patristic history is one of my favourite topics!

      Okay, the quick overview of eastern church history: the main debates in eastern Christianity relate back to the original Church Councils, in particular the first Council of Ephesus and the Council of Chalcedon. The creed of Nicaea had define Christ as God the Son to be the same substance (homousia) as God the Father, but this raised questions for many Christian thinkers when compared to the narrative of Christ’s life, death and resurrection as preserved in the Gospels, in particular, why Christ cried out to God the Father on the Cross, and whether Christ was fully human, fully divine, or both human and divine when he was tempted by the Devil in the garden. In both these cases, it would appear that Christ was acting on his own, and many thinkers were uncomfortable with the idea of a divine being being tempted by the Devil. The official doctrine of the Byzantine empire, and what would eventually become the Greek Orthodox church, was that Christ was both fully human and fully divine, and that these two essences were combined without confusion, change, separation or division, but this definition was not satisfactory to many eastern Christians. These Christians either felt that this definition divided the person of Christ, and that Christ could only be defined as one nature, a pure mixture of the divine and human (called the Monophysites, Miaphysites, both terms meaning ‘one nature’, or Syriac Orthodox, for the chief language of this movement) or they felt that Christ was two distinct natures which were not joined (called the Dyophysite, ‘two natures’, Nestorians (technically a derogatory term relating them to the heretic Nestorius, but one used widely in the early Islamic period) or the Church of the East, and found primarily in Persia).

      Intriguingly, although your reference texts are quite valid for this debate, they are very rarely referenced by eastern Christians, who rely more heavily on the Gospels than on the Pauline epistles. This appears to be a combination of the eastern thinkers’ discomfort with Paul as not being a direct apostle of Christ, and their preference for narrative theology, using the stories of the Gospels as illustrations for various theological concepts. By comparison, the west relied much more on the Pauline corpus, probably in part due to Augustine’s fascination with it.

  4. ataralas says:

    “that the more similar two theologies are, the more irritating the two sides find one another”

    There’s an joke from where I grew up: A Dutch* Reformed Church pastor is stranded on a desert island for many years. Eventually, a ship comes by and rescues him. The rescuing party notices that there’s not one, but two churches built on the little island. One of them asks the minister, “What’s that for?” The minister replies, “I built it to thank God for saving my life!”. The rescuer then points to the other church and asks, “Well, what’s that one for then?”. The minister responds, “Why, schism, of course!”

    So yeah, pretty much.

    * The corollary joke to this is, of course:
    Q: Why do the Dutch wear wooden shoes?
    A: To keep the woodpeckers away from their heads.

    • That’s fantastic! The Anglican equivalent is a cartoon our old college chaplain kept on his door, of two old women sitting together in a massive cathedral, one commenting to the other, “I can’t wait for the schism!”

      • Brin says:

        Reminds me of a Jewish joke, about a town with two Jews and three synagogues. One for the Orthodox Jew, one for the Reformed Jew, and the one that neither of them would be seen dead in.

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