Both Christian and Muslim? Sort of…

The Seattle Times reports that Rev. Dr. Ann Holmes Reading, an Episcopal priest, has announced that she has been a Muslim for the last fifteen months. The conversion of a clergyperson of one faith to another is newsworthy, perhaps, but Dr. Holmes Reading has surprised people by declaring that she is both Christian and Muslim.

Her bishop has backed her, saying that he finds “the interfaith possibilities exciting,” while the leaders of her Islamic study centre welcome her. Other Episcopal and Islamic clergy, however, find the whole notion preposterous–indeed, heretical and blasphemous. Even the newspaper runs a list of contradictory doctrines.

The question at the heart of this interfaith controversy, of course, is what “faiths” are going to be “inter-ing.”

Dr. Holmes Reading is clearly an intelligent and accomplished person, with several degrees and a doctorate in New Testament from Union Theological Seminary in New York City. Along her considerable journey she has determined that religions are wide open to individual interpretation, that the doctrine of original sin makes no sense, and that the deity of Christ cannot be affirmed.

She also has come to believe that there is no problem for a Christian to pronounce the fundamental Islamic creed, “There is no God but God [Allah], and Muhammad is his prophet.”

Clearly, doctrinal contradictions aren’t the main issue for her. The main issue is experiencing the call of God: “It wasn’t about intellect,” she told The Times. “All I know is the calling of my heart to Islam was very much something about my identity and who I am supposed to be.”

This whole thing isn’t actually new. For several generations, now, we have had Christian clergy exploring the interface of their religion with Buddhism or Hinduism and professing affinity for both. Many native Canadians claim Christianity and yet resort to native lore for particular needs and concerns, whether mythology to explain things or medicine to heal things. Likewise, many North Americans continue to profess Christianity while reading and believing their horoscopes, trusting magnets or crystals to alleviate their pain, visiting mediums to contact dead loved ones, and the like. And Japan is well-known in the study of comparative religion for its patterns of selective accessing of various religions for various needs: Shinto for this, Buddhism for that, a general Confucianist outlook for most of life, and even a dabbling in aspects of Christianity for the particularly Western-oriented.

So we return to Dr. Holmes Reading and are not quite so surprised after all. Our diminished surprise dwindles further as we recall her theological training. Her liberal Christian tradition already reduces Jesus to a prophet (as Islam says he is), dismisses the doctrine of the Trinity as a piece of Hellenistic speculation (as Islam says it is), and focuses upon the mystical and the moralistic (as much Islam does). For a Christian like that to embrace Islam is not that big a deal.

It’s especially not a big leap when a leader at the Muslim centre assures us that “Islam doesn’t say if you’re a Christian, you’re not a Muslim. Islam doesn’t lay it out like that.”

Well, actually, it does. At least, mainstream Islam, both Sunni and Shi’ite, does, as do all the standard textbooks in Islam and in world religions that I know of–and that’s dozens. And quite a bit of Christian-Muslim history, including its bloodiest episodes, does rather hinge on each side saying that “if you’re a Christian, you’re not a Muslim.”

Again, however, if you belong to a liberal form of Islam–and there is such a thing–then it’s not difficult to embrace a liberal Christian. Mystical and moralistic monotheism unites them, as does a freedom to interpret scriptures and traditions in any way you like. It’s all about getting down to the essence that unites all faiths, the “kernel” of truth that unites us and that lies within the various “husks” of this or that particular religious tradition.

A hundred years ago the great German Christian scholar Adolf von Harnack pronounced that the essence of Christianity (the title of his book, Das Wesen den Christentums, entitled What Is Christianity? in the English edition) is simply this: “The Fatherhood of God, the Brotherhood of Man, and the Infinite Value of the Human Soul.” Well, what good Muslim would disagree?

And a liberal Muslim would be very happy with such a radical reduction of the Christian faith, since it nicely coincides with her radical reduction of Islam. No more awkward encounters with “infidels.” No more troubling division of the world into “Dar al-Islam” (the abode of Islam) and “Dar al-Harb” (the abode of war). No more proscriptions of diet or dress, or other infringements upon one’s personal liberty to enjoy God and the world in one’s own way.

Of course there is no trouble being a Christian and a Muslim. Once you carefully pare away–or blithely ignore–all the things that make them different (and that the vast majority of believers, clergy, and scholars insist do make them different), then behold! They’re the same!

As a more traditional Christian myself, I am glad Sister Ann still loves Jesus and sees him as her Saviour. I am intrigued that she believes in his resurrection, whatever that might mean for her.

My prayer for her is that as she continues her journey, she will continue to admire Islam, as I do. But I hope she will come to see it as offering too limited an appreciation of Jesus. The early disciples were themselves monotheists of a strict Semitic sort, and they came to believe that they simply had to worship Jesus as Lord, as Yhwh God.

I pray that Sister Ann finally will, too.

0 Responses to “Both Christian and Muslim? Sort of…”

  1. Steve Bedard

    The problem that I see is that even liberal Christians accept that Jesus died on the cross, which Islam explicitly denies. Islam teaches that God rescued Jesus from the cross, possibly substituting Judas. How could a liberal Christian reconcile that?

  2. Paul T

    Hmmm…

    In the gospel of John we read of the story of the Samaritan woman at the well. As Christians we’ve sanitized this story to the extent that it no longer has much impact for many (most?) of us. It is easy to forget that Jews and Samaritans were as far apart from a religious, political and cultural perspective as Christians and Moslems are today. They shared a common ancestor in Abraham, but differed on almost everything else. The Samaritans accepted the Pentateuch, but rejected the historical narratives, the prophets and the wisdom literature of the Hebrew Scriptures. They rejected the temple and they rejected the Jewish rabbinical and priestly traditions. They rejected the Jewish sacrificial system centered in the temple in Jerusalem and instead had their own sacrificial system with their own temple and priests. When Jesus speaks with the Samaritan woman, in spite of her bringing the religious issue right into the open, he ignores all the Jewish/Samaritan religious differences and focuses on the relational connection to the living God he has and is offering the same to her. She accepts and they go down to her village. By the end of Jesus’ stay – “Many believed because of the woman’s testimony … And many more believed because of his [Jesus’] word.” The key point most people miss is that the Samaritans believed on Jesus yet remained within their own religious community. Rather than belittling their religious traditions, Jesus suggested that neither Samaritans nor Jews had a monopoly on truth but rather that both and more would “worship God in spirit and in truth”. There is nothing here to indicate they ever changed any of their core religious practices or beliefs – they certainly never reintegrated into Jesus’ Jewish community, and the Christian community was many years in the future. Nor is there even the remotest hint that they accepted the divinity of Jesus. But the Christian scripture records them as believers.

    I’m not so sure the doctrinal boundaries we as humans create are as important to God as many believers think they are.

    Thanks

    Paul T

  3. Mark Lee

    Interesting argument, Paul. May I draw your attention to verse 22 of that passage: “You Samaritans worship what you do not know; we worship what we do know, for salvation is from the Jews. Yet a time is coming and has now come when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for they are the kind of worshipers the Father seeks.” Perhaps you missed that verse in your speculations about the meaning of this story. Jesus goes on in verse 26 to identify himself as the Messiah that this particular Samaritan woman had been expecting. So, I guess Jesus wasn’t being quite as vague with regards to doctrinal truth, nor as affirming of non-Jewish religious positions, as you seem to be suggesting.

  4. Paul T

    What does Jesus identifying himself as the messiah have to do with doctrinal boundaries, particularly whether or not God is interested in them? There was (and is) a wide range of understanding of what and who the messiah was (is, or will be) within both the Jewish and Christian communities and what this means for the people of God. Even within the Biblical texts there is disagreement over whether or not Jesus self identified as the messiah, and what the title “messiah” meant (apart from its literal meaning of “the annointed one”). In John’s gospel Jesus publicly and boldly reveals himself as the royal messiah. In the gospel of Mark Jesus insists that His messianic anointment remain hidden but even here it is far more of a suffering servant image of messiah that is considered. Paul seems to believe that it was at the resurrection that God anointed Jesus as the messiah (see Romans 1:4 for example). The earlier we go in the documents of the early church the less likely it seems that Jesus self-identified as the messiah.

    But in any case, lets accept the Johannine version for the moment. I’m particularly interested in your understanding of what accepting Jesus as the messiah would have meant for the Samaritan community. How did it change them? Do you disagree with my assertion that they never joined either the Jewish or Christian communities? Did they in mass become part of Jesus’ itinerant followers? Did they wait until the Gentiles were allowed in and then join? Or did they all of a sudden abandon all of their religious traditions and practices and create their own “Jesus” community? And replace them with what? There is no hint in any records of the time that I am aware of that suggest that a group of Samaritans joined with other followers of Jesus in either the pre or post Easter world, even when many Gentiles were become followers of “the way” or that they formed an alternate “Jesus” community. They simply disappear from view. Did they abandon the message they had received? What did they believe and what did they do about it? If they abandoned the message, why would the Johannine community have recorded this story and presented them as believers? If they formed their own brand of “Jesusism” why is this not identified and either affirmed or condemned by the Johannine community? If they felt the need to abandon their old ways, what specific doctrinal understandings replaced them, and if they really were believers, why were these specific doctrinal understandings not part of the narrative? Why the overt emphasis on relational acceptance of the impure if speculative doctrine was the primary issue?

    Assuming the Johannine narrative to be an accurate historical account (which I’m not sure it is or was meant to be), it seems the Samaritans were expecting a prophetic (as opposed to a political, royal or divine) messiah. (see verse 19-25) As such, they graciously received Jesus as the messiah when he identified himself as such. Moslems of today revere Jesus as the greatest prophet next to Mohammed. I think there are very close (but not identical) comparisons between the Samaritans of Jesus’ day and the Moslems of today. I do not agree with the Moslem assessment of Jesus, but I’m not so sure that everything I believe is necessarily so. I personally have far greater sympathies for Judaism than Islam, and I as a Christian am building a relationship with a local Jewish community. But I think a little bit of doubt is essential if we are to live humbly with our God. In a series of lectures at Leicestershire (July 14-16, 2004), N.T. Wright said that about a third of what he teaches is probably false; the only problem is that he didn’t know which third. I think we might well treat those we disagree with more graciously and hold our doctrinal speculations a bit more tenuously. As the Apostle Paul said “We see through a glass darkly”.

    In John 13:34-35 (See also John 15:2 and John 15:7) Jesus gave his disciples’ a new command which was to be the one way that they would be identified:

    “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.”

    In this passage Jesus does not say they will be known as his disciples if they all agree with one another, or if they have the right doctrinal beliefs or if they practice the right religious rituals or if they follow the right set of rules or make the right confessions or identify with the right group. The one and only test of being a disciple of Jesus according to the gospel of John, the one “way” of Jesus, is the way of transformative love. This passage is almost certainly this community’s adaptation of the shema, and while we cannot deny the tragic consequences that have arisen because of specific interpretations inheritors of this text have created, we cannot make it into that which it clearly is not. This is a message that is consistent with all of the other gospels as well as the teachings of Paul and other apostles. Luke 10:27, Matthew 22:37, Mark 29-31, John 13:34-35, Romans 12:10, 13:8-10, Gal 5:14, James 2:8, I John 4:20-21 are but a small sampling of the New Testament texts that provide confirmations of and commentary on the importance of the Shema contained in Deut 6:5 and Lev 19:18. John makes no comments as to whether or not other religions also possess the way of Jesus, the way of love, but what he does emphasize is that there is no way to the Father but the one shown by Jesus – the way of love of neighbour.

    I believe it is certainly possible to be a Samaritan (or a Moslem or a Jew or an evangelical Christian or a liberal one) and live by this standard, which by definition then makes them a follower of Jesus and meets the requirements of the God revealed both in the Old and the New Testaments. It is not our doctrinal beliefs that save us any more than it is our works that make us acceptable to God.

    Thanks

    Paul

  5. John Stackhouse

    I appreciate Paul’s concern that we not place doctrinal precision in first place, as if it is the test of true Christianity. I also share his interest in what did, indeed, happen to the believing Samaritans: Any NT specialists out there who can help on that score?

    But, Brother Paul, your namesake can hardly be read as being indifferent to doctrine! Nor can the early church. And Jesus himself seems to think that getting clear who God is, and who he is, and what one must both believe and do in the light of those affirmations really matters.

    And it’s simply wrong to elevate the New Commandment of John 13 to the place where it eliminates the whole Jewish background of Jesus and his disciples and all that follows in the Christian tradition: as if nothing else matters (not doctrine, not worship, not evangelism, not love for one’s non-Christian neighbours, not care for the rest of creation)–just love for one’s fellow believers.

    (As one with an incurable interest in things methodological, I can’t help but point out that Paul makes the mistake of arguing from silence: “Since Jesus didn’t talk about anything else than loving each other, that must mean that’s the only thing he had on his mind and the only thing he wanted his disciples to think about.” Quite the contrary: The New Commandment only makes sense in the rich context of the Old Testament, of Jesus’ own ministry, and of what Jesus intends the New Commandment to foster, namely, a loving community that will attract others into Kingdom living.)

    So no, correct doctrine is not the most important thing. Relating properly to Jesus is the most important thing. But correct doctrine can help, and incorrect doctrine can hurt, so theology matters–as the apostles make clear.

    As for the matter at hand, then, I am open to the idea that certain Muslims have indeed encountered the true God experientially and are on their way to salvation. I believe the same is true of certain Christians whose theology is also pretty bad. That’s not what I’m talking about in this post.

    What I’m talking about is whether orthodox Islam and orthodox Christianity can be simultaneously affirmed. They can’t be.

    And I’m saying that only quite liberal versions of each, which basically shear off most of what makes each religion distinctive, can be made so amenable to each other.

  6. Ryan

    According to this article in today’s New York Times, it seems that Ms. Redding’s bishop does not share her conviction that it is possible to be both Muslim and Christian. She has been suspended from the priesthood for a year.

  7. John Stackhouse

    Thanks for the clarification, Ryan. I should have suspected something hierarchically arcane might obtain here! So her own bishop has disciplined her (a bishop in Rhode Island) while the local bishop (whom I mistook as being her bishop) is okay with her double profession AND now, in good Episcopalian fashion, is ALSO okay with her being disciplined. He sounds like an okay guy, so to speak…

  8. Matthew James

    I do not see any conflict here. To quote a few:Thomas Mann, We both read the bible every night you the black and I the white. Rumi, With Abraham the seed was planted, with Moses a tree gave rise, with Jesus fruit came of the branch and with Muhammad, fine wine was made of that fruit. On divinity, no, I do not believe that Jesus is God nor do I believe did he. Rather, Jesus was the Sun at the Dawn of Creation, the Light of the whole Universe, the Living Word of Allah, the Christ, and the Fulfillment of Gods Promise-our Divine Ideal. If only this could spread and fill the hearts. Al-Mahdi said of the creatures (other people) they are either our sibling in faith or our equal in creation. Such a point of view could really be used right now in these times of suffering, ignorance, and self centered darkness.

    • dunkaroo

      Sorry, I asked the wrong person!

      I mean Matthew James, can you tell me where you got that Thomas Mann quote (like which book)?

      Thanks!

  9. John Stackhouse

    Well, yes, Matthew James, there is no conflict as long as you remove everything from Christianity with which a Muslim disagrees (such as the belief that Jesus is God) and then soften even orthodox Islamic conviction in a soup of Sufi mysticism.

    But that’s not a terribly startling conclusion, and it will be completely unsuitable to any orthodox Christian or Muslim.

  10. Moahmed said

    Well, this story was quiet interesting as soon as I watched it on YouTub. I enjoyed Reading this blog and all the comments posted on here..I felt somewhat attached to Paul’s viewpoint and Matthew’s last post was very touching. As a Muslim, I personally think in the matter of religion lot of people are actually missing the point, and that most people are so attached to their culture and roots, that one’s spiriual being is thrown out the window. People are more concerned with rules and laws rather then the message. Clinging to names instead of reaching out to god,
    Judaism, Christianity and Islam have lot more similarities then diffrences, and I think the Concept of God is not hard to harness. As a devoted Muslim I see myself constantly Reading other Scriptures in order to get closer to God, because I know that these scriptures and who’ever brought them came from 1 source, The Almighty, 1 and only, The Eternal.
    I remeber Reading the 10 Comandments which is I believe in the Hebrew Bible and what I experienced only grew my faith and spirtual level. Same for the Christian Bibel, when I read the practical teachings of Jesus it only makes me cry. I think lot of people are sceptical about Islam especially Christians on the subject of Jesus. I Love Jesus with all my heart and love all messengers Mohamed, Moses, Abrahim and all the rest which are mentioned in the scriptures.
    To summ this up, I think to get closer to got you have to listen to your spirtual being and Humbly submit to the will of God.

  11. dunkaroo

    Hi John Stackhouse,

    Will you be able to tell me from which book you derived that Thomas Mann quote?

    Much appreciated 🙂

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