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  • Writer's pictureJohn Stackhouse

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.

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