Theology, Third Installment

This week’s edition of systematic theology reflections is somewhat subdued, if for no other reason than the 10-page essay I read in Asian Faces of Jesus (R.S. Sugirtharajah, editor) gave me little to disagree with. So, this essay, by Church of Pakistan Bishop Alexander Malik (who has his own problems), is no longer than the one I will hand in Monday evening. It isn’t as if I don’t write enough here anyway.

* * *

Pakistani scholar and church leader Alexander J. Malik boldly asserts, on the basis of Paul’s writings as well as the differences in the Gospels, that Jesus can be “confessed in different terms in Islamic, Hindu, Buddhist, or Marxist contexts,” thus allowing Jesus to speak to people on the basis of both their cultures as well as their pre-existing religious, social and even political ideas.

However, given the context of Islam in Pakistan, Malik finds three significant difficulties for Christians. The first is the “reductionist” Christology of the Qur’an, a Christology which portrays Jesus as a prophet little different from any other prophet of Islam – without divinity, pre-existence nor who came to save the world. Second is the Muslim view of the Bible as a set of scriptures which were once similar to the Qur’an in content but were long ago corrupted (and thus in need of a final revelation to correct the misunderstood message of God). Finally, Malik identifies the elevated Prophet Muhammad of popular Muslim piety, a Muhammad who is as close to divine as any human being can be.

Malik is also concerned about Islamic exegesis which has long said, on the basis of several ayats in the Qur’an, that Jesus was not crucified and did not die. Rather, most Muslim scholars have long taught, someone was else was crucified in Jesus’ place and Christ himself ascended to heaven without dying. He is correct in pointing this out, but he gets the footnote (5) wrong. The reference is to surah 3:48 (Aal Imran, or the Family of Imran), which only speaks of Jesus being taught the book, wisdom, the Torah and the Gospel. The reference I believe Malik was looking for is surah 4:157 (An-Nisa, or Women), which, if taken literally, is merely a refutation that the Jews did not kill or crucify Jesus (the ayat makes the affirmation that “they did not kill him” twice), though the ayat’s exact meaning would depend on how these words are used and what they mean in other contexts. Malik is right in noting that there is little point arguing with 1,400 years of Islamic scholarship, but if he is calling for a biblical Christology based on scripture, an honest assessment of the Qur’an is in order as well.

For Malik, then, the goal is to let Muslims know that confessing Christ as God is not shirk, literally the association of others with God (often times crudely translated as polytheism), and that Jesus and the Holy Spirit do not form a pantheon of gods with the Father. Nor does confessing Christ as “Son of God” imply literal generative kinship. (The use of the word is problematic, especially in relation to the term Father.) Finally, the greatness of God as expressed in the takbir – allahu akbar, literally God is greater [than whatever else might be mentioned in the context] – allows Christians to confess a Christ who died as was raised as an expression of God’s glory and to live “resurrected lives” that attest to that greatness.

As a Muslim (for 15 years), I never had a problem with a crucified Christ resurrected and ascended to God. The story Muslims tell always felt preposterous and contrived, an attempt to deny to central element of the Gospels, the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, rather than an honest and sincere explanation. Like Malik (only from the other side), I thought a confident assertion of what we believed as Muslims we significantly more important than having stupid and pointless arguments with Christians.

In this, I find Malik is right on in his bold and confident assertion that we “should not be ashamed of the Gospel.” Indeed, the Gospel is the answer to anyone flinging law around as the way to comply with God’s will for the world and thus make the world the kind of place God wants – whether they be Muslim, Christian (for there are many law-based Christians out there), Hindu, Jew or Enlightenment Secularist (for there is in the Enlightenment a way of human conduct and organization that is believed to lead to individual and social salvation). While there are many distinctions between Islam and Christianity that Malik does not touch upon (distinctions that are especially important for Lutherans), he hints most at the problem Muslims and Christians will have in seeing where and how God’s glory is manifest. For the orthodox Christian, the glory of God is (or should be) most manifest in those things least glorious – the poor, the needy, the abused, the oppressed, the death of the Messiah and Savior of the world. Islam has, to use a Lutheran term, very much a “theology of glory.” God is most manifest in those things one would expect God to be manifest in (though not always and not by all Muslims; Sufis and Shia can be inclined to see glory in suffering and lowliness), such as human power – especially human power wielded by Muslims. (However, I remember a Kuwaiti state radio broadcast from 1992 comparing the U.S. Air Force to the birds God sent to destroy Abraha’s army of elephants as it besieged Makka in the year of Muhammad’s birth, using the language of surah 105 to compare the defeat of Abraha to the defeat of Saddam Hussein’s army and the liberation of Kuwait the previous year.)

It would be interesting to see how many Muslims would be willing to work with the idea of God’s grace and glory most manifest not in high things, in mighty things, but in weak things and low things. And to see how they might be willing or able to live their lives in response to that idea.