A mere introduction to Christianity: A talk given to a gathering of Muslims and Christians in Swansea
As for our introduction to Christianity, muggins here volunteered to give it – and here it is. I really struggled over it – not only the subject matter but also the tone – hoping both to inform our Muslim guests and to challenge fellow Christians. I tinkered with it to the last minute, and finally delivered it (in my own anxious mind) as a “Hail Mary”. All I can say is that the response was hugely encouraging. And that we are all committed to making our time together a Casablanca moment – “the beginning of a beautiful friendship”.
Many years ago, I got on a train in Swansea to go to London for a meeting. At Bridgend a guy got on and sat down next to me. He evidently noticed I was reading a book on theology, because several minutes later he pointed to it and said, “This Christianity stuff – what’s it all about?” “Where are you going?” I replied. “Cardiff,” he said. “Well,” I said, “if you were going to Paddington, I’d tell you about it. But to Cardiff – there is simply not enough time.” And here we are tonight with much less time – 20 minutes – yet I’m going to give it a go. Our guests will no doubt be interested in what Christians believe, so let’s start with a sprint through the Apostles’ Creed, which is a statement of faith dating from the 4th century in Rome, where it was probably used at baptisms, the rite of initiation into the church.
The Creed is in 3 parts. It begins with belief in God the “almighty, creator … of heaven and earth” (or as another ancient creed puts it, “of all things that we can see and all things that we can’t see”), a belief shared with Islam. But it also professes belief in God the “Father”, a belief not shared with Islam. There are 99 names for God in Islam, but “Father” is not one of them. Why do Christians call God “Father”? Because Jesus called God Father – abba in his native language, Aramaic, a word that expresses intimacy as well as authority – and Jesus told his followers to call God Father too. God the Father is not, of course, a literal Father (the proverbial old man with a beard), nor is God male (because God is not gendered) – God is Spirit; rather “Father” functions as a metaphor (“language at full stretch”, “old words doing new tricks”). But note well: not just a metaphor, as if “Father” were a decorative but expendable description, rather an indispensable and irreplaceable metaphor which the Christian believes discloses the reality of God.
Part 2 of the Creed then goes on to talk about Jesus, the Christ, the Messiah the Jews were (and still are) expecting. The Creed also calls Jesus “God’s only Son” – God is the Father of Jesus – and also “our Lord”. Because only God is the Lord, here the divinity of Christ enters the picture of what Christians believe. If the heart of Islam is the testimony, “There is no god but God and the Prophet is the Messenger of God”, the heart of Christianity is the testimony, “There is no god but the Father and Jesus is his Son”. We’re two-thirds of the way towards the Christian understanding God as Trinity – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – about which more in a minute.
The Creed then asserts that Jesus was “born of the Virgin Mary”. Christians should be aware that Muslims also revere Jesus as born of the Virgin Mary, while our Muslim friends might find it interesting that more liberal Christians reject the idea of a miraculous conception. Which means that Muslims are actually more orthodox than many Christians about this traditional teaching of the Church!
But then Muslims and Christians divide again when the Creed says that Jesus “suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried”: because whereas the Koran states that Jesus was not, in fact, crucified, the crucifixion of Jesus is absolutely central to the New Testament narrative of Christ as Saviour. The New Testament has many images, models, metaphors (again!) for depicting the way the life and death of Jesus bring salvation, and for identifying the features of salvation – the forgiveness of sins, liberation from evil, victory over death, reconciliation with God. But while some Christians claim that you must hold a particular model of the atonement (as it is called) in order to be a “proper” Christian, most Christians agree that all the models are essential for assembling the big picture of what God has done for the world in Christ.
Next up in the Creed, the resurrection of the dead Jesus and his ascension to heaven. The resurrection and ascension of Jesus mean the vindication of the life and teaching of Jesus the crucified victim, the triumph of his love, and his enduring ability to surprise us with his presence. And here is another point of interest. While Muslims believe that Jesus was lifted up to heaven – though while alive, not dead – more liberal Christians (again!) do not think that God actually raised the dead body of Jesus, they believe in the idea of a “spiritual” rather than a physical resurrection. (Me, if it could be demonstrated that the body of Jesus rotted away in his grave, I wouldn’t be a Christian.)
Finally, Part 3 of the Creed, which begins “I believe in the Holy Spirit” – the Spirit of God, the Spirit of Jesus – whom you could think of as the presence of Jesus in the absence of Jesus, a kind of alter-ego of Jesus, for Christians believe that it is the Holy Spirit who makes the ascended Jesus real and present to us here on earth. The Creed then speaks of “the holy catholic Church”, the transnational body of believers around the world, analogous to what Muslims call the umma, the entire community of Islam bound together in faith; followed by “the communion of saints”, the transtemporal body of Christians through the ages, past, present and to come, here and in heaven. And because the heart of the message, the gospel, the good news which the Church proclaims can be summed up in “the forgiveness of sins”, it is this phrase that concludes the section on the Church in the Creed.
Finally, among the so-called “last things”, the Creed speaks of “the resurrection of the body”, that is, the transformation and perfection of who-we-are into the likenesses of the risen and ascended Jesus, thereafter to enjoy “the life everlasting”, eternal quality-time with God.
I would only add that what the Creed doesn’t say at its conclusion is also significant: it says nothing about hell. Unlike everlasting life with its joys, hell with its torments is not a necessary article of faith. And while it is true that the majority of Christians have affirmed eternal damnation, a significant minority, found particularly (but not exclusively) in the Eastern Orthodox Churches, has denied its inevitability, refusing to set limits to the grace and patience of God, and hoping and praying that, ransacked by Christ, hell will be empty.
Now you see why I told that guy on the train why a few minutes are inadequate for sketching what “this Christianity stuff is all about”! Still, I am going to be foolish enough briefly to address two further issues which I think are of fundamental importance for candid conversations between Christians and Muslims.
First, some of you may have heard about a young woman named Larycia Hawkins, an African-American professor of political science at a Christian liberal arts college called Wheaton. In the wake of the terrorist attacks in Paris last November, when violence against Muslims in the US spiked, Professor Hawkins went to her classes, and posted pictures of herself on social media, wearing the hijab, to demonstrate Christian solidarity with Muslims because, she asserted, we are both “people of the book … and worship the same God”. Five days later the College placed Professor Hawkins on “administrative leave” – for being off-message – and in February they agreed to a parting of the ways. Both the outcry against and the support for what Professor Hawkins did and said were huge.
So: do Christians and Muslims worship the same God?
The doctrine of the Trinity suggests that we do not. Christians, of course, believe in God’s unity, but they insist that this unity is constituted by the eternal communion of love of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, as experienced in worship and articulated in our narrative of salvation. For Christians the Trinity is not an add-on. The threefold relations simply are who the one God is. On this view, clearly Christians and Muslims do not worship the same God.
On the other hand, the fact is that the doctrine of the Trinity took a long time to develop, around four centuries in fact. Which raises the question, who did Christians think they were worshipping in the meantime? Clearly God’s “‘oneness’ was both historically prior to and, to an extent, logically privileged over [God’s] ‘threeness’. The move historically was from oneness to triunity – and when triunity was finally worked out, it was worked out in a way that ‘fit’ the prior commitment to a metaphysical notion of ‘oneness’” (Bruce McCormack). Moreover, the first Jews who became Christians, and indeed Jesus himself, worshipped the one God of Israel. Observe also that the Arabic word for God, Allah, used in the Koran, is the same word Arabic Christians use for God, and when they have religious conversations with their Muslim neighbours, there is never the slightest suspicion that they might be talking about different Gods. Even if a different sense is given to the name Allah by Muslims and Christians, the referent, the One to whom the name refers, is the same.
Personally, as a Christian minister, I thank God, Allah, when Muslims press us to articulate what we mean when we say that God is Trinity; because, to be honest, many Christians themselves seem to think that it means that God is three “persons” in the sense of three individuals with different personalities forming a kind of divine family or society. But if there is one thing the Trinity is not, it is not that!
Second – and to conclude: I’ve focussed on Christian doctrine, but frankly what Christians believe, if it isn’t intrinsically connected with how we believe, if it isn’t embedded in a way of life, in discipleship – well, it’s worth less than nothing. The New Testament speaks of the “obedience of faith”, and of “true worship” as the offering of our everyday lives to God. No believing without doing, no prayer without practice. And for Christians, what we do, our daily practices, are summed up in the Sermon on the Mount at the start of Jesus’ teaching ministry, in the parable of the Good Samaritan in the middle, and in the parable of the Sheep and the Goats at its conclusion. There we learn that the defining characteristics of Christian behaviour – Christian identity – are humility and nonviolence, compassion and generosity, hospitality and mercy, with particular attention to the poor, the excluded, the stranger. Jesus says that when Christians ignore them, they ignore him; and when Christians or non-Christians befriend them, they befriend him.
Which is why Christians dare not speculate about the salvation of other people: judgment is God’s business, not ours, and as Jesus often observes, judgment will be full of surprises. Christians are called to love others no matter who they are or what their faith, and whether they like us or hate us.
Needless to say, Christians as often as not have failed to observe the radical teaching of Jesus. May God forgive us, and may our neighbours forgive us too.