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Between Allah & Jesus: What Christians Can Learn from Muslims

  • PETER KREEFT

Please ask yourself whether you would like others to judge Christianity based on the picture of it now being presented in the modern Western media. Then please remember the Golden Rule, and apply this to the picture of Islam presented by the same source.

The "Bottom Line" Up-Front

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Full disclosure: I am a Catholic Christian. I write to other Christians. Muslims are invited to listen and talk back and correct what I may have gotten wrong about them.

But where am I coming from? Neither left nor right, neither liberal (or modernist) Christianity nor fundamentalism. And that includes my take on Islam, which is neither the naive, limp "Why can't we all just get along?" nor the blind demonization of "Enemies!"

As a Christian, I say Islam crucially lacks the Cross, and Christ, and his radical love. But as a Christian I also say Islam has great and deep resources of morality and sanctity that should inspire us and shame us and prod us to admiration and imitation. Thus my subtitle. In the spiritual competition for the most sanctity, all sides win.

My medium is not essays but fictional dialogues between a pious Muslim and various Christians. For my strategy is indirect rather than direct, showing rather than telling. (This is explained further in the subsection "Introducing 'Isa Ben Adam," page 13.)


Why the West Fears Islam

Many Christians today have a deep fear of Islam, as of no other religion. They have reasons: over three thousand of them after 9/11. Yet many Muslims, most Muslims in the West, and the vast majority in America, want to be our friends, not our enemies in our battle against our real common enemy, which is sin, Satan, selfishness and secularism. If those are not our real enemies, then Jesus and all the saints were fools. Why do Christians believe our irreligious media's picture of Muslims as hate-filled, violence-prone, ignorant, superstitious, irrational, fanatical terrorists? To the secular media, the only good Muslim is a bad Muslim, that is, a secularized one. The same media believes that the only good Christian is a bad Christian; that is, a secularized, de-supernaturalized, modernized, liberalized, compromised, rationalized one – especially one that worships the gods of the Sexual Revolution (the old one, I mean, not the new one expressed in John Paul II's Theology of the Body). To let this media define a religion for us is idiocy.

The secular media fear Islam for two reasons: (1) because they think it is the reason, or the rationalization, for nearly all the terrorism, murder and war in the world today, and (2) because it is deeply religious. The media believe these two things naturally go together. They are wrong.


What Christians should not learn from Muslims

While the subtitle of this book, and its main focus, is What Christians Can Learn from Muslims, there are many things that Christians should not learn from Muslims; for instance:

  1. Anger or jealousy at Western civilization
  2. Proneness or addiction to violence
  3. Politicizing religion (that always messed us up whenever we tried it!)
  4. Preventing apostasy by murdering apostates
  5. Treating women like slaves
  6. Prioritizing justice over mercy and forgiveness
  7. The continued chewing of centuries-old grudges
  8. Fear of freedom
  9. Fear of reasoning and dialogue
  10. Terrorism
  11. Theological voluntarism (the doctrine that God's will has no reason)
  12. Unitarianism (the theology that insists that the one God is only one Person, not three, and that Christ is only human, not divine)

With the exception of the last item, however, these are not essential parts of Islamic orthodoxy. If these ideas appear in the Qur'an at all, they are disapproved rather than approved. And they are not typical of all or even most serious Muslims in the world today, especially in the West, though they are typical of the ones we usually hear about in the news. For quiet piety does not make headlines; loud terrorist explosions do.

Please ask yourself whether you would like others to judge Christianity based on the picture of it now being presented in the modern Western media. Then please remember the Golden Rule, and apply this to the picture of Islam presented by the same source.


What Christians should Obviously Learn from Muslims

There are also many things we Christians already know we can and should learn from Muslims, or be reminded of by Muslims. These are things which we already believe, though we do not practice them very well; for instance:

  1. Faithfulness in prayer, fasting and almsgiving

  2. The sacredness of the family and children and hospitality

  3. The absoluteness of moral laws and of the demand to be just and charitable

  4. The absoluteness of God and the need for absolute submission, surrender and obedience ("islam") to him

You will not find many Muslims anywhere who are indifferentists, moral pragmatists, hedonists, utilitarians, materialists, subjectivists, relativists or libertines.

The list of things Christians should not learn from Muslims is a list of things we already recognize as evils, and the list of things Christians should obviously learn from Muslims is a list of things we already recognize as goods. But there is a third thing, which is good, not evil, but which we do not clearly recognize as obviously good, and this is the thing we very much need to learn from Muslims. That's what this book is about.

It is not unique to Muslims. We could learn it from anyone, but Muslims seem to be the ones who are most clearly manifesting it today. So it is to the Muslims that we should turn to learn it – not primarily for the sake of being nice to Muslims or for religious harmony or ecumenism or even world peace, but for our own holiness and wholeness and humanity, our own supernatural and natural completing.

I find it hard to give a single name to this thing. I could call it something like the "spirit" ofIslam, but that is far, far too slippery and subjective a term. Rather than telling you what it is, by defining it, like a philosopher, or by selling it, like a motivational speaker, I want to show you what it is, by exemplifying it, in a fictional character, like a novelist.


Introducing 'Isa Ben Adam

My protagonist, 'Isa Ben Adam, is a creation of my imagination, though he is modeled on a few real Muslims whom I have met and many more whom I have read. 'Isa is the protagonist of my novel, An Ocean Full of Angels (St. Augustine's Press, 2010), and he has already appeared in print as one of the two dialoguing characters in A Refutation of Moral Relativism (Ignatius Press, 1999).

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The four characters 'Isa dialogues with in the present book are also taken from my novel. They are: (1) Libby Rawls, a sarcastic, sassy Black feminist "liberal"; (2) Evan Jellema, a very straight Dutch Calvinist who is the opposite of Libby in nearly every imaginable way; (3) Father Heerema, 'Isa's kindly, wise, old-fashioned Jesuit philosophy professor at Boston College; and (4) "Mother," a large, hospitable, bread-baking lady who wears bright dresses, has a parrot on her shoulder and holds continents of common sense in her brain. "Mother" runs a sprawling old Victorian boarding house shaped like a ship on the beachfront in Nahant, Massachusetts, in which she, 'Isa, Libby, Evan and five other people live. 'Isa also dialogues on campus with Father Fesser, another professor at Boston College, who has the reputation of being a freethinker rather than a traditional Catholic.

I should also note that several others (including myself) make an appearance in chapter one, and so this chapter, unlike the rest of the book, is written in first person. The other dialogues are fictional, but chapter one is not. It actually happened in one of my classes at Boston College. Only the names have been changed. In fact, this was the incident that first prompted me to write this book.

Please remember, in reading the following dialogues, that the author, as a Christian, does not necessarily agree with everything said by 'Isa as a Muslim. I simply present him as a consistent and admirable literary character. I have unfairly "stacked the deck": I have made 'Isa a very smart and articulate Muslim, an "idealized" Muslim (though he has conspicuous social and psychological faults of insensitivity and bluntness), while I have made the Christians, especially Libby, less than flawless Christians.

They are flawed in both their reason and their faith (like most of us, of course, in many different ways). Libby has a liberal heart, but, unfortunately, also a liberal head. Evan has a conservative head but, unfortunately, also a conservative heart. Fr. Heerema has both a good head and a good heart, but lacks toughness, as 'Isa lacks gentleness. I stacked the deck like this only to make the point that we all have something to learn from each other.

Without the novel to frame them, the characters in this book are bound to be somewhat thin and flat, even stereotyped. But this book is not a novel. Its point is not to convince its readers of the characters, but of a character – the character trait I find hard to define but easy to show in 'Isa. It is a character trait I find more obvious in Muslims (and in Jews too) than in Christians.


Identifying the Thing We Need to Learn from Muslims

Perhaps I could call it "strength of will" or "spiritual toughness." The Chinese word te comes close. It is the spiritual power of moral conviction in a person's soul. I believe this is an admirable and even crucially necessary character trait because it is one of the traits that stands out in 'Isa's namesake in the Gospels. ('Isa is Arabic for "Jesus," a fairly common name in Arabic cultures.) And I am convinced that we need to recapture this character trait if we are going to winsomely win souls and fulfill the Great Commission (Matthew 28:19).

The New Testament (Colossians 1) tells us that Christ is the complete manifestation of the Father, with nothing held back. And therefore Christ was, of course, infinite love. But he was also, for the same reason, infinite power. (But not violence. Violence is not power. It is weakness: the weakness of the bully.) Christ joined power (te) and love (agape) in one. We have tragically separated the two, and in doing so have reduced loving to liking, charity to chumminess, compassion to a passion, passion to politeness, faith to feeling, revealed theology to pop psychology, commandments to values, the Church Militant to the Church Mumbling, and the kingdom of God to Mister Rogers's Neighborhood.

Perhaps that is one reason why we are fascinated with the "primitive": because we see there a power we have lost. (And this applies to both Christians and secularists.) Thus our love of movies like Crocodile Dundee, Conan the Barbarian, The Gods Must Be Crazy and Tarzan. And perhaps that is part of our secular civilization's double attitude of fascination and fear toward Islam.

C. S. Lewis writes about this loss in Reflections on the Psalms when he contrasts our modern mindset with the ancient mindset of the Psalms. He says that our

absence of anger, especially that sort of anger which we call indignation, can, in my opinion, be a most alarming symptom. And the presence of indignation may be a good one. ... If the Jews cursed more bitterly than the Pagans this was, I think, at least in part because they took right and wrong more seriously. ... Though hideously distorted by the human instrument, something of the Divine voice can be heard in these passages. Not, we trust, that God looks upon their enemies as they do: He "desireth not the death of a sinner." But doubtless He has for the sin of those enemies just the implacable hostility which the poets express. Implacable? Yes, not to the sinner but to sin. It will not be tolerated nor condoned, no treaty will be made with it. That tooth must come out, that right hand amputated, if the man is to be saved. In that way the relentlessness of the Psalms is far nearer to one side of the truth than many modern attitudes which can be mistaken, by those who hold them, for Christian charity. ... I can even use the horrible passage in Psalm 137 about dashing the Babylonian babies against the stones. I know things in the inner world which are like babies: the infantile beginnings of small indulgences, small resentments ... which woo and wheedle us ... whimpering ... "you owe yourself some consideration." Against all such petty infants ... the advice of the Psalm is the best. Knock the little bastards' brains out. And "blessed" he who can, for it's easier said than done.

G. K. Chesterton wrote about this primitive fear (in St. Thomas Aquinas):

The Fear of the Lord, that is the beginning of wisdom, and therefore belongs to the beginnings, and is felt in the first cold hours before the dawn of civilization: the power that comes out of the wilderness and rides on the whirlwind and breaks the gods of stone; the power before which the eastern nations are prostrate like a pavement; the power before which the primitive prophets run naked and shouting, at once proclaiming and escaping from their god; the fear that is rightly rooted in the beginnings of every religion, true or false: the fear of the Lord, that is the beginning of wisdom; but not the end.

'Isa Ben Adam can show us that beginning. Even if it is we who can show him the end of wisdom, still he can show us the beginning. And that is our beginning too; and if we have forgotten it and he has not, then we need to let him help us recall it.

... absence of anger, especially that sort of anger which we call indignation, can, in my opinion, be a most alarming symptom.

We need to preserve this "fear of the Lord" because for any living thing (like a plant), its end is deformed and doomed to death if it is cut off from its beginning. Muslims will not be impressed by Christians who offer them the end of wisdom (the love of God) if that flower is cut off from its roots in the beginning of wisdom (the fear of God).

For the fear of the Lord is present in the end of wisdom as well as the beginning. "The fear of the LORD is clean, enduring for ever," says the psalmist. It is transformed by love, but not replaced. The tide of love lifts and moves the boats of fear, but does not sink them. Our progress is not simply from fear to love, but from servile fear to loving fear; from naked fear to fear clothed in love, from fear of the terrible things God will do to us to the fear of what terrible things we will do to God. It is the progress from the awe of terror to the awe of adoration.

Great saints are never wimps. They are often made from great sinners: haters and persecutors like St. Paul, or passionate sex addicts like St. Augustine, or rich, spoiled, worldly fops like St. Francis, or even professional killers like St. Ignatius. Saints have to be tough as well as tender because saints are like Christ, and Christ was the toughest and the tenderest man who ever lived. If we have forgotten the toughness, then we have misunderstood the tenderness. It is a tough tenderness. How can we miss the toughness of the two greatest saints of the twentieth century, Mother Teresa and John Paul II? It is a distinctive toughness, a tender toughness. But it is a toughness.

I think it is very likely that the next St. Paul is now a Muslim, wanting only a new direction for his passion: toward rather than against Christianity. Or perhaps the new St. Paul is a Christian lacking only the passion of a Muslim to energize him, needing to be prodded to jealousy by a Muslim. If this book can help provoke that reaction, its existence is justified.


Two Islams, Two Christianities and four wars

There are two Islams in the world today. (1) There is the Islam of the Qur'an, which is one of the great religions of the world. It is a religion of peace (not of pacifism nor of aggression) and of divine justice (not of divine tyranny nor of divine intimacy). (2) There is also the Islam of the terrorists, who are murderers and assassins, especially murderers of their fellow Muslims. Shiites and Sunnis hate each other for their "heresies" more intensely than either hates the West. (The London bombings deliberately targeted Muslim neighborhoods.)

Which of these two Islams (of the Qur'an or of the terrorists) will prevail? God only knows. But to whatever extent the first Islam is from God, it will prevail because God will prevail.

I do not see how a Christian can deny that (1) there is much in Islam that is from God, beginning with its essence, total surrender to God's will. Nor do I see how a Christian can deny that (2) there are things in Islam that are directly contrary to God, beginning with its rejection of Christ as divine Savior, and its ignorance of the amazing "good news" that God is love and has destined us not for eternal servitude but eternal spiritual marriage to him. It is very tempting, if you clearly see either of these two things, to ignore the other one.

There are also two Christianities in the world today. There is (1) the Christianity of the New Testament, and there is (2) the Christianity of accommodation to modernism, egalitarianism, niceness, naturalism, pop psychology, secular humanism, relativism, subjectivism, individualism, "Enlightenment" rationalism or postmodern irrationalism. New converts to the first Christianity are constantly amazed and scandalized by finding many of their clergy to be in love with the second and in fear of the first. Which of the two will prevail? If Christianity is from God (and the Qur'an says it is!), then the first will prevail over the pablum perversions of it.

I think this high and honorable dialogue between two high and honorable faiths will continue (though the other three confrontations will get much more media attention) and that something great will come of it.

I do not know which Islam will prevail. But I know that the temporal fate of half the world depends on it. I do know which Christianity will prevail, however, and I know that the eternal fate of all the world depends on it. I do not know the future of Islam, but I do know the future of the Church, for I know Who promised her that the gates of hell would not prevail against her. And if hell itself will not prevail against her, I'm sure that neither the Islamic perversion nor the Christian perversion will prevail against her.

Thus there are not just one but four confrontations between Islam and Christianity in the world today. ( I am not speaking of the political and military confrontation between Islam and the West, but of the religious confrontations.)

First, there is the confrontation between terrorist Islam and New Testament Christianity, between the sword and the cross, between murder and sacrifice, between false and true martyrdom. Christianity will win this confrontation because "love is stronger than death" and therefore also stronger than hate; because "there is power, power, wonder working power in the Precious Blood of the Lamb."

Second, there is the confrontation between Qur'anic Islam and modernist Christianity, between conviction and relativism, between honor and shamelessness, between true and false justice. Islam will win this confrontation (as it is already winning in Europe) for a similar reason: because self-sacrifice is stronger than self-indulgence.

Third, there is the confrontation between terrorist Islam and modernist Christianity, between the sword and relativism. This is also part of Europe's current struggle. I do not know who will win this confrontation, because both parties are based on falsehood and weakness. But I think Islam will win because modernist Christianity has no will to win. Indeed, it has no will at all.

Fourth, there is the real confrontation, and the only real dialogue, between Qur'anic Islam and New Testament Christianity. This is as old as St. John Damascene. I think this high and honorable dialogue between two high and honorable faiths will continue (though the other three confrontations will get much more media attention) and that something great will come of it. That is the dialogue exemplified by the conversations between 'Isa and his three Christian friends, especially Fr. Heerema, in this book. In this confrontation, both "sides" will win.

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Acknowledgement

Peter Kreeft. "Introduction." of Between Allah & Jesus: What Christians Can Learn from Muslims (Downers Grove, IL : InterVarsity Press, 2010): 9-20.

Taken from Between Allah & Jesus: What Christians Can Learn from Muslims by Peter Kreeft.

Used by permission of InterVarsity Press PO Box 1400 Downers Grove, IL 60515.

The Author

Kreeft15Kreeft11Peter Kreeft, Ph.D., is a professor of philosophy at Boston College. He is an alumnus of Calvin College (AB 1959) and Fordham University (MA 1961, Ph.D., 1965). He taught at Villanova University from 1962-1965, and has been at Boston College since 1965. He is the author of numerous books (over forty and counting) including: The Snakebite Letters, The Philosophy of Jesus, The Journey: A Spiritual Roadmap for Modern Pilgrims, Prayer: The Great Conversation: Straight Answers to Tough Questions About Prayer, How to Win the Culture War: A Christian Battle Plan for a Society in Crisis, Love Is Stronger Than Death, Philosophy 101 by Socrates: An Introduction to Philosophy Via Plato's Apology, A Pocket Guide to the Meaning of Life, and Before I Go: Letters to Our Children About What Really Matters. Peter Kreeft in on the Advisory Board of the Catholic Education Resource Center.

Copyright © 2010 Peter Kreeft
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